Monthly Archives: June 2015

Euthyphro of Plato

Plato’s Euthyphro is one of his shorter and earlier dialogs. It is concerned with piety (holiness) which, as I mentioned last time, was considered to be one of the five components of virtue. The interlocutor, or person with whom Socrates converses, is Euthyphro. Euthyphro was a well known, very respectable priest. It is typical of Plato’s dialogs dealing with virtues that the interlocutor is an expert on the virtue in question.

Page from a 1578 bilingual edition of The Euthyphro [public domain via Internet Archive]

Page from a 1578 bilingual edition of The Euthyphro [public domain via Internet Archive]

Socrates and Euthyphro meet as they are waiting for their turn in court. Socrates is there to defend himself in the trial that will end in his execution. Euthyphro has come to indict his own father for manslaughter. The father had let a captured murderer die through inattention. Euthyphro has been set up with a classical ethical dilemma: he has a duty as a religious leader and citizen of Athens to prosecute and punish killers, and there is not a shred of doubt concerning his father’s guilt. On the other hand, the man is is own father. The man who was killed was a stranger who had himself knifed one of the family slaves. Furthermore, the father did not deliberately kill the man; he had simply not remembered to check on him after tying him up and leaving him in a ditch, allowing the man to die of exposure.

According to Euthyphro, however, there is no conflict. Piety demands that he follow divine law and prosecute his father. Nothing else comes into the decision. This leads Socrates to begin questioning him on what piety is. Piety, points out Socrates, is an important part of his own upcoming trial, since Antyus has accused him of denying the city’s gods and creating his own. He could really use some instruction from Euthyphro on the matter.

I occasionally teach business ethics classes, and Euthyphro’s story reminds me quite a bit of the mini cases which are in most ethics textbooks. They are deliberately murky, the idea being to force undergraduates to consider both sides of the dilemma and write a reasoned response for why one decision or the other is better. One of the things which we drill into the students is that when they are posed with an ethical dilemma, they need to consult the official code of ethics for the company or professional society. If the situation is covered by the code, then the decision has been made for them. This is essentially what Euthyphro has done. His “professional code of ethics”, of course, is Athenian religious law. This is a good lesson to teach twenty-year-old business majors. They have limited practical experience, are still developing their critical thinking abilities, and will probably never receive further training in moral philosophy after this ten week class is over; they don’t really have many tools to deal with complex or ambiguous ethical situations. However, since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, most companies, and all large companies, have fairly extensive written ethical guidelines. As long as my students obey them they probably won’t go too far wrong and, ceteris paribus, the world will be a better place.

To Socrates, however, just obeying the law without examination is a cop-out. Euthyphro says that piety requires men to obey the law of the gods, but what is piety, exactly? Can he provide a definition?

Euthyphro first offers himself and his actions as an example of piety, but Socrates is looking for a universal definition. He then defines piety as “doing those things which are pleasing to the gods” and impiety as “doing those things which are displeasing to the gods”. Socrates points out that different gods might be pleased by different things and quarrel among themselves about morality. This causes Euthyphro to refine his definition, saying that “Piety is that which is approved of by all the gods.” Immanuel Kant fans will recognize that his argument is now skating close to the idea of a categorical imperative: something that is always right or wrong regardless of situational factors. The difference, however, is that approval is still coming from the gods, and Socrates seizes on this point for further examination, asking,

“Is the holy approved by the gods because it’s holy, or holy because it’s approved?”

In the first case, the holy action would be a categorical imperative. In the second, a divine command. Socrates then proves that it can not be both:

But if the ‘divinely approved’ and the holy were really the same thing, Euthyphro my friend, then: (i) if the holy were getting approved because of its being ‘divinely approved’; whereas (ii) if the ‘divinely approved’ were ‘divinely approved’ on account of its getting approved by the gods, then the holy would be holy too on account of its getting approved. But as things are you can see that the two are oppositely placed, as being altogether different from each other; for if the one is ‘such as to get approved’ because it gets approved, while the other gets approved because it is ‘such as to get approved’. And perhaps, Euthyphro, when asked what the holy is, you don’t want to point out the essence for me, but to tell me some attribute which attaches to it, saying that holiness has the attribute of being approved by the gods; what it is, you’ve not yet said. (text and emphasis from the Tredennick/Tarrant translation)

Socrates next suggests that piety might be a kind of justice and asks Euthyphro to define what type of justice it is. Euthyphro replies that piety is the part of justice which has to do with looking after the gods, but Socrates worries about what exactly this means. What is the work of the gods, and how do humans help it along, if at all?

Euthyphro, now getting a bit tired of the conversation, says that piety is knowing how to sacrifice and pray to the gods, but Socrates is still concerned that the Gods don’t get anything from relationship except gratification. If so, they are back to Euthyphro’s original definition about piety being that which is pleasing to the gods. Socrates suggests that they start over from the beginning but Euthyphro, suddenly “remembering” a prior appointment, makes his escape.

Plato: Introduction

The man we know as Plato was born Aristocles son of Ariston but adopted his old wrestling nickname as a nom de plume (Platon means “wide” in Greek). As a young man he considered a poetic career and seems to have written a tragic trilogy and several lyric poems. In his early twenties he discovered an interest in philosophy when his brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus became members of Socrates‘ circle. After Plato himself became a disciple of Socrates he burned his poems and resolved to be a full time philosopher. After Socrates’ execution Plato gradually extended his teacher’s philosophy to create his own school. Platonism was probably the most important school of thought in the ancient and medieval periods, heavily influencing both pagan and Christian writers. Even today, some writers consider Platonism “the secret religion of the majority of intellectuals”.

Display of books by Plato

Plato was a prolific writer. Today we have 37 of his dialogs (26 of which are believed to be authentic) and 13 letters, the authorship of which is hotly disputed. Will Durant once jokingly wrote that Plato wrote dialogs because he was a frustrated dramatist. In fact, Plato and his contemporaries believed that the only way to really learn philosophy was to discuss it with other philosophers. If this wasn’t possible, a dialog was the next best thing. It is important to remember that a philosophic dialog–much more so than a play–is meant to teach rather than to entertain. Because of this, it may contain sections that seem boring, repetitive, or different to understand. The dialog is meant to be parsed as a unity, however, and these passages are there intentionally, to make some point to the reader. Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of the Republic, criticizes translators who abridge the boring sections of the dialogs or simplify the wording of difficult passages. According to him, any translation of Plato should be as literal as possible, even at the expense of readability (although, actually, Bloom’s translation is quite readable).

The Socratic Problem

Socrates didn’t leave any writings of his own, as far as we know, but he is a main character in all of Plato’s dialogs. The great unanswerable question in Platonic studies is where Socrates’ philosophy leaves off and where Plato’s begins. There are a couple avenues we can go down to gather clues: We can compare Plato’s earlier dialogs to his later work, on the assumption that he began by summarizing his master’s teaching and developed his own viewpoint as time went on. This approach relies on our ability to date the texts, which requires further assumptions and guesswork. We can also try comparing Plato’s portrayal of Socrates to the writings of others who knew him when he was alive, such as Xenophon and Aristophanes. Unfortunately, Xenophon was a mercenary soldier who dabbled in historical fiction and Aristophanes was a comic playwright. Their descriptions of Socrates are neither as complete nor as credible as Plato’s. Finally, we can read the opinions of writers who lived closer to the time of Plato and Socrates and might have had access to sources and oral traditions that are now lost. Of course, there is no guarantee that their educated guesses are any better than our own. Ultimately, the best answer we can produce to the Socratic problem will be little better than an opinion.


One subject that was apparently highly important to both Socrates and Plato was the cultivation of virtue and the question of whether or not it could be taught. Before we go on, though, lest we make the same mistake that Meno does in his eponymous dialog, we need to be sure we understand what virtue means. The word translated as “virtue” in most editions of Plato is actually the Greek arete. An equally valid translation would be “manly excellence”, which is not a common connotation of the modern English word virtue. Bloom puts it well when he writes,

It has been said that it is one of the great mysteries of Western thought “how a word which used to mean the manliness of men has come to mean the chastity of women.”

He goes on to imply that one can glean a summary of the entire history of political philosophy by comparing the changing usage of “virtue” in Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Rosseau.

