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  • Piety, Justice, and the Unity of Virtue
  • Mark L. McPherran

No doubt the Socrates of the Euthyphro would be delighted to encounter many of its readers, offering as they do an audience of piety-seeking interlocutors, eager to mend the dialogical breach created by Euthyphro’s sudden departure. Socrates’ enthusiasm for this pursuit is at least as intense and comprehensible as theirs. We are told, after all, that he will never abandon his quest for knowledge of “what the pious is” (15c–16a), since not only is this enterprise both pious and “inconceivably happy” (cf. Ap. 41c3–4) in itself,1 but coming to understand piety would allow one to “live better the rest of one’s life,” (15e7–16a4), especially should its continuation be threatened by a charge of impiety (3b–d, 5a–c, 12e, 15e–16a).2 My own search here is no less happy and ambitious, since I wish to uncover Socrates’ own, implicit understanding of piety and its relation to his claim elsewhere that “the virtues are one.”3 The account of this I shall provide will also touch on Platonic piety, although this notion obviously rests on a tendentious distinction. Nevertheless, there do seem to be some interesting differences between the way piety is treated in elenctic dialogues such as the Euthyphro and Protagoras, and the more explicitly theory-laden, constructive works such as the Republic and Laws. I shall later characterize [End Page 299] these differences, primarily in terms of the more carefully articulated, internalist moral psychology of the Republic.4


The distinct phenomena the term “religion” popularly designates for us were for the Greeks seamlessly integrated into everyday life. Thus, it is natural that the term “piety”—εσέβεια—carried a wider sense than our English equivalent commonly does: it concerned not only one’s immediate relation to the gods—emphasizing proper religious conduct and carrying a sense of respect and fear towards divinity (concomitant with a grasp of one’s own mortal limits)—but also often designated appropriate behavior towards parents, native land, and the dead.5 It is to this rough, inclusive conception of piety that Euthyphro appeals when confronted by Socrates on the Porch of the King (2a–6a). Moreover, and despite his own shockingly irreverent attempt at father-bashing and the subsequent elenctic drubbing he then receives from Socrates, toward the close of the dialogue Euthyphro still manages to envision piety in the quasi-traditionalist fashion with which he began—as “a knowledge of how to ensure the preservation of families and states by gratifying the gods through proper prayer and sacrifice” (14b; cf. 14c–15c).6 It is, however, precisely [End Page 300] at this dramatic juncture (14a–c) that we find—arguably—the final elements of a Socratically-acceptable conception of piety; one that builds upon Euthyphro’s initial concession to Socrates that piety and “human justice” are to be distinguished from one another (11e–12e). This, in turn, is a move that in principle forces Euthyphro to disengage from those aspects of the traditional conception of piety which would—from Socrates’ perspective—conflate the two.7 Recent challenges to this reading, however, have seen in Euthyphro’s initial holism not the heterogeneous presumptions of popular thought, but a semi-sophisticated grasp of the Socratic unity of the virtues.8 And since it does appear that the character Euthyphro is designed to serve not only as a hubristically-inflated, Homeric “fundamentalist,” but as an odd and Sophistically-influenced doppelgänger of Socrates as well—a lesson, that is, in what Socrates both is and is not—it now seems worthwhile to reexamine the view that Socratic piety is but a part and not the whole of justice.9

Turning to our text, then, we discover that following the failure of Euthyphro’s initial definitional attempts to specify the nature of pious action and the resulting aporetic interlude, Socrates is willing to offer Euthyphro renewed assistance (11e1–4). This he does by asking whether all the just is pious, or whether justice is broader than piety such that piety is then merely a “part” (μóϱιον) of justice (11e4–12e5). Subsequent to his explanation of these alternatives, Socrates...


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