Beyond Euthyphro: The Socratic Irony with Continual Reference to Kierkegaard

Beyond Euthyphro: The Socratic Irony with Continual Reference to Kierkegaard
by Michael Szul on 2008-04-30 09:27:48
tags: euthyphro, irony, kierkegaard, socrates

Euthyphro: a tale of epistemology, a tale of dialectic regard for piety and impiety, a direct and sudden tale to bring a stunning point across. On the surface, this may be one's first impression of Plato's short play. Further examination, however, reveals that not only is Euthyphro much deeper than originally anticipated, but that it's true purpose does not lie in defining piety. Instead it proceeds to define one's own personal knowledge of oneself.


a. The use of words to express something different from, and often opposite to, their literal meaning.
b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.
c. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.
d. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.

In order to fully grasp the monumental effort put forth by Socrates in Plato's work to assert personal realization of oneself, we must first take a trip forward in time to the early nineteenth century and present a brief synopsis of the forebearer of subjective truth: Soren Kierkegaard.

Soren Kierkegaard is known as the grandfather of existentialism, and it was he that first delved deeply into the depths of subjective truth, and uncovered just how this truth (which could not be communicated) was actually transferred. It was Kierkegaard that first came up with what he called The Theory of Indirect Communication.

For Kierkegaard, there were two truths: objective and subjective. Objective truths are those that can be universalized, whereas subjective truths are thoughts related to one doing something. Kierkegaard argued that the most important truths (i.e. existence, morality, etc.) could only be subjective ones. Subjective truths are lived through actions; and if these subjective truths ever changed, you would become a different person (Palmer 36). An objective truth such as “all whales are mammals” will not change who one is if it ever were discovered that this were false; however, a subjective truth such as “God is love” is something that isn't expressed in one's knowledge as much as it is expressed in one's actions (Palmer 37). If one believes that God is love, then it shows up in the things that one does. Therefore, if this subjective truth were ever to change, it would clearly affect one's entire being, and show up in one's actions.

With the importance placed on these subjective truths, Kierkegaard spent most of his writing career pouring out work after work that was filled with contradiction and irony in the vein of Socrates in order to parlay his form of indirect communication. In fact, Kierkegaard's doctoral thesis was entitled The Concept of Irony: with Continual Reference to Socrates (Kierkegaard 127).

Kierkegaard, being a devoted Christian, established the basis of indirect communication with examples from the teachings of Jesus. Through parables, Jesus teaches lessons that lead to varied interpretations, and sometimes contradictory interpretations at that. This is because Jesus' teachings are tailored to the individual and carry no real concrete universal meaning. Jesus' method of communication is unbalancing (Palmer 25). It destabilizes the smug complacency that stands between the individual and the truth (Palmer 25). The listener to the parables is forced to confront the full paradox of these lessons, and thus is forced to confront his or her self (Palmer 25). Jesus' most important work was his revelation of these parables, which often contained paradox, ambiguity, and irony as contained within the Evangelical Gospels and the more parabolic Gospel of Thomas.

Socrates in Euthyphro is stirringly similar in his technique to the Jesus of the Gospels. One key saying of Jesus is that the kingdom of Heaven is within you and all around you, you just don't see it. This is not something that can be pointed to and then suddenly you're aware of it. This is something that must be experienced and lived. Jesus knew this, so when people asked what the kingdom of Heaven was like, he never gave a straight answer. He would give allegories, and sometimes even contradictory examples, depending on the individual (The kingdom of Heaven is a mustard seed; it is a crop; etc.). The person's foundation of objective truths is shattered because there is no objectivity to the kingdom of Heaven. They give up and are forced to look within themselves for the true answer, a subjective one – one that is experienced.

Essentially, Jesus uses an example of indirect communication that is transmitted through allegories, whether for the masses or for the individual. Two other example of indirect communication include the individually tailored teachings of Confucius, as evident in his Analects, and the paradoxical teachings of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.

The Confucius Analects are communications between members of Confucius' circle, often with Confucius himself delineating the potent answers to his younglings' escalating questions. These answers were not coal to burn the steam engines of society. They were not universal maxims. Often these teachings had different wordings and different meanings depending on whom Confucius was addressing at that time. He addressed the individual. To address the individual is to forgo the universal implications of the transference of knowledge and to instead focus on the transition of the individual to a more developed intellectual state. Chapter twenty-one of Book Eleven of the Confucius Analects gives a clear example of the individual care given by Confucius: “Kung-Hsi Hwa said, 'Yu asked whether he should carry immediately into practice what he heard, and you [the Master] said, 'There are your father and elder brothers to be consulted.' Ch'iu asked whether he should immediately carry into practice what he heard, and you[the Master] said, 'Carry it immediately into practice.' I, Ch'ih am perplexed, and venture to ask you for an explanation.' The Master said, ' Ch'iu is retiring slow; therefore, I urged him forward. Yu has more than his own share of energy; therefore, I kept him back.'” (Legge 244).

