Euthyphro and the Problem with Polytheism

I made brief mention that I might add Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro to my syllabus this fall in the comments section about Allan Bloom, and after some deliberation, I’ve done so. This little post is mainly some brief reflections on that dialogue and on teaching in a state university.

You can read the relatively brief dialogue in English translation here:


First of all, I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve never read this little gem before this summer. I have, after all, been teaching Plato for three years now, and this dialogue comes up in conversation about as much as any. Many editions of Plato put this with the “trial of Socrates” dialogues, and indeed in the opening lines Socrates reveals that a youngster named Meletus (the main bad guy from the dialogue Apology) has charged Socrates with corrupting the youth of Athens (the main philosophical question of Apology). Socrates, talking with his friend, the theologian Euthyphro (you wondered about the name, didn’t you?), finds out that Euthyphro is also headed for court, but his docket involves a murder charge against Euthyphro’s own father, brought by Euthyphro.

The boastful Euthyphro tells Socrates that, despite popular disapproval over bringing one’s own father to trial over the murder of a servant, such an act of stark justice is the heart of piety. Socrates begins to question why, and the philosophical part of the dialogue is under way.

What many passing references to this dialogue miss is the next section, Socrates’ first negation of a wise man’s assertion. The main difficulty with defining piety is that common usage calls pious that which pleases the gods, but if the gods fight with one another as much as Homer and Hesiod say they do, then what pleases Zeus will necessarily displease Kronos, and vice versa. In other words, the questioning that takes up most of the dialogue has to do not with all kinds of theology but with polytheistic theology particularly.

The most famous assertion Socrates makes is that whatever piety is, the goodness of pious act must be prior to the gods’ approval, because to assert otherwise is to ignore the struggles in the heavens.

I bring this little point in this little dialogue up because, in a world that treats “religion” basically as a subset of psychology, Euthyphro’s dilemma does indeed seem valid. After all, the popular line of questioning goes, if everyone’s “religion” holds that adherents of all the rest of the “religions” are “going to Hell,” then whatever measures we have of good and evil in civic and national and even international society must come not from the content of “religious” commitments but from some other sort of deliberation. Modern ethics, in other words, is at its rots, in some sense, polytheistic in the ways that Greek and Roman ethics were polytheistic: the realms of “religion” were for private well-being, but when people get together, legislators and philosophers and not priests must be the arbiters between people.

As folks who know me know, I tend to be suspicious of such “secular” modes of ethical inquiry (the word has such a wonderful meaning in Augustine that I put scare quotes on it when I’m using some definition other than Augustine’s). Because part of our confession as Christians (not all of it by any means) is that the one God-Pater who created heaven and earth is also the God-Filius who walked among us and also the God-Spiritus who intercedes in our behalf, we cannot think of ourselves as parts of another “religion” but rather those to whom that Triune God has revealed something more real than simple psychological succor. (Again, I do not deny the psychological goods that come from right relation with God, but that cannot be the sum total of what’s going on.) In terms of Plato’s dialogue, we Christians deny that the heavens are the site of struggle, confessing instead that the struggles between Creator and creature and among creatures are instead the ultimate responsibility of creatures and that ultimately redemption, whatever else is entailed, must involve a reconciliation of Creator and creature.

One of the papers from my first semester of graduate studies in English was an examination of W.H. Auden’s “New Year Letter.” Although I do not care to reread it now, I do remember that it involved a theological critique of Auden’s liberal Protestantism. The teacher, a first-year professor with a freshly-minted Harvard Ph.D, whom I respect deeply (largely because of the incident I’m about to narrate), invited me to his office early the next semester to talk about the paper. He told me that I had assumed too much history of WWII-era Protestantism as common knowledge (I probably did) but that the argument held up otherwise. Then, however, he leaned back in his chair and asked, “But Nathan, why should anyone give a damn about these questions?” Being too young and foolish to back down from a fight, I fired back, “Do you ask your Marxists and feminist critics the same question?” He nodded for a moment, smiled, and said, “You have a point.”

I bring up this incident not because I’m impressed with how plucky I was (though I am) but to note that, at least among the big universities that I’ve visited, the prevailing intellectual environment is not the DNC love-fest that David Horowitz seems to fear, but one can point to a functional Sophism (in the historical sense) that pervades the humanities and social sciences: the working assumptions are Enlightenment-liberal, Lockean ones, and whatever “religion” is, it’s not the queen of the sciences that Thomas Aquinas would make it. In that environment, a Euthyphro-style priority of philosophy over piety makes perfect sense. My contention this morning is that, in Christian circles, we probably should be about the project of reclaiming Anselm’s famous formula, Faith Seeking Understanding. (Pardon my weak Latin; I fear trying to recollect the inflections on those words.) Part of evangelicals’ intellectual project should be to demonstrate in practice a philosophy that begins not from polytheistic but from Trinitarian starting points, a philosophy that makes Euthyphro’s dilemma a non-issue.

Am I going there with my freshmen next month? Probably in a descriptive mode, perhaps even a description that demonstrates the inadequacy that necessitates a line of inquiry like Socrates’. But as usual, I might just have to keep my distance without looking like I’m keeping my distance.

I don’t know. Teach casual.

Cross-posted from Conservative Reformed Mafia.

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Filed under Plato

3 responses to “Euthyphro and the Problem with Polytheism

  1. “Ethics are what people have instead of God.” – Walker Percy (I think)

    “Euthyphro” was one of the first dialogues I read, and it’s still one of my favorites, even though it bugs me (as most of Plato does, of course). I think a lot of what you talk about in your post comes down to Christ’s “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Society, especially a secular democracy, must necessarily formulate an ethics outside of religion, but we’re held to a higher one, and so society’s ethics are largely irrelevant to us.

    (I also doubt the ability of a secular society to support its ethics–removed from a divine imperative, on what basis can you say what someone does is evil? Why is child molestation wrong? Why shouldn’t Ted Bundy kill people, from a philosophical standpoint?)

  2. Thank you, Michial Karamazov. ;)

  3. Well, my cat’s name IS Smerdyakov.

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