The Euthyphro and social criticism

In which I try to unpack a hard dialogue and argue for the importance of reverence as a principle of political action.

I agree entirely with Matthew Yglesias: the Euthyphro is a crucial dialogue, as befits its dramatic place at the beginning of the sequence of dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates. But I can’t agree with John Holbo, to whose website on the dialogue Matt links, in thinking the conversation “inconclusive.”

Remembering that the Greek word hotsiotes, (“piety” or “reverence”) applies to parents as well as gods, and that Socrates in the Crito likens his relationship to the Athenian political system (“the laws”) to the relationship of a child to its parents, I think that “the gods” as Socrates and Euthyphro discuss them turn out to stand for whatever is both superior and beneficent, and that the conclusion that “piety is the part of justice relating to the gods,” so interpreted, makes perfect sense; unlike the imagined inhabitants of Olympus, the things greater than ourselves that we rely on usually can be helped or harmed by us. If I think about the relationship I want to have to the American Constitution or the English language or Judaism or the discipline of policy analysis, it seems to me that those relationships ought to exemplify hotsiotes in this sense.

It is part of our proper reverence to our parents, and by extension to other appropriate objects of our reverent affection, to treat ourselves well, thus cooperating in their benevolent project. (See Book II of the Analects: Mang Wu asked what filial piety was. The Master said, “Parents are anxious lest their children should be sick.”)

There are at least two problems here, and the dialogue points out both of them. First, an action may be consistent with one’s obligations to one revered object but not another, making it reverent and irreverent at the same time. (Theologically, this seems to be a rather devastating critique of polytheism, but perhaps it would be better to say that it points out a fact that polytheism reflects: that not all values coincide, creating the possibility of tragic choice.) Second, since nothing guarantees that everything superior to me and benevolent toward me is perfect &#8212 any more than anyone’s parents are perfect &#8212 what is one to do when the object of reverence does something wrong, as Euthyphro’s father has, or has flaws, as the Laws of Athens do? Is there a way to be appropriately critical without becoming irreverent? Perhaps that would be the very highest expression of real piety: acting so as to make the revered object more nearly perfect.

The real meaning of the Euthyphro, I’m convinced, needs to be understood in light of a careful reading of the Apology. I think it has to do with the problem of social criticism, or the criticism of one’s own intellectual tradition.

The background story of the Euthyphro is Euthyphro’s prosecution of his own father for murder. The facts of the case, as presented in the dialogue, seem pointlessly complex. One of the father’s servants had gotten drunk and killed a household slave. The father had caused the offender to be tied up and tossed into a ditch, and sent off to a priest for advice about how to handle the situation, but before the answer came back the prisoner had died of exposure and neglect. On that basis, Euthyphro accuses his father of murder.

In the Apology, Socrates tells what seems to me a parallel story, with the Athenian polis in the position of Euthyphro’s father. The Athenians had wanted to try as a group the generals accused of failing to rescue the wounded after the battle of Arginusae, despite the law that capital cases had to be tried individually. Socrates resisted, pointing up a weakness of the Athenian political system: its tendency to act passionately rather than justly. But he did so reverently, even lovingly, and with restraint, not tossing about words like “murderer.” In the Apology and elsewhere, he insists convincingly on his devotion to the Athenian way of life.

By the same token, in writing the Apology, Plato in effect prosecuted the Athenian polis &#8212 to which he, like Socrates, owed filial piety &#8212 for the murder of Socrates, and convicted it in the eyes of the world. But his purpose in doing so was not to destroy it, but to improve it.

Euthyphro’s (possibly fictional) behavior in bringing an actual homicide charge in a real court against his flesh-and-blood father is the contrasting background against which we can see the Socratic model of reverent criticism, and I take it that Plato wants to defend both his teacher and himself against the charge of harboring a disloyal sympathy for Spartan institutions. [Maintaining a reverent stance while criticizing isn’t an easy task, and I think some of Plato’s later dialogues (but not the Republic which I don’t read as an aristocratic or authoritarian screed) could reasonably be criticized on the same grounds that he criticizes Euthyphro.]

The shortest way of to sum up the tragedy of the Sixties was that its activists, in the process of criticizing much that needed criticism, lost sight of the virtue of hotsiotes, and wound up sounding like so many Euthyphros, full of moral certainty and self-righteousness and without appropriate reverence (and also without the combination of modesty and self-restraint the Greeks called sophrosyne, usually translated “temperance,” but perhaps better rendered as “sanity” or “sound-mindedness”). The fact that some contemporary conservatives have adopted a similar tone (think about Slouching toward Gommorah as a title) makes the Euthyphro that much more topical.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: