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Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide

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Dialogues of Plato | The Request for a Definition Summary (5c–6e) | Summary

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Summary

Because Euthyphro claims to know what holiness is, so much so that he is correct to pursue a prosecution of his father, Socrates asks him to define it and its opposite, the unholy. Euthyphro obliges. Holiness or piety, he declares, "is doing what I am doing now," namely prosecuting the wrongdoer. He goes on to justify his assertion with reference to the gods. Zeus "put his own father in bonds for unjustly swallowing his children ... and ... that father had in his turn castrated his father for similar reasons." Because the gods avenge unjust acts, it is right, he says, that he do so, too.

Socrates expresses doubt about the veracity of the stories of the gods, so an appeal to them is not justification for Euthyphro's definition. Moreover, Socrates reminds him that he did not ask for an example of holiness, but rather the "one character" by which holy things are holy and unholy things are unholy.

Analysis

According to Socrates's requirements, Euthyphro has not offered a definition of holiness but an example. There are myriad holy things and actions besides prosecuting wrongdoers, so the example does not apply to all. Yet such appropriateness for all situations is exactly what Socrates seeks, so that he may "use it as a standard" for determining the holy and unholy. The idea of a universal standard here invoked for the first time by Socrates is so enduring that Immanuel Kant invokes it again in the 19th century as the categorical imperative.

As Socrates repeatedly asks for a definition of holiness, the criteria for a good definition become clearer. What he seeks is the nature or essence of holiness, the reality of holiness by which a thing or action is holy. It is interesting that in a discussion of holiness, he rejects any mention of the gods. Obviously, here on the King's Porch, he is more interested in defining justice than holiness, although he will not dismiss the role that spirituality plays in the search for justice.

At the outset, Socrates makes a strong connection between morality and knowledge. Euthyphro claims to know what is morally right. In asserting that undertaking a prosecution of one's father must entail knowledge of this action's rightness, Socrates alerts Euthyphro (and Plato alerts the reader) to the power of knowledge to rightly guide actions.

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