Socrates on Piety in Justice
Towards the end of Plato’s dialogue The Euthyphro, Socrates takes the lead in a debate regarding what defines pious action and uncharacteristically gives significant insight to his own thoughts on what he believes piety to be and its relation to justice. As Socrates poses leading questions on the subject, Euthyphro attempts to reach a concrete definition of piety. At one point he comes very close to doing so, but Socrates quickly and perhaps deliberately changes the direction of the argument back towards uncertainty and confusion. As is the case with most of the Socratic Dialogues, The Euthyphro ends before an agreed conclusion is reached.
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Instead he declares that pious action is done through prayer and sacrifice, and makes a very interesting correlation. He says that acts similar to piety “preserve both the private welfare of households and the common welfare of the city, whereas those that are the opposite… destroy everything.” (14b) This sentence is a clear description of what justice aims to do, and it comes close to providing a satisfactory answer to Socrates’ question.
Socrates even goes so far as to admit that Euthyphro nearly arrived at an acceptable answer, but then immediately redirects the focus toward the first half of Euthyphro’s response concerning the “knowledge of sacrificing and praying” (14c). Had Euthyphro continued to list what is common to both just and pious acts, it would have been possible for him to discover what is specific to piety alone while maintaining his definition of it as an act of service. To do this, he should have given the following reply:
“While justice is concerned with every aspect of preserving the welfare of a population, the sub-set of piety aims to preserve the population of man only in regards to man’s relationship with the gods. It is through prayer and sacrifice that man provides service to the gods and remains in their good grace. In return, man asks for mercy from the gods and at times even for their assistance. This is not to say that the gods are in need of our prayer and sacrifice; but it is nonetheless pleasing to them, just as it is pleasing to any being to be both respected and appreciated for one’s power and achievements. On the other hand, the benefit man gains from pious action is absolutely necessary for his existence, for without the mercy of the gods all of mankind would perish. In this way it is evident that while both may benefit from one another, only man requires the service of the gods, whereas the gods do not require the service of man.”
This reply maintains Euthyphro’s position that piety is a service as well as a subset of justice, and even specifies the intended goal that piety seeks to accomplish. It also avoids making any statements that could be considered heresy. Consequently, it would have adequately answered all of the questions posed by Socrates up to that point in the dialogue and left him without many options to refute...