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Framing Socrates: The Euthyphro and the Phaedo as Literary Context for the Apology

Ethan Schwartz

Villanova University

This paper argues that the Euthyphro and the Phaedo work together literarily to contextualize Socrates’ relationship with Athenian religion in the Apology more consequentially than is usually recognized. The question of the literary, philosophical, and chronological relationships between Plato’s dialogues remains lively and contested. A classic critical view is that the dialogues constitute a spectrum reflecting Plato’s gradual development away from the views of his teacher and toward his own philosophy (e.g., Vlastos 1991). More recently, advocates of a synchronic approach have argued that Plato structured the dialogues (or some subset thereof) according to a protreptic pedagogical goal (e.g., Kahn 1996) or an overarching narrative thread (e.g., Zuckert 2009). Still others have preferred to see each dialogue as a self-sufficient philosophical and literary exercise (e.g., Wolfsdorf 2008).

Without attempting to answer whether Plato’s whole corpus reflects an architectonic structure, I argue on a more local level that there is evidence to support reading the Euthyphro and the Phaedo as a literary frame for the chronologically earlier Apology. The three texts have an obvious dramatic connection: all are set around (or during) Socrates’ trial, creating a large-scale narration of his final days. A more subtle affinity, however, is thematic: all three prominently take up Socrates’ complicated relationship with official Athenian religion. In the Apology, he answers a charge of impiety by appealing to Delphi. Within the dramatic sequence, this concern is introduced in the Euthyphro, where the interlocutors attempt to define piety, and resumed in the Phaedo, where they debate the fate of the soul after death.

I argue that these dramatic and thematic affinities intersect in two specific claims. First, Socrates’ philosophical critique of conventional Athenian piety is in fact true piety itself. The Euthyphro presents Socrates’ questioning as a genuinely pious counterpart to Euthyphro’s false pretense (see, e.g., McPherran 1996). The Phaedo thematizes this contrast between authentic and inauthentic piety by appropriating and transforming the language of mystery cults (see, e.g., K. Morgan 2010; M. Morgan 1990). Second, Socrates pursues this philosophical piety out of genuine desire to serve the gods. The Euthyphro implies that philosophy is “care/service” (θεραπεία) of the gods because by fostering individual human goodness, it assists the gods in their ordering of the world (see, e.g., Taylor 1982). The Phaedo resumes this theme, presenting philosophy as a process of liberating oneself from the body as a false ruler—only to reenlist oneself in service to the true rulers, the gods, as Deborah Kamen has compellingly shown (see idem 2013). In these ways, Plato uses a dramatic frame to recontextualize his teacher’s response to the charge of impiety in the Apology. Socratic philosophy is not subversive of piety itself; it is subversive because it is piety itself. Without reifying this as the single purpose of the Euthyphro and the Phaedo, I argue that it does suggest that Plato imagined them together with the Apology as a kind of “macro-dialogue” addressing Socrates’ relationship with Athenian religion—and its significance for Plato’s understanding of philosophy.

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