Arete, according to the Greeks has five components: piety, justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. One of the recurring themes in the dialogs is discussion of how these relate to each other and to virtue as a whole. As for the question of whether virtue can be taught–as opposed to being an innate quality with which some people are born–it seems that Socrates, the man who was wisest because he knew his own ignorance, was ultimately undecided. Plato’s answer, however, is based on his own theory of forms. Virtue, like every other idea, exists in an ideal form. Souls are exposed to the ideal forms of things before they become incarnate as humans. Thus teaching virtue is a process of leading the soul to remember the ideal which it has already encountered.

Reading Order

In general, I recommend reading all of the Great Books in the order in which they were written. For Plato, this order would be approximately:

Early Works Middle Works Late Works
Apology Cratylus Critias
Charmides Euthydemus Sophist
Crito Meno Statesman
Euthyphro Parmenides Timaeus
Gorgias Phaedo Philebus
Hippias Minor Phaedrus Laws
Hippias Major Republic
Ion Symposium
Laches Theaetetus

Another popular organizational scheme is to group the dialogs into thematic tetrologies, in which they are grouped into a 7×4 matrix; The rows are labeled: “What is man?”, “The Sophists”, “Socrates’ Trial”, “Speech and Knowledge”, “The Soul”, “Dialectic”, and “Man in the World”. The columns are labeled: “Cause”, “Desire and Nature”, “Will, Judgment, and Behavior”, and “Reason and Order”. The idea is to read the works in each row from left to right to explore a particular topic.

Another semi-thematic grouping is that used by The Penguin Group, which publishes some of the most popular translations. Penguin’s grouping has a lot to do with creating paperback volumes of a manageable length,

I will be mostly following the Penguin scheme for the simple reason that I mostly own the Penguin translations. I will be beginning with the dialogs in The Last Days of Socrates as I have found many forum posts which suggest it as a starting point for the study of Plato.

Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

Frogs of Aristophanes

The main protagonist in The Frogs is Dionysus, but Aristophanes shows us an altogether different side of the god than Euripides did in The Bacchae.  Euripides’ Dionysus is cryptic, subtle, rather scary, and tremendously powerful.  Aristophanes’ Dionysus, from the time he appears on stage in a ridiculous costume, is a bit of a buffoon.  On  one level this is simple caricature for comic effect; Aristophanes was fond of singling out and lampooning his audience members, and the god whose stature observed every performance had finally received his turn.  We need to keep in mind, however, that Dionysus, as the god of the theater, was actually Aristophanes’ patron deity.  Dionysus was god of comedy as well as tragedy, and Aristophanes’ portrayal actually captured one of the God’s aspects.  Drinking, sex, and humor were all part of the god’s ethos.  Even the costume, which combines a woman’s robes, a tragic actor’s shoes, and Heracles’ lion skin is appropriate for a god who was normally portrayed androgynously and was known for trickery and disguise.

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Dionysus’ mission is to descend into Hades to retrieve Euripides, as Athens no longer has any good tragic poets.  Presumably this task has fallen to him as god of theater.  We are also reminded of tradition of Orpheus in Hades, and the close association between the cults of Dionysus and Orpheus.

In many ways, The Frogs is Aristophanes’ eulogy for Euripides, who had died several months earlier.  Euripides was one of the favored targets for the comedian’s humor.  The Frogs is his way of showing that he actually had great respect for Euripides’ work.  After all, he didn’t write a play about Dionysus going after Sophocles, who had died a year earlier.

After various comic hijinks, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias arrive at Hades’ palace. There, they find that a contest is about to take place between Aeschylus and Euripides to determine which will be allowed to dine at Hades’ table.  Hades allows Dionysus to judge the contest.  Furthermore, he offers to let Dionysus take home the poet of his choice.  In the ensuing throw-down it becomes clear that, while Aeschylus is by far the better poet, Euripides is wittier and more accessible.  Aeschylus presents larger-than-life heroic characters, while Euripides presents relatable characters with real flaws and quirks.

In the end, somewhat surprisingly, Dionysus chooses to take Aeschylus.  Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War. The final defeat was a year or so off, but few citizens questioned that it was coming soon.  The people didn’t need wit, satire, and realism.  They needed beauty and elevation.  They needed to be reminded of the days when heroes walked and Athens was still great.  Aeschylus, not Euripides, was the man for the job.

