Humanities Moments

Set On a Path by Socrates

Contributed by Thérèse Cory, associate professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University
Socrates
As a college freshman, Thérèse Cory encountered Plato’s Socratic dialogue “Euthyphro” for the first time. Reading Socrates’ exhortations for Euthyphro—a man bringing charges of murder against his father—to articulate a clear and universal definition of piety, Cory realized the extent to which many of us take key terms and ideas for granted. The story ignited her belief that we must discuss and understand one another’s conceptual perspectives in order to live harmoniously together. This intellectual commitment set Cory on her path to become a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

Transcript

As a humanist, you collect a lot of Humanities Moments, but the one I wanted to tell you about is one that’s burned vividly into my mind. And it’s one that’s especially formative, perhaps it’s responsible for the fact that I’m a philosophy professor today.

It happened in my first semester of philosophy class in college. It was Dr. Muller’s class, freshman year, first time I’d ever studied philosophy, and one of the first texts we read was Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates is heading into court where he’s going to be tried for his life. He meets an acquaintance of his named Euthyphro, and Euthyphro is there because he’s prosecuting his father for murder, which is of course shocking for the ancient Greeks. The idea of a son prosecuting a father is impious. It’s completely contrary to the respect owed to parents. But Euthyphro professes that he has a higher responsibility, and he tells Socrates that it’s actually pious to prosecute murderers, whether they’re your parents or not.

Socrates is intrigued by this, and he asks Euthyphro to explain to him what piety is. This is always the catch in a Socratic dialogue—the moment when Socrates gets interested. Euthyphro answers pretty quickly, “Piety is doing as I am doing. That is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or any similar crime whether he be your father or mother or whoever he may be.” And here comes the moment that absolutely stunned me as an 18-year-old. Socrates responds, “Wait a minute, Euthyphro. You just gave me an example of a pious deed, and that doesn’t help me know what piety is. I want you to explain what fundamentally makes this and all other pious deeds be pious. What do they all have in common?”

This was like a revelation. I’d been going through my entire life using these concepts like justice or piety or beauty or goodness or harm to talk about things. We talk about an unjust pay scale or an unjust law or a beautiful painting or a good course of action. We say, “Don’t do that because it’s harmful.” It never once occurred to me that you could ask about the concepts themselves. It’s like I’d been using these word tools all my life and I never asked where they came from or how they worked or whether they were the right tools for the particular job at hand.

This was just an absolutely life-changing moment. There was this whole new layer of reality opening up that I hadn’t even known was there, a whole new set of things to think about. It really was just exactly this Plato’s Cave moment where you’re watching the shadows on the wall and suddenly you get turned around and you see the puppets and you say, “Oh my goodness, the shadows are the effects of something else that’s been behind me out of sight the whole time and now I can see them!” It just completely changed the way I think about life and how I approach having discussions with people. I mean, there’s no point arguing about whether a new rule is fair or not if you haven’t stopped to investigate first if you’re even both using the same concept of fairness. This attention to the level of the concept is just crucial to living together well as human beings, and this was just my first glimpse of it. There’s so much that’s transformative in this dialogue. I always teach it now to my first-year students.

I also wanted to mention this interesting twist at the end of the dialogue that I think is so important for the humanities. Euthyphro gets impatient with the discussion and he’s embarrassed that his off-the-cuff answers keep falling apart under Socrates’s questioning, and so there’s a sad moment at the end of the dialogue where he cuts Socrates off and says, “We're just going to have to have this discussion another time, Socrates, because I’m in a hurry now and I have to go.” Plato just ends the dialogue on this tragic note, because as the reader, you know that Socrates himself is going to be condemned to death on charges of another kind of impiety—for not believing in the Greek gods—in the very next dialogue, and what Plato is telling us is that this impatience with philosophical reflection can be deadly. The most intelligent people in ancient Greek society are going around using concepts like justice and piety without caring enough to really put the time and effort into thinking those concepts all the way through. People die on account of that shoddy use of concepts.

The tragic ending really stayed with me ever since. We want the quick answer, the quick solution. We get impatient with the slow thinking before we can really experience the results, but if we really want to reap the fruits of the humanities, we have to cherish the slow thinking and make time for that patient, enduring, contemplative, questioning look at reality.

