Every semester I begin my introductory courses with Plato’s Euthyphro. There are a number of reasons for this. On the one hand, the Euthyphro is exemplary as a model of philosophical analysis, argumentation, and critique. On the other hand, this dialogue stages the manner in which action and belief interpenetrate, such that actions are based on beliefs and false belief leads to false action. Additionally, there are geographical reasons as well. Teaching in the Dallas Texas area– home of the megachurch and the central hub of apocalyptic variants of Evangelical Christianity –teaching the Euthyphro exposes students to questions of religion and faith that perhaps they have never before encountered. Finally, the Euthyphro inaugurates some basic and fundamental distinctions as to how all subsequent ethical and political philosophy will be conducted. However, it is also possible to see the Euthyphro as a criticism of ideology and as a sort of therapy strategically designed to both reveal Euthyphro’s attachments and precipitate a separation from those attachments. Socrates aims at nothing less than producing a sort of void in Euthyphro… A void, perhaps, that would have the effect of producing the possibility of freedom.

The dialogue begins with an encounter between Euthyphro and Socrates at the royal court. Euthyphro has a rather high opinion of Socrates, believing him to be the best of men, and is thus surprised to find him there at court. Socrates relates how he is being brought up on charges by the young poet Meletus for impiety. When Socrates inquires as to why Euthyphro is there, he discovers that he is there to prosecute his own father for murder. Surprised by this, Socrates inquires as to what could possibly motivate him to do such a thing.

SOCRATES: Good heavens, Euthyphro! Surely the crowd is ignorant of the way things ought to go. I fancy that it is not correct for any ordinary person to do that [to prosecute his father on this charge], but only for a man already far advanced in point of wisdom.

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, Socrates, by heaven! Far advanced!

SOCRATES: And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?

EUTHYPHRO: You amuse me Socrates. you think it makes a difference whether the first victim was a member of the family, or not related, when the only thing to watch is whether it was right or not for the man who did the deed to kill him. If he was justified, then let him go; if not, you have to prosecute him, no matter if the man who killed him shares your hearth, and sits at the table with you. he pollution is the same if, knowingly, you associate with such a man and do not cleanse yourself, and him as weell, by bringing him to justice. The victim in this case was a laborer of mine, and when we were cultivating land in Naxos, we employed him on our farm. One day he had been drinking, and became enraged at one of our domestics, and cut his throat; whereupon my father bound him hand and foot, and threw him into a ditch. THen he sent a man to Athens to find out from the seer what ought to be done– meanwhile paying no attention to the man who had been bound, neglecting him because he was a murderer and it would be no great matter even if he died. And that was just what happened. Hunger, cold, and the shackles finished him before the messenger got back from visiting the seer. That is why my father and my other kin are bitter at me when I prosecute my father as a murderer. They say he did not kill the man, and had he actually done it, the victim was himself a murderer, and for such a man one need have no cosideration. They say that for a son to prosecute his father as a murderer is unholy. How ill they know divinity in its relation, Socrates, to what is holy or unholy!

SOCRATES: But you, by heaven! Euthyphro, you think that you have such an accurate knowledge of things divine, and what is holy and unholy, that, in circumstances such as you describe, you can accuse your father? You are not afraid that you yourself are doing an unholy deed?

EUTHYPHRO: Why, Socrates, if I did not have an accurate knowledge of all that, I should be good for nothing, and Euthyphro would be no different from the general run of men. (4a12-5a1)

In this passage, Euthyphro reveals himself to be a just and well-meaning individual insofar as he applies the law universally and applies it consistently. The question, however, is whether he truly has knowledge of the law. As the story of Oedipus reveals, the stakes of this discussion are extremely high. If Euthyphro doesn’t act, he risks inviting the wrath of the gods. But if he acts wrongly, he, like Oedipus, risks violating his sacred kinship duties and again inviting the wrath of the gods.

Nonetheless, he is confident of his action as he believes himself to be cut from a special fabric, or to be made of a special stuff. As Euthyphro says in the last line cited above, “I am different from the general run of men”. This is the dimension of Euthyphro’s fundamental fantasy or the manner in which he is objet a for the Other. Euthyphro is distinguished from other men in that he is an expert in all things pertaining to piety and holiness. Consequently, in addition to it being his duty to prosecute his father, the dimension of fantasy, of who he understands himself to be, motivates his action as well. As Euthyphro says a bit earlier, he has never made a prophecy that did not come true, and he experiences bitterness in the fact that many of the other Athenians ridicule and mock him for his religious teachings, not recognizing his true substance. Euthyphro is the Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell, or James Dobson of the ancient world. This fantasy thus governs not only his actions, but how he experiences his intersubjective relations. It tells Euthyphro his place in the world. In the framework of fantasy I described in an earlier post, Euthyphro sees himself as “greater than” the objet a he finds attributed to him by the other citizens of Athens. That is, he believes that he is not recognized for the agalma or treasure he truly is and thus must perpetually set forth to prove himself and to unsettle this misperception.