The Frogs is a fantasy.  In real history, no tragic poet emerged who could match the talents of the “big three”.  While Greek tragedy continued to be performed for centuries, the art all but ceased to evolve after the passing of Sophocles and Euripides.  In late Hellenic times Euripides was easily the most popular playwright of the three, possibly because his language and themes seemed more “modern” to later readers.

Greek comedy remained viable for a longer time.  Aristophanes himself lived another twenty years, long enough to take part in the transition from old comedy to middle comedy and to see the new comedy on the horizon.  His son and others wrote in the new comedy, which stayed popular throughout the Macedonian period.

Birds of Aristophanes

The Birds holds special memories for me because my fourth grade teacher had us read it aloud in class. Thus, it was not just the first Aristophanes play I read, but my first exposure to any Greek drama. The play has certain characteristics that make it particularly suitable for a class of of 9-year-olds. For one thing, it has 22 speaking parts, plus the chorus, so everyone in the class can participate. More importantly, it is relatively free from the sort of political comedy and inside humor that can make Aristophanes’ other plays hard to follow for those of us not lucky enough to have grown up in Classical Athens. Rather, the play is straight-up fantasy of a sort that even children can understand.

The premise of the play is that two Athenian men, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, become fed up with modern life in Athens and leave to seek a simpler existence. They find their way to the king of the birds, the hoopoe, who tells them what a splendid life the birds live,

EUELPIDES But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.


HOOPOE Why, ’tis not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.


EUELPIDES That does away with much roguery.


HOOPOE For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.


EUELPIDES Why, ’tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.

Euelpidies and Pisthetaerus are completely sold and decide to move in with their new avian friends, convincing the birds to let them found a new city in the sky called Nephelococcygia (cloud-cuckoo-town). Nephelococcygia is not just a utopia, but is destined to become fabulously wealthy because it controls the lines of communication between men and the gods. Before the  founding ceremony is even finished the new city attracts a parade of charlatans, bureaucrats, and other parasites who are trying to cash in on the project. No sooner have these been dealt with than a delegation of gods, including the slow-witted Heracles and a foreign god whom no one can understand, show up to discover why their sacrifices are being blocked. Pisthetaerus fast-talks these envoys until they agree to give him not only Zeus’ scepter, but the hand of the goddess Royalty in marriage, effectively promoting him to divinity himself.

A Hoopoe [photo by Flickr user  Ferran Pestaña, CC BY-SA 2.0]

A Hoopoe [photo by Flickr user Ferran Pestaña, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Birds was produced at a time when the citizens of Athens needed an escapist fantasy to take their minds off current events. The Sicilian Expedition, which had been expected to be an easy victory, had become a sucking quagmire that continued to devour men, ships and money. The war with Sparta on the mainland was beginning to heat up again. Alcibiades had defected to Sparta, where he proceeded to dispense strategic advice and point out Athens’ weak spots. It would have been hard to find anything funny in the real world that year to write about.

At he same time, the city’s wealth was not yet expended to the point that it could not fund a big budget play. Everything about The Birds is written to show off the most lavish costumes, music, and effects that Aristophanes could find.

Aristophanes’ instincts were good, even though he only ended up taking second place in the Dyonisia. A spectacular, big-budget fantasy show is often just what the public needs when things are grim. Consider the wild popularity of the movie The Wizard of Oz at the height of the great depression, or the first installments of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, released in the wake of the September 11 bombings.

Title Sheet from an 1883 production of the Birds at Cambridge [public domain via King's College Archive Centre]

Title sheet from an 1883 production of the Birds at Cambridge [public domain via King’s College Archive Centre]

As the Peloponnesian War dragged on the city became poorer; Aristophanes was forced to write plays with smaller casts and scale back the chorus’ song and dance interludes. Athenian culture shifted, particularly after the war, becoming more abstractly intellectual. Aristophanes’ topics shifted with it, away from politics to the literary criticism of The Frogs, and finally to the comedy of manners style of the Middle Comedy. While we must admire his adaptability and ability to evolve as a writer, it is hard not to believe that he must have looked back nostalgically to 414 BCE and The Birds, when all the people wanted was a really big show with lots of music and costumes.