Title

Set On a Path by Socrates

Description

As a college freshman, Thérèse Cory encountered Plato’s Socratic dialogue “Euthyphro” for the first time. Reading Socrates’ exhortations for Euthyphro—a man bringing charges of murder against his father—to articulate a clear and universal definition of piety, Cory realized the extent to which many of us take key terms and ideas for granted. The story ignited her belief that we must discuss and understand one another’s conceptual perspectives in order to live harmoniously together. This intellectual commitment set Cory on her path to become a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

Contributor

Thérèse Cory, associate professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University

Identifier

set-on-a-path-by-socrates

Player

Transcription

As a humanist, you collect a lot of Humanities Moments, but the one I wanted to tell you about is one that’s burned vividly into my mind. And it’s one that’s especially formative, perhaps it’s responsible for the fact that I’m a philosophy professor today.

It happened in my first semester of philosophy class in college. It was Dr. Muller’s class, freshman year, first time I’d ever studied philosophy, and one of the first texts we read was Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates is heading into court where he’s going to be tried for his life. He meets an acquaintance of his named Euthyphro, and Euthyphro is there because he’s prosecuting his father for murder, which is of course shocking for the ancient Greeks. The idea of a son prosecuting a father is impious. It’s completely contrary to the respect owed to parents. But Euthyphro professes that he has a higher responsibility, and he tells Socrates that it’s actually pious to prosecute murderers, whether they’re your parents or not.

Socrates is intrigued by this, and he asks Euthyphro to explain to him what piety is. This is always the catch in a Socratic dialogue—the moment when Socrates gets interested. Euthyphro answers pretty quickly, “Piety is doing as I am doing. That is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or any similar crime whether he be your father or mother or whoever he may be.” And here comes the moment that absolutely stunned me as an 18-year-old. Socrates responds, “Wait a minute, Euthyphro. You just gave me an example of a pious deed, and that doesn’t help me know what piety is. I want you to explain what fundamentally makes this and all other pious deeds be pious. What do they all have in common?”

This was like a revelation. I’d been going through my entire life using these concepts like justice or piety or beauty or goodness or harm to talk about things. We talk about an unjust pay scale or an unjust law or a beautiful painting or a good course of action. We say, “Don’t do that because it’s harmful.” It never once occurred to me that you could ask about the concepts themselves. It’s like I’d been using these word tools all my life and I never asked where they came from or how they worked or whether they were the right tools for the particular job at hand.

This was just an absolutely life-changing moment. There was this whole new layer of reality opening up that I hadn’t even known was there, a whole new set of things to think about. It really was just exactly this Plato’s Cave moment where you’re watching the shadows on the wall and suddenly you get turned around and you see the puppets and you say, “Oh my goodness, the shadows are the effects of something else that’s been behind me out of sight the whole time and now I can see them!” It just completely changed the way I think about life and how I approach having discussions with people. I mean, there’s no point arguing about whether a new rule is fair or not if you haven’t stopped to investigate first if you’re even both using the same concept of fairness. This attention to the level of the concept is just crucial to living together well as human beings, and this was just my first glimpse of it. There’s so much that’s transformative in this dialogue. I always teach it now to my first-year students.

I also wanted to mention this interesting twist at the end of the dialogue that I think is so important for the humanities. Euthyphro gets impatient with the discussion and he’s embarrassed that his off-the-cuff answers keep falling apart under Socrates’s questioning, and so there’s a sad moment at the end of the dialogue where he cuts Socrates off and says, “We're just going to have to have this discussion another time, Socrates, because I’m in a hurry now and I have to go.” Plato just ends the dialogue on this tragic note, because as the reader, you know that Socrates himself is going to be condemned to death on charges of another kind of impiety—for not believing in the Greek gods—in the very next dialogue, and what Plato is telling us is that this impatience with philosophical reflection can be deadly. The most intelligent people in ancient Greek society are going around using concepts like justice and piety without caring enough to really put the time and effort into thinking those concepts all the way through. People die on account of that shoddy use of concepts.

The tragic ending really stayed with me ever since. We want the quick answer, the quick solution. We get impatient with the slow thinking before we can really experience the results, but if we really want to reap the fruits of the humanities, we have to cherish the slow thinking and make time for that patient, enduring, contemplative, questioning look at reality.

Collection