BMCR 2005.09.65

Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito: Critical Essays

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito : Critical Essays.. Critical Essays on the Classics Series. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. 1 online resource (285 pages).. ISBN 9781461640943 $27.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of twelve essays presents us with some of the best recent scholarship on Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito. By paying attention to the literary and the philosophical elements of the Platonic texts, leading classical philosophers investigate a variety of issues, such as Socrates’ revolutionary religious ideas, the relationship between historical events and the Platonic texts, the interplay between politics and religion, and the possible tension between legal and moral ordinances. Kamtekar’s excellent choice of material allows for the presentation of competing views on much-debated issues and reveals the complexity of these dialogues, while challenging the reader to think afresh about old questions and to raise new ones.

In his article, ‘Justice and Pollution in the Euthyphro,’ McPherran shows that Euthyphro combines religious traditionalism with a progressive attitude to piety: he prosecutes his father because he believes, on the one hand, that a murderer who goes unpunished pollutes those who come into contact with him, and, on the other hand, that one should prosecute the wrongdoer on impartial grounds. He convincingly argues that the traditionalist echoes of Euthyphro’s understanding of pollution notwithstanding, miasma may be seen as conceptually equivalent to ‘corruption,’ in the Socratic moral sense, i.e. ‘the psychic pollution of inconsistent and false belief’ (9). Euthyphro, however, is unable consistently to defend the mixture of the incompatible theological propositions he espouses, and thus ‘is revealed to be a source of [psychic] pollution and a potential corrupter of both young and old’ (11).

In ‘Plato’s Euthyphro : An Analysis and Commentary,’ Geach mounts various objections to Socrates’ arguments in the dialogue, the most important of which are the committing of the so-called Socratic fallacy and the lack of a clear distinction between intentional and causal propositions. The former is the common Socratic assertion that being able to know ‘what x is’ is tantamount to being able to give a general criterion for a thing’s being ‘x,’ as opposed to examples of things that are ‘x.’ But, Geach objects, echoing Wittgenstein, ‘we know heaps of things without being able to define the terms in which we express our knowledge’ (25).1 The blurring of the distinction between intentional and causal propositions emerges in Socrates’ argument against Euthyphro’s definition of the ‘pious’ as the ‘god-loved’: Socrates argues that the pious is not the same as the god-loved, since something’s being god-loved cannot be the cause of, but must be caused by, the pious. Geach counterargues that the pious is not the cause of the gods’ loving a thing (causal proposition), but rather the characteristic in virtue of which they love it (intentional proposition).

In ‘Socrates on the Definition of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11β,’ Cohen focuses on Socrates’ response to Euthyphro’s definition of the pious as the god-loved, meeting along the way Geach’s objection in the foregoing article. He shows that the question, ‘Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved?’ makes use of the conjunction ‘because’ in two non-equivalent ways: in the assertion (1): ‘the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious,’ ‘because’ supplies the reason of something’s being loved, while in the assertion (2): ‘the pious is pious because it is loved [by the gods],’ ‘because’ is used to provide a logically sufficient (and perhaps also necessary) condition for something’s being pious. Now, if ‘pious’ and ‘god-loved’ were definitionally equivalent, one could infer from (1) that (1′): ‘the god-loved is loved by the gods because (reason) it is god-loved,’ and from (2) that (2′): ‘the god-loved is god-loved because (logical condition) it is loved by the gods.’ The falsity of (1′), but not of (2′), proves Euthyphro’s definition of piety wrong: its rejection suggests that the ‘pious’ cannot be defined as ‘god-loved,’ if the gods’ reason for loving the pious is that it is pious.

In his seminal article ‘Socratic piety,’ Vlastos defines Socrates’ understanding of eusebeia as the undertaking of actions that aim morally to improve others, a life-long commitment informed by a firm belief in god’s unquestionable beneficence. Socrates’ elenctic mission is thus seen as service to the gods, as the philosopher’s unique way of effecting god’s will by subjecting to critical scrutiny the ethical principles of his fellow-townsmen. Vlastos views Socratic religiosity and intellectualism not as incompatible stances, but rather as mutually reinforcing principles that govern the philosopher’s conduct.

In their ‘Plato’s Apology of Socrates, reprinted from their book by the same title, de Strycker and Slings argue that, on the basis of ancient forensic and epeidictic speeches, Plato’s audience would have expected his Apology to be not a faithful reproduction of his teacher’s actual words at his trial, but a defense of Socrates that would communicate the man’s moral and intellectual values. In the words of the authors themselves, ‘… there is, on the one hand, no single sentence in the Platonic Apology that Socrates could not have actually pronounced, and on the other, that the published work contains no passage so specifically un-Platonic that it cannot be Plato’s work’ (78).

In ‘On the Alleged Historical Reputability of Plato’s Apology,’ Morrison argues, contra Vlastos, Kahn, and Döring, that Plato’s Apology is not a reliable source for the historical Socrates’ philosophy, namely ‘the general propositions he believed in and the intellectual methods he employed’ (106).2 He submits that any effort to attribute specific philosophical positions to Socrates is inevitably thwarted by the scarcity of sources and the difficulty of formulating precise doctrines from biographical anecdotes or contradicting evidence.

Terence Irwin’s ‘Was Socrates against Democracy?’ shows that our available sources suggest that Socrates’ trial had no political dimension: from the fact that his political outlook was in principle anti-democratic it does not follow that he advocated anti-democratic practices. The commonly held perception that he was impious (religious charge) and a corrupter of the youth (moral charge) would have alone justified the prosecution without there being a need to ground it in oligarchic political motivations.

In his article, ‘The Impiety of Socrates,’ Burnyeat justifies the condemnatory verdict reached at Socrates’ trial by showing that Socrates was indeed guilty of not believing in the gods of the city. Apart from two incidental references to Hera and Thetis, Socrates frequently invokes ‘the God’ ( ho theos) as the ‘one’ being that ‘demands a radical questioning of the community’s values and its religion’ (156). Furthermore, the author suggests, in announcing that the virtuous man cannot be harmed by the city, not even if they kill him ( Ap. 30b-c), Socrates comes close to saying that one’s eudaimonia can be secured by one’s own efforts, while divinity’s role is to ‘protect the just … from certain unforeseeable worldly consequences of their own justice’ (156).

In ‘Socrates and Obedience to the Law,’ Brickhouse and Smith suggest an ingenious reconciliation of the apparent conflict in Socrates’ allegiance to divine or legal command, by appeal to Athenian law: the jury could neither legally acquit Socrates and then impose the penalty of refraining from philosophizing on him, nor devise that penalty in defiance of both the prosecution’s penalty (death) and the defense’s counter-penalty (fine), which alone constituted the two viable penal choices available to it. Under these circumstances, there is no conflict between civic obedience and religious piety. Perhaps more radically, the authors contend that there is no conceivable situation in which obedience to the law and to the god may seem to conflict, since it was supposed that ‘the foundations of the legal code were divine in origin’ and that ‘Athenian law directly proscribed impiety, without proscribing particular acts or beliefs’ (170). Thus piety is already built into the legal system and cannot — on pain of creating internal contradiction — be made to clash with legal orders.

In ‘ Dokimasia, Satisfaction, and Agreement,’ Kraut argues against the authoritarian reading of Crito, advanced by Grote, according to which one’s agreement to respect the laws of a certain city, even those one deems unjust, is sufficiently demonstrated by one’s remaining within the confines of that city, in which case self-exile appropriately signals one’s disagreement with the city’s unjust rules. By carefully assessing the dialogue’s evidence, Kraut submits that continued residence is merely one of the many possible signs of agreement, and that public demonstrations of satisfaction, such as having children and making public declarations about the relative merits of cities, are essential concomitants of one’s act of agreement. Furthermore, one can remain in a city and still avoid making unconscionable agreements by publicly communicating his sincere dissent from offensive laws.

Contra Kraut, in ‘The Interpretation of Plato’s Crito,’ Bostock claims that the dialogue advances the authoritarian demand of complete obedience to any and every law, failing successful persuasion. After he has examined the strengths and weaknessess of the alternative interpretations of the arguments set forth by the Laws, he concludes that the Crito is the only one of Plato’s early dialogues to imply the existence of a moral expert and to envision the Laws as that expert qua repository of moral wisdom. In that case, the demands of the law and the demands of morality are in agreement, and, when morality is seen to conflict with a legally authoritative order, the problem lies not with the content of the law but with its wrongful application by unjust men.

Finally, in ‘Conflicting Values in Plato’s Crito,’ Harte claims that the dialogue sets up a conflict between three normative systems: Crito’s, which centers around ‘kinship values’; Socrates’, which determines the justice of an agent’s action according solely to its beneficial or deleterious effect on his soul; and the Laws’, which is close to Crito’s and promotes civic values, primarily those of the political community and secondarily those of family and friends. She further suggests that this conflict has a static and a dynamic aspect. The former consists in the reader’s being provoked to reflect on the relations obtaining among these three systems of value, while the latter is evident in Crito’s dialogic transformation from someone who starts out by embracing his own ethical code and urging Socrates to escape to someone who, at the end, is unable to dispute the Laws’ case against that escape. The remaining conflict of values between Socrates and the Laws suggests that ‘Socrates has no consensus of values … with the political community in which he lived’ (252), and Plato will attempt to resolve this conflict in the Republic.

As this brief summary of the book’s contents shows, Kamtekar has collected essays that deal superbly with the most important issues of the dialogues recording the words and deeds of Socrates’ last days. Her apt inclusion of material with a literary and a philosophical bent will satisfy readers of diverse interpretative agendas. The collection will be read profitably both by those already versed in the dialogues and in the existing scholarship on them and by those interested in seeing for the first time how contemporary scholars have grappled with questions posed by Socrates in three of the so-called ‘early dialogues.’


Mark L. McPherran, ‘Justice and Pollution in the Euthyphro

P.T. Geach, ‘Plato’s Euthyphro : An Analysis and Commentary’

S. Marc Cohen, ‘Socrates on the Definition of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11B’

Gregory Vlastos, ‘Socratic Piety’

E. de Strycker and S.R. Slings, ‘Plato’s Apology of Socrates’

Donald Morrison, ‘On the Alleged Historical Reputability of Plato’s Apology

T.H. Irwin, ‘Was Socrates against Democracy?’

M.F. Burnyeat, ‘The Impiety of Socrates’

Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, ‘Socrates and Obedience to the Law’

Richard Kraut, ‘ Dokimasia, Satisfaction, and Agreeement’

David Bostock, ‘The Interpretation of Plato’s Crito

Verity Harte, ‘Conflicting Values in Plato’s Crito‘.


1. Geach’s objection to the ‘Socratic fallacy’ has spawned a great deal of literature. See, among others, H. Benson, ‘Misunderstanding the “What-is-F-ness?” Question,’ Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 72 (1990) 125-42; J. Beversluis, ‘Does Socrates Commit the Socratic Fallacy?’ American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1987) 211-23; and A. Nehamas, ‘Confusing Universals and Particulars in Plato’s Early Dialogues,’ Review of Metaphysics 29 (1975) 287-306.

2. The authors’ theses, against which Morrison argues, can be found primarily in the following works: G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Ithaca 1991; C. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: the philosophical use of a literary form Cambridge 1996; and K. Döring, ‘Sokrates, die Sokratiker und die von ihnen begründeten Traditionen,’ in H. Flashar (ed.), Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie: Die Philosophie der Antike, Band 2/1 (1998), 141-364.