Different Definitions of the Word "Pious" Depicted in Plato's Socratic Dialog Euthyphro

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Plato's Socratic dialog Euthyphro is in many ways archetypal of the sort of philosophy that Socrates is thought to have been interested in. In it (as in most classic 'Socratic dialogs'), Socrates seeks out a person who claims to have a certain sort of knowledge. He then proceeds to show that these experts do not possess this knowledge by getting them to contradict themselves. With this in mind, I will discuss the three definitions of the word 'pious' that the character Euthyphro gives to Socrates, and Socrates' problems with each of these definitions.

The dialog begins with Socrates and Euthyphro meeting at the king-archon's court; Socrates has been summoned with charges of corrupting the youth and impiety, and Euthyphro wishes to prosecute his father for leaving one of his servants, a murderer, to die. It is at this moment that Socrates first asks Euthyphro, a young priest who considers himself an expert on piety, what is pious. Socrates claims that if he can convince the court that he has learned the meaning of piety from Euthyphro, they might dismiss the charges against him. It is clear from the start that a lexical definition of piety is not what Socrates is interested in. Rather, he is looking for a practical definition of the pious. A definition of Socrates approval would allow him to look at any action and determine as to whether or not it is pious.

Euthyphro's first definition of piety reads, “I say that the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else, whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else...” (5E) This initial definition is rather specific, and claims that piety is just to prosecute or punish people when they commit ...

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...ct because it is pious, but for an act to be pious, it must first be loved by the gods. Similarly, an act is pious if it is loved by the gods, but the gods need to love said act before it becomes pious. Because these arguments are circular, they cannot help Socrates discern whether or not an action is pious or impious (11A-11B).

As always happens in Socratic dialog, Socrates is left without an answer to his original question. Socrates wished to know what characteristic all pious actions have in common (that is to say what is both necessary and sufficient for an action to be pious), but Euthyphro, the so-called expert on piety, was shown to not know himself. This is what is common to most other Socratic dialogs. Socrates asks an expert for a practical definition of some virtue, and the supposed expert being asked is shown to not have a coherent and consistent answer.
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