When Lacan says “mange ton Dasein” (“I want to eat your ‘human being’, your sorge or that which is most proper to your being”), we can see how exactly this functions in the dialogue Euthyphro. When Socrates reveals Euthyphro to be ignorant of piety in the dialogue, when he shows his knowledge to be based on a circular, self-referential autopositing of the signifier, he effectively undermines the ontological support of Euthyphro’s fantasy and place in the symbolic order. Euthyphro’s identification with a place in the symbolic, the manner in which he has been hailed or called by this place (the “holy”), thus hystericizes him (“what am I for man and gods?”), leading him to discover within himself his agalma, or that precious substance that distinguishes him from all the others. This identification thus organizes his imaginary relations of rivalry to others (his experience of others as mocking him) and his oedipal relations as well (with regard to his father). The question remains of what real this identification and fantasy functions to obscure.

Socrates is delighted to discover that Euthyphro is an expert in all things having to do with the holy and divine, as one of the charges levelled against him is that of impiety. Eagerly he asks Euthyphro to be his teacher so that he might defend himself. For Socrates this would be a win-win scenerio. If Euthyphro gives him knowledge of piety or the holy, then Socrates will be able to demonstrate that he knows the nature of piety at his trial and will thus be innocent of the accusations against him. On the other hand, if Euthyphro is mistaken, then Socrates will not have been guilty as he will be the victim of a bad teacher and the courts will be required to prosecute Euthyphro for perverting the souls of the Athenians, not Socrates.

This is reflective of a broader Socratic question. For Socrates there is always the recurrent question of “who is the good shephard?” or “Who is fit to be the leader of men?” Lurking behind Socrates’ interrogations is always the question of the political and who is fit to lead. The answer will always be the same: only the wise are fit to rule. As such, Socrates will endlessly interrogate the most respected citizens of Athens, testing to see whether they posses the wisdom they claim to have, or whether their position of power is an imposture, an artifice, like a woman’s make-up. We will see why this thought is so radical and such a scandal later. The genius of Socrates is the manner in which he occupies the position of the analyst with regard to Euthyphro:


That is, Socrates does not contest Euthyphro as objet a, but takes him at his word with regard to the thesis that he knows all things pertaining to the holy and the divine. But in taking him at his word and agreeing to be his pupil, he is able to reveal the split ($) in Euthyphro’s subjectivity. Unlike the citizens of Athens that mock Euthyphro, thereby reinforcing his identity as bearer of an esoteric knowledge and motivating him to defend and prove himself, Socrates instead accepts Euthyphro’s self-conception without question or challenge. As a result, perhaps, there will be a falling away of the master-signifier (S1) or identification that organizes Euthyphro’s intersubjective relations at the level of the imaginary. This will become evident when the two of them come to discuss the nature of the Law.

Socrates clearly expresses his criteria for knowledge towards the beginning of the dialogue.

This Meletus, I perceive, along presumably with everybody else, appears to overlook you, but sees into me so easily and keenly that he has attacked me for impiety. So, in the name of heaven, tell me now about the matter you just felt sure you knew quite thoroughly. State what you take piety and impiety to be with reference to murder and all other cases. Is not the holy always one and the same thing in every action, and, again, is not the unholy always opposite to the holy, and like itself? And as unholiness does it not always have its one essential form, which will be found in everything that is unholy? (5c4-d4)

Euthyphro will have demonstrated that he has knowledge if he can give the essential definition of holiness or piety. The value of such a definition, if one exists, is clear. If, for instance, I know the essential definition of a triangle, then I will never err in recognizing or identifying triangles. It seems absurd to suggest that one could make such a mistake where triangles are concerned, but when we talk about classes such as justice and piety, the issue is more readily discernible. Those things that fall into the class of piety are extremely heterogeneous, including things such as various legal matters, prayer, dance, sacrifice, certain modes of dress, etc. What is it that unites these things together? What is the common rule that identifies them or groups them? If I lack an explicit knowledge of this rule than I risk accidentally excluding certain things from the domain of piety and confusing things that are irrelevant to piety, or, worse yet, actually impious, with the pious. This latter scenario emerges from thinking in terms of resemblances or what is given to the senses, rather than thinking in terms of the intelligible. For instance, Euthyphro is right that we have a pious duty to prosecute those who murder. In the case of his father, the state-of-affairs resembles murder in that there is a dead body. But is this a case of manslaughter or murder? What is given to the senses does not resolve the issue. An intelligible rule of piety would prevent us from making any mistakes.

