4. Getting Personal

After dismissing Euthyphro’s gesture of support and fellow-feeling, Socrates focuses upon Euthyphro’s case, using it as an occasion to dismantle Euthyphro’s sense of piety and justice.  Socrates has more than a little of the wolf about him in this exchange.

Euthyphro politely tries to disengage from Socrates’ rudeness with a polite “you will fight your case as you think best, as I think I will mine” but Socrates pushes on Euthyphro.  “What is your case, Euthyphro?” he asks, baiting him with “are you the defendant or the prosecutor?” (3e).  It’s a clever strategy that relies on Euthyphro wanting to defend his own virtue.

The strategic element of the question is clear for Socrates has no need to ask it.  The dialogue opens with Euthyphro asking Socrates “surely you are not prosecuting anyone before the king-archon as I am?”  Socrates is baiting Euthyphro, one suspects because of Euthyphro’s implied arrogance toward Socrates.  Socrates is, in effect, punishing Euthyphro for suggesting that he is more righteous (one who prosecutes injustice) than Socrates.

Here, though, we need to remember that this is not an impartial account of an actual event.  It’s a fictionalized dialogue written by a student of Socrates, Plato.  This wolfishness on the part of Socrates must have a narrative purpose.  This one-upmanship that Socrates engages in has deep roots in Greek culture, evoking the kind of cunning we find in Greek heroes like Odysseus.

In showing off Socrates’ cunning humiliation of a rival, Plato bestows upon him a certain virility appealing to the Greeks.  Socrates becomes ennobled by putting Euthyphro in his place, as Odysseus puts the suitors in his place.

Despite the superficial appearance of impartiality, Socrates doesn’t play fair.  The dialogue is not simply a report of the failings of a model, but a glorification of a teacher’s ability to defeat rivals.

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