Furthermore, Taoism is probably one of the foremost purveyors of indirect communication, even more so that the parables of Jesus. The passages of the Tao Te Ching are often filled with paradoxical phrases that take the qualities of yin and yang and superimpose them upon one another to formulate and artistic impression that can never truly be taught. It can only be experienced. Words can never portray the exact beauty and meaning of the Tao, yet Lao Tzu certainly tries. Yet his explanations are abstract in nature. He places great emphasis on the unknowability and unteachability of the Tao, but he does his best to work his way around the outskirts of this “darkness” and explain first, what the Tao is not, and then what the “Master” is like. Remember, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”, but Lao Tzu does spend the pages of the Tao Te Ching trying to teach the individual about the workings of the Tao (Mitchell 1). If this first line rings true, then Lao Tzu is not teaching the true Tao. He is not directly communicating the truths of the Tao to the individual. He is forced to use indirect communication and rely on the individual to find the true meaning for himself or herself.

Though Socrates' dialectic method, was the obvious method used in the interrogation of poor Euthyphro during his and Socrates' conversation about piety, there was another more effective method that was used that at first would seem like little more than sarcastic remarks. This technique is commonly referred to as Socratic irony, and is a fourth way of transferring indirect communication (not to mention Kierkegaard's favorite and the subject of his thesis).

Socratic irony is often the term given to Socrates' sarcastic remarks that allow the reader to laugh at the ignorance of those under his gun. Though there is no proof for it, it wouldn't be surprising to note that Plato, the “philosopher-king”, took great liberties with his memoirs regarding Socrates, and that this irony was actually exaggerated by Plato in order to more soundly reveal his teacher's true lessons. Even at that time, we can clearly see that Plato was using this form of indirect communication as a tool to further Socrates influence and communicate his teachings.

Euthyphro is an established introduction to this concept of Socratic irony, though it often gets lost amid the swirling haze of expressions of piety and impiety when the play is read for only its face value. To focus only on these definitions, however, is to lose sight of what Socrates was truly trying to express.

The truth is, the definition of piety was never really in question. Both Socrates and Euthyphro knew what piety meant (or in Euthyphro's case, he had a conceptual idea - we all have trouble sometimes explaining certain meanings to people even though we understand the meaning ourselves). If all that was at stake was the meaning of a word, merely semantics, would not Socrates have just stepped in and corrected Euthyphro's semantic choice? Euthyphro knew what he doing, and he knew why he was doing it. He was steadfast in his reasoning and professed his expertise in theological matters and his righteousness in the eyes of the gods. Socrates was not there to question the words of the man. He was there to question the man himself. It was a case of Socrates' famous adage that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates forces Euthyphro to question himself and the knowledge that he has been taking for granted. The true purpose of Euthyphro is to turn the accusations of one's ignorance towards presuming to know something back upon oneself; and to put oneself on trial so that one may uncover the subjective truth within, a truth that often barrels down on our preconceptions of just what we think we know.

How does one proceed to know oneself? Is it at all possible for another to teach one about oneself? No, this is not a plausible scenario, for to know oneself is to uncover the subject truth within. This subjective truth is inherent in the individual and is not something that can be taught. If one cannot learn one's subjective truth from another then how is this communicated if one needs guidance? We've already seen this occur in the examples of Jesus, Confucius, and Lao Tzu. It revolves around the concept of indirect communication.

The most stirring use of indirect communication in Socrates' teachings comes with the Allegory of the Cave. This is an instance where a simple allegorical story is more effective than just straight lecturing. Socrates relays this story about the reality of knowledge in order to show his pupils that what they think they know and what they really know are two different things. They live in a world where a constant veil is pulled over their eyes; however, being taught this truth about their knowledge isn't enough to break through the veil, for this is a subjective truth and must be experienced. They have to become that prisoner in chains and eventually experience the blinding brilliance of the sun themselves in order for that veil to be rend. Of course, this blinding brilliance is a clear reference to the philosophical truth of inherent knowledge, which must be discovered by the individual and cannot be solely taught. Self-discovery is the only way to truly learn something, for it never becomes a part of oneself until one is able to relate it to his or her life.

