7. The prosecution speaks, part 1

I have spoken in increasingly specific detail about the case, so now let’s examine the last element Euthyphro articulates before he loses control of the conversation.  There he appeals to the gods specifically in support of his actions.  More specifically, he appeals to the stories of the gods for evidence of how one ought to act.

Euthyphro “can quote the law as a great proof” that he should prosecute his father (5e).  The people “believe that Zeus is the best and most just of gods, yet they agree that he bound his father because he unjustly swallowed his sons…castrated his father for similar reasons” (5e-6a).

Socrates will leap upon Euthyphro at this point, beginning his wheedling with questions about how you can appeal to “hard to accept” stories in matters such as these.  We don’t have to follow Plato, though, and can spend more time considering the example Euthyphro raised.

Socrates will move to identify the gods and the stories of the gods, then proceed to consider whether the gods are properly the purveyors of piety.  Euthyphro’s prosecution is more complicated than that, though.  As he describes the matter, he is not citing the story as proof of how the gods deem things to be, but in order to appeal to the sense of justice that his audience finds in the story of Zeus’ binding and castration of his father.

Socrates questioning leads Euthyphro astray, confusing terms that Euthyphro understands implicitly by a careful inadequate staging of those implicit ideas in explicit logical statements.  I would rather try and elucidate those implicit ideas fully, with an eye to fairly treating Euthyphro’s ideas.

Myth is not firstly a true account of Zeus’ actions but a model for how his audience conceives of justice.  There are implications that need to be unpacked before we can fully appreciate the subtlety of Euthyphro’s argument.  If I fill in the implications, the argument resembles this:

A) Zeus is taken to be a god of justice among the Greeks.
B) Greeks tell stories about Zeus.
C) Because Zeus is taken to be a god of justice, stories told about his actions are examples of how justice is conceived among the Greeks.
D) Therefore, in appealing to this particular story about Zeus, I [Euthyphro] am asking these particular Greeks to consider my actions in the same light as they would consider Zeus’, namely as just.

Euthyphro is engaging in persuasion, not rigorous logical argument.  While he clearly believes himself to have knowledge of divine matters, he is not equating his access to divine matters with the stories.  The stories just provide him with the means to express those higher divine matters to those who do not necessarily share his access or his perspective.

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