The Sacred Text archive lists Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo by Plato as separate dialogues, which they are, they are of the same narrative to be included as study in sequence, as has been done for some time (e.g., the Penguin edition of The Last Days of Socrates). Expressed in dialogue form, they provide some of the most insightful moments in philosophy on the issues of religious piety, virtue and the role of conscience, justice and the notion of a social contract, and the nature of the soul and mortality. "The use of God in the singular is a reflection of the interest of Greek philosophy to discern generic essences from particular cases e.g., Athena, Zeus, Hermes etc are Gods - what is their common "God-essence"?

The dialogues begin with Euthyphro, featuring Socrates and Euthyphro, who is known as a religious expert in Athens. They met at the porch of King Archon on legal business; Socrates has been impeached for corruption of the youth and impiety. For his part, Euthyphro shows the universal conviction of his moral character by charging his own father for murder of a dependent labourer. Euthyphro's family are angry with him, accusing him of impiety.

Always ready for such a conversation, and in particular given the circumstances, Socrates questions Euthyphro on what exactly piety and impiety are. He questions whether Euthyphro really believes the fantastic stories about the Gods, to which Euthyphro replies (in what Plato seems to be showing a little wry humour here, and not for the only time) that he believes in all the tales "and things more wonderful still..." and offers to tell Socrates some of these. Socrates says that "you shall tell me them at some other time when I have leisure"; apparently he has a more pressing concern.

Returning to the issue of piety, Euthyphro offers a definition that piety "is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them". But Socrates counters that the Gods are known to have human characteristics; they quarrel, they engage in treachery against each other, they are in conflict. What is loved by some gods is hated by others, which suggests that there is still no definition for piety. Notably even if one takes a monotheistic approach to the question it still remains, for human beings are required to interpret the divine texts, and they differ on the interpretations, and sometimes murderously so.

Nevertheless, Euthyphro argues that whilst the Gods may vary in the details, in principle they agree that they are opposed to evil and injustice. Socrates agrees and elaborates this point and notes that it should be then, that which is pious and holy is beloved of the Gods because it is holy, and not because it is beloved. This is quite a stunning claim, now known as Euthyphro dilemma, as it makes quite explicit that what is good is a notion independent of the Gods themselves. Some theologians (e.g., the Islamic Mu'tazilah) argue that God cannot do wrong, which is problematic for claims of omnipotence; Aquinas argued that not even God to change the Ten Commandments, suggesting that these are a higher and independent standard of moral reason that divine intervention itelf (which can make exceptions in particular cases). How he escaped the stake for that one is a wonder of history. For nontheists the dilemma means that at best, the Gods are but a transmitter of moral reason, at worst (for them) they are not needed at all.

In contrast there have been some theologians who have taken the opposite point of view; both Luther and Calvin, for example, argued in favour of divine command theory (and damn the consequences), You shall not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22:18) and whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death (Exodous 31:15). Descartes argued that God is so powerful that laws of logic can be breached; circles with unequal radii, triangles with more that 180 degrees etc. Whilst these may have logical consistency with the claim that God is omnipotent, it also creates a situation where God is inaccessible to human endeavour. As Galileo Galilei famously remarked in one of his letters; "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

Socrates then explores the idea of a specialisation of labour and the associated crafts; such specialisation benefits and improves. He asks, given that the pious and holy are specialists for the Gods, what do the Gods gain by holy acts? Euthyphro responds in the same manner that servants show their masters, and Socrates says in some ways it resembles transactions - we offer prayers and they provide interventions. Euthyphro argues instead that piety is what is pleasing to the Gods, but not beneficial to them. So Socrates finds himself still unable to define what is pious. He asks Euthyphro again, but he has other business to attend to and will discuss the matter another time. Again, Plato's wry humour is noted. Socrates will not have "another time".

Review for the New Seminary