2. Socio-cultural contexts

Euthyphro isn’t talking to Socrates about religion and myth in general.  The dialogue begins with Euthyphro detailing a pressing legal case he has initiated against his father.  Euthyphro is charging his father with murder because his father bound a man for murdering a slave and the murdered died of neglect while his father waited on a priest’s advice on what to do with the murderer.

Euthyphro’s relatives say he is being impious, but Euthyphro claims “their ideas of the divine attitude to piety and impiety are wrong” (4e).  This places Euthyphro and Socrates in similar but subtly different positions.  While Euthyphro is prosecuting his father in court, he, like Socrates, is suspected of impiety.  Socrates is being accused by a stranger in court, while Euthyphro is being accused of impiety by his family and friends, in the ‘court’ of public opinion.

In taking his father to court against the wishes of his family, he is challenging the public understanding of what is pious and what is impious, like Socrates.  A closer examination of Euthyphro leads us to draw even more comparisons between him and Socrates.  Euthyphro, like Socrates, claims divine inspiration for his questioning.

Euthyphro asserts knowledge of divine things in the same breath that he claims knowledge of the future: “whenever I speak of divine matters in the assembly and foretell the future, they laugh me down…yet I have foretold nothing that did not happen” (3c).  In stating this, he means to identify himself with Socrates’ own claims about receiving a “divine sign” (3b) and thereby ease Socrates’ worries as to what will happen during his indictment.

Euthyphro’s position is not one of privilege.  He’s an outsider, like Socrates.  Others find him laughable.  He’s commiserating with Socrates, establishing that though they are mocked, they both have a true access to the voice of god (i.e. something more valuable than mere social status).

His phrasing is important.  He claims two areas of expertise, one in things divine and one in knowledge of future happenings.  However, his evidence for his expertise in both rests upon the results of his fortune telling.  His phrasing suggests that somehow true knowledge of future things and true knowledge of things divine are interconnected.  Superficially, we have no reason to assume that the two are of equal merit and have to wonder why Euthyphro comfortably relates the two.

Why does knowledge of divine things relate to knowledge of the future?  We need some cultural context.  Greek fortune tellers tend to fall into two basic camps.  There were the well-known and highly esteemed oracles associated with sacred places like Delphi and the more suspect wandering seers known as mantis.  Whereas the oracles were clearly tied to the gods, any given mantis might be more huckster than truth teller.

We can wager that Euthyphro was a mantis.  Like the oracles, it would not be surprising if Euthyphro prognosticated by way of trance and spoke of the future with the voice of the gods or with the voice of his own daemon which he claimed was in communication with the gods. The mockery he receives may result from how he acts in trance.  He might speak or act strangely, seeming quite ridiculous.

The emphasis Euthyphro places on the veracity of his predictions takes on new meaning in this context.  Especially with the oracles, the truth of prognostication becomes proof of divine contact and favor.  In claiming the truth of his own predictions, he identifies himself with those oracles in touch with the gods.  Since he is in touch with the gods, it then becomes just a small step to assume that he has insider knowledge on divine matters, not just matters of the future. [cf. Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols for more fuel about the Greeks taking things seriously…mockery, manliness, etc.]

Since Socrates began his philosophic career after the advice of the oracle at Delphi, Euthyphro has good reason to identify himself with him.  For the same reason, though, Socrates has good reason to distance himself from Euthyphro.  Like the sophists or the natural philosophers, the mantis represent rivals for Socrates’/Plato’s new philosophic method.

The mantis, especially, represent a class of people without esteem in the polis, so Plato would not want to tarnish his method’s reputation by association.


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