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Philosophy Essay: Socrates on Definitions

Late in his life, Socrates went around the marketplace having discussions with the countrymen. He believed that if someone claimed to know what X was then they should be able to define it. So he would usually ask a question such as, what is X? Socrates would not be pleased by just any answer; it had to be a solid definition. According to Socrates, a solid definition consists of three conditions. The first is that the definition of X must hold true for all things that are X, but not for those things that are Y. The second is that a definition cannot be an example of the word.

The third is the definition must be a description of X, not an evaluation. Since Socrates never kept a record of his dialogues, we must rely on the dialogues that Plato wrote about him in Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Meno, which are a close approximation of Socrates’ discussions. Euthyphro and Meno have a lot of questioning, which allows us to understand Socrates’ style of questioning and his expectations for a definition. Euthyphro deals with what is pious and impious, while Meno deals with what is virtuous. In these two dialogues, Socrates rejects many attempts made by Euthyphro and Meno to define pious and virtue.

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In the dialogue, Euthyphro Socrates asks Euthyphro. “What is the pious, and what the impious (5d)?” Euthyphro suddenly gives an answer that pious is what he himself is doing now. Impious would be not to prosecute his own father for murder (5d-e). Socrates is not satisfied by Euthyphro’s answer. Socrates understands that prosecuting his own father may be an example of what is pious, but there are many pious actions.

Socrates was looking for the definition for what all pious actions are (6d-e). I agree with Socrates that examples make it difficult to truly understand a word. For example, if I were to say this is an “A” paper to the five GSI’s at the same time, there is a great chance that they will all interpret my claim differently. Charles might think an “A” paper is merely four 8.5 X 11 inches of paper stapled together. Josh may believe a bunch of small black words written on a blank white page is considered an “A” paper. I cannot control the thoughts of other people, but I can make my definition more clear. That is exactly what Socrates is trying to do by guiding Euthyphro and questioning his answers. Socrates then rephrases his question asking what “makes all pious actions pious” (6d-e)? Euthyphro answered by saying that “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious (7a).” Socrates breaks apart Euthyphro’s answer step by step.

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First, he establishes that men disagree about things such as large and small, heavy and light, beautiful and ugly and so on (7b-e). He then goes on to ask if the gods were to have differences wouldn’t they be about the same subjects (7e)? Euthyphro agrees with Socrates (7e) not realizing where Socrates is headed. Euthyphro has already violated one of the conditions that a solid definition consists of. The word “dear” is an evaluation rather than a description. Something that is “dear” is loved and all the gods don’t love the same things.

The dialogue continues as Socrates says, so if different gods like different things another god can hate what one god loves (8a). So one thing would be pious and impious at the same time (8a). So Socrates’ question was not answered, because he didn’t want to know “what the same thing is both pious and impious” (8a-b). The mistake that Euthyphro made with this definition is that the definition of pious doesn’t hold true for all things that are pious, but also true for those things that are impious. It is difficult for a person to know what the gods love. I don’t think we as humans have an absolutely certain answer for what the gods love, therefore cannot use this definition for pious and impious.

Then again there is the question of which gods Euthyphro is referring to. Is he only referring to the gods believed by those from the city of Athens? These are things that we do not know precisely. Socrates and Euthyphro went on to look for a definition of pious and impious, yet hit many roadblocks. The dialogue Euthyphro ends in an aporia, with no answer to what is pious and impious. Even though we do not learn what the definition of pious and impious is, we are able to identify three conditions that satisfy a definition according to Socrates.

In the dialogue, Meno Socrates is having a discussion with Meno about virtue. Socrates asks Meno what he thinks virtue is (74d)? Meno says, “ there is a virtue for every action and every age, for every task of ours and every one of us (72a).” As I see it Meno is claiming that virtue is subjective rather than objective. Meno’s statement indicates that he believes every person has their own virtue depending on their social status, so it is not the same for all. Socrates subtly tries to help Meno realize that his claim has a few holes in it.

Meno doesn’t give a definition of virtue that holds true for all things that are virtue, therefore doesn’t satisfy one of the conditions for a solid definition. Socrates asks Meno if he thinks, “bees differ from one another in so far as they are bees” (72b)? Or only in the sense of their beauty, size or some other ways (72b)? Meno says, “that they do not differ from one another in being bees (72b).” The point that Socrates is trying to reach is that virtue should not differ whether it be in a child, or an old man, in a woman or in a man (72e-73e).

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Through questioning Socrates leads Meno to realize that there is a bottom line that is concerned with virtue, which makes all virtuous actions virtuous (72d-73a). Once again a definition that holds true for all things that are virtuous actions. Meno comes to agree that if all men are to be good they need the same qualities, justice and moderation (73a-e). Meno then agrees with Socrates that all men would not be good in the same sense if they did not have the same virtue (73e). Meno finally gets the idea that Socrates is looking for a definition for all virtuous actions. So he says that virtue is “to be able to rule over men (73d).” I don’t agree with Meno’s definition of virtue. If everyone is to have the same virtue then how can it be that I am ruling over men, while the men I am ruling over are ruling over me, for they have the same virtue as me? Socrates is headed towards the same point, but with a rather different approach. If there is a slave, is he able to rule over a master and still be a slave (73d)? Meno says, “I do not think so at all, Socrates (73d).” I think this answer right here shows that to be able to rule over men is not a virtue true for all men. The definition once again does not hold true for all things that are a virtue. Earlier Meno did agree that all men have the same virtue (73e). So if all men have the same virtue and to be able to rule over men isn’t a virtue true of all men, it is certainly no a virtue.

Through further discussion, Meno claims that justice is a virtue (73e). To clarify Socrates asks, “Is it a virtue, Meno, or a virtue (73e)?” I think Socrates is trying to find out if virtue is a small piece of justice, for other things could also be said to be just. Or is justice is a part of virtue, therefore allowing other things to also be a virtue. Meno once again heads in the wrong direction by saying that there are also other virtuous (73e). He says that courage, moderation, wisdom and munificence are all virtues along with many others (74a). Socrates once again has to notify Meno that he has discovered many virtues, while only looking for one (74a). Socrates wants to find one virtue that covers all the others (74a).

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Socrates wants a definition of virtue that is true for all things that are virtue, but Meno repeatedly does not satisfy this condition. Socrates and Meno continue to search for the definition of virtue, yet as you have probably already guessed they don’t come up with a conclusion and the dialogue ends in an aporia. Even though it ends in an aporia, we are still able to once again identify some of the conditions that satisfy a definition according to Socrates.

By examining both dialogues and Socrates’ criticism of the definitions we can identify three of the conditions necessary for a definition. One thing is for certain, the definition of X must hold for all things that are X, but not for those things that are Y. Other words the definition of food must be true for all foods, but not for socks, teddy bears, cups, etc… Another thing to avoid is using examples to define a word; because examples are limited. Examples do not hold true for all things that are X, because they only focus on one thing. If Socrates asked me for the definition of food, it would be a mistake to say “pizza.” That is indeed an example of food, but there are also other foods.

The definition of food would be “material eaten to sustain life.” A definition is describing something not evaluating it. Because evaluations can differ from person to person and a definition must hold for everyone. If I said the definition of food is something that tastes good, it would be an incorrect definition because that is an evaluation, rather than a description. The questions that Socrates asked were definitely very difficult, but they raised discussions and helped us identify the conditions for a definition according to him.

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Philosophy Essay: Socrates on Definitions. (2021, Feb 22). Retrieved March 22, 2023, from