Euthyphro is a segregated and singular example of indirect communication through the use of irony. Socrates performed in the same way that Jesus did, when we examined him earlier in his attempts at relaying the presence of Heaven. Though Socrates wasn't so much concerned with the ontology of Heaven as he was with epistemology. What does it mean to know something?

Our examination begins with almost the very first communication between Socrates and Euthyphro. Before they even get into the subject of piety, when Euthyphro asks who has brought charges against Socrates, he replies with a truly ironic statement about Meletus, his accuser: “Of all our political men he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way, with the cultivation of the virtue in youth; he is a good husbandman, and takes care of the shoots first, and clears away us who are the destroyers of them. That is the first step; he will afterwards attend to the elder branches; and if he goes on as he has begun, he will be a very great public benefactor” (Plato 428).

Obviously Socrates does not view Meletus as a great public benefactor, nor does he believe that Meletus is right in attacking the “destroyers of the youth”, especially since Socrates was grouped among them. And he definitely doesn't believe that Meletus is cultivating virtue in any way or in any one. This is pure and deliberate irony that is intentionally stated by Socrates because it is a direct reflection of Euthyphro. Meletus perceives that he is in the right (that he knows what is right to begin with), and prosecutes Socrates. Euthyphro, though he condemns Meletus for his attack on Socrates, is accomplishing the same thing by prosecuting his own father. In fact, it is Euthyphro that is “attend[ing] to the elder branches.”

It then becomes Socrates' turn to discover why Euthyphro is present. He soon discovers what was stated above; that Euthyphro is in the process of pursuing charges against his father for murder. Socrates is astounded by this revelation and proceeds to throw a compliment in Euthyphro's direction: “By the powers, Euthyphro! How little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to this” (Plato 429).

Socrates is not truly complimenting Euthyphro, though Euthyphro does accept this statement as just that. He believes that he is a man with great strides in wisdom; but Socrates clearly rejects this and proceeds with an interrogation into Euthyphro's knowledge, which also doubles as an interrogation into Euthyphro's self.

The interrogation in question takes the form of a discussion about the definition of piety. Socrates takes this one small piece of supposed knowledge that Euthyphro claims to have, which at first, defining it seems to be a minimal task, and uses that as the groundwork for which to shatter Euthyphro's conceit about what he thought he knew. It was through logic and the dialectic method that Socrates was able to dismiss Euthyphro's definitions; however, it was through irony that Euthyphro was forced to confront himself. Irony became the key to turning a simple semantical inquiry into a personal journey.

Is it not true that when we are paid a compliment, we dwell negatively on it just a little, and our rationality then tells us whether we deserve it or not? If we are complimented about something that we know to not be the case, are we not forced to examine that aspect of ourselves? Socrates used his mastery of irony to continue to put Euthyphro on a pedestal, never once deviating from this, all the while shattering the very knowledge that Euthyphro was being complimented on.

Socrates put Euthyphro on trial, and as the trial continued, Euthyphro grew continuously flustered. Was this the result of just Euthyphro's inability to define piety? No, Euthyphro's frustration grew not out of his failings with the definition of piety, it grew out of that final spark of realization that the compliments that Socrates was paying him, did not sync with his inability to satisfy Socrates inquiry. He finally realized what was going on, and when the argument over piety came full circle in the end, he abruptly stormed off.

Euthyphro, no doubt, had plenty of self-examination to do after he walked away from Socrates. He was forced to experience rather than speculate, or hide behind objective abstractions. This is the key to subjective truth, and irony remains one of the foremost tools to show this subjective truth through indirect communication. Euthyphro is a prime example (and short introduction) to just such a method; and Socrates was a major influence in the development of this existential concept.

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Soren. “The Socratic Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates.” The Essential Kierkegaard. Ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Legge, James. Confucius: Confucian Analects, the Great Learning & the Doctrine of the Mean. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971.

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Palmer, Donald D. Kierkegaard for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1996.

Plato. “Euthyphro.” Plato: The Republic and Other Works. Ed. B. Jowett. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

Works Consulted

Kierkegaard, Soren. “The Socratic Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates.” The Essential Kierkegaard. Ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Hong, Howard V. and Edna H. The Essential Kierkegaard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Jowett, B. Plato: The Republic and Other Works. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey. New York: McGraw - Hill Higher Education, 2003.

Legge, James. Confucius: Confucian Analects, the Great Learning & the Doctrine of the Mean. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971.

Meyer, Marvin. The Gospel of Thomas. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Palmer, Donald D. Kierkegaard for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1996.

Plato. “Euthyphro.” Plato: The Republic and Other Works. Ed. B. Jowett. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Stevenson, Jay. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1997.