Part 1 of 2
The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture on Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness.
The quotes are from Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socrates, trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
Euthyphro is one of eight Platonic dialogues which are set around the trial and death of Socrates. Those dialogues are as follows: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, which are the most famous four connected with the trial and death of Socrates. There are four other dialogues—Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, and Cratylus—which are also set in the days preceding Socrates’ trial.
But Euthyphro is important because not only is it part of the scene-setting for the trial and death of Socrates but also because, like so many of these other dialogues, it constitutes in some sense a response to Aristophanes’ Clouds. All of these Platonic dialogues—in fact virtually every Platonic dialogue, on some level or another—constitute a response to Aristophanes’ Clouds.
Now, they don’t necessarily respond to the Clouds by entirely refuting what the Clouds says about Socrates. But they at least respond to the Clouds by indicating that there’s more to Socrates than the Socrates of the Clouds. The way to handle this, I think, is to understand that Socrates underwent a philosophical development, and that the Socrates of the Clouds is in some sense a true representation of Socrates at one time in his life, that the Platonic Socrates is also a true representation of Socrates at a later point in his life, and that the Platonic Socrates represents positions that are in many ways identical to the philosophical position of Aristophanes that you can tease out from between the lines of the Clouds. Socrates, when he becomes a mature thinker, is heavily influenced by Aristophanes.
But let me just raise the question then about Euthyphro: What in Euthyphro, in the dramatic situation, reminds you of the Clouds? How does Euthyphro resemble the Clouds? Father beating, right? Euthyphro is beating up on his poor old father in a kind of metaphorical way.
The background is this: Euthyphro’s father caused the death of a man through neglect. The man who died was a hired laborer who had murdered a family servant or slave. And the father, the head of the household, had the criminal bound up and thrown in a ditch and then sent somebody off to Athens to inquire about the proper course of action. But since he wasn’t particularly concerned with the well-being of the murderer, in the meantime the man died of neglect and exposure in the bottom of the ditch. The son, Euthyphro was outraged that his father had brought about the death of this man and so decided to prosecute him for murder.
Now, this is an extraordinary act. This is even more extraordinary for the following reason. In Ancient Greece, murder was not what we call a criminal offense. It was a civil offense, meaning that if you murdered somebody the state would not bring charges against you on behalf of the murder victim. The only people who could bring charges against a murderer were the family members of the victims. Of course, if the victim had no family, nobody would have cared about him, and you could quite easily get away with murder. Or if you murdered the whole family, you could quite easily get away with murder, because there would be nobody around to prosecute you.
This is a vestige of a pre-political kind of order that you find in places around the Mediterranean today. Places like Albania, for instance, where basically the social units are little clans that are extremely rivalrous and fractious. Clan loyalty is the most important form of loyalty. They had very tenuous connections to anything larger than these extended families and groups. Therefore, if in that sort of situation somebody kills a member of your group it’s up to the extended family to avenge them. This pre-political notion of right and wrong was embedded within the Athenian political system. They were not that far removed from that kind of highly clannish Mediterranean pre-political structure.
The prosecution by Euthyphro of his father is an especially odd thing because it violates the whole of what’s considered the natural order of family life, which is that you take care of your own. And if somebody in your family is murdered, then you prosecute. But if a member of your family murders somebody else, especially a stranger, and especially a stranger who murders somebody close to the family, then that’s a complete inversion of the proper order of things. It’s proper to take care of one’s own first and not proper to be concerned about some stranger before you’re concerned about your own.
So, Euthyphro is doing something that seems wrong. And it’s not just wrong in the moral sense. It’s impious. Piety refers to, first and foremost, the respect that you owe to the divine and to the gods. But for the Greeks, as we discussed earlier, the divine is at the root of historical traditions and institutions. Any kind of tradition or institution that has its origin in the times when gods were closer to men was, in a sense, sanctified. So the state and the family were sanctified by their ancientness. The more ancient they were, the closer they were to the gods. Therefore, there was by extension not only a piety towards the gods but piety towards any institution that was founded by the gods and associated with the gods, including the family. This is why you have filial piety or piety towards your ancestors and towards your parents, because they’re older than you and therefore they dwell closer to the gods.
Euthyphro, however, finds this ridiculous. Therefore, he’s going to prosecute his father for murder. Of course, this is analogous to father-beating. Not respecting the old man just because he’s your father. There’s no more reason than that.
