Socrates encounters Euthyphro outside the court of Athens. Socrates has been called to court on charges of impiety by Meletus, and Euthyphro has come to prosecute his own father for having unintentionally killed a murderous hired hand. Socrates flatters Euthyphro, suggesting that Euthyphro must be a great expert in religious matters if he is willing to prosecute his own father on so questionable a charge. Euthyphro concurs that he does indeed know all there is to be known about what is holy. Socrates urges Euthyphro to instruct him and to teach him what holiness is, since Euthyphro's teaching might help Socrates in his trial against Meletus.
First, Euthyphro suggests that holiness is persecuting religious offenders. Socrates finds this definition unsatisfying, since there are many holy deeds aside from that of persecuting offenders. He asks Euthyphro instead to give him a general definition that identifies that one feature that all holy deeds share in common. Euthyphro suggests that what is holy is what is agreeable to the gods, in response to which Socrates points out that the gods often quarrel, so what is agreeable to one might not be agreeable to all.
Euthyphro's most important attempt to define holiness comes w
Socrates' demand that Euthyphro identify the one principal goal that the gods use us to achieve is similar to his original demand that Euthyphro identify the one feature that all holy deeds have in common. Slowly, through questioning, Socrates brings out the truth--that his interlocutor is in fact totally ignorant regarding this field. Socrates sets up a rather elaborate argument to show that the two cannot be equivalent. Since, according to Socrates, knowledge is the greatest good, his teachings were of great benefit to his students. It is also riddled with Socratic irony: Socrates poses as the ignorant student hoping to learn from a supposed expert, when in fact he shows Euthyphro to be the ignorant one who knows nothing about the subject (holiness). Socrates answers that he is being prosecuted by Meletus--a young unknown with straight hair, a sparse beard, and a hooked nose. But according to Euthyphro's definition, that would mean that those things are both holy and unholy, since they are approved of by some gods and disapproved of by others. Euthyphro, too, is often disbelieved when he speaks about divine matters or predicts the future. What, Socrates asks, is the goal of the gods which we help them to achieve Euthyphro evades the question, suggesting that the gods use us for a multitude of reasons. Rather, we would have an account of virtue first--an idea of virtue that is "tied down"--and could determine the details from there. Socrates urges Euthyphro to start again from the beginning and provide him with a more suitable definition of holiness. It follows from this argument however, that what is holy is something different from what is approved of by the gods. The "divine sign" that Euthyphro alludes to is mentioned also in The Apology at 31c-d and 40a. Socrates points out that people who serve are always being used to achieve some sort of goal: service to a shipbuilder, for instance, is done with the goal of building a ship.