Socratic Piety

“You were on the point of doing so, but you turned away. If you had given
that answer, I should now have acquired from you sufficient knowledge of the
nature of piety.”(Euthyphro 14c) To understand why Socrates was tormenting
Euthyphro throughout this dialogue and why he considers himself to be “the
god’s gift to you”(Apology 30e), it is necessary to first examine what
Socrates himself believes the nature of piety is. Through a careful analysis of
Socrates’ own words in the Euthyphro, Apology, and Protagoras, it is possible to
come to a concrete conclusion of what Socrates viewed the virtue of piety to be.


If we can accept Socrates’ contributions to the Euthyphro, then he believed that
piety was some sort of service to the gods, like a craftsman helping the gods to
produce something good. (Brickhouse and Smith 66) The problem with this
definition is that Euthyphro never suitably elaborates on what it is exactly
that a pious person is able to produce in serving the gods. His finally
ejaculates the almost laughable “many fine things, Socrates”(Euthyphro
13e) in an attempt to ward off any further questions making piety almost seem as
some kind of system of exchange between the gods and men. Socrates believes that
piety is not “an art of commercial exchanges between gods and men”
since the gods require no gifts from us while we are in need of the gifts they
have to offer. (Vlastos 174) Furthermore, Socrates rejects Euthyphro’s attempts
to define piety as something dear to the gods. Piety does not depend on any
outside influences like the love of the gods or the way anyone feels about it.

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It has its own identity restricting any interpretation by men or gods. (Vlastos
165) From these clues dropped in the Euthyphro, it can be concluded that
Socrates viewed piety as some kind of constant behavior outside of the
influences of men or gods. Piety also can be loosely thought of as some sort of
service that men perform for the gods, but to what end has yet to be discovered.


When Socrates endeavors to explain himself in the Apology, a much more coherent
picture what he believes piety to be comes into view. In defending himself
against the charges of Meletus in regards to his impiety, Socrates claims that
he is serving the god and therefore is not impious in his philosophical mission
because he was ordered to do as he has done. (Brickhouse and Smith 66) To
appreciate how this mission is truly pious and why Socrates believes it to be,
one must examine the god that Socrates refers to. For Socrates, the gods are not
deceitful and wish the best for the Athenians. In this wishing the best, they
need an agent, namely Socrates, to try and make people examine their own beliefs
in order that they may come to better ones and by doing so come to gain wisdom.

(Vlastos 173-74) Turning now to the Protagoras, we can come to learn what the
nature of this wisdom that Socrates attempts to gain and teach is. Through a
long and drawn out argument with the sophist Protagoras, Socrates argues for the
unity of all virtues through wisdom, which is defined as true knowledge of good
and evil. If one is in possession of such wisdom, then one will not be able to
ever make a choice that goes against what virtue demands. Basically what
Socrates tries to get across is that through gaining wisdom alone, an individual
may gain an understanding of every other virtue as well. Wisdom is therefore the
source of piety amongst the others. Now armed with this image of wisdom, we may
couple it with Socrates’ mission and his belief of the god. If the god were
truly wise, as Socrates believes him to be, then he would be guided by a clear
knowledge of the virtues. If this is the case, the god, wishing the best for
mankind which does not possess this wisdom, would desire to teach man in order
that mankind might better itself. The problem is that the god is not able to
simply appear to all men and bestow upon them this wisdom. They require an agent
to go about to the people to attempt to coerce them into examining their
beliefs. Socrates claims to be such an agent. (Vlastos 177) Finally, a clear
understanding of Socratic piety can be surmised from the information contained
within these three dialogues. Piety is the way in which one gives aid to the god
in promoting wisdom in other human beings. (Brickhouse and Smith 68) Ironically,
when Socrates tells Euthyphro that he was on the verge of disclosing the true
nature of piety, he was not lying. Euthyphro, through his poor attempts to
instruct Socrates on the nature of piety, was in some way almost being himself
pious. The fact that he could not connect his own attempts with the result of
trying to better other men led to his confusion and lack of ability to answer
coherently. Socrates is in many ways offering a radical view of the true nature
of piety. A virtue that at the time had been held to be some set of rules
concerning mans behavior in regards towards the gods now became a more mortal
virtue in how to make mankind itself more god-like. (Vlastos 176) Further,
Socrates claims he truly is not a pious person and to illustrate this calls once
again upon the idea of a craftsman. Knowledge of a craft does not necessarily
make one a practitioner of that craft and only a truly pious person is able to
flawlessly reproduce their craft. (Brickhouse and Smith 67-68) Although Socrates
never concretely states what he believes piety to be, one can piece together his
interpretation through the Euthyphro, Apology, and Protagoras. Piety is allowing
yourself to be the agent of the wise god in order to help make other men wise as
well. Socrates sees this as his mission and believes that he is being somewhat
pious through his actions though he claims that he does not have the true sense
of piety. The reason for this denial of possession stems from piety’s place
amongst the virtues and the unity of them through wisdom. A true understanding
of piety stems from a clear understanding of good and evil and to have that
understanding is to have wisdom. That the Athenians had a man who, even knowing
he didn’t have something, tried to help others attain it, is truly a fact which
one should consider a “gift from the god”.

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