So, let’s actually look at the text itself. It begins with Euthyphro saying, “Well, what’s new, Socrates?” Which indicates that he knows Socrates already. Euthyphro does already know Socrates, and he knows a number of things about Socrates’ character and his reputation. First of all, he knows where he normally hangs out—at the Lyceum—and that he doesn’t usually hang out where the dialogue is set, namely at the porch of the king, or the stoa of the king, which is a kind of covered walkway where the king, Archon, in Athens, who was the person who proceeded over legal proceedings having to do with piety, held court.
Euthyphro says, “Surely, you don’t also happen to have some lawsuit before the king as I do, Socrates?” He has a sense that Socrates is not the kind of guy who would be involved in something political or legal. Again, it indicates that he has some knowledge of Socrates’ character, at least some opinion about Socrates’ character.
And Socrates says, “Well, they don’t call it a lawsuit. They call it an indictment.” An indictment is something that’s handed down by the state for crimes against the state. And piety, which for us is an entirely private issue, was for the Greeks a very public issue.
The state wouldn’t prosecute you for murder, but they would prosecute you for being impious. Why? Because religion was largely civil religion to the ancient Greeks, and that meant that religious education was central to the education the polis, the city-state, took responsibility for. A person who somehow undermined religious education was considered to be a traitor in some sense. The gods were there to protect the city, and religious rituals were instituted to make sure the gods continued to protect the city. If you got in the way of that, it would be like getting in the way of any other government policy.
Now, the Greeks were not particularly concerned with your opinions, necessarily, about the gods. Concern with the right opinion is called orthodoxy, literally. Right opinion is what orthos and doxa mean. But they were concerned with what is called orthopraxy: having the right practice. That meant you were considered a pious person if you went along with the publically instituted rituals of the city. As long as you went along with these things and took part in them, you were considered a pious citizen, and you were keeping up your end of civic duties in the religious sphere.
Xenophon says that Socrates was extremely punctilious, extremely scrupulous about maintaining all the proper public respects due to the gods. On those grounds alone he should not have been convictable of impiety, because that’s the main concern. But what Socrates is really being accused of is something more than just not keeping up with the rituals. He’s being accused of bringing in new gods and undermining belief in the old gods, and this has to do with opinion. Because he’s accused of bringing in new gods and undermining belief in the old gods, he’s being accused of corrupting the youth.
Euthyphro says, “It’s an indictment? What are you saying? Someone, as is likely, has brought an indictment against you, Socrates, for I won’t charge you with doing it against another” (p. 41). Again, he thinks he knows that Socrates would never do wrong to another person although he could be wronged by others. This, of course, is a Socratic principle that’s defended in the Gorgias. That it’s always better to suffer wrong than to do it.
Euthyphro also indicates that he knows all about Socrates’ daimonion (p. 43). So, again, there’s a general familiarity with Socrates.
Socrates explains why he’s in trouble. This young fellow named Meletus has brought an indictment against him on the charges of impiety. Socrates says: “. . . he asserts that I am a maker of gods, and on this account—that I make novel gods and don’t believe in the ancient ones—he had indicted me . . .” (p. 42).
The description of Meletus is fairly detailed and interesting. He’s got long straight hair. He’s not quite full-bearded. He has a hooked nose. All of these characteristics would be meaningful to the Greeks who had strong beliefs in physiognomy, which is the idea that you can read people’s character from their appearances. A hooked nose was not considered noble, like a Roman nose. It was seen as a sign of a vexatious and nasty nature. Just think of birds of prey. A hooked nose would have that connotation. Not quite full-bearded indicates that he is somewhat feminine in the view of the Greeks. Long hair was kind of foppish. The overall picture is of a foppish, effeminate, vexatious, and false character.
