A servant gets drunk and angry and kills a slave. Your father, wanting to bring the man to justice, sends someone to a prophet to ask about the proper course of action. In the meantime, he ties the servant up and leaves him in a ditch where he dies before any news from the prophet reaches your father. As a pious person, do you persecute your father purely on the grounds that he is a someone who has committed murder or does piety demand that you take all of the circumstances into account, most particularly the circumstance of your relationship to your parent? Euthyphro, you see, is taking his father to court for having killed this servant.
This complicated set up is the back ground to Plato’s Euthyphro, a dialogue on the nature of piety, which, it turns out, is at the same time a dialogue about justice, which, it turns out, is at the same time a dialogue about love. The dialogue turns on an important distinction – whether something is pious because the gods love it or whether the gods love something because it is pious. Our own piety, you see, depends on modelling our actions on those of the gods, and so the question is, should we love things because they, by definition, are pious or good in and of themselves, or does our love, like that of the gods, have a transformative effect on things such that it can make them worthy objects of our attention.
Initially, it seems ridiculous to suggest that our love can have the effect of making things pious. After all, the most pious of activities is to love the gods and it seems clear that they don’t need our love to make them better. The gods need neither our attention or care. They are absolute and complete in themselves. Thus, to the extent then that we love the gods, we do so because we recognize their inherent goodness. A pious person, it seems, loves something because IT is good and thus pious.
And yet, this reading would seem to admit that Euthyphro is both just and pious for persecuting his father on the grounds that he, having committed murder, is neither just nor pious himself. By this reading Euthyphro’s father does not deserve Euthyphro’s love because he is not inherently good in and of himself. In other words, if piety has only to do with the “objective facts” then the subjective circumstances of the finite order, such as the fact that he is Euthyphro’s father, make no difference.
For Socrates, discovering the nature of piety is particularly important, for he has been brought to the court to be charged with two counts, charges that mirror the distinction in the dialogue itself. First, he is charged with not believing in the gods of the city, of not loving what is taken to be inherent and good in itself. And second, he is charged with corrupting the youth, of not properly loving and caring for others.
The charges that Socrates faces, while perhaps unjust in their application to him, indicate that the city sees these two moments of piety as interconnected. And indeed, Socrates seeks to show Euthyphro the necessary relationship between the two. For by properly loving what is inherently good in the gods, we are made pious, and the effect of this should be that we are more able to care and tend for those around us, making them better in turn. Piety involves both recognizing what is eternally and objectively true and good, and then turning our attention to the finite world of circumstance and motion and seeking to transform it through our care so that it might better reflect the absolute in itself.
In his conversation with Euthyphro, Socrates demonstrates the lie in the charges as they stand against him. Socrates knows that Euthyphro’s actions against his father, whether just according to the letter of law or not, are impious. He does not tend to his father the way a son should. Socrates thus enjoins Euthyphro to care for him, Socrates, perhaps as a son would a father, by helping him to understand the nature of piety and so defeat the charges against him. Euthyphro in turn might recognize the injustice he persecuted upon his father and so be made better himself, seeking Euthyphro’s attention, Socrates simultaneously tends to Euthyphro, hoping to show him that piety consists of both knowing the good in itself and seeking to bring out more fulsomely in others. Rather than corrupt the youth, Socrates cares for them on account of his love of both them and the gods he wants to understand.
Euthyphro, however, will not be helped. And at the end of the dialogue, with his activities now in question, rather than resolve them to a good end, he hurries away. As a result, Socrates is left alone and without the care of another. We do not think that Euthyphro was going to show Socrates what it might mean to love the gods in any direct way. Instead, had Euthyphro been willing to participate in Socrates’s care, Socrates might have gained greater knowledge of what it means to properly and effectively love another so as to make them more pious, more just and more loving. It this mystery he needs unlocked to convince the city of his love.
Doing so would not have “saved” Socrates’s life. After all he is already an old man and soon to die regardless of what the city decides. However, it would have saved him in a different way. For the activity of piety is dialectical, and in learning how to love and transform others, Socrates would have learned something of the nature of divine love in and of itself. And in so knowing, would be better able to love it. Socrates seeks Euthyphro’s care so that he might care for him. Love in this way is dialectical. In caring for Euthyphro, Socrates would learn something of the nature of the divine, and so be better able to love it in and of itself. For Love is in this way also dialectical.