Hence we get Socrates’ distinction between opinion and knowledge. Opinion lacks the rule or essence that would allow us to reliably identify instances of a kind or essence. For this reason, Socrates compares opinion to the statues of Daedelus and to a blind man who happens to take the right road. Opinions can be true, but the problem is that they lead to inconsistency. If I think in terms of examples rather than intelligible essences, my opinion will be true when the example correctly allows me to identify an instance of a case. For example, if I think of the number “1” through the example of an “orange”, this example, functioning as a rule, will reliably allow me to properly count all round things as one. Yet when I encounter instances of “one-things” that are not round, I might not recognize them as being instances of the number 1. Like the statues of Daedalus that were very fine by dint of being beautiful, but which were so lifelike that they could get up and walk away (thereby rendering them useless), opinions wander all over the place, sometimes leading me in the right direction, yet sometimes leading me to make false judgments. Similarly, in book 6 of The Republic, Socrates compares opinion to a blind man who happens to take the right road. Such is the danger of a teaching that consists of parables and examples, where the noetic dimension of the essence underlying the pattern is never reached.

If there is genuine knowledge of piety, then, wagers Socrates, we should be able to articulate the nature of this rule, common to all instances of a kind. However, if no such rule can be articulated, then talk of piety is a sort of illusion or deception, like Socrates’ famous simulacra at the lowest level of the divided line, and questions of the good and justice should be grounded by other means.

Euthyphro readily agrees to take Socrates on as his student, but things do not begin well and it is not clear that he’s understood Socrates’ criteria. Euthyphro responds by remarking,

Well then, I say that the holy is what I am no doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits a murder or a sacrilegious robbery, or sins in any point like that, whether it be your father, or your mother, or whoever it may be. And not to prosecute would be unholy. And, Socrates, observe what a decisive proof I will give you that such is the law. It is one I have already given to others; I tell them that the right procedure must be not to tolerate the impious man, no matter who. Does not mankind believe that Zeus is the most excellent and just among the gods? And these same men admit that Zeus shackled his own father [Cronus] for swallowing his [other] sons unjustly, and that Cronus in turn had castrated his father [Uranus] for like reasons. But now they are enraged at me when I proceeded against my father for wrongdoing, and so they contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and what they say of me. (5d8-6a5)

What we see here is the function of narrative for grounding the law. For instance, if you want to know why it is an abomination to eat shellfish, cheeseburgers, or wear blended fabrics, then you refer to the story of Moses who climbed a mountain, heard a booming voice, saw God’s ass, and came back down with 613 laws. Narrative thus functions to ground the law and account for the origins of the law.

Socrates points to two problems with this definition of piety. On the one hand, he is uncertain as to whether or not these stories are true. How are we able to ground narrative? Clearly this is a serious issue. Given that Euthyphro is striving to persuade Socrates that such and such an action is his duty, the question of whether Euthyphro finds these stories persuasive is irrelevant. Rather, Euthyphro is obligated to give his interloctor reasons that he might find persuasive. The burden of proof is thus on Euthyphro. Given that he cannot validate these stories his case that such and such an action is the duty of all men is significantly weakened. But moreover, what are we to do in cases where different narratives are at work grounding different laws? What happens in that situation where an Egyptian is arguing with a Greek, both of whom tell different stories. Since the stories themselves cannot be validated, and since the parties involved are absolutely convinced of their narratives, the only way out seems to be violence. Narrative becomes the way of war. Given that Greece is a rocky and craggy place with little more than olives, lemons, and fish, it’s likely that the Greeks would prefer a different way of resolving disputes about how human actions should be coordinated so that they could engage in trade with others. Of course, there’s always genocide as a solution.