But Socrates claims that what Meletus is accusing him of is no ignoble thing. The accusation is not ignoble in itself. Socrates really does believe that you have to take care of the young. You have to oversee carefully the education of the young. He says:
He [Meletus] alone of the politicians appears to me to begin correctly. For it is correct to take care of the young first so that they will be the best possible just as a good farmer properly takes care of the young plants first and after this the others as well. And so, Meletus is perhaps first cleaning us out, corrupters of the young sprouts as he asserts. Then after this it is clear that when he has taken care of the older ones he will be the cause of the most and the greatest good things for the city. At least that is the likely outcome for someone beginning from such a beginning. (p. 42)
Now, there’s a little bit of irony there. I don’t think he really believes that Meletus’ intentions are all that good. But there is an indication that Socrates fundamentally agrees in principle with the idea that you should be very concerned with the upbringing of the young, and you should clean out the corrupters. His real quarrel is not with cleaning out corrupters so much as the accusation that he is one of the corrupters of the youth. That’s where Socrates’ real concern is.
This, again, is an indication that Socrates is willing to make knowledge claims about things like education. Here he’s making a claim. He’s saying it is good to be concerned with rearing the young right from the very beginning. Every time you find a knowledge claim with Socrates, it has something to do with education or the nature of the soul. The connection, of course, is that education properly done is the cultivation and care of the soul. Socrates knows a lot when you actually look at the knowledge claims he makes, but they’re always claims about the soul and its proper tendance.
In the Theages, Socrates says he’s stupendously knowledgeable about erotic things and that, of course, refers to the soul. In the Theages, he identifies his daimonion with his knowledge of erotic things. So, the daimonion and its utterances and deliverances are a way of personifying Socrates’ knowledge of the human soul.
Euthyphro thinks he knows immediately what Socrates means when he says he’s been accused of being a corrupter of the youth or a maker of gods. “I understand, Socrates. It’s because you assert that the daimonion comes to you on occasion. So, he has brought this indictment claiming that you are making innovations concerning the divine things” (p. 43). For the Greeks and the Romans, making innovations in political and religious mattes is tantamount to treason. This is an indication of the incredibly conservative nature of all traditional societies. Any kind of innovation, especially concerning divine things, is equivalent to treason, and this is why it’s a matter of concern for the state.
Euthyphro goes on and says, “Well, you know, he’s obviously going to slander you in court before the many.” Then he says, I’m in the same boat Socrates: “Whenever I say something in the assembly concerning the divine things, predicting for them what will be, they laugh at me as if I were mad, and yet of the things I have foretold I have spoken nothing that is not true. Nevertheless, they envy us all who are of this sort. But one should not give any thought to them but should confront them” (p. 43). So, Euthyphro claims also to have a power to predict the future and to know divine things. Euthyphro is what you would call a diviner. He’s a soothsayer. He claims to be able to know the future. He also claims to know what the gods want and what the gods are about.
In the Cratylus, which is one of the dialogues associated with the trial and death of Socrates, Euthyphro is mentioned too. He is described as an enthusiast. And what is an enthusiast? An enthusiast is a person who claims to know the divine. In English the term enthusiasm in the 18th century was always used to refer to claims to having knowledge of divine things. A religious enthusiast was a person claiming to know the will of god. So, Euthyphro is an enthusiast and a soothsayer or a diviner. This is his profession and his claim to fame, as he puts it. He thinks that this is an enviable thing. He does think of himself as better than the rest of human beings. He says so.
If you read the histories of the time, before every important decision people would always consult a diviner, a soothsayer. Nancy Reagan did it too. Sometimes they would get a soothsayer to come in and read the entrails of a sheep which was slaughtered. They were always looking for omens and auspices to make sure that they would act in the proper way at the proper time. So Euthyphro could have been taken very seriously. He clearly didn’t have any public office, and somebody who was in charge of taking auspices, as they were called, was given that as a public office. Sometimes they were chosen by lot to look at bird entrails. But other times they would call in experts to do it. But apparently, Euthyphro wasn’t taken very seriously in this regard, but he did try to make his opinions known. Or maybe the kinds of things that he recommended were not the kinds of things that they wanted to hear.
Now how historical are these characters? The trouble is that we can’t entirely be sure. There was a fellow named Theages whose father was named Demodocus. We do know he was a historical figure. However, these particular historical characters might not have done the things that Plato represents them as doing. And the reason why he might have chosen them is because their names would have been significant to the roles in which they’re cast in the dialogues.
However, with Euthyphro we don’t know of any historical Euthyphro outside of Plato, so in this case he could be an entirely fictional character. His name means “straight thinker.” Euthyphron means “straight thinker,” and there is something to that name. There’s something appropriate about that name when you look at his character, although his thinking goes in a circle when he argues. There’s something kind of clumsily earnest about the way he goes about thinking.
