Literature Study GuidesDialogues Of PlatoSecond Definition Summary 9c 12e Summary

Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide


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Dialogues of Plato | Second Definition Summary (9c–12e) | Summary



Socrates proposes they assume that the gods are unanimous in their loves and hates, such that there is no disagreement among them about the holy and unholy. Euthyphro endorses this proposal.

Rather than examining this definition, Socrates asks Euthyphro a question: "Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?" Euthyphro does not understand the question, so Socrates says he will clarify. He then embarks on an argument about the difference between carrying and being carried, leading and being led, seeing and being seen, loving and being loved, and coming to be and being affected. Euthyphro agrees that there is a difference between each, namely that being carried, being led, being seen, being loved, and being affected are all the effects of, respectively, caring, leading, seeing, loving, and coming to be. These, then, are the causes.

Now, Euthyphro has claimed that what all the gods love is holy. Socrates now asks why they love. Is it because it is holy, or is their love explained by another reason? Euthyphro concurs with Socrates that holiness "is loved because it is holy," not that it is "holy because it is loved." Loving holiness causes it to be loved, but it does not cause its nature as holy. What is dear to the gods is the sort of thing "to be loved because it is loved," whereas holiness is the sort of thing to be loved; it is, therefore, loved.

With this distinction in mind, Socrates once again asks for a definition of holiness—one without reference to what is dear to the gods. Euthyphro expresses confusion: "I do not know how to tell you what I mean. Somehow everything I propose goes round in circles on us and will not stand still."

Socrates, chiding Euthyphro for being lazy about teaching him, proposes a relation between holiness and justice: "all the holy is necessarily just." Euthyphro agrees that it is, but he becomes confused when Socrates asks if the converse is true, namely that all the just is necessarily holy. After some analysis, Euthyphro agrees that, while everything holy is just, not all just things are holy. Holiness is, then, a part of the just.


The Euthyphro dilemma forces the reader to consider the relation between divinity and holiness, piety, or (religious) morality. Socrates's question is whether the gods love holiness because holiness is holy or whether holiness is holy because the gods love it. If holiness is holy because the gods love it, then holiness is dependent on the gods for its worth. It has extrinsic worth. If the gods change their mind, then holiness is no longer holy. This is the fundamental worry over any divine command theory of morality. If, on the other hand, the gods love holiness because it is holy, then holiness has intrinsic or inherent worth. Its value is independent of the gods' love.

Dearness or love may be a mark of the gods' feelings and attitudes toward holiness because of holiness's nature, but it is not the essence of it. Another way to put things is to say that the gods' love of holiness is not identical with the nature of holiness itself. This is why Socrates wants to dispense with love and dearness as causal features of holiness. He is, after all, looking for the terminus of holiness. If holiness was not complete unto itself, but instead required the gods' approval, Socrates and Euthyphro would need to engage in a theological investigation.

The discussion is a master class in causal relationships. The question is much like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, except Socrates is able to find the answer. In doing so, he shows that causal relationships have only one right direction: A causes B, not vice versa. He also demonstrates that definitions lie in essentials, not qualities. A thing is something because it is that thing, not because it has a set of other things.

This point in the dialogue reflects aporia, the stage of Socratic method in which the interlocutor is intellectually paralyzed by confusion. Euthyphro is convinced he knows what holiness is, but he is unable to offer Socrates a satisfactory definition of it. Plato wants the reader to consider whether one can properly be said to know if one cannot give an account of what one claims to know.

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