Plato: Euthyphro, Confucius, and the Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey
In Euthyphro, Plato deals with piety and the mystery thereof.
As the dialogue opens, Socrates encounters Euthyphro on the porch of the king Archon. Socrates is there because the young man Meletheus has brought against him the charge of corrupting the young by “making new gods and denying the existence of the old ones”. Euthyphro, well-known for his piety, assures Socrates that nothing will come of it. How wrong he is!
Now Euthyphro is there to bring charges against a murderer- his own father. Socrates is shocked by this, but Euthyphro explains the crime- accidentally killing a laborer while chastising him for another murder- is the same no matter who is the criminal. What is important is knowing the opinions of the gods on what is pious and impious. Again, Euthyphro is known as a great theologian.
Interestingly, Confucius was asked a similar question in a story recorded in the Analects (13:18). The Governor of She lauded a villager nicknamed ‘True Person’ (sometimes translated ‘Straight Body’) for his upright behavior. “When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities”. As with Euthyphro, willingness to rat out a close relative is lauded as upright behavior. Like Socrates, Confucius disagrees, although he is more direct: “Those who are true in my village conduct themselves differently. A father covers for his son, and a son covers for his father. And being true lies in this.”
It seems unlikely that there’s any cultural exchange at work here. Instead, Confucius and Socrates are two theorists of the social order living in two similar times of social chaos and flux. Confucius answers this by emphasizing the primacy of filial relationships- an interesting scene in The Killing Fields shows the Khmer Rouge teaching the Cambodian people to turn in their loved ones, basically arguing against the Confucian tradition of filial piety.
Socrates instead questions Euthyphro about what piety consists of: his answer is that piety is prosecuting the criminal whoever they are. Socrates finds this too imprecise, so Euthyphro tries again: Piety is what is dear to the gods; impiety is what is hateful to them. Of course, the gods disagree about these things just as much as men do, and thus the same things can be both pious and impious. So, it has to be the opinion of all the gods.
This brings Socrates to the main question of the dialogue: Is a thing holy because it is loved by God, or is it loved by God because it is holy. Maybe another way of asking is: is something worth loving because God loves it, or does God love it because it is worth loving. It’s a tricky question. In fact, Euthyphro never really understands it. But it’s also a very profound question, and it’s worth pointing out that Socrates, who claims no great understanding of piety is the one to pose the question, while the pious Euthyphro seemingly never even thought about it.
I would like to suggest that Plato is, above all, a great analyst of psychological types. In this dialogue, he has distinguished between two different orders of ‘religious’ men: Socrates is morally serious- he believes that it matters greatly what we do because there is a moral order to the universe; yet he is acutely aware of just how hard it is to have certain knowledge of good and evil. What troubles him about Euthyphro is how brazenly he claims knowledge in these mysteries. Andrew Sullivan might call him a conservative of doubt!
Euthyphro, on the other hand, sees piety as a matter of following the rules and, essentially, being on the right team. He is arrogant about piety because, for him, it is just a matter of doing as you’re told to. What’s amazing, to me, about the dialogue is how Plato sympathetically fleshes out this type of religious man, while subtly indicating how little piety actually means to them- Euthyphro does what you’re supposed to without a thought. The detail of turning over his father to the authorities for an accidental killing is great- Plato captures the authoritarian impulses of the religious team player perfectly.
To be honest, I’m really none of the above. Nevertheless, once a week or so, I walk a block down the street to jawbone about religion with Father Paul. One of the things we often joke about are the shallower evangelical churches which he suspects really alienate serious people from religion. Perhaps someone who is morally serious might not be attracted to the ‘holy ghost hokey pokey‘… It’s hard to say.
I grew up across the street from one of these places in Virginia. I remember walking in once and a rock group was singing Paula Abdul songs with religious lyrics (Sample: Straight up now tell me, are you going to love everyone forever? Or are you caught in the Devil’s hit and run?). I turned around and walked out.
I can’t say if Father Paul is right and those sorts of Churches- teams really, more than anything- alienate serious people from faith. All I can say is that I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to know with absolute certainty what piety consists of, or how the universe functions. It seems to me that there’s a tremendous amount of faith simply in saying, “I can’t tell what piety consists of, but it’s worth asking the question.”
1. Mark’s notes on Euthyphro were really helpful here. I’d like to encourage him (nudge, nudge) to post some more on the dialogue.
2. Sorry for the delay in posting. I had “computer problems” that really consisted of me not being good with computers!
3. In the future, I’d like to keep plowing along with Plato, discuss Confucius some more, and talk about Medea- the Euripides play, not the Tyler Perry character!