6. Examining Euthyphro’s Case

In the early exchange between Euthyphro and Socrates we can also glimpse Euthyphro’s preferred mode of discourse.  He cannot simply enter the court and enter into trance, speaking on behalf of the gods and accusing his father.  Given that he is often the subject of jest, one can imagine that he such things might occur during a visit to court, but presumably he needs a more ‘reasoned’ avenue to express his views outside of the trance.

Before Socrates takes a firm hold of the dialogue and forces Euthyphro into the passive position of being interrogated, Plato gives us a glimpse of how he imagines a mantis like Euthyphro to reason.  Plato, in having Euthyphro champion a position of piety foreign to most Greeks, gives his readers one more reason to identify and support Socrates.  If we look at the substance of Euthyphro’s argument, though, we discover some merit in his discourse.

To summarize the case: Euthyphro’s servant becomes drunk and kills a household slave.  Enraged, Euthyphro’s father binds the killer and throws him in a ditch.  He then dispatches a messenger to a seer/priest for advice with how to deal with the murderer.  The murderer dies of hunger and cold before the messenger returns with advice.  Euthyphro argues that his father’s neglect is identical to murder and should be treated as such.

Euthyphro’s sense of justice does not change “even if the killer shares your hearth and table” (4c).  Even more dramatically, the crime does not depend upon the moral state of the victim.  Though the victim was a murderer, it is no less a crime to kill him.  Implied, too, is that the accusation of murder ought not depend on the status of the victim, either.  Though the victim was but a servant, the father should still be tried for murder.

It’s easy to imagine Euthyphro as a man of conscience, with a strong personal morality, but I don’t want to overstate that.  Euthyphro does not claim to speak for his personal conscience but for public standards of justice.  In letting the murderer die, Euthyphro’s father took justice into his own hands, circumventing the advice of the gods by way of the seer.

Euthyphro’s prosecution thus has two motivating elements.  There is a personal element but there is also an element of the divine.  Euthyphro may be taking the case to court for personal reasons, but he is doing so with the sense that he is speaking on behalf of the gods against the values of the community.  That divine element is primary for Euthyphro, superceding both his personal and communal morality.

Again, the similarity between Socrates and Euthyphro is striking.  All this talk of the gods as opposed to men bears a strong resemblance to the world of forms as opposed to the world of shadows.  So, too, do the two men seem to concur that their own personal role is less important than letting an impersonal truth be heard.

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