The Euthyphro problem
'Is that which is moral moral because God commands it?, or does God command that which is moral because it is moral?'
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
Today we are going to try to tackle one of the most complicated philosophical and religious questions ever uttered... one that investigates the nature of piety... of God... and morality itself.
I think the only thing about this question that isn’t shocking, is that it came from Socrates.
It is a deep dive... as such, it’s a wonderful opportunity to escape the infinite scroll and delve into the world of truly profound ideas, to stretch the brain and achieve that ultimately satisfying moment of real contemplation.
Enjoy this week’s Member’s only In-depth article and try to understand the “Euthyphro Problem”.
So grab a coffee or tea... or maybe even a whisky... and enter the Socratic realm…
All the best,
Founder and Director
The Euthyphro problem
By Van Bryan
As we wade into this rather uncertain arena, I think it is very important that we clarify a few things. We will be discussing what is known as theology. Theology is the philosophy that closely examines the nature of God and the role God plays in the universe. Theology is unique in that a theologian (somebody who practices theology) is already possessed with faith and a healthy spiritual life. Theology is not necessarily an attempt to prove or disprove the existence of a God through empirical means.
It is a study of the divinity of God, given the condition that the individual has already accepted the existence of such an entity.
This is not to be confused with the philosophy of religion, which also studies the divine, but does not necessarily concede that there is a God or any being similar. The philosopher of religion considers the nature of divinity from a perspective that is not already firmly planted within the realm of spirituality.
Rather bluntly, a philosopher of religion is standing on the outside looking in, while the theologian is already inside looking even further in. I think the difference can best be expressed in a joke I read some time ago...
When confronted with a burning bush that speaks the will of God, the theologian will immediately begin considering through what divine means the will of God is being delivered, why it has come to us in this way, and the implications this may have on God's role in the universe. Faced with the same situation, a philosopher of religion will begin looking for the hidden speaker.
Now that we understand what theology is, let us consider some implications that are suggested from Euthyphro.
The Backstory to Euthyphro
(As a general disclaimer, it is important to remember that “Euthyphro” was written by the philosopher Plato. While Socrates is used as a character in this dialogue, it is unknown if Socrates himself would have held such ideas. Although it is very possible that many of these thoughts were Socrates’ it is also possible that the philosophy originated from Plato. However, because this is an early Platonic dialogue, it is largely considered to be an accurate reflection of the philosophy of Socrates.)
At the opening of “Euthyphro” we find Socrates meeting with the young Euthyphro on the porch of the King Archon in Athens, several weeks before the events of “Apology“. Socrates has been required to visit with King Archon before he is put on trial for impiety. Euthyphro appears to hold much respect for the elderly philosopher, and is shocked that any man would find reason to prosecute him. Socrates explains that he is being hounded by Meletus, a man “…with a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard that is ill grown”.
Not being one to enjoy talking about himself, Socrates asks what has brought Euthyphro to the court of Athens. Euthyphro explains that he is there to put his own father on trial for murder. Socrates is shocked to hear this news and inquires about the nature of the man’s crime. Euthyphro explains that his father held a farm laborer in chains after the worker killed a slave in a drunken fight. Euthyphro’s father, unsure about what to do with the man in chains, had sent a messenger to Athens to consult with the various religious officials.
However before the messenger could return, the shackled man dies from exposure and dehydration. Euthyphro now views his father as a murderer, albeit an accidental one, and will pursue punishment for his father’s crimes.
Rather than believing that his actions are a betrayal, Euthyphro claims he is perfectly justified. The boy seems to believe that he has uncovered the true nature of piety, and that by prosecuting his father he is honoring the will of the gods.
It is at this point that Socrates begins his real philosophical inquest. He begins to explain why Euthyphro is *actually* a bumbling idiot and starts to delve into what will become the famous ‘Euthyphro problem’ ...
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial