Monday, August 27, 2012

Plato’s “Empathy”

Bust of Plato

In Plato’s dialogues there is sometimes the fact that the context, or set up, to his dialogue’s issues tells us more about Plato’s social attitudes than the overt statements of what the dialogue is about.
Thus the dialogue Euthyphro.1 The subject of the dialogue is ostensibly what is piety. Has per usual the dialogue is an inconclusive ramble in which piety cannot be truly defined.

In a previous posting2 I mentioned that Plato’s search for perfect definitions was in the end rather absurd for it made two rather elementary errors:

1, The mistake of thinking the definition of something is that something.

2, It assumed that language was capable of crafting perfect definitions and thus ignored the manifold limitations of language which made such a thing impossible.

Of course Plato’s game had a rather obvious political purpose in that Plato was quite easily able to show by means of his dialectical approach and questioning that the important politicians and citizens of Athens were not genius philosophers able to craft perfect definitions. But then genius philosophers cannot either.

Thus with Plato’s rather absurd argument of defining a shoe which only proved that no one can fully and perfectly define a shoe, but shoemakers the world over still have no problem making shoes for people although they cannot define perfectly a shoe.

The obvious conclusion is that being able to perfectly define something / philosophize like a philosophical genius is not required to do the day to day tasks of government. Thus all of Plato’s philosophical attacks against Athenian democracy fall flat and have no obvious political consequences.3

Thus the dialogue Euthyphro’s discussion of piety solves nothing all it indicates is that due to the limitations of language piety cannot be “satisfactorily” defined according to strict Platonic criteria.

The context that Plato gives this discussion of piety is interesting and gives an unpleasant glimpse into Plato’s social attitudes.

Euthyphro is an Athenian citizen who meets Socrates at the door of the Law Court were Socrates is about to be tried for impiety. Thus Plato undoubtedly felt that this was the perfect place for a Socratic dialogue on what is piety.

Euthyphro is tells Socrates that he is attending the court in order to lay a charge of murder against his own father.

Socrates is aghast and he says:
By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man, and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to bring such an action.4
Then Socrates says:
I suppose that the man whom your father murdered was one of your relatives-clearly he was; for if he had been a stranger you would never have thought of prosecuting him.5
Euthyphro than reasonably responds that, that is not entirely relevant and explains the circumstances:
I am amused, Socrates, at your making a distinction between one who is a relation and one who is not a relation; for surely the pollution is the same in either case, if you knowingly associate with the murderer when you ought to clear yourself and him by proceeding against him. The real question is whether the murdered man has been justly slain. If justly, then your duty is to let the matter alone; but if unjustly, then even if the murderer lives under the same roof with you and eats at the same table, proceed against him. Now the man who is dead was a poor dependent of mine who worked for us as a field labourer on our farm in Naxos, and one day in a fit of drunken passion he got into a quarrel with one of our domestic servants and slew him. My father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch, and then sent to Athens to ask of a diviner what he should do with him. Meanwhile he never attended to him and took no care about him, for he regarded him as a murderer; and thought that no great harm would be done even if he did die. Now this was just what happened. For such was the effect of cold and hunger and chains upon him, that before the messenger returned from the diviner, he was dead. And my father and family are angry with me for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting my father. They say that he did not kill him, and that if he did, dead man was but a murderer, and I ought not to take any notice, for that a son is impious who prosecutes a father. Which shows, Socrates, how little they know what the gods think about piety and impiety.6
Socrates then responds with:
Good heavens, Euthyphro! and is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in bringing an action against your father?7
The dialogue than goes into the debate about piety and impiety and Euthyphro is shown to be a self-satisfied and rather conceited.

However as indicated above Socrates simply cannot believe that Euthyphro would lay a murder charge against his own father and that is the thread running through the entire dialogue. The implicit argument is that charging your own father with murder of a stranger is prima-facie impious and wrong and that Euthyphro must justify it through an iron-clad definition of impiety / piety.

In all this the man left to die in the ditch is forgotten instead the dialogue shifts to “Is Euthyphro acting piously or impiously in charging his father with murder. Socrates implicit position is that on the face of it Euthyphro is acting impiously.

