Honestly, I chose to do Plato’s Euthyphro in one of my classes because it’s short and we didn’t have a very big slot on the syllabus. It came as a shock to me, as I read the work over for last week’s presentation, that this dialogue is a little masterpiece.
Just one point is suitable to raise in the present small space. Euthyphro perfectly represents a type of well-educated, somewhat pampered, under-occupied, morally pretentious young person. As Socrates (answering to the charge that will end up costing him his life) waits outside the law courts with the lad, Euthyphro explains his own business. He’s there to charge his father with homicide. The case is clouded, involving a servant who got roaring drunk, killed another servant, had to be restrained while the authorities back in town were consulted, and seems to have died in his bonds due to inattention. Euthyphro treats his dad’s conduct like straight-up cold-blooded murder. Indeed, he is so eager to demonstrate to one and all his transcending, impartial application of moral standards without any regard for the transgressor’s personal status that one must wonder if he hasn’t painted his father’s criminal negligence in darker colors than it deserves. Perhaps the drunken killer drowned in his own vomit… but that wouldn’t give Euthyphro an occasion to display his high-minded disinterest and utter devotion to pure principle. Though Socrates subtly implies that the young man bears more than a passing resemblance to Meletus, the holier-than-thou firebrand who accuses the old philosopher of corrupting Athens, all that Euthyphro can see is that he, like his persecuted teacher, is being martyred for daring to adhere to the truth.
This kid reminds me ever so much of certain exhibitionists in our society (young, more often than not) who have an insurmountable need to be martyred in a cause. Of course, they would crumple like tissue paper if presented with real martyrdom: theirs is entirely a matter of sound and fury. They see the racism with which the rest of us criminally conduct our daily lives; they see our sexism, our greed, our insensitivity to the poor, our hypocrisy at claiming to believe in a supreme moral being. If we were sincere, we would be like them (though, if we were like them, they would have to find yet another way of creating distance between their lofty plateau and the vulgar mass). We could try to point out to them the complexities of the situation: that indiscriminate charity invites exploitation and indigence, that cultural friction can hardly be racism since race is genetic while culture is taught, and so forth. All such parsing of the issues is just carping and equivocating. They know what we really are… because they know what they need us to be. We must be the squalid, two-faced scoundrels that leave paragons like themselves gleaming in bright contrast.
This is true even—perhaps especially—when we are old enough to be their parents. We don’t deserve any respect: it was our generation that made of the world the mess that it is. And so they consign us to the dustbin as they irresistibly and inevitably age into arrogant, self-righteous ideologues whose orthodoxy emanates from the presumption of their own infallibility.
It’s some small comfort, I suppose, to discover that these same annoying people existed even in the days of Socrates.