Euthyphro exchanges in conversation with Socrates a good deal of questions and arguments about an issue of principles. And the issue they discuss is for Socrates an urgent puzzle to solve on the nature of piety, which Euthyphro claims to have the most exact knowledge of than the majority of people. For Socrates, learning from Euthyphro the nature of piety would result on having a strong case for his innocence against the charges Meletus brings upon him. But after this back and forth of questions and answers between the two, Euthyphro fails to teach Socrates the exact nature of piety and of the holy. Euthyphro may not have such exact knowledge of what piety is after all, and he should take away certain lessons from the dialogue he had with Socrates in which his knowledge of these things was not left in a good standing.
The first lesson that Euthyphro should take away is that if he really cares about being a pious man, he must first have clear knowledge about what piety is.
Euthyphro failed in all his attempts of giving Socrates an account on the nature of piety that would satisfy him. In each of his attempts Socrates questioned the clarity of his definitions pointing him out to their logical deficiencies. In his first definition, Euthyphro only offered examples of what he considered pious acts, and not the formal definition he was asked to give. In his second definition, his account depended on the gods and what they loved or hated as its standard. But Socrates quickly pointed him out to the inconsistencies that would arise with that account given the conflict among the gods regarding what they loved or hated. And in the same way his other definitions couldn’t stay put against Socrates’ challenges. And the question should arise, would Euthyphro be capable of figuring out how to proceed piously in other cases than matters of prosecution? Or could Euthyphro know what is pious if the gods differ on the things they love, or if he can’t be sure about the things the gods love? According to those definitions, he would not have a clear standard for assessing the piety or holiness of the many ways he could proceed in those cases.
For Socrates there is a “form itself, by virtue of which all the pieties are pious”, and this what was Socrates was asking Euthyphro to teach him. And without a clear standard by which to judge, in any case, which things are pious and which of them are not, one could not tell which things are indeed pious, and one could not lead a pious life. But Euthyphro could not assert what the standard of piety was, and he should reflect on it.
The second lesson is that the search itself of this kind of knowledge, the knowledge of principle of piety should not be taken lightly, and that it requires careful consideration for finding the exact knowledge we need about those principles. Because of the great intellectual effort finding thinking about these issues demand, and because not all men put the same effort to the task of thinking, they can find themselves with differences of opinion regarding what piety and other principles are. And they get angry and hostile to one another if they are unable to reach a settlement about their difference. Whereas in difference of opinion in matters of arithmetic, the tool to settle the disagreements is calculation, in matters of ethics they should seek for a similar tool to reach settlement, if they are to avoid hostilities and anger toward one another.
And for Socrates it is crucial for arriving to truths in matters of ‘theology’ (or of principles of action) to engage in thoughtful examination of the nature of these principles, turning to real-life cases to validate our opinions. And to gather the commonalities between them as to reach definitions that stay put in all cases. With this exercise we may also start reflecting upon what sort of tool we could use to figure out these issues, just as in matters of arithmetic we turn to calculation.
The third lesson is that principles are absolute, and they depend upon the facts of reality independent of any gods, and that can hold true in all cases concerning actions of men, and for all men. Euthyphro should learn from the way Socrates approaches the issue of solving the puzzle of what the nature of piety is. When Euthyphro offers a definition appealing to the gods, Socrates does not rely on the superiority of them, and even yields them to the very same principles as he yields men to those principles. And in suggesting that there can be methods, just as there are methods to resolve differences in arithmetic or geometry with calculation and demonstration, to resolve in some method, yet to discover, the differences in opinion regarding principles of ethics and in the affairs among men. And he also turns to test the validity of definitions considering examples.
I agree with these three lessons that I think Euthyphro should learn from his dialogue with Socrates. With the first lesson, because if a man wants to be consistent in his virtuous actions, he should be clear on the principles that guide him through those virtuous actions, and how they apply universally to each of them. With the second lesson, because we need to stick to the method of logic and to the observation of facts in figuring out those principles, which is a hard task. And with the third lesson, because principles are objective, and we can know reality and apply our reason to learn the nature of the principles that guide us in virtuous action.