In Plato’s dialogues, one finds room for speculation and wonder. One also finds the discipline of logic, the presence of faith, and the need for each these modes of thinking to co-operate with one another. This helps us see why philosophy is a most serious and yet wonderful kind of play.
As I embark on further graduate studies in philosophy (at HACS), it is appropriate to think about the nature of philosophy. Philosophy is the pursuit (or love) of wisdom, as its etymology bears out, but what does such a pursuit look like? It might take the form of:
- Encyclopedic Knowledge
- The Mechanics of Logic
Each mode above has shortcomings. Encyclopedic knowledge is merely information. Logic, of its own, excludes much that makes us human and has little to reason about. Questions without guiding principles or logic are the luxury of the undisciplined. Mere intuition lacks the rigor of critical inquiry.
These forms of philosophy are too narrow, subjective, and abstract to amount to anything deserving of the name ‘wisdom’.
In Plato’s Euthyphro, one instead discovers a richer, multifaceted pursuit which calls upon us to employ the entire range of human experience and thinking. For Plato, philosophy is a way of life.
Euthyphro: An Introduction to Philosophy
Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro portrays Socrates’ encounter with a self-styled prophet on their way to court (Socrates to defend his life against the charge of impiety, Euthyphro to accuse his own father of murder). The dialogue makes an excellent introduction to philosophy.
First, it is short, at about 16 pages in the Grube translation. Its structure is relatively simple, and it introduces only two dramatic personae (Socrates & Euthyphro).
Second, it is non-technical. Compared to the Parmenides, Theaetetus, or the Timaeus, Euthyphro remains firmly rooted in ordinary language and common modes of speech, even as it probes deep waters.
Third and most importantly, it gives readers the opportunity to do real philosophy. It does this by bringing up, implicitly and explicitly, some of philosophy’s (and therefore man’s) central questions:
Do Ethics and Metaphysics share a Common Logos?
Socrates asks Euthyphro about the nature of piety. After all, a man about to charge his father with murder (an impiety) better know something about piety himself. For, how can Euthyphro act here without also committing a grave injustice? Familial piety is, after all, a cornerstone of justice, society, and faith:
Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land (Exodus 20:12).
Socrates himself is charged with impiety against Athens, his fatherland.
To answer him, Euthyphro rehearses his own genius for prophecy as well as his command of the religious myths of Ancient Greece. He claims that Zeus’ murder of wicked Cronus serves as a precedent for charging his own father with murder.
But could not such a precedent undermine his charge?
If Zeus was free to murder his father, would not Euthyphro’s father, himself seeking to mete out justice, be warranted in the accidental death of a day laborer?
Such questions urge one deeper into the genuine nature of piety, justice, and philosophy.
If divine behavior sets legal precedent for our behavior, what happens when the gods are neither consistent nor righteous. Do such precedents leave us at best perplexed, or at worst, servants in an unjust universe?
Here are the nascent beginnings of a theodicy!
Philosophy is not about sitting around in a bar or coffee shop, asking abstract questions, and bandying about opinions. It is what begins when we wonder about the nature of things. It is what happens when we ask how the Greeks (or anyone) have a sense of justice when the divine appears no more just than mankind.
In such an awakening of intuition and reason, one begins to question whether we can know right and wrong without also knowing something about the cosmos, its government, and our place in it.
Must not the source of piety and justice be itself Holy and Just? Must not the metaphysical nature of Justice (its unchanging reality or source) be itself akin to justice?
Logos and Logic
It would be unjust to depict the dialogue as one which operates on the purely intuitive level. Its logical dimensions are equally important.
Socrates pushes Euthyphro to consider whether Piety is a kind of justice, or whether Justice is a kind of piety. In navigating parts and wholes, Euthyphro is asked to consider the difference between species and genus. Whether ‘a’ is a part of ‘b’, or ‘b’ ‘a’.
These logical distinctions points us toward the consideration of whether there is any part of justice which has no share in piety, or any part of piety which is separate from justice. Such distinctions not only throw us back upon questions of metaphysics, they plunge us into other logical considerations.
In the light of logic, what begins to appear is the difficulty of separating justice and piety from one another (consider the two great commandments for instance).
Logic leads us to consider whether piety and justice are more complicated than the hierarchy of genus and species. Do they not always in some manner participate in one another? Logic simultaneously reveals a mysterious complexity and equally mysterious simplicity. Logic pushes us into a place where logic alone is not enough, such as into a consideration of divine simplicity.
Readers shares in such insights, only when they navigate between the drama, the logic, and the metaphysical implications of the dialogue. Only when they are fully engaged in the dialogue as a whole will these riches become apparent.
It is not enough to be logical, although logic provides a necessary structure in such inquiry. Nor is it enough to be intuitive, although intuition is equally important.
Like justice and piety, intuition and logic need to inter-penetrate one another.
Logos & Muthos
Finally, these questions and the drama in which they unfold are not just dialogic (logical), but also mythic–storied. The entire discussion is contextualized by narrative and cult: that of Socrates, of Euthyphro, of Athens, of Zeus, and that of the world as we know it–a world in which fatherhood and the Fatherhood of God looms over any discussion of piety or justice.
For Plato and Socrates, philosophy can never truly exclude myth or religion. It must begin in the context of the whole, in the faithful exploration of all things. True wisdom respects faith as the companion of reason. The pursuit of wisdom takes hold of all that is human and holds it up to the light of reason.
A Warning at the Outset
Euthyphro brazenly charges his father with a crime, even though many would shrink from such an impiety. He shamelessly claims to have knowledge of divine things regarding a highly ambiguous case.
Without such knowledge, Euthyphro admits, he would have nothing to distinguish himself from the many, to whom he believes himself superior (5a).
As we enter upon the field of inquiry, taking up questions which have been held with reverence for centuries, it may be prudent to be cautious against such brazen impudence. Let us not be so quick to charge our philosophic fathers with folly or impiety. Let us not dismiss what many have found to be the path of wisdom: story, faith, religion, and reason.
In philosophy, we practice a kind of piety in following the spoken and unspoken thread of an argument; we, hopefully, practice listening to the logos wherever it may lead. If not, we may find ourselves also guilty of grave injustice.