Hey Kids, More Euthyphro!

by John Holbo on May 20, 2008

It’s time for my annual Plato’s Euthyphro post! If you recall, I’ve previously kicked around the subject of the legal status of Euthyphro’s case, his proposed prosecution of his father for murder. I did more research and hammered out a draft paper on the subject. I call it “Twelve Twists In Euthyphro’s Case” (PDF). It may be flagrantly overinterpretive, but I think it’s sort of fun anyway: what might have happened had such a case come to trial? It turns out to be surprisingly complicated. The draft is quite polished for reading, but still a bit thin in the research department. I kept expecting to find that someone had already written this paper, but apparently not. If I’m wrong about that, I’d like to know. I’d also appreciate fact-checking by knowledgeable classicists and historians and other people who may know I’m dead wrong about something. I want to add some actual philosophy at the end, too.

I’m not sure who will be interested. I’m writing an (illustrated!) introductory Plato text – three dialogues with commentary (translations by Belle W.) – and this was supposed to slot in there, but this bit’s gotten a bit long and standalone-ish. Still, it seems to me maybe intro philosophy teachers would be curious. Lots of undergrads read the dialogue (mine do). Lots of profs teach it, without having a clue what the workings of the Athenian courts would have really been like (I taught it for several years without asking myself these questions.)

I got a lot out of one book in particular: Athenian Homicide Law in the Age of the Orators, by Douglas MacDowell (1964). The research in it was well-reviewed at the time and, so far as I can tell, does not seem to have been overturned. (It was reprinted in 1999). The only controversial claim of the book is that we can really know nothing about the evolution of homicide law up to this period. Whether it had basically stayed the same since Draco or not. Some scholars think that’s too pessimistic. But I don’t really touch on any of that. If anyone is aware of any errors by MacDowell that I might be in danger of replicating, I would appreciate hearing about it.



matt 05.20.08 at 4:40 pm

_”but this bit’s gotten a bit long”_

Well, I certainly couldn’t have seen _that_ coming!


academic lurker 05.20.08 at 5:52 pm

In the Athenian justice system the Polis is represented by two separate yet equally important entities…

Couldn’t help myself, sorry.


Dan Kervick 05.20.08 at 7:11 pm

As far as his standing to prosecute goes, might it not be relevant that Euthyphro identifies the dead servant as “a dependent of mine”? If Euthyphro’s father mistreated a man who was legally bound to Euthyphro, not the father, than wouldn’t Euthyphro have some sort of claim here?


Dan Kervick 05.20.08 at 7:30 pm

I’m not sure much should be read into the fact that the depicted meeting with Euthyphro just prior to Socrates’s trial would have to have happened at least five years after the events of the murder on Naxos. There are plenty of anachronisms in Plato, some much more egregious than this, with events separated by twenty years or so compressed and reordered. Maybe Plato and his readers were just very fuzzy about times and dates. But I suspect they just had a cultivated tolerance of these kinds of anachronisms when used for literary effect.


John Holbo 05.21.08 at 2:58 am

Dan, I have a short conclusion drafted, which I didn’t include, which concedes the anachronism point. Basically I say that the most one can say is that readers should probably have some idea how the justice system worked and this case provides a convenient occasion for making a quick excursion through most of the relevant stations. So even if Plato didn’t have any of this in mind, it’s still a useful trip. And maybe he had some of it in mind, so it’s worth considering.

As to the Naxos point: it’s true the Athenians were hazy about dates, but they would definitely associated Athenians on Naxos with empire and Socrates’ trial with restored democracy, so I think the immediate reaction to ‘It happened on Naxos …’ would be ‘huh, old case’. Maybe they wouldn’t be clear how old, but it would be clear that Euthyphro was not acting promptly.


John Holbo 05.21.08 at 2:59 am

As to the dependant point: I don’t think it would matter. It just means he was a hired hand. No legal duties would flow from that.


Dan Kervick 05.21.08 at 4:26 am


On the anachronism point, let me make my second suggestion clearer. I am suggesting that Plato and his intended readers simply weren’t overly concerned about historical timeline literalism, and were accustomed to the use of intentional anachronism for dramatic and literary purposes, and would painlessly make a willing suspension of awareness of anachronism in reading dialogues, seeing plays, etc. Those readers who were historically well-enough informed to know that the murder on Naxos would have to have occurred five or more years before Socrates’s trial wouldn’t say. “My gosh, why did Euthyphro wait five years!” They would say, “Oh, I get it. We’re supposed to make believe these events happened around the same time, so that Plato can stage an interesting fictive dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro on piety, the treatment of the old by the young, the credibility of self-styled religious experts, etc.”

