Alfarabi on Euthyphro: Religion and Happiness

ConversationAlfarabi’s comment on Euthyphro (Εὐθύφρων), despite its brevity, I think, is extremely important for understanding his Plato. Alfarabi’s view about Plato’s corpus is anti-developmentalist, i.e., he does not hold the view that Plato’s philosophy develops or progresses from the early to later dialogues. Alfarabi talks about “philosophy of Plato” and understands it as a unified philosophy that is guided by some fundamental interrelated questions. Alfarabi thus explains this unified philosophy in his Philosophy of Plato. To him, each dialogue pursues certain aspects of the guiding questions. To Alfarabi, Plato’s major philosophical inquiry evolves around a central question about the possibility of perfection of man or happiness.

            Euthyphro is a dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutor Euthyphro, a priest, about the definition of piety or holiness (τὸ ὅσιον) that takes place in the court. Socrates asks his interlocutor the reason for which he appeared in the court. He tells Socrates that he has brought a charge of manslaughter against his father whose neglect has caused the death of their worker. The worker earlier had killed one of their slaves, so his father tied the worker and put him in a ditch then sent someone to a priest to decide what to do with the worker. In the meantime, the tied worker dies in the ditch (3e-4e). Expressing his shock, Socrates asks him if bringing charges against his father would be an act of piety. Socrates himself is in the court since there is a charge of impiety against him. Because Euthyphro claims that he knows what piety is, Socrates expresses his willingness to learn from Euthyphro in the hope that he will be able to use Euthyphro’s knowledge of piety and impiety to assist him in defending himself against the charge of impiety. However, it is extremely doubtful that Socrates believes that Euthyphro posses this knowledge.[1] To Socrates, if Euthyphro does not have sufficient knowledge of piety, then he cannot defend prosecuting his father as an act of piety. To know whether his act is pious or not first he needs to have a robust knowledge of piety. It seems that Euthyphro, prior to his conversation with Socrates, is confident that he has the knowledge, specifically the divine knowledge, which he thinks, supplies knowledge of piety. Euthyphro’s knowledge-claim about piety problematizes the notion of piety for Socrates; hence, he wants to test Euthyphro’s knowledge-claim of piety. Along with the former inquiry, he wants to know if Euthyphro’s knowledge, or knowledge-claim, of the divine is sufficient to know whether prosecuting his father is pious or impious.[2]

Euthyphro, as a priest, is supposed to know the meaning of piety, perhaps, better than anyone else. However, he is puzzled with Socrates’s cross-examinations of the various definitions of piety that he presents. The fact that he has no clear definition of the notion, which is in the core of his profession, is another attempt from Socrates’s part to show that many knowledge-claims are in fact unjustified beliefs, and how people’s practices are based on false beliefs, a fact that disqualifies them for the job that they perform in their society. Socrates’s whole profession is to reveal to the belief holders how their knowledge-claims are baseless. Revealing ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, and philosophic dialogue serves this purpose the best, to Socrates. Throughout his dialogue with Socrates, Euthyphro presents several definitions of piety that get rejected by Socrates. Euthyphro in one instance defines piety as what is dear to the gods and impious as what the gods hate (9e1-2). Socrates problematizes this definition of piety by saying, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or it is pious because it is being loved by the gods?” (10a2-3). After revealing Euthyphro’s flawed definitions of piety at the end of dialogue, Socrates does not present a definition of piety, and Euthyphro is left with his puzzlements about the nature of piety and whether what he does is an act of piety or not. However, Alfarabi sees the purpose of Euthyphro as a dialogue about the adequacy of religion to supply the knowledge required for happiness. Alfarabi maintains that Plato’s position is that religion is inadequate to supply the knowledge of happiness.

