Socrates and Euthyphro run into each other in the Agora, Athens’ central market, as Socrates is going to the courthouse and Euthyphro is leaving it. Euthyphro asks Socrates what he is doing there, and Socrates tells him he has been indicted by the young and unknown Meletus for corrupting the young and impiety. Socrates speculates that Meletus must be a good man for caring so much about the youth. Euthyphro protests, insisting that Socrates is a good man falsely accused, so Meletus must be bad. Socrates replies that Meletus believes Socrates makes up new gods and doesn’t believe in the old ones.
Euthyphro says he, too, is often laughed at for knowing divine truths. Socrates believes their particular problem arises because they try to teach their own wisdom and not someone else’s. Euthyphro then confesses he is prosecuting his father for committing murder. One drunken servant killed another, so the father bound the first servant and left him in a ditch until a seer could tell what should be done with him. Unfortunately, the bound man died of starvation and cold before the seer came.
Even though Euthyphro is thought to be impious for bringing charges against his own father, he claims to be morally superior to others for recognizing a wrong. Socrates says he will become Euthyphro’s pupil, because he has knowledge of the divine. This marks the beginning of the true dialogue.
To start, Socrates asks Euthyphro to define pious and impious. Euthyphro answers simply that prosecuting wrongdoers is pious and not prosecuting wrongdoers is impious. As an example, he tells the story of Zeus binding and castrating his father for eating his sons. Socrates has trouble accepting god-stories as truth, so he asks for a definition of what is pious and not an example.
Euthyphro states that what is dear to the gods is pious, and what is not dear to the gods is impious. Socrates rebukes that by saying that when the gods fight, it is over what is just and what is not just, which is exactly what humans fight over. All agree that a wrongdoer should be punished, but the problem is deciding who the wrongdoer is. Socrates is not convinced that Euthyphro is justly prosecuting his father.
Furthermore, Socrates wants to know how the gods decide what they love and what they don’t. And it doesn’t logically follow that something pious is loved because love creates piety. The cause and effect are reversed, and the scope of love is bigger than the scope of piety. For example, a number is not always odd, but all odds are numbers. And fear does not always contain shame, but all shame contains fear. They still have no good definition of pious, just a few descriptive qualities.
Going back to the previous statement that piety is prosecuting wrongdoers, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain what part of justice is piety and what part isn’t. Euthyphro states the justice that cares for the gods is pious, and the rest of justice takes care of men. Socrates then shows that to care for something is to make it better, and gods most certainly don’t need to be improved.
Euthyphro rephrases his statement to replace “cares” with “services.” Socrates would like to know, at this point, what services the gods might need from us. Euthyphro says that prayer and sacrifice are pious, which Socrates boils down to begging and giving. So piety, then, is trading with the gods. Socrates is pretty sure the gods don’t really need our gifts, to which Euthyphro replies that they need our reverence.
Socrates brings the argument full-circle. He concludes that pleasing the gods through honoring them is the same as making them love us. Like in the beginning of the dialogue, piety is equated with being loved by the gods. Socrates gives Euthyphro the chance to try again, but Euthyphro refuses to continue the argument and runs off. Socrates is left with no answer.