Euthyphro and Civic Responsibility

This is the second in a series of four essays on core texts connected to the educational goal of developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.

Martin Luther claimed the value of a liberal arts education was in transforming youth into “wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens,” with classic texts instrumental to such a transformation. Moreover, the notion of a responsible citizen has been foundational to all of secular and sectarian Western education. But what is a responsible citizen? When asked of my students, I usually receive a legalistic response. A responsible citizen is one who doesn’t cause trouble for her neighbor, obeys the laws of the land, secures a designated driver when hitting the town, etc. Essentially, the responsible citizen is a rule follower.

Ironically, faculty members often help the student internalize such an anemic view of responsible citizenship. On one hand, the cultivation of honor becomes synonymous with majors. We habituate students into the ethos of what it is like to be a philosopher, theologian, or biologist. Honor becomes discipline bound, intimately binding its cultivation to a series of disciplinary rules. On the other hand, facing constant pressure from administration, accreditation bodies, departments of education, and the like, the study of wisdom is distilled to skills that can be assessed with formulaic rubrics. Thus, under pressure, we codify our disciplines turning the joys of philosophy, theology, biology, and other fields of study into nothing more than rule-bound packets of knowledge.

It is a fool’s errand to tackle the above issues independently. However, space limitations require I accept such an errand. Therefore, my essay investigates how philosophy becomes educationally professionalized; how it is reduced to rule-bound packets of knowledge. Section one illustrates the problem using Plato’s Euthyphro. Section two examines what I claim is the important message of the dialogue concerning intellectual character. Section three concludes with some thoughts on how a character reading of Euthyphro is more conducive to the liberal arts mission of cultivating wise and honorable citizens.

Illustration of the Problem: Euthyphro

The currency of philosophy is the argument. Thus, introductory philosophy courses typically satisfy university critical-thinking learning outcomes, requiring the student to exercise various cognitive abilities related to argument analysis. Plato’s dialogues provide a nice avenue to introduce students to the art of argument, being at once readable, historically significant, and intellectually stimulating. A natural starting place is the five dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo) surrounding the trial of Socrates, where the entire range of philosophical topics is on display. Plato’s Euthyphro makes an especially promising first dialogue as it engages in questions of faith, reason, and morality, topics all but guaranteed to promote student interest.

Traditional classroom discussions surrounding the events recorded in the Euthyphro follow the ebb and flow of a search for the definition of piety, culminating in the great dilemma-forming question of Socrates, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods” (10a). We dutifully teach the dilemma as a damning piece of theoretical reasoning challenging the need for a religious foundation to morality. It forces a person to choose one of two lemmas,  leaving the theist in a tenuous cognitive situation by denying either divine omnipotence or omniscience. Traversing one lemma leads a person to recognize divinity’s need to seek beyond itself a standard of piety, a recognition of divine weakness. Moreover, the journey down the adjacent lemma suggests a notion of piety grounded in divine passion, entailing a certain arbitrariness to the whole definitional affair.

The standard presentation of the Euthyphro presents a classic epistemological tension for religion. I claim, however, that this standard telling is just the sort of activity helping to entrench a certain rule-bound behavior in our students.

While ostensibly promoting critical thinking, we promote to the student a memorize-able knowledge bundle. Identify the issue, report on the dilemma, and then trace a response or two. Learning outcomes are appeased, grading rubrics are easily managed, and the student “feels” good about the exam while dumping the knowledge the following day.

In essence, our classroom becomes an extension of the student’s high-school experience and, in practice, no different from the professional courses I often accuse of lacking critical content.

