Law and Order

Plato, Euthyphro 4b-4e.


The man who was killed by your father, is he one of your relatives? . . . 


 . . . The man who was killed was a dependent of mine. He worked for us when we were farming in Naxos. Drunk and in a rage, he himself had killed one of our household slaves.

In response to that, my father bound his hands and feet, threw him in a ditch, then sent a man to an expert in rites and expiation to find out what needed to be done. In the time that passed, my father cared little about the bound man. He neglected him as a murderer. It didn’t matter if he died. 

And that’s the very thing that happened. Hunger, cold, and the fetters took the man’s life before the messenger returned from the expert in rites and expiation. 

My father and other relatives are now furious that I’m prosecuting my father for the murder of a murderer.  They say my father did not kill him, and  even if he had killed him, I should not attend to the murderer’s death because it is profane for a son to prosecute his father for murder. 

A few observations about the facts of the case, but from the perspective of law rather than philosophy: 

  • “Drunk and in a rage”: Athenian law punished voluntary and involuntary homicide differently. In Laws, Plato argues that if the act were committed in anger but without premeditation it should be regarded as involuntary (Laws IX.866d). Being both drunk and angry would underscore that the worker lacked the rationality necessary for a voluntary action.   
  • “He neglected him”: Euthyphro implies his father had a duty of care towards the restrained man, and his failure to fulfill that duty was the proximate cause of the man’s death. Like the drunk and angry worker then, the father too stands accused of an involuntary act. 
  • “Sent a man to learn from an expert in rites and expiation”: Here the father is differentiated from the angry drunk and likened to Euthyphro. The father sought the advice of an expert in rites: he’s eager to avoid the pollution associated with his slave’s death (as the head of the household the slave presumably is ultimately his).  Similarly, Euthyphro is prosecuting the case against his father in order to avoid the pollution associated with his own dependent’s death. (Note that Euthyphro describes the slave as “ours” but the worker as “a dependent of mine”.)

Individual responsibility for removing pollution associated with specific deaths (father for slave, Euthyphro for worker) is central to the account. 

  • “Other relatives”: Like Euthyphro and his father, the relatives are concerned about right action. But, theirs is the primitive perspective: they do not differentiate between voluntary and involuntary action; or if they do, they believe that involuntary action is no action at all.


ἔστιν δὲ δὴ τῶν οἰκείων τις τεθνεὼς ὑπὸ τοῦ σοῦ πατρός; 


ἐπεὶ ὅ γε ἀποθανὼν πελάτης τις ἦν ἐμός, καὶ ὡς ἐγεωργοῦμεν ἐν τῇ Νάξῳ, ἐθήτευεν ἐκεῖ παρʼ ἡμῖν. παροινήσας οὖν καὶ ὀργισθεὶς τῶν οἰκετῶν τινι τῶν ἡμετέρων ἀποσφάττει αὐτόν. ὁ οὖν πατὴρ συνδήσας τοὺς πόδας καὶ τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ, καταβαλὼν εἰς τάφρον τινά, πέμπει δεῦρο ἄνδρα πευσόμενον τοῦ ἐξηγητοῦ ὅτι χρείη ποιεῖν. ἐν δὲ τούτῳ τῷ χρόνῳ τοῦ δεδεμένου ὠλιγώρει τε καὶ ἠμέλει ὡς ἀνδροφόνου καὶ οὐδὲν ὂν πρᾶγμα εἰ καὶ ἀποθάνοι, ὅπερ οὖν καὶ ἔπαθεν· ὑπὸ γὰρ λιμοῦ καὶ ῥίγους καὶ τῶν δεσμῶν ἀποθνῄσκει πρὶν τὸν ἄγγελον παρὰ τοῦ ἐξηγητοῦ ἀφικέσθαι. ταῦτα δὴ οὖν καὶ ἀγανακτεῖ ὅ τε πατὴρ καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι οἰκεῖοι, ὅτι ἐγὼ ὑπὲρ τοῦ ἀνδροφόνου τῷ πατρὶ φόνου ἐπεξέρχομαι, οὔτε ἀποκτείναντι, ὥς φασιν ἐκεῖνοι, οὔτʼ εἰ ὅτι μάλιστα ἀπέκτεινεν, ἀνδροφόνου γε ὄντος τοῦ ἀποθανόντος, οὐ δεῖν φροντίζειν ὑπὲρ τοῦ τοιούτου—ἀνόσιον γὰρ εἶναι τὸ ὑὸν πατρὶ φόνου ἐπεξιέναι . 

The Supreme Court of the United States,
Pollution Central.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

One thought on “Law and Order

  1. The notion we have a duty to care for the welfare of others is intriguing. The duty is inherently prosocial and, if generalized, the duty of care would form the moral basis of of relationships, community, societly, even humankind in general. Odd that we should consider prosocial duties evidence of “socialism” and in opposition to our individualistic capitalism (tied to our historic notions of property). Very interesting.

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