If you try to penetrate Euthyphro’s character, you have to say that he’s extremely vain. He says, “If I didn’t know divine things exactly then there would be nothing that sets me apart from all the rest of humanity.” But he clearly thinks he does know this and, therefore, that he is set apart, which means he thinks he’s better than any other diviner, for one thing, and better than the rest of humanity in general. He is arrogant.
And what’s extraordinary about him is that his piety is really the grossest form of impiety. Because when he tries to justify his actions, what does he do? There’s something that he does when he justifies beating his father up in court that’s exactly like something that the Unjust Speech does in the Clouds.
The gods do it. Zeus bound his father for gulping down his sons, and Zeus’ father castrated his father before him. So, because the gods beat up their fathers, so should I. That’s his view. Now, that’s not piety in any conventional sense at all. But, of course, he claims to know better than convention what piety is. This is why he’s going to flout the conventional notion of piety that you never prosecute your father, because he knows better. This is another aspect of him.
He claims to have knowledge of the gods. Not just opinion or a likely story, but he claims to know precisely what they want, which is an extraordinary bit of hubris. His knowledge of the gods leads him to imitate the gods—not to do as they say but to do as they do. So, there’s something extraordinarily vain and hubristic about Euthyphro.
He’s kind of an enthusiast and kind of a fundamentalist. You could say he’s a straight thinker in this sense: He’s not a very subtle thinker, so when he looks at what the gods do he thinks “I should do the same.” He doesn’t grasp the subtlety that maybe the gods get to do things differently because they’re gods. That’s a more subtle thought. And in that sense Euthyphro is just as clueless as the Just Speech in the Clouds, who doesn’t know how to defend piety toward the gods once it’s pointed out that the gods do bad things. There’s something kind of clumsy about his thinking.
But isn’t that the case with a lot of fundamentalist types? They claim, on the one hand, that it’s all so easy to know what the gods believe. You just have to read what the book says. But in reading what the book says, which seems so straightforward and is usually done rather unsubtlely, they end up elevating themselves above everybody else and becoming very hubristic, condescending, and arrogant. This is all wrapped up in Euthyphro. He’s very much this way.
So, Euthyphro says, “Socrates, they’re just envious of you. We should pay no heed to these people. We should just go confront them.” And Socrates responds, “My dear Euthyphro, being laughed at is perhaps no matter. The Athenians, it seems to me, do not much care about someone whom they suppose to be clever unless he is a skillful teacher of his own wisdom. But their spiritedness is aroused against anyone of who they suppose makes others like themselves either from envy, as you say, or because of something else” (p. 43).
This “because of something else” is really interesting. He never says what it is, but what could it be? Yes, the Athenians might get angry at skillful teachers because of envy, but they might have other reasons as well. The “something else” is corrupting the youth. They are not just envious. They are protective of the young ones, which he thinks is a good thing. So, he’s not so willing as Euthyphro to dismiss the charges or the seriousness of this. He really thinks that there is a serious issue behind this. He doesn’t think it’s just when pointed at him, when directed at him. These charges are not just against Socrates, but they are a serious concern, and they can’t be swept aside as Euthyphro does as mere envy.
Euthyphro goes on, “That’s why I do not at all desire to try out how they are disposed towards me in this regard.” Euthyphro doesn’t want to know what the masses think of him. He says that they laugh at him, but he doesn’t want to know what they would really do, which means that although he does show up to the assembly occasionally, he doesn’t do it very often apparently. He’s not very eager to try their patience. Euthyphro is prudent about this.
Socrates says, “Perhaps you seem to make yourself available only infrequently and not to be willing to teach your own wisdom.” That’s why they’re not mad at Euthyphro, because he doesn’t show up very frequently. “But I fear that I, because of my philanthropy, seem to them to say profusely whatever I possess to every man. Not only without pay, but even paying with pleasure if anyone is willing to listen to me.” Socrates had a reputation of always going around, always in the open, and saying whatever he thought. He seemed to be doing that. Of course, the fact that he seemed to be doing that could be deceiving. There could be many things that Socrates is refusing to say, but, of course, if somebody is being prudently silent about something you don’t really know that unless you’re being very, very careful at listening. So, to the untutored ear, Socrates seems like a profuse blabbermouth. But the fact is that he might be quite reticent when you get right down to it about important things. But he’s got a reputation of going and saying things profusely to anyone who will listen.
