What makes us moral? (The Euthyphro Dilemma)

In a lesser known book of Plato, we find Socrates in the Athenian Agora coming across Euthypro – a soothsayer he knew well – and the two men engage in a short conversation just outside the Royal Stoa. After sharing their news, the two men engage in an argument about morality.

Their conversation ended abruptly after Euthyphro felt a bit cornered and found an excuse to leave Socrates with the promise to finish their discussion some other time. Well… Can you blame him? It’s not just that Socrates wouldn’t let go easily… It’s also that the challenge Euthyphro was facing was a difficult one and remains so up until today.

Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something is moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? This simple question of Socrates has exercised tremendous influence in the history and study of morality.

The Royal Stoa was where the King Archon had his office. He was the official responsible (among others) for religious matters

The Euthyphro dilemma is technically an argument against the divine command theory, aimed at disproving God’s existence by raising an issue of morality. This isn’t of course explicitly declared by Socrates but I’m sure people like Epicurus would smile and nod when reading this part of the book. On the other hand, some religious people reject it as a ‘false dichotomy’ (google that) but this is actually up until today a persisting problem which also applies to meta-ethics.

Relax… We’re not going to embark on this now. I’m going to focus on an interesting detail that is somewhat irrelevant: the place that this conversation took place. Would you believe that we can pinpoint today the spot that Socrates was hanging out when he met Euthyphro?

Remains of the Royal Stoa today, outlined with red

 

Let’s see how the dialogue starts…


Euthyphro: Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the Royal Stoa? Surely you cannot be concerned in a suit before the King Archon, like myself?

Socrates: Not in a suit, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.

Euthyphro: What! I suppose that someone has been prosecuting you, for I cannot believe that you are the prosecutor of another.

Socrates: Certainly not.

Euthyphro: Then someone else has been prosecuting you?

Socrates: Yes.

Euthyphro: And who is he?

Socrates: A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.

Euthyphro: No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?

……………..

The conversation goes on. So, as we read, this dialogue takes place just outside the ‘Royal Stoa’ (Basileios Stoa). Guess what. -This stoa was excavated by American archaeologists and the traces of the building are there today! The first steps of the stoa have been unearthed.

Few passers-by today notice that quiet corner next to the busy Adrianou street but -unknowingly- countless people have had their drinks next to those same steps that Socrates was sitting, waiting for his turn outside the Royal Stoa.

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