There is renewed attention to the Plato’s Euthyphro. In 2017 Harvard University Press updated a version in the famous Loeb Classic series, begun in 1911. In 1914 the Loeb published a volume containing Euthyphro and four other Socratic dialogues. The new version contains just the four that recount the circumstances of Socrates’ trial in 399 BCE. Euthyphro is the first, set in the weeks before the trial. Unlike the original Loeb, the new one has a 36-page introduction, plus running commentary on the fictional settings and narrative structure of the dialogues.
This book is a special treat both to scholars of Plato and Socrates, and the great 20th century philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973; pictured here). It is edited by two experts (bio information at end of this review) who have resurrected the analysis of Euthyphro by Strauss. “It is striking that a discussion of the Euthyphro is almost complete absent from writings published by Strauss,” write the editors.
What they uncovered is a 32-page notebook by Strauss, giving a line-by-line commentary on the dialogue. They suggest it is from these notes that his 1948 lecture about the Euthyphro at the New School for Social Research in New York was taught. Furthermore, Strauss delivered a lecture on Euthyphro in 1952 and this is also in the book, along with outlines for that lecture and an earlier one (now lost) he delivered in 1950. In addition to analysis by the editors, we are given a most insightful essay by Wayne Ambler on Strauss’ interpretation of the Euthyphro in his 1952 lecture. The interpretive essays, in Part II, reset the chapter numbering; so the book has two chapters 1 and two chapters 2. Most helpfully, a new translation of the dialogue, by Seth Benardete, forms Part III of the book. For those unfamiliar with this Socratic dialogue, I recommend reading Part III first.
To quote Strauss himself from the notebook, one gets the intent of the Euthyphro. “The explicit subject of the bulk of the dialogue is the question of what piety is. But this universal question is linked up with two particular cases, the case of E. and that of S. S. is accused of being impious, and E, is suspect of being impious because he accuses his father of an impious action. The case of S. is obviously of much greater importance: the problem of S.’s piety is the problem of the philosopher’s piety: are philosophy and piety compatible?”
In the commentary, the editors note that three different kinds of piety are explored in the dialogue, but none prove adequate. “Having arrived at the end of the dialogue, we are perplexed with regard to piety. We do not know what piety is.” This is a main reason most critics and casual reads of the dialogue find it frustrating and perhaps even unworthy of detailed study.
The first definition of piety examined in the dialogue has been widely dismissed. The editors write that “almost all scholars have effectively ignored the substance of the First Definition because of its formal flaw…What distinguishes Strauss’s interpretation is his refusal to content himself with blaming the First Definition’s formal flaw. His reading is characterized by the remarkable philosophical attention he pays to the First Definition as well as Plato’s choice of dialogue as a form.” Rather than attributing the ‘formal flaw’ to Euthyphro’s lack of intelligence, Strauss understood as no one else has that it was due to a lack of reflectiveness. “Euthyphro ‘unwittingly’ expresses a heretical opinion about piety and he is ‘shocked’ by its unforeseen implications.” Strass, the editors explain “kept going where most scholars stopped.” By doing so, he uncovers the key point that is not explicitly mentioned in the dialogue: the principle underlying Euthyphro’s first answer about piety is a rare expression of Euthyphro’s character and differs theologically in a crucial respect from the later definitions of piety.”
What leads to the underlying principle is found by seriously considering what animates Euthyphro. He is bringing a charge or murder against his own father, claiming that it is act of piety to do so. Crucially, he invokes the name of Zeus, king of the Gods, who overthrew his father to gain ascendancy. “According to Strauss, Euthyphro’s simple, is not simpleminded, appeal to Zeus as a ‘model’ conceals – even from Euthyphro himself – the bold theological claim that ‘piety=imitating the gods.’ But unbeknownst to Euthyphro, his First Definition is essentially heretical.” For by establishing the equivalency just given, he has “destroyed the possibility of orthodox theology made the Gods superfluous!”
Once Euthyphro realizes the dangerous consequence of the First Definition, he is willing to be led back (back Socrates) to the commonly-accepted view of the Gods “which,” writes Strauss “is precisely the ordinary worship that is pleasing to the gods. This ordinary view is suggested by S.: S. is really pious.” This understanding is crucial to the subsequent dialogues that describe what happened to Socrates when he was put on trial.
I have followed this line of reasoning in detail to highlight this key reappraisal of the dialogue made by Strauss, which has essentially been hidden or forgotten since the early 1950s.
Characterised by meticulous scholarship of the highest order, this book is an important addition to our understanding of Plato’s Euthyphro, through the eyes of a preeminent philosopher.
Hannes Kerber is Lecturer at the University of Munich and Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of Die Aufklärung der Aufklärung: Lessing und die Herausforderung des Christentums.
Svetozar Y. Minkov is Professor of Philosophy and directs the philosophy program at Roosevelt University. He is the author of Leo Strauss on Science: Thoughts on the Relation Between Natural Science and Political Philosophy and coeditor of Toward “Natural Right and History”: Lectures and Essays by Leo Strauss, 1937–46.
Leo Strauss on Plato’s Euthyphro: The 1948 Notebook, with lectures and critical writings, is by Penn State University Press. It lists for $74.95 hardback; $22.95 paperback
Image of Leo Strauss:
By University of Chicago or New York Times – https://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/07/10/arts/10conn_CA0ready.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21374434