Socrates says: “So, if, as I was saying just now, they were going to laugh at me as you say they do at you it would not be unpleasant passing the time in the law court joking and laughing. But if they are going to be serious then how this is going to turn out is unclear except to you diviners.” So, Socrates is confirming here that Euthyphro sees himself as a diviner, and that’s his reputation.
I think this is a really pregnant passage, and maybe I’ll just unravel it in an entirely arbitrary way and read too much out of it, but I really see any reference to laughter or looking silly in Plato as in some way a reference back to the Clouds. Here I think that Socrates is saying that if the men in the court are the kind that can laugh, then it will be a pleasant trial, which means that he’ll win. He’ll enjoy himself. But if they’re serious then he’s not sure what the outcome will be.
The reason is that Socrates is going to go to that trial, and he’s going to do what he’s been doing for years. He’s going to make fools out of these people. There are two reactions you can have when somebody makes a fool out of you. If you can laugh at yourself and can see that you really are foolish, that’s a sign that you can take a step back from yourself and see yourself as you are and get beyond the humiliation. You can even learn something about yourself that way.
And I think that is what happened with Socrates and Aristophanes. Aristophanes made a fool out of Socrates in the Clouds. But Socrates is the kind of person who can laugh at his own folly. Because he can laugh at his own folly, he can laugh at it and go beyond it.
In Plato’s Symposium, which takes place eight years after the premier of the Clouds, Socrates and Aristophanes are shown getting on quite well together. They are shown as friends, and that’s an indication that being made a fool of by Aristophanes was not something that would prevent Socrates from becoming his friend. Why? Well, because he was indebted to him in some sense.
Because if somebody can make a fool out of you, and you really are a fool, that’s really a good thing for them to do. Why? Because folly is bad and you want to get rid of it as much as is possible. If somebody shows you to be a fool, you should thank them and become their friend. Of course, it’s tough love. It’s hard to live down.
Serious people, people who can’t laugh at themselves, never learn the lesson. Instead, they just get angry at the person who tries to benefit them by showing them their own folly, and they begin to resent that person. Of course, Socrates earned the resentment of quite a number of people.
Anytus, who was one of the people who brought charges against Socrates, who actually was one of the people that put Meletus up to this, is shown in Plato’s dialogue Meno being worsted by Socrates. He’s not the kind of guy who can laugh at himself, and so he became Socrates’ enemy. Socrates will tell you in the Apology that he made lots of enemies this way.
So, Socrates is saying that if he goes to the law court, and the people in the jury are the kinds of people who can be made fools of by him but be benefitted by it because they can laugh along with him, then they’ll become his friends, and things will turn out OK. But if they’re serious men who can’t laugh at their own folly, then they’re never going to get beyond their folly. They’re going to continue behaving foolishly, and they’re going to end up hating Socrates for trying to benefit them.
Socrates speaks of his philanthropy, of his love of mankind. This is what’s led him to having this reputation of having a blabbermouth. We have to understand what he means by calling his characteristic philosophical activities philanthropic. What he’s saying is that his modus operandi is to go around to people who are reputed to be wise and make fools out of them. This, he claims, is philanthropic. Well, it is philanthropic if the person can become wise through learning to laugh at his own folly. I think this is something that very clearly Plato himself believed. And the reason why we know this is that the Platonic dialogues are comic.
Euthyphro is a comedy. It’s a dry kind of comedy. There’s no question about it. Theages is a comedy. All of Plato’s dialogues are comic. Even the death of Socrates is treated comically. That’s a tribute to Aristophanes, and it’s a tribute to the role of laughing at folly in the pursuit of wisdom.
Euthyphro then explains his lawsuit and explains how his family is indignant. Socrates says, “But before Zeus,” and Zeus, of course, is the patron of the family, the patron god of fathers, “do you Euthyphro suppose that you have such precise knowledge of how the divine things are disposed and the pious and impious things that, assuming that these things just as you say, you don’t fear that by pursuing a lawsuit against your father you in turn may happen to be doing an impious act?” And Euthyphro says, “No. There would be no benefit for me, Socrates, nor would Euthyphro be different from the many human beings if I didn’t know all such things precisely” (p. 45). This is his hubris coming out. He knows better than everybody else. And his claim to fame is that he knows more precisely the divine things and what’s pious.
So, Socrates says, well, Euthyphro, in that case I should become your student, because I’m being charged with impiety, and you know better than anybody else what piety is. So, if you teach me what piety is, then I can march into that law court, and I can show Meletus that he’s wrong to think that I am impious. So teach me, Euthyphro, teach me what piety is so that I may better myself and get out of this lawsuit.
Euthyphro, of course, is flattered by this. He doesn’t apparently catch the sarcasm here, the irony. I don’t think for a minute that Socrates thinks that he knows what he thinks he knows and is really wise about divine things. We have to hear the sarcasm here, the magnanimous dissimulation. He’s talking down to Euthyphro. He’s flattering him at the same time. Euthyphro, he thinks, is a prize fool.
“Let me be your student.” But what he’s really going to do is teach Euthyphro a lesson. What’s Socrates’ purpose by doing this? Well, by the end of the dialogue you get a clue. It seems that his purpose is to show Euthyphro that he doesn’t know what piety is any better than anybody else, and, therefore, he’d be better off being very careful about pursuing this suit against his father, lest he be genuinely angering the gods. Because he doesn’t know what the gods want any better than common opinion, and, therefore, the implication is that maybe you should just follow the customary views about the gods, Euthyphro.
And so what Socrates ends up doing is defending the father against the son. He ends up taking a father-beater and moderating him, which is exactly the opposite of what the Socrates of the Clouds does with Pheidippides and Strepsiades. This is how it’s a response to the Clouds. Socrates is taking a father-beater and making him a better son in Euthyphro.
Euthyphro says, sure, Socrates, I’ll be your teacher. So Socrates asks:
So, tell me now, before Zeus what you just now strongly affirmed plainly. What sort of things do you say the pious and the impious are concerning murder and concerning other things? Or is the pious itself the same as itself in every action? And again, isn’t the impious opposite to everything pious for it itself is similar to itself and has one certain idea in accordance with impiety? Everything that is, that is going to be impious. (p. 46)
Now, that’s a mouthful. What he’s talking about here is this notion of the ideas or the forms.
We don’t have to say too much, because there’s not too much said about forms in this dialogue. But basically a form is a kind of model or pattern, in Greek paradigm. And it functions like this: Say that you want to identify certain acts as pious. Honoring your mother and father is a pious act. Attending religious festivals is a pious act. Not taking a god’s name in vain is a pious act. You can name all these pious acts. But then Socrates asks, “What about these acts is pious? Can you isolate from these pious acts what their piety consists in?” And that would be a kind of idea or form of piety, a model of piety, that you can look to.
What he wants to do is separate what’s pious off from each of these particular acts, until we have the one idea or form of piety that they all have in common, and he wants to examine it and get an account of it. He says there is one idea of piety. He says, “Isn’t the pious itself the same as itself in every action?” Meaning, isn’t what makes these pious acts pious the same in each pious act? If we can separate this idea or form off and give an account of it and define it, then we’ll know piety as such. So, he’s trying to, in a sense, give an abstract definition or account of what piety is.
In other Platonic dialogues, these forms or ideas are given a much more developed metaphysical status. But for our purposes here, the form or idea is really a kind of definition of what piety is, such that if you have this definition you can go into the realm of human affairs and using this definition you can pick out the pious and the impious acts and sort them one from another. That’s what he’s looking for. It’s a general account of what piety is in itself, as opposed to particular acts of piety.
There’s something called the Socratic fallacy, which is the view that unless you can define something in an abstract sense you don’t really know what it is. Now, that is something of a fallacy when you get right down to it, because that would imply, first of all, that before human beings were reflective enough to start defining their terms they never knew what they were talking about. But clearly we have to know something about what we’re talking about if we’re ever going to get as far as defining our terms, because if we were all talking nonsense, there really wouldn’t be any terms there to start defining. So, there is something suspicious about the idea that you don’t know things unless you can give an abstract definition of them.