Let us instead look at things differently. Was Euthyphro’s father acting piously or impiously when he tied up the labourer and left him to die in a ditch?

In one of Euthyphro’s responses he says that:
Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime-whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be-that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety.8
Socrates then responds to the above by a series of what amount to non sequiturs about the meaning of piety and what is pleasing to the Gods means etc. All of which have nothing to do with the issue of whether or not it is pious to allow an alleged murderer to get away with murder even if the person is your own father.

After Socrates has tied Euthyphro in dialectical knots. Euthyphro begs off and leaves. The dead man is still dead and a possible murderer allowed to run around a while longer. Perhaps Euthyphro laid the charge later.

Socrates ultimate statement about the issue is the following:
Then we must begin again and ask, What is piety? That is an enquiry which I shall never be weary of pursuing as far as in me lies; and I entreat you not to scorn me, but to apply your mind to the utmost, and tell me the truth. For, if any man knows, you are he; and therefore I must detain you, like Proteus, until you tell. If you had not certainly known the nature of piety and impiety, I am confident that you would never, on behalf of a serf, have charged your aged father with murder. You would not have run such a risk of doing wrong in the sight of the gods, and you would have had too much respect for the opinions of men. I am sure, therefore, that you know the nature of piety and impiety. Speak out then, my dear Euthyphro, and do not hide your knowledge.9
So at the end Socrates simply cannot believe that a son would lay a murder charge against his own father and that basically only perfect knowledge of what is impiety / piety could justify such a thing. Socrates very carefully ignores discussing the actual alleged murder itself and instead deals with the tangential issue of what is piety.

The Greek term here translated as serf, refers to the Athenian social class known as Thetes, who served as labourers, petty farmers and rowers in the fleet. Socrates snobbishly seems to assume that given the person to charge is Euthyphro’s own father, just why would he do it on behalf of a stranger of low social status? Just how that is in the slightest germane to whether or not to lay a charge is not explained, merely assumed.

So here we have Plato giving vent to an insular family focused set of ethics in which guarding the family is set up has more sacred than civic obligation or frankly common humanity. Further Plato’s contempt for the poor Athenian citizen and how dare he take part in politics and even worst be in a position in which other wealthy citizens feel the need to defend his rights over obligations to family is clear.

To me it is obvious that Euthyphro’s desire to lay charges against his father was the right thing to do. Of course charging your own father is incredibly difficult, but then doing the right thing is sometimes difficult.

What is also clear is that Plato felt little empathy for the man tied up and left to die in a ditch.

Further Reading:

Schofield, Malcolm, Socrates on Trial in the USA, in Editor, Wiseman, T. P, Classics in Progress, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 263-283.

Stone, I. F., The Trial of Socrates, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1988, pp. 146-152.

Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert, Athens on Trial, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994.

1. Plato, Euthyphro from The Classical Library Here.

2.  Here.

3. IBID.

4. Plato.

5. IBID.

6. IBID.

7. IBID.

8. IBID.

9. IBID.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. Fascinating, thanks.

  2. Glad you found it of interest.

    I myself have a very ambivalent attitude towards Plato. While the man was a philosophical genius and a great writer, I found much of his philosophy repellent.

    His contempt for "ordinary" people and his basic authortarianism were hard for me to take.

    His idea of forms also struck me as basically crazy if anyone actually thought it was for real and not just an idea to mull over.

    The Euthyphro dialogue struck me because practically everyone who reads it forgets about the dead, possibly murdered man.

  3. I can understand why you highlighted it. I know little about Plato os Socrates, which I blame on my pretty awful education & my failure to make the best of the crumbs that were offered.

    I shall display my ignorance - I until reading your article imagined Plato, from the little I have heard, as a good guy, & likewise Socrates. I do know however that the Athens they lived in was a society based on slavery.

    My only real knowledge of Socrates comes from a documentary made by Alain de Botton which described the philospher's views on status. these views I agreed with, in particular the view that just because someone has high status, one should not assume that they know what they are talking about.

    Your article gives an insight that perhaps their world & they themselves were lacking in empathy, much like today, & that we should not hold them & their society up as being somehow better than ours.