According to Zizek,

Fantasy is the primordial form of narrative, which serves to occult some original deadlock. The sociopolitical fantasy par excellence, of course, is the myth of ‘primordial accumulation’: the narrative of two workers, one lazy and free-spending, the other diligent and enterprising, accumulating and investing, which provides the myth of the ‘origins of capitalism’, obfuscating the violence of its actual genealogy. Notwithstanding his emphasis on symbolization and/or historicization in the 1950’s, Lacan is thus radically anti-narrativist: the ultimate aim of psychoanalytic treatment is not for the analysand to organize his confused life-experience into (another) coherent narrative, with all the traumas properly integrated, and so on. It is not only that some narratives are ‘false’, based upon the exclusion of traumatic events and patching up the gaps left by these exclusions– Lacan’s thesis is much stronger: the answer to the question ‘why do we tell stories?’ is that narrative as such emerges in order to resolve some fundamental antagonism by rearranging its terms into a temporal succession. It is thus the very form of narrative which bears witness to some repressed antagonism. The price one pays for the narrative resolution is the petitio principii of the temporal loop– the narrative silently presupposes as already given what it purports to reproduce (the narrative of ‘primordial accumulation’ effectively explains nothing, since it already presupposes a worder behaving like a full-blown capitalist). (The Plague of Fantasies, 10-11)

For Zizek, narrative thus functions to naturalize and cover over the self-referential dimension of the law or the manner in which the law is to be followed not because it is good, productive, and promotes social prosperity, but simply because it is the law. That is, narrative covers over the founding and traumatic violence of the institution of the law by gentrifying it in a network of grounding tales. We shall have to see whether this logic isn’t operative in Euthyphro’s thought with regard to the law, and whether Euthyphro’s fantasy of himself isn’t designed to pacify his castration and the traumatic jouissance he is subject to as a subject of the law.

Second, this definition falls short as it only gives us an example of piety, not the essential features common to all instances of piety. While Euthyphro might indeed be correct in claiming that it is pious to prosecute the unjust, this rule nonetheless is disasterous in that it would lead its follower to ignore all his other pious duties, by only recogning instances of piety where one prosecutes the unjust.

Recognizing the problem, Euthyphro quickly backs up and modifies his original definition, arguing that piety is what is pleasing to the gods. This definition is superior in that it is more general and would thereby cover all instances of piety. However, it again suffers from a few problems. While not mentioned in the text, the first problem is epistemic: How do we determine what is pleasing to the gods? It will be said that this is rendered possible through revelation or sacred texts, but the problem is that these sacred texts are subject to differences of interpretation and it is not clear how, precisely, the rules are to be followed. For instance, when the Bible tells me to honor my father and mother… What, precisely, is honoring them? Should I give them a medal? Should I hold an awards ceremony? How often? Should I always honor them? Are there exceptions? With regard to interpretation, when Leviticus 18:22 tells me “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination”, one reader takes this as obviously being a prohibition against homosexuality, but is this really what this passage says? How can I lie with a woman like a man? Perhaps this prohibition is prohibiting the impossible and we can therefore ask why it is necessary to prohibit that which is impossible. How do we go about determining what the proper interpretation is? So far, hundreds of years of excellent hermeneutic theory have not resolved this issue and so battles wage on.

For Socrates, the serious problem with this definition is that it provides us with a contradictory rule. The gods find different things pleasing, and therefore one and the same act can be both pious and impious in that one and the same act can be pious to one god and impious to another god. This is not restricted to polytheistic religions. As Kierkegaard has demonstrated with regard to the religions of Abraham in Fear and Trembling, these same issues emerge with regard to monotheistic religions. How is Abraham to decide his duty given that he is facing two conflicting commandments from God?

Again, Euthyphro revises his definition and argues that piety is what all the gods love. While the epistemic problem remains, this definition improves on the second as it resolves the contradiction. However, at this point Socrates asks a question that will have a decisive impact on how all subsequent ethical and political theory will be practiced: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy” (10a1-2). It seems to me that this single question embodies the split between the right and the left.

If the good is good because the gods love it, then there is nothing intrinsically good, but rather the good only becomes good by dint of being loved by the gods. As such, we can imagine alternative universes where, for instance, murder is good because this is what the gods love and where one is being immoral by virtue of not loving. One might scoff and say “this could never occur as the gods are good“, but this is to forget that things are only good by virtue of being good and therefore it is only the narcissism of the gods that make them good. In short, there is no higher standard. This is the logic of authority or the logic of the sovereign. It is potentially an act of treason to obey the king because you believe the king to be wise and intelligent, since the king’s authority and power issue simply from his status of being the king. Similarly, when some new age Christians suggest that Jesus should be followed because he says terrific and wise things in the Sermon on the Mount, they do not realize just how heretical their words sound to other variants of Christianity. There are plenty of wise men who say terrific things such as Confucious, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Socrates, Kierkegaard, Kant, Jefferson, etc. What makes Jesus different is not the wisdom of what he says– indeed, the man curses a tree to hell at one point, so even this can be questioned –but simply the fact that he is God. Jesus is to be followed unconditionally by virtue of being God and nothing else. The law is the law and for this reason should be followed.

