Euthyphro Summary

Plato

Euthyphro

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Euthyphro Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Euthyphro by Plato.

Euthyphro is a work by Plato written in the form of a dialogue between Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and a man named Euthyphro. The purpose of the work is to examine and define the meaning of piety or holiness. It takes place in the weeks before Socrates’s famous trial, which eventually ended in his forced suicide by drinking hemlock.

The dialogue begins with both men awaiting preliminary hearings for trials at the court of Archon Basileus. Euthyphro has arrived to press charges against his father for killing a worker by leaving him to die without taking proper care. The worker had killed a slave, and while waiting to see what should be done, his father left the worker bound in a ditch.

Socrates is surprised that the man is so confident in bringing charges against his father. He correctly deduces that the man already holds a high view of himself and his moral reasoning. As such, he is fully prepared to bring a case against his father despite some major concerns Socrates has.

The dialogue is an example of Socrates’s use of irony to reach a conclusive philosophical point. Socrates tells Euthyphro that he has such a good understanding of piety that Socrates can learn a few things from him. That way, Socrates can better defend himself against his own charges of impiety. He asks that they talk for a little bit so that Socrates can learn.

Euthyphro tells Socrates that the charges against him stem from the belief that he has discredited the stories of the gods or that he expresses skepticism that they are true. Socrates claimed previously that some of the stories of their cruelty and their inconsistency lead him to believe they might not be accurate.

They discuss briefly, and Euthyphro claims he can tell many astonishing stories. However, Socrates then asks Euthyphro to define piety. With each successive definition, Socrates finds a flaw and asks him to define it again. Euthyphro is unable to correct his faulty reasoning, and in the end, excuses himself and walks away instead of providing a definition that sticks.

Socrates was “unable” to come to a solid definition of piety and thus learned nothing from his conversation. Again, this is an example of Socratic irony. Socrates pretends to know nothing in order to elicit knowledge from his conversation partner, but we find out in the end that it is Socrates who is the wiser of the two.

The first definition of piety revolves around the idea that piety is what Euthyphro is doing by prosecuting his father. Socrates rejects this definition outright because it is only an example, not a true definition.

The second definition is what is pleasing to the gods. Although Socrates finds this definition better because it is an actual definition, he reminds Euthyphro that the gods themselves are conflicted on what is pleasing. Because dispute can still arise among the gods, this doesn’t fully define piety.

The third definition is amended from the second. What all the gods love is pious and what all the gods hate is impious. Socrates then asks which comes first? Is something pious because all the gods love it, or do all the gods love it because it is pious? Because this is circular reasoning, Socrates is not satisfied that this definition explains the inherent quality of piety.

Euthyphro is unable to understand at this point why his definitions are failing and he becomes frustrated. Socrates continues in the second part of the dialogue with a partial fourth definition linking piety to justice. He says that all that is pious is just, but he offers no further clues on what might constitute “just.”

Euthyphro responds that piety is looking after the gods, but Socrates again rejects his definition. The concept of looking after the gods suggests that people’s acts of piety make the gods better, which would be an act of hubris, according to Socrates.

Euthyphro’s final offering is a definition that states piety is the art of sacrifice and prayer. Through this definition, Euthyphro claims that piety is offering things to the gods, but this leads back to his original assertion that piety depends on what the gods like, and the gods have different opinions. Socrates has already rejected this definition.

Euthyphro does not offer further clarification and instead excuses himself without giving Socrates a satisfactory definition. Socrates receives nothing helpful in his defense against impiety charges, though it’s clear he never intended to gain any insight.

The dialogue is concerned with the definition of piety, of course, but the real theme of the dialogue points more to the charges leveled against Socrates himself. Plato’s depiction of the exchange leaves the conversation inconclusive and open. This is ironic, considering Socrates was later executed for the very same charges of impiety. If there is no set definition of piety, there is no set definition of impiety. How can a person be tried and executed for committing a crime with no definition?

The dialogue suggests that we cannot link what is pious to the will of the divine and that charges based solely on the divine are frivolous. Since Socrates was well respected by Plato, we can understand that the dialogue further serves to exonerate his teacher from the charges that ultimately led to his death.