On the question of Euthyphro’s standing to prosecute, you’ll have to help me with the meaning of the Greek terms and the legal categories they denote. But I was assuming that when Euthyphro says the murdered man was one of Euthyphro’s “dependents”, that implies that the man was more than a hired hand, but something more like a serf. In this case, wouldn’t Euthyphro have an obligation, or at least a right, to prosecute?


nnyhav 05.21.08 at 4:28 am

Why is it that bad cases make bad law, but good philosophy?


John Holbo 05.21.08 at 5:17 am

“On the anachronism point, let me make my second suggestion clearer. I am suggesting that Plato and his intended readers simply weren’t overly concerned about historical timeline literalism, and were accustomed to the use of intentional anachronism for dramatic and literary purposes, and would painlessly make a willing suspension of awareness of anachronism in reading dialogues, seeing plays, etc.”

I agree, Dan. I should have made my response clearer. I see that this is the case and agree. I am really not claiming much for my reading, but I am claiming this: Plato puts this very complicated case front and center, then rolls on to other things – holiness, definitions and good old ‘do the gods love it because it is good or vice versa’. But maybe there is some point being made by means of the complicated law case. He does go to the trouble of concocting a complicated scenario. So, to give ourselves at least a gestalt sense of what kind of complexities we are dealing with, I’ve worked through them. It may not matter much, but it might matter some. And understanding the system is sort of interesting in itself. So we are in no danger of utterly wasting our time. That’s all I’m really committed to.

As to the dependant case: I’ll look into that. I haven’t really seriously considered that the servant might be more than a hired hand. But I’m pretty sure that there is no category besides actual family and actual property – i.e. slave – that would create a special obligation, or right, to prosecute.


John Holbo 05.21.08 at 5:18 am

“Why is it that bad cases make bad law, but good philosophy?”

Because hard cases are a total mess.


John Holbo 05.21.08 at 5:19 am

To explain further: total mess! what’s not to love?


D Jagannathan 05.21.08 at 6:13 am

Great piece. Ath Pol 57 neatly demonstrates the layers present in the Athenian legal system of the time: religious, political, and familial in a swirl of courts and categories that seem hardly natural to us.

The dead murderer is very clearly a thÄ“s, just a day-laborer who helps out on the cleruchy land, probably not even an Athenian as Professor Holbo points out, and certainly not linked to Euthyphro’s household in the way the man he killed was. I think Plato wants the case to seem utterly outrageous in part because it provokes us to consider the kinship between justice and piety so neatly illustrated by religious crimes and the ire they arouse. The argument that Euthyphro makes for an isonomia that ignores family relations amounts to a vulgarity, and its political overtones are clear. But it also exposes a contradiction: whom should we be angry at and why?


Matt Weiner 05.21.08 at 11:48 am

I’m writing an (illustrated!) introductory Plato text – three dialogues with commentary (translations by Belle W.)

Illustrations by Zoë, I hope?


jholbo 05.21.08 at 2:06 pm

By me. But I should commission Zoë to do a few more.


"Q" the Enchanter 05.21.08 at 2:50 pm

“but this bit’s gotten a bit long”

Is it long because Holbo willed it long? Or did Holbo will it long because it is long?


jholbo 05.21.08 at 4:16 pm

It’s actually not THAT long. It’s 15 pages. That’s a perfectly normal length for an essay. (He said defensively.)


Rob G 05.21.08 at 9:40 pm

Is this about the Champions League Final?


Gene O'Grady 05.22.08 at 12:13 am

Really petty point, but I’d be more comfortable with “archon basileus” (“king archon” is archaic) rather than “basileus.” Basileus makes me wonder why it isn’t translated, archon basileus seems like a technical term.


ben wolfson 05.22.08 at 5:42 am

It’s actually kind of … short.


jholbo 05.22.08 at 11:48 am

Thanks for the kind words, D Jagannathan. And thank you, Ben W. I am gratified that you noticed.


Cala 05.22.08 at 1:08 pm

Is it long because Holbo willed it long? Or did Holbo will it long because it is long?

I don’t know, but after the thing-which-is-carried, there’s always a being-carried thing, and soon we’re comparing everything to flutes and horses and no good will come of it.

This is excellent, John. I’d known enough of the story to gesture at it when teaching the Euthyphro, but the piece really brings out how exceptional Euthyphro’s actions were. Students tend to come into it thinking that it’s more like a case of confessing what your father did to the police and civic authorities.


John Holbo 05.23.08 at 1:41 am

thanks, cala.


potchkeh 05.23.08 at 10:25 pm

Probably a bit late to comment, and I doubt this is an original thought, but I find myself wondering whether the significance of Plato’s choice of particular impiety conundrum here might have something to do with the then-current notion that Socrates was at the heart of an intensely disruptive inter-generational conflict? (See, of course, Aristophanes’ Clouds, and Socrates’ prosecution for teaching new gods/corrupting the youth.)