Clearly it is this first route or option that Socrates rejects, as he discerns within it the founding violence of the law. Rather, the gods, if they love piety, love it because it is good. This choice has massive consequences. First, if this is the case, then it becomes clear that Socrates and Euthyphro have been talking about the wrong thing. Up to this point they have been talking about attitudes of the gods, whereas if it is true that the holy is in-itself holy, then we can cut all talk of the gods out of the picture altogether as they’re irrelevant to what makes the gods holy. The holy here is intrinsically holy. Thus, paradoxically, even if the gods didn’t exist, the holy would still be what it is. Indeed, if this is the case, the atheist can strangely be a very holy man by virtue of acting according to the holy or the good. If the concept of faith were operative in this historical context, Socrates would have clearly sided with works not faith. Indeed, Euthyphro’s focus on the attitudes of the gods rather than holiness itself perhaps gets him further away from the pious in that he is led to focus on stories, prayer, and sacrifice, rather than the good. That is, he confuses glitter with the core of the good.

The question now becomes one of determining what is intrinsic to the nature of the holy. Not surprisingly, the focus of the discussion shifts and the issue is no longer one of the gods, so much as predicates pertaining to the good. Socrates suggests that piety is perhaps a part of justice and then asks what part of justice it would be. Still trapped in his fetish for the god, Euthyphro responds that it is the part of piety concerned with careful attention to the gods. The question then becomes what this attention is. Socrates gives a number of examples where we attend to other things, such as the horse handler to horses or the doctor to patients. In all of these cases, the person who attends to someone else. Is Euthyphro suggesting that we improve the gods by attending to them through sacrifice, prayer, and dance? Euthyphro quickly backs away from this possibility as it suggests that the gods are imperfect and are perfected by humans, which would be a blasphemy.

Euthyphro then backs up and agrees with Socrates’ suggestion that “…holiness would be the science of asking from the gods and giving to them” (14d1-2). Piety thus becomes a sort of trade with the gods or a business transaction. Yet when asked what humans have that the gods could want, Euthyphro is pushed back once again to his second definition: That piety is what the gods find pleasing. In this way, Socrates reveals the ultimate circularity of Euthyphro’s conception of piety, and the manner in which his narratives are designed to occlude the self-referential dimension of his attachment to his identity, or its traumatic and nonsensical nature. That is, the desire of the Other remains enigmatic. Euthyphro does not know why he must attend to the gods, he knows only that he experiences this call, this interpollation, as an unconditional command that he must obey.

But more importantly, Euthyphro has now had an encounter with his own non-knowledge. The S2 in the position of truth in the analyst’s discourse is here operative in the sense that the real knowledge governing Euthyphro’s actions is a senseless superegoic command that the subject is unable to resist. Yet perhaps in encountering his own non-knowledge with regard to piety, with the fact that he is not “agalma in the sense of being different from all other men by virtue of knowing all things pertaining to piety, Euthyphro will be able to separate from the master-signifier and re-evaluate what, precisely he is about to do with respect to his father.

The outcome of this analysis is not clear. Euthyphro, at this point, looks at his watch and quickly leaves, claiming he has an appointment. As Lacan somewhere says, all analysis handles anxiety in measures and there can be little doubt that Euthyphro is here encountering anxiety in having lost his support in the symbolic, the support of his identity that functioned to cover over his being as divided ($). Anxiety is not without an object, and this object is the presence of objet a where the enigmatic void is revealed with regard to the Other. Did Euthyphro traverse the fantasy? We know, from the Apology, that the most standard response to Socrates’ practice of analysis was to transpose their lack back onto Socrates, blaming him for their own impotence. Earlier in the dialogue, when Euthyphro exclaims that Socrates makes his words move all about such that he is unable to say what he knows in his mind, Euthyphro seems to perform such a transposition. Nonetheless, Euthyphro is at the edge of subjective destitution, where a new way of relating to himself and others is possible.