In Philosophy of Plato, Alfarabi makes the reader believe that 1) The true happiness is possible 2) The knowledge that leads to this happiness is possible and accessible to us 3) The approach that leads to this knowledge is philosophical inquiry. He rejects that religion can supply the knowledge necessary to happiness. About Euthyphro, Alfarabi says, “He [Plato] began to investigate whether religious speculation and the religious investigation of the beings supply this knowledge and that desired way of life; and whether the religious syllogistic art that conducts this kind of investigation of the beings and the ways of life supplies this knowledge, or does not supply it at all, or is not adequate for supplying this knowledge of the beings and this way of life. It became clear to him, further, how much knowledge of the beings and knowledge of the ways of life is supplied by religious investigation and the religious syllogistic art, and that the amount they supply is not sufficient. All this is to be found in the Euthyphron (the name of a man)—On Piety” (PP sec.12).[3]

It is a charming interpretation of Euthyphro. In fact, it is not only charming, but it explains the role of the dialogue and its relevancy among Plato’s corpus. As Alfarabi mentions, piety is the subject of the dialogue that Socrates has with Euthyphro who is a priest and therefore he supposed to know the meaning of piety better than anybody else. Contrary to our expectation, Euthyphro has an inadequate knowledge about the central notion of his profession. However, Alfarabi reads more to the dialogue and sees the priest as the embodiment of the religious knowledge that is incapable of supplying the sufficient knowledge that true happiness requires. Alfarabi through this interpretation of Euthyphro alludes to the inevitable tension between religion and philosophy. The tension arises from the fact that each one claims to possess the knowledge and way of life that produce happiness. To Alfarabi, the way of religion and the way of philosophy never meet. He expands on this latter point in his discussion about the state of religious knowledge and philosophical knowledge in the soul. This latter point requires another inquiry and space. However, what is clear is that he attributes to Plato the idea that religion cannot supply the sufficient knowledge that happiness requires. The crucial point about Alfarabi’s interpretation of Plato is that medieval thinkers often expressed their own ideas in their commentaries on other thinkers, mostly Plato and Aristotle that had the most authority in their intellectual context. It also is true about Alfarabi. We can say with high confidence that it is Alfarabi’s belief that religion is inadequate to supply knowledge required for the true happiness. Alfarabi sees Socrates’s criticism of the Greek gods expandable in content and applicable to Islam and perhaps to all Abrahamic religions. Unlike Plato in Euthyphro, his critique is not limited to the justice of gods, but it is about religions’ capability to realize happiness. What both Plato and Alfarabi shares is a belief about the limit of divine knowledge to supply knowledge about concepts, such as piety for Socrates, that are central to religions. In this respect, a philosopher, as far as he believes in the limit of religious knowledge and questions the generally accepted opinions about divinity, is impious in the eye of the multitude.

Another important point we need to make with respect to Alfarabi’s view on religion is that he does not say that religion does not supply any knowledge regarding happiness at all, but he says that the knowledge that religion supplies is inadequate for achieving happiness only. Religion supplies the knowledge for those who are incapable of doing philosophy. It is this inadequacy of religion that makes it subordinate to philosophy.

Amin Sophiamehr


[1] It does not mean that Socrates possesses the knowledge of piety or impiety, but it is certain that, to Socrates, the commonly accepted beliefs about piety, and many other notions, are false.

[2] Socrates says, “Whereas by Zeus, Euthyphro, you think that your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety, is so accurate that, when those things happened as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?”(4e4-7).

[3] Alfarabi’s tone in his Philosophy of Plato is such that to persuade the reader that the perfection of man is not only possible, but also the knowledge and art that brings about this realization is accessible to us. For instance, in sec.22, he describes Plato beliefs that the knowledge produces true happiness is philosophy and the way of life that leads this happiness is political art. However, Philosophy of Plato’s structure and sequence of arguments as well as the hints that Alfarabi gives in the same work cast doubts on these possibilities.


Alfarabi. 2001. Alfarabi: Attainment of Happiness, Philosophy of Plato, and Aristotle. Translated by Muhsin Mahdi. Ithaca, NY: Cornel University Press.

Plato. Euthyphro. In “Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Pheado.” Second Edit. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2002.

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