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Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’: the origins of pious acts

Haleluya Hadero
Opinion Writer

“Is the Pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”

If any individual who ascribes to a monotheistic faith has read Plato’s “Euthyphro,” they most likely walk away feeling confused and disoriented. Writing through the person of Socrates, Plato presents one of the central questions in moral philosophy: is something good because it is good, or is good because the gods/God says it is good?

(Photo courtesy of liberalismen.no).
(Photo courtesy of liberalismen.no).

When Plato made that statement in ancient Athens, the city was established on the peoples’ faith on polytheistic gods. The Greek gods were different than the monotheistic conception of an all-good, all-knowing Creator. They acted as super humans, having the same characteristics as human beings and acting out on them. When Socrates poses the question of piety, Euthyphro is rightly taken back by surprise. If the Pious is being loved by the gods because it is pious, then there is some other force/nature above the gods that makes that certain act pious. Thus, things are pious independent of the will or judgement of the gods. The gods do not determine what is pious or impious. If the gods do not determine the nature of piety, then morality can exist separately from religious beliefs in the gods.

The second part of the disjunction asserts that an act is pious because it is being loved by the gods. This raises the question of the plurality within the context of knowing what is pious. What is loved by one Greek god can be hated by the next. Therefore, piety can not be based on arbitrary or irrational laws and acts. If the personality or feeling of one god determines the morality and piety of an act, then it is beyond reason or logic. This moral relativism would also be arbitrary and unnecessary and warrant a relative position of morality for every individual.

Now back to monotheism: applying Socrates’ question to monotheistic faiths (all-good, all-knowing God), poses an enormous dilemma. Being a devout Christian, I became unnerved while reading the Euthyphro. The question became one of those thoughts that permeated my thoughts whenever I thought about my faith. Eventually, I had to sit down and try to find some sort of answer to a question a man posed in the B.C. era. After days of contemplation, I became satisfied with this answer in the context of the christian faith.

Since we are made in God’s image, we have his characteristics. Therefore, in our nature, we already know what is pious. What is pious is what God is or what his characteristics are. Examples include: justice, love, faith, forgiveness, etc. The only essence of piety is the divine. The acts of piety are not pious by themselves because of the acts. If the acts existed without the existence of God, they are not pious/good because piety/goodness does not exist. The innate existence of God causes those acts to be pious. God exists, therefore pious acts exist. God does not exist, then pious acts do not exist. Therefore, the acts are not pious in themselves. Pious acts are not pious just because God loves them. Pious acts are pious acts because God is them.