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Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide

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Dialogues of Plato | First Definition Summary (6e–9c) | Summary

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Summary

Euthyphro asserts that holiness is what is "dear" to the gods, while unholiness is what is not dear to them. Socrates is pleased that Euthyphro has found a formula closer to what he seeks than the example of prosecuting the wrongdoer.

Nevertheless, he finds the definition problematic. Firstly, the gods disagree with one another, but they don't always get heated as a result. In mathematics, where a disagreement can be resolved by checking the calculations, Socrates explains, the disagreement does not result in anger. On the other hand, there is often much anger over moral disagreements. The gods, in this view, disagree over moral matters. Consequently, one god could find something dear, and therefore holy, while another god could disapprove of the same thing, thereby rendering it unholy. If Euthyphro is correct, then the same thing is both holy and unholy.

Euthyphro counters that the gods wouldn't disagree over someone having to answer for an unjust killing. Socrates points out not only that there are such disagreements—plenty of people won't admit to an unjust killing—but also that there are disagreements over the question of the killing in the first place. Some will claim it was just, while others will claim it was unjust. Socrates and Euthyphro agree that disagreements center on whether an action happened and whether it was just or unjust, but both gods and men agree that injustice should be punished. Socrates says he expects that Euthyphro will be able to show the court that the gods are unanimous in their disapproval of Euthyphro's father's actions.

Analysis

While it's true that Euthyphro has given Socrates a definition that, in its generality, is closer to the sort of definition Socrates seeks, it still misses the mark. Euthyphro does not yet understand that, by rooting the origin of holiness in the changeable tastes of the gods, he makes it arbitrary; it is thereby subject to the gods' whims. Socrates wants a definition of holiness that will set it apart from everything that is not holy—both those things that are neither holy nor unholy, and those things that are unholy. In other words, Socrates identifies Euthyphro's argument as tautological; that is, its reasoning works internally only. He insists on making the argument valid by forcing it to work externally as well.

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