The Euthyphro Dilemma

Charles Spurgeon famously said that “the proper study of God’s elect is God… There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity.”[1] Indeed, examining the nature of God is a challenging task. When we reflect on God’s nature, we, like the apostle Paul at the end of Romans 11, find ourselves drawn to worship. Contemplating God reminds us how feeble we are in comparison to God. The Euthyphro Dilemma is one way to challenge ourselves to think deeply about God’s nature and character.

The Euthyphro Dilemma shows up in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the Euthyphro, Plato describes a fictional conversation that Socrates had with a man named Euthyphro before going to trial. As he’s entering the court, Euthyphro asks Socrates why he’s at the court. Socrates tells Euthyphro that he’s being prosecuted by a man named Meletus. Meletus alleges that Socrates corrupts the young men by teaching them not to believe in the gods of the Greek pantheon. At the time of the Euthyphro, Socrates is about to attempt to answer these charges. He will be unsuccessful and will be sentenced to death.

Euthyphro is at the court for a much different reason. Instead of being indicted, Euthyphro has filed charges against his own father for murdering a slave. Upon hearing that Euthyphro is prosecuting his father, Socrates is taken aback and questions whether this action is just. Euthyphro assures Socrates that he is “superior to the majority of men”[2] and has an advanced understanding of right and wrong. Consequently, Euthyphro knows that he is doing what is right in bringing murder charges against his father.

Socrates then has an idea. He reasons that if Euthyphro is so knowledgeable about right and wrong, perhaps he could tell Socrates where he had erred. Then, Socrates could tell his accusers that he had been reformed by Euthyphro and would thus escape his charges. Euthyphro consents and begins to teach Socrates the nature of right and wrong.

As with the other Socratic dialogues, Euthyphro puts forward a proposition which Socrates proceeds to dismantle. First, Euthyphro says that “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.”[3] Socrates immediately points out that the gods of the Greek pantheon war against one another. These wars do not take place over insignificant matters; instead, the wars between the gods are due to a difference of opinion over what is right and what is wrong. Thus, what is right cannot be as simple as what is loved by the gods. For, one god loves what another detests.

Seeing the error of his initial definition, Euthyphro makes an adjustment. Now, he claims that “the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious.”[4] At this point, Socrates begins an abstract argument about the nature of that which the gods love. He asks whether the gods love what is right because it is right or whether what is right is right because the gods love it. That is, is it right to be honest because the gods love honesty, or do the gods love honesty because honesty is right?

Euthyphro soon says that the gods love what is right because it is right. That is, he claims that piety is something independent of the gods’ approval. When he admits this, Socrates immediately shows him that he has contradicted himself. For, he is now saying that what is right is independent of the gods’ approval whereas he had been saying that what is right is right because the gods approve of it.

Before long, Euthyphro leaves Socrates. Euthyphro claims that he does not have the time to finish their discussion and must leave the question unanswered. Socrates then goes into court where he is convicted and condemned to death.

Though Plato wrote in the context of Greek polytheism, the question the Euthyphro raises is important for Christians as we reflect on God’s nature. In the Euthyphro, Plato points out that the Greek gods are an insufficient basis for morality.

For Christians, the Euthyphro Dilemma challenges us to consider what makes something good. Is honesty good because God says it’s good or is honesty’s goodness independent of God? Neither option is desirable. The former implies that God could designate as good anything he wanted merely on a whim. If the first option is true, does that mean that God could’ve made torture good? The second option is not any better. If the second option is true, it means that God must adhere to a higher standard than himself. For, if honesty’s value exists independent of God, then that would imply that God must live up to a standard that is greater than he is. Obviously, Christians can’t accept either of these options. God neither assigns moral values at random nor does he follow a standard imposed on him from above.

The Euthyphro Dilemma encourages us to think about God’s nature and character. Why is it that God approves of certain actions while disapproving of other actions? The good news is that this seemingly intractable problem does have a solution. And understanding the solution gives a much deeper and a much healthier understanding of the great God whom we call Father.

Notes & Sources

[1] https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-immutability-of-god#flipbook/

[2] Plato, “Euthyphro,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. and trans. by John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 5a.

[3] Plato, 7a

[4] Plato, 9e

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