Only specific thing I’d say is probably at odds with the evidence (though not demonstrably wrong) is the suggestion that that Plato would not have made up this story for fear of exposure to a slander prosecution seems remote. What evidence we have suggests that Athenian slander law at the time was relatively narrow and unlikely to be implicated here.

More generally, I’m just not sure that the fourth century Athenian legal system is quite this susceptible to the kinds of technical, doctrinal arguments you try to apply to it. Such constraints exist, but work much differently than analogous constraints in a modern system with professional jurists, and trying to figure out exactly what Euthyphro could or could not do here doctrinally–and from that, deduce what he thus must have been doing in fact–is awfully difficult, and not just because of the limited state of our evidence. Michael Gagarin’s got a book coming out I think this summer that’s very useful on this, some of the ideas have appeared in article form but I don’t have references on hand (maybe his piece in the MacDowell festschrift that came out a few years ago?).


jholbo 05.24.08 at 7:28 am

“Plato would not have made up this story for fear of exposure to a slander prosecution seems remote”

I wasn’t actually suggesting that he could be prosecuted, just that it might be a bit unseemly. A weak argument, I admit.

As to the second point: I agree that it is quite impossible to try to deduce what must have actually happened in Euthyphro’s case. But I don’t venture an opinion about that in the paper.

I’ll check out the Gagarin. It sounds interesting and relevant.


potchkeh 05.24.08 at 3:18 pm

I see now that the Gagarin book I mentioned (Writing Greek Law) is already searchable on amazon, though it’s not out until next month. Page 209 makes much more clearly than I did the point I was trying to make in 23.3.


jholbo 05.25.08 at 8:17 am

That’s interesting, potchkeh. I’ll definitely get my hands on Gagarin as soon as I can get my library to buy it. ($100 is a bit rich for my budget.) But there is at least one point I would immediately make in response. Homicide trials were – so my McDowell book tells me – much more controlled than the sorts of trials described here: “a litigant had almost total freedom to present his case in whatever manner he wished.” This was true in front of a regular heliastic jury, but not on the areopagus or in front of the ephetai or before the basileus. There was a much stronger requirement that the ligitant stay relevant – I guess that would mean legally and factually relevant. You weren’t permitted to swerve off in the usual ways. But I can’t pretend to know much about htis.


potchkeh 05.26.08 at 4:35 am

Yes, that’s a good point. I suppose it stands to reason that given the heightened procedural complexities in homicide law, procedural questions would be more important/salient and receive some greater scrutiny. But I wouldn’t go as far as MacDowell does, in, say, his self-described “conjectures” on the character of the Areopagos. There’s really no actual evidence for them, other than a handful of self-serving comments in the orators telling the Areopagites how clever they are. And I don’t think there’s reason to believe, as he implies in the discussion of prodikasiai, that the archon basileus had any substantive gatekeeping function (the only attested example of an archon stopping a murder prosecution involved a matter of timing having nothing to do with the case’s merits). The ephetai are murkier still, if they even continued to exist in the fourth century (not nearly as certain as M. makes it out to be).

It will still, in other words, largely be up to the individual bringing the prosecution to decide what course to take, guidance for that choice will be limited, and whether the chosen course is correct or not will be answered by a non-professional jury weighing competing accounts of the facts and the law, not by a jurist focusing specifically and serially on the relevant technical questions. Whether, e.g., the murder here is intentional or unintentional would probably be a question of law decided by a judge in a modern Anglo-American court, with a ‘right’ answer discoverable in doctrine and precedent. In Athens, E. will have to pick one or the other (possibly w/ the archon basileus playing some role), and then do his best to convince the jury–much more softly constrained by technicalities (which is not to say those technicalities won’t play a role in the ultimate outcome). And of course there’s no concept of judicial precedent at all. So even though, e.g., Dem. 54 hypothesizes that a blow, intended merely to harm, that turns out fatal justifies a charge of intentional homicide, this is only of limited predictive value. It tells us that such an approach is within the latitude available, but it does not tell us that it’s the only one available.

I think part of what’s going on is that MacDowell implicitly sees the Athenian dikasterion as a decadent mechanism for enforcing the rule of law. Certainly a common view, going back at least to the Ath. Pol., and understandable from a modern perspective. So the Areopagos, for M., being smaller and (in his view, though I don’t share it) marginally professionalized, is better at the judicial function, part of which is focusing on technicalities. I don’t think–or I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest–that the Athenians shared this view or acted accordingly, at least not in terms of one court or another’s greater ability to apply the law (maybe they would have conceded that the Areopagos is generically ‘wiser’, or something like that).

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