Three days into 2009 and I have finished the Euthyphro and get to start the Apology.  A great advantage of reading in Stephanus-page order is starting with dialogues I am already familiar with!

The Euthyphro is a great example of an “aporetic” dialogue: Socrates meets up with someone who claims to know what x is (in this case piety, or the holy); Socrates eagerly asks to be taught; question-and-answer ensues that demonstrates that the person didn’t really know; the person extricates himself hurriedly and Socrates is left without the definition he was seeking.

Two things I love about the Euthyphro: a) it is quite funny (the pompous figure of Euthyphro, and the coy manner in which Socrates interacts with him, are very entertaining – it’s easy to see why the youth would have followed Socrates around to watch him do this thing); and b) it has a wonderful passage which is bizarre and nonsensical in English (“a thing is not carried because it is in a state of being carried: it is in a state of being carried because it is carried”) but perfectly clear in Greek ( oude dioti pheromenon pheretai, alla dioti pheretai pheromenon).

But there are also a bunch of things about the dialogue that bug me, which I would love to have people more expert in philosophy than I am explain (and no, this is definitely NOT me practicing Socratic irony).  In the interest of restricting myself to 500 words I’ll start with b) above: Socrates is getting at a distinction between a thing’s essence (that definition he is seeking of “piety”) and what might happen to it (“being loved”: Euthyphro’s attempt at a definition having been “what the gods love”).  But it seems to me that loving something is different from carrying it: it is our response to the thing itself, rather than a decision we make independent of that thing.  How else do we come to know or recognize things than by our response to them?  Isn’t it possible that part of developing a moral compass is in gauging our response to our own or others’ actions?

Generally Socrates’ impulse to discover the essence of various concepts is both appealing and interesting; I just can’t decide whether or not it is reasonable.  Individual words clearly don’t have just one referent, always unchangingly recognizable.  Why should concepts?  Why shouldn’t things like piety or justice also be context-specific?  After all, Socrates rejects an early attempt of Euthyphro to define piety as what the gods love by pointing out that the gods are likely to disagree among themselves “about right and wrong, and noble and disgraceful, and good and bad” (7d).  If we and the gods disagree about such things, might that not indicate that there is no unchangingly recognizable characteristic?

After Rob’s posting on the Antigone I wonder if perhaps Socrates’ impulse to find the essence of these concepts isn’t analogous to the relatively recent institution of coinage: he seeks some kind of measure against which he can judge/value specific instances, just as a coin functions as a measure of the value of specific things.  But money is fairly arbitrarily agreed-upon, and Socrates is looking for something much more anchored in reality…  Given how central this quest is to many of the dialogues, I’m hoping to understand it better (or sympathize with it more) as the project continues.  Help me out!