A bit of clarification is in order. I am convinced that memorization of basic argumentative structures within texts is important. The standard story is essential to understanding how the dialogue fits into a larger context of general Platonic thought. It is no small feat when a student grasps such basic structures of difficult texts, particularly in today’s anti-intellectual climate. However, I fear that we too often call it a day once the basics are presented. Our skills-oriented outcomes and rubrics allow us to hide behind the fact that we are educating our students according to the necessary conditions required by our university and academic disciplines. We become habituated not to push students in the direction of more sufficient conditions entailing excellent education affecting the formation of their intellectual and moral character. This mentality does disservice to our students by promoting the notion of responsible citizenship discussed in the introduction as well as doing violence to the text itself. This is tragic. Not only is the existential urgency of the dialogue stifled, but we fail to model how the dialogue cultivates the character of a responsible citizen.

Euthyphro and Character

In the person of Euthyphro, we have the perfect typecast of the typical undergraduate student: professionally minded, overly optimistic about his talents, and ultimately unwilling to recognize his faults. This last character trait encapsulates the intellectual thrust of the dialogue, the moral of the story. It appears at section 11b-d, where Euthyphro compares Socrates to the mythic contraption-maker Daedalus, refusing to allow his propositions about piety to stay put: “for I [Euthyprho] am not the one who makes them [propositions] go around and not remain in the same place; it is you [Socrates] who are the Daedalus; for as far as I am concerned they would remain as they were.” This turning point in the dialogue identifies a significant aspect of Euthyphro’s character—intellectual arrogance.

Euthyphro’s sin is not his inability to provide an adequate definition of piety, but that he represents a dogmatic mind, intellectually incapable of seeing beyond his own opinions.

Euthyphro is a theologian by trade and he assures the reader early in the dialogue that he has internalized the requisite norms. He has acquired both the professional ethos and necessary skill set identifying him as a theologian “superior to the majority of men” (5). Euthyphro’s commitment to the norms of his discipline and profession over the possibility that there may be more to life than that profession is troubling. His mind has been conditioned only to understand that which his training allows. When his rules break down, Euthyphro breaks down. This is evidenced by the devolution of the dialogue from this point onwards, ending in his curt departure (15e). Thus, he misses the mark of a cultivated citizen by not exhibiting the requisite intellectual character needed to participate in civic life wisely or honorably.

Euthyphro, Liberal Arts, and Citizenship

I noted in the introduction that my students tend to think of the responsible citizen as one who follows rules. Furthermore, faculty members tend to reinforce this vision through contemporary educational praxis even while engaging with texts such as Euthyphro. While space limitations prohibit my developing a rich conception of the responsible citizen here, a few comments are in order. My intuition is that senses of responsible citizenship will vary across faculties and academic disciplines. One could solicit as many understandings of the terms “wisdom,” “honor,” “cultivation,”and “citizenship”as academic majors exist within the academy. However, I will assume that academics agree that an essential feature of the responsible citizen has something to do with autonomy. The responsible citizen is one who is self-governing, developing her talents and interests as she sees fit so long as she is not harming her neighbors. Effectively, what J. S. Mill discussed as “experiments in living” tempered by a “no harm principle.”

If one is to develop the ability to “experiment in life,” then one must reject the professional equivalent of Protagoras’s famous dictum, “my profession/discipline is the measure of all things.”

My mind must be flexible to recognize my own weaknesses and delight in the diversity and richness of the intellectual zoo we call society.

Euthyphro’s failing has implications for responsible citizenship as it marks Euthyphro’s inability truly to develop a sense of autonomy. The acculturation of his mind, brought on through his professionalization, prohibits him from creatively engaging in “experiments of living.” He is not a genuinely free citizen as he is bound to his discipline as a normative oracle. Thus, his conception of a good citizen is not much different than my students’ conception: a rule follower. Likewise, we encourage the habituation of the rule-bound mind in our students when we present the Euthyphro according to professional standards. Thus, instead of promoting the intellectual character of our students and, subsequently, responsible citizenship, we reinforce the very disposition that we take the dialogue to be struggling against: dogmatic arrogance. We fail in promoting the value of the liberal arts curriculum, which is the cultivation of wise and honorable citizens.

Daniel Deen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Irvine