Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: Shimer College year in review

This year has had its twist and its turns, but finally it deposits us here -- with just enough time for a quick backward glance.

Here are a few of the top forms of Shimer-related awesomeness that come to mind from the past year (not a comprehensive list):

- Awesome new Shimer College video, now over 4,000 views:

- Awesome new Shimer Colege viewbook:

- Awesome new Shimer College president. (Some representative forms of awesomeness: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

- Awesome new/old Director of Admissions!

 - Lots of awesome articles about Laurie Spiegel ('67), prompted first by her music's appearance in the Hunger Games movie and then by the expanded reissue of her Expanding Universe album. Rounding up all this coverage needs a separate blog post (hopefully forthcoming), