MADISON – In the Euthyphro, one of Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates travels to the Athenian court to defend himself against trumped-up charges that he has corrupted the city’s youth and does not believe in the gods. Just before he gets there, he has an encounter that sheds powerful light on what may be US President Donald Trump’s most important shortcoming.
As Socrates approaches the court, he runs into his friend Euthyphro, a young man who is on his way to the same place to prosecute his own father for the slaying of another man. Euthyphro tells Socrates that he believes he is doing the right thing, because, regardless of whether a killer belongs to one’s own family, or whether a victim is a relative or a stranger, wrongdoers who are guilty of a crime must be punished. Euthyphro insists that the gods will approve of his action, because he is doing what piety demands.
But Socrates, being Socrates, turns Euthyphro’s explanation into a larger discussion about the nature of piety itself. Socrates is convinced that Euthyphro would not prosecute his own father without being absolutely certain that it is the pious thing to do. And yet, to Socrates’s mind, Euthyphro can have no such certainty unless he knows for sure what piety is.
Euthyphro’s efforts to define piety ultimately fail to withstand the scrutiny of Socrates’s probing questions; he does not really know what piety is after all. The Euthyphro ends with its title character beating a hasty, cowardly retreat after abruptly claiming that he has more pressing matters to attend to.