There be dragons!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Plato Euthyphro Naxos and all that


The prosecution which the interlocutor in Plato's dialogue "Euthyphro" is exacting reveals little if taken merely as fact. Harold Tarrant in his notes to the dialogue suggests that


Debate continues as to whether the historical details (of Naxos) are plausible. The large Aegean island of Naxos would appear to have been outside Athenian control since 404 B.C. If so, then one must explain the judicial delay (of Euthyphro's father) or posit either anachronism or the total invention of the story by Plato. (Hugh) Tredennick favoured this last possibilityer. There are grave doubts as to whether such a case could have any hope of success under Athenian law.

Indeed, were Plato to be taken literally, it would seem very unlikely were Euthyphro to be in Athens to plead a case concerning an event in Naxos. But Plato isn't writing literally he's writing literature and in that myth-making process (mythopoesis) he uses references, tropes, and allusions which those who are attentive will perceive.

Every name, place, event, word in the dialogues is carefully chosen by Plato to effect the contemplation about that "third way" which the indefinite dyad proposes. Consequently to look at some of the details of Euthyphro's own account would be necessary for understanding. Euthyphro tells Socrates that he is prosecuting his own father; an act which immediately amazes, or appalls, Socrates and which, should his suit be successful, would place Euthyphro something akin to a parricide. The account he gives is as follows;


Now the man who is dead was a poor dependent of mine who worked for us as a field labourer on our farm in Naxos, and one day in a fit of drunken passion he got into a quarrel with one of our domestic servants and slew him. My father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch, and then sent to Athens to ask of a diviner what he should do with him. Meanwhile he never attended to him and took no care about him, for he regarded him as a murderer; and thought that no great harm would be done even if he did die. Now this was just what happened. For such was the effect of cold and hunger and chains upon him, that before the messenger returned from the diviner, he was dead. And my father and family are angry with me for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting my father. They say that he did not kill him, and that if he did, dead man was but a murderer, and I ought not to take any notice, for that a son is impious who prosecutes a father. Which shows, Socrates, how little they know what the gods think about piety and impiety.
Taken as literal, or even as merely a spring board into the philosophical debate that follows, the story is easily dismissed. Daddy did wrong, Euthyphro is prosecuting. Yet the details of the case seems suspicious and cast dispersion on the possibility of Euthyphro's severe prosecuting to the full extent of the law.
  • First, the man he is prosecuting is his father, who in psychological terms represents the god, the giver of life, the distributor of law and the authority figure of the estate.
  • Second, the man daddy Euthyphro is accused of "murdering" was himself a slave who in the ancient world would have had no legal rights. Slaves were property and they owed their life or their death to their master. To some extent their very existence was owed to the largesse of their owner who could dispose of them as he saw fit.
  • Third, this particular slave was a known murderer having slit another man's throat in front of witnesses. The trial, consequently, would have been merely a formality.
  • Finally, binding and throwing an accused man into a ditch was, from all evidence, fairly customary in the ancient world. There were no "jails" as we know them and no police force to whom one could deliver an accused criminal. Subduing the accused and putting him in a safe (for himself and others) place such as a ditch, a stable, a well, or a basement was how it was done.
Euthyphro's father, therefore, has not acted outside the law; he did not go on any murderous rampage nor did he neglect the murderer in order to kill him. In our current legal system he might, at most, be convicted of manslaughter or gross negligence.

But again, the story is not meant to be taken only on the literal level. Mythologically, the slaves are the human race who, like the ungrateful servant in the parable of Jesus, take their debt to the god for granted and kill one another. The "punishment" meted out to the murderous servant represents the punishment meted out to the god who becomes seemingly absent to the man who has committed such heinous crime. Euthyphro assumes, then, the false position of being son to the god - he fancies himself the son of god, pleading the case of the mistreated servant (now dead) in order to assault the father. He is like the human who, seeing the seeming injustice of god defies, rebels against and ultimately tries and executes god. "God is dead," says Frederich Nietzsche's character, "we have killed him."

In order to add piquancy to the mythological situation Plato makes a bold reference to two prior myths by the setting of this vignette. Naxos was first the island whereupon Rhea hid Zeus from his cannibalistic father, Chronos. Zeus, raised on Naxos to manhood, returns with lightning to challenge his father and overthrows Chronos, seizing the throne and exiling his dad and the other Titans to the ditch of Tartarus. So the first reference conjured by the setting of Naxos is of a divine fatherly "prosecution" and parricide.

But perhaps the most salient reference is the one to Ariadne on Naxos. In the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the young hero is sent down into the subterranean labyrinth to confront the man/bull out of nightmare. Part animal, part human he represents in a nightmarish way the dilemma of human existence; are we divine or are we a highly evolved animal? Minotaur lives in the center of this dark, impossible maze, breathing ice and devouring human victims sent down to him as tribute from Athens. The labyrinth is the mind, soul, "nous" in Greek, and entrance into it is like entrance into the underworld - an examination of self and the nature of what it means to be human. Entering such an examination one frequently finds all nightmares; man is vicious, brutal, bestial, horrid. Reviewing the barbarity of man to man, the inconceivable cruelty which we inflict on others, can lead us to despair - we are no more than beasts, there is no soul, there is no afterlife, heaven, or god. We are trapped down in the tomb-like darkness and the nightmare eats our human innocence. But Theseus, the heroic element, confronts the nightmare beast with the aid of a sword given him by Αριάδνη, Greek for "most holy". After killing the nightmare he finds his way out of the tomb using the clue, the thread, she has given him to unwind. Holding tight to this string of gossamer he makes his way slowly, step by step, out of the darkness of the tomb/labyrinth and back into the light, air, freedom - resurrection.

Love has brought him back.

To abandon that person to whom he owes everything, Ariadne, would be an act of terrible ingratitude. The same ingratitude exhibited by the man placing the god on trial; or by Euthyphro putting his own father on trial.

What, then is the middle way? What is the middle path which ought, Plato hopes, to emerge from the Euthyphro dilemma? If we are to entertain the two seemingly opposed positions (the god subordinate to the holy, or the holy subordinate to the god) do we begin to see a middle route? Is there a clue to find the way out of the two hemispheres of the brain? The dialogue Euthyphro never completely offers an answer because the interlocutor, mr. right-minded must descend in order to attend to some "very important business" leaving Socrates, and us, like Ariadne on Naxos saying

οἷα ποιεῖς, ἑταῖρε. ἀπ᾽ ἐλπίδος με καταβαλὼν μεγάλης ἀπέρχῃ ἣν εἶχον,

"Alas! my companion, and will you leave me in despair?"

And thus the whirligig of time brings about his revenges.


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