On Euthyphro: Notes by Sidney Fein

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On Euthyphro: Notes by Sidney Fein

They say that, in his youth, Rabbi Israel studied eight hundred books of the Kabbalah. But the first time he saw the maggid of Mezritch face to face, he instantly knew that he knew nothing at all.

I have on my desk one of my daughter's college textbooks, the Mentor edition of Great Dialogues of Plato as translated by W. H. D. Rouse. It cost $4.95. It is a good book with helpful footnotes and a minimum of scholarly obstruction. The editor has included half a dozen dialogues: Ion, Meno, Symposium, Republic, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. With a little bit of searching I've dug out my old high school text of Plato, a $.35 Pocket Library edition of the Jowett translation, its edges yellow as the molars of a lifelong Latakia smoker, its brittle pages as loose as if he never brushed. It includes Symposium, ample selections from Republic, and of course the indispensable threeact tragedy of Socrates' trial and death.

Plato, however, left us a fouract play, or at least three acts with a very curious prelude. The dialogue that both textbooks leave out is the short, hilarious, perplexing Euthyphro. In the edition I have in front of me this work is described as "a conversation on the nature of piety," myopically in my opinion. Euthyphro is seldom included in introductory texts and so only rarely taught to undergraduates. When it is included in the curriculum Euthyphro is usually assigned in upperlevel courses where it is not discussed in connection with Socrates' trial.

It's easy to see why Euthyphro gets dumped. Who wants to read a conversation on the definition of piety, especially one that fails to tell you what the definition of piety is? For that matter, who would want to teach such a thing? While Euthyphro has the pedagogical virtue of brevity (under 20 pages complete) it appears to be little more than a circular argument that ends in bafflement. Worse, though Socrates and his young interlocutor are both facing capital cases and speak on the very porch of the King Archon, and though their topic is an undeniably lofty one, the tone of the dialogue is barely serious. Here Socrates' irony is transparently sarcastic and even the most sympathetic reader is bound to feel that he ought to pick on somebody his own size. There is no obvious connection between tying Euthyphro up in dialectic knots and the solemn proceedings to follow.
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