The author presents in his introduction the aim of this book: to give a synthetic image of Socrates’ piety, as Plato conceived it, by an attentive analysis of two Platonic texts, the Euthyphro and the Apology of Socrates.
The book is divided in four parts: 1. The Introduction (pp. 9-20); 2. The Euthyphro — The Philosophical Debate on Piety (pp. 23-90); 3. The Apology of Socrates — The Philosophical Modus Vivendi as an Illustration of the Pious Life (pp. 93-232); 4. Final Considerations (pp. 235-258).
In the first part, the author gives all the necessary information to help every reader to understand the particularities of the subject. He summarizes the way Greeks conceived piety in general: respect, not only towards gods but also towards other highly esteemed persons or institutions, such as parents or homeland. Another crucial point is the cautious way one has to read the Platonic work, which is never a direct exposition of the philosopher’s ideas, but the dramatic presentation of many points of view.
The second and the third parts contain the author’s detailed commentaries on the two dialogues.. According to Solcan, in the Euthyphro we witness the confrontation of three different positions on piety: the traditional one (represented by the accusers of Socrates and the parenthood of Euthyphro) and two original conceptions, of which only the Socratic one is really coherent and acceptable. The fact is that, in spite of his self-confidence (ironically supported by Socrates), in matters of piety, Euthyphro doesn’t finally seem capable of giving a satisfactory definition of this subject. Therefore, Euthyphro’s contribution in the dialogue is as a dramatic contrast to the philosopher’s original ideas on piety. I find this point of view quite plausible.
The Euthyphro doesn’t adopt any single theoretical definition of piety, but there are some elements of the subject that may be indirectly understood, like the attribution of true knowledge about what is pious to the gods themselves and the relativity of all human understanding of it, as well as the stress on pious action, which should reveal a theoretical understanding.
The Socratic position is more clearly presented in the Apology, where the philosopher shows the way he put piety to practice all his life. According to Solcan, Plato, in his free reconstruction of the apology of Socrates tries not only to refute the accusations, one of which is impiety, but also to reverse the situation by proving that the philosophical work of Socrates and indeed his whole life is an example of true piety in practice, a “divine mission” contributing essentially to the whole city’s well-being.
D. Solcan offers an extended commentary on this text also, in order to examine critically all the questions it raises. For Plato Socrates is “the only truly pious person”, “the only true teacher” and the most excellent Athenian.
In fact, according to the “Final Considerations”, Socrates’ conception of piety, as presented in the two dialogues, is a radically innovative one. The philosopher does not abandon the traditional divinities, but refuses to accept the validity of the lex talionis, suggested by the current mythology. Socrates’ moral theology accords perfect wisdom and goodness to the divine beings, as well as benevolence towards humans. The ritual exchanges between gods and humans, founded traditionally on the belief that there should be a certain equivalence of give-and-take ( do ut des), become for Socrates an act of confidence, accepting the better knowledge of the gods about what is the best for us to receive from them. Socratic piety is not only based on rational and irrational theoretical principles, but is essentially turned towards action. The life of a philosopher who dedicates himself to becoming better (as gods themselves wish us to become) and tries to help the others to ameliorate themselves morally also is the highest expression of piety, as it helps gods themselves to accomplish their task concerning human beings. Justice and goodness provide the common supreme law for the divine and the human spheres.
Solcan notes that the Euthyphro and the Apology present the Platonic version of Socratic piety at a period when Plato was still very close to the ideas of his master, whereas later dialogues show that he redefined his position on piety. But to demonstrate that Plato’s ideas on piety undergo an essential change over the course of his career would require one to take under consideration all the relevant passages, and this is not attempted here. This makes the title of the book too general compared to what it truly offers, which is more clear in the subtitle. Solcan has written two very interesting, complete and solidly founded commentaries on the Platonic texts.