I don’t think that Socrates believed in the Socratic fallacy. Because when you see him using this sort of approach—“Well, Euthyphro, if you can’t tell me what piety really is then you don’t really know what it is”—he is using it as a kind of club for a particular educational purpose. In this case he’s trying to talk Euthyphro out of this notion that he has that he knows better than anybody else what piety is. My sense is that it’s a false premise that Socrates has insinuated into the argument and that he’s going to use this as sort of a lever to move Euthyphro away from his persecution of his father. That’s generally the context where you find the so-called Socratic fallacy being used. It’s being used by Socrates to, in a sense, wrestle somebody into submission and to force him to return from the idea that he has some kind of special, precise, or scientific knowledge of something to common opinion.
It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a definition. I will argue that a definition of piety is given here, yet that Euthyphro never catches what it is. He actually blurts it out, but he doesn’t understand that he really has defined piety, which is interesting. I’ll show you where that is. But it is possible, I think, to have definitions of things for Plato, and I think Socrates believed that too. I don’t think they believe that you don’t know something if you can’t define it, though.
We all have a kind of tacit or unarticulated knowledge of how to use words, and we pick this up like we pick up the words themselves. The way that Socrates puts it, is that we already know the forms of things. We know what the form of piety is. In Meno and in Phaedrus, he gives a myth about how we saw the forms before we had bodies when our souls were floating around in the netherworld. We caught glimpses of the forms. Then the soul falls into the embodied realm and goes through the birth trauma and forgets everything. Dialectic is a process of remembering the knowledge that we’ve forgotten. The point is that even though we’ve forgotten how to define piety, we can still find pious acts because although we don’t have articulate, explicit knowledge of piety we have a kind of inarticulate, implicit knowledge of piety. That allows us to pick out pious things.
A more naturalistic explanation of how we have this knowledge can be provided by a theory of language acquisition. How do we learn how to apply words? Well, we see them being applied by our parents, and we try them, and if we make mistakes, our parents correct them, and eventually we get the point. We catch on. We see what’s essential about, say, a dog versus a cat. I distinctly remember when I was a child learning the proper uses of certain words. You learn it by trial and error. You get corrected when you make mistakes. At first, any furry four-legged thing is a dog, if that’s the first thing you encounter, and if you call every four-legged furry thing a dog your mother says, “No, that’s a giraffe” or “That’s a cat” and you start looking, wondering what’s the difference, and you start seeing differences. I remember distinctly when I could see that tigers were cats too. They were big cats. There was some cat-like quality that they had, and you can see what’s identical between a big tiger and a little housecat eventually if you focus your mind on that. The language learning process interesting. What happens is that you get the idea of cathood eventually. From then on, whenever you encounter a new cat, you can pretty much say “Ah it’s another kind of cat”; even weird looking hairless cats. They still look cat-like. Weird looking hairless little dogs. You can say, “Oh, this is a weird looking little dog.” But you still know it’s a dog.
So, we do have the capacity to know the forms of things, even though we might not be able to articulate what the definition of a dog is. And can we really define a dog? We can give the genus and the species. But that’s not really giving a definition.
Now piety is much more abstract, but we start out with concrete things and we learn abstractions. We learn how to apply abstractions like honesty or decency or kindness or charm eventually. We learn by seeing examples and then wondering what this example has in common with the one we had before. We get paradigms in our mind, models. The first dog you see becomes a model and you learn eventually to extend that paradigm, or it becomes transformed with every new dog you see, every new breed of dog slightly transforms it.
Whenever I listen to a piece of music for the first time that first performance becomes the paradigm for me, and I’ll hear every new performance of it against that background. But then as soon as I hear a new performance or see a new slant on it, my idea of what that piece of music is becomes enriched and transformed. Each new experience transforms your idea in some subtle way. What dialectic is for Plato is a process of gradually making articulate what’s inarticulate or implicit. It’s making explicit what is implicit.
The point is that even with inarticulated, implicit knowledge you can still know. It’s still knowledge. Because it allows you to sort things out into the proper kinds. A little kid can go into an animal shelter and sort the dogs and the cats from one another, but if you ask him how or why he does it he’s at a loss. So, we do know, even though we can’t say.
However, Socrates uses this assumption, which is questionable, that we don’t know if we can’t say to try to really strong arm Euthyphro into the conclusion that he doesn’t know, and that forces him back to common opinion or the traditional view of piety, which is a good thing for him to believe.
Now, again, this is quite opposite the Socrates of the Clouds who tears down traditional opinions and tries to erect philosophical substitutes, or who doesn’t try to erect some substitutes for the gods or morality for that matter. Euthyphro is being brought back to common opinion here.