Socrates holds a special place in the ranks of philosophy for having enough wisdom to declare how he can only claim to know that he knows nothing. This statement reflects how the purpose of the Socrates-character throughout Plato’s dialogues serves as an inquisitor to those around him, proposing questions for the sake of establishing clear and concise definitions from his contemporaries, rather than issuing ethical proclamations of his own.
However, it is apparent that through his inquisitive prose, Plato does in fact have Socrates indirectly pronounce several positive decrees on ethical and spiritual matters. The importance of this is best seen in Euthyphro, where just before standing to defend himself against charges of corrupting Athenian youths through impious teachings, Socrates questions the piously motivated actions of Euthyphro by boldly asking whether he knows that a matter is indeed pious because the gods command it, or do the gods deem a matter pious because they recognize it to be pious in its own right. Unbeknownst to Euthyphro, Socrates has really planted a trap, in which any answer given will be unsatisfactory to truly define the origin of piety, dispelling the notion of divine commandments, and indirectly giving credence to the impiety charges that have been raised against him in the dialogue.
The central argument of Socrates’ exchange with Euthyphro is made when Socrates asks of his contemporary, “Consider the following: is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious? Or is it pious because it’s loved?”(Plato, Euthyphro, 10a). Here, Socrates is raising a valid distinction between something that is loved, and something that is loving; the former being defined by the will of a secondary participant, while the letter being defined by its own essence that is merely recognized to be so by a secondary participants. In terms of what is being discussed by Socrates and Euthyphro—is piety loved by the gods because they recognize the nature of what is pious, or because they themselves decide on what is to be considered pious—attention must be given to define what in fact piety is. Namely, do the gods decide what is pious, making their will the defining quality of piety, or do the gods just recognize something to be objectively pious, placing the defining quality of piety independent of the gods’ will? Euthyphro immediately dismisses the first interpretation (10d) on account that it would render piety as an arbitrary impulse of the gods (who often disagree over what is to be considered pious, and occasionally even change their minds on what they previously considered to be pious), which means that piety does not exist as an independent component; nor can a concise definition of piety be established, if it is warrant to change through the whims of volatile and capricious deities. Thus, the only option remaining for Euthyphro is to insist that if a matter is to be called pious it must be universally so (accepted by all the gods), meaning that it must be an essence that stands independent of the gods’ will. Leaving the philosopher with the second option, that the gods recognize something to be pious not because they have deemed it so, but because they are recognizing the independent of nature of piety.
The dialogue continues with Euthyphro ceding that something that is pious is loved because it is pious and not pious because it is loved (10d). Once again, Socrates has cornered Euthyphro, as this explanation is no better than the first in defining what truly piety is. The issue here is that if the gods merely love something pious because they are recognizing its piety, then one must grant the conclusion that there is a standard of piety completely separate–and possibly even above that–of the gods. Therefore to define piety as that which is loved by the gods, serves as no definition at all of what is objectively pious, or as Socrates puts it:
If the god-loved and the pious were really the same thing, my dear Euthyphro, then, if the pious were loved because it’s pious, what’s god-loved would in turn be loved because it’s god-loving; and if what’s god-loved were god-loved because it was loved by the gods, the pious would in turn be pious because it was loved by them. But, as it is, you can see that the two are related in the opposite way, as things entirely different from one another (11a).
The dialogue ends soon after with Euthyphro leaving Socrates without looking to resolve the dilemma. The whole exchange between the two philosophers is more than just a practice in analytics, as Socrates likes to portray his mode of reasoning, but implies something much deeper than Plato is willing to blatantly say in his writings: i.e. the gods cannot be the source of piety.
It is no accident that just as Plato’s Socrates-character is scheduled to defend himself against impiety charges he gets involved in a discussion concerning the definition of what is pious. Although Plato’s other dialogue, Apology, depicts the details of Socrates’ trial, Euthyphro serves as a superb piece of insight for what sort of reasoning might have lead up to the accusations being levied against the philosopher. In Euthyphro, Socrates strongly implies that any divine origins that are likely to be attributed towards piety are unsatisfactory to tell one the actual definition of what it means to be pious, and where this meaning comes from—for the various reasons mentioned earlier. While Socrates does not attempt to positively state what the true essence of piety is, he does successfully conclude what it cannot be. Before the main argument of Euthyphro is presented, Socrates asks, “Could this be the reason / I face indictment, that when people say such things about the gods, I find them somehow hard to accept?”(6b). Hence, from the beginning, Plato seems to be giving little concern to deny the charges made against Socrates. Socrates freely admits that the orthodox characterization of the gods appears to him beyond belief, and hints that they may very well be the workings of poets and painters (6c). This sort of bold heresy spoken by Socrates serves to convey to the reader the amount of seriousness (or lack thereof) that Socrates is giving to his accusers.
After the main crux of the argument between Socrates and Euthyphro has abated, Socrates steps out of character for a moment and tries to define piety as something that is part of what is just (12d). This definition is not meant to be conclusive, or even adequate, but simply a means by which to further engage Euthyphro into the problems of the earlier discussion. However, it is telling that Socrates’ sole attempt at defining piety would have him label it as a subset of something else; deeming it dependent on a greater concept.