: What is piety?
opens, we witness a conversation between two men in the
entryway of an Athenian magistrate’s office.
The first man, Euthyphro, is a dogmatically
religious landowner, who thinks he is an authority on all holy matters and often foretells
the future. He is in court because he has brought his father to trial on a murder charge.
The second man, Socrates, is probably one of the most important philosophers that have
The Socratic Problem
Unfortunately, from what we can tell Socrates never wrote any of his philosophy
down so all of our accounts of him are second hand.
We have three main sources for
these accounts (Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes) but most of what we would consider
his philosophy came from his devoted student, Plato.
Yet we still can’t be sure which
views were Socrates’s own and which should be attributed to Plato; this quandary is
called “the Socratic Problem.”
What we have ended up attributing to Socrates is a style of enquiry called the
(just two ways of describing the same thing).
Socrates seemed to mainly be interested in figuring how a human could best lead a good
In service to this goal, Socrates urged those around him to constantly examine and
challenge their beliefs, concepts, and assumptions; anything that was found to be
misguided, misconceived, or ungrounded was then abandoned or revised.
So Socrates would start by asking someone a question about the essential nature of
something (like justice, beauty, or knowledge.)
The student would propose a tentative
answer and Socrates would follow by asking a question that might undermine the given
This would go back and forth until either a satisfying answer was given (one that
does not admit counter-argument) or the enquiry was given up.
is a prime example of Socrates taking on this role of interlocutor by
challenging an Euthyphro’s views of piety and holiness.
) Piety Principle: Piety is prosecuting guilty parties, whomever they might be.
“Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of
any other similar crime—whether he be your father or mother, or some other person, that makes no
difference—and not prosecuting them is impiety” (pg. 4)
This definition is rejected because it doesn’t tell us what piety is; it only amounts to an
example of pious behavior.
The problem is that an example doesn’t supply us with the
essential nature of piety or its fundamental definition (a.k.a. it doesn’t give us the
necessary and sufficient conditions for our concept of “piety”).
The suggestion here is
that “piety” is what we would call a
concept where it is possible to specify the
necessary and sufficient conditions for it.
On the other hand, it is argued that we also
His motto, taken from an inscription at the Oracle of Delphi, was “know thyself.”
This seems to be a
succinct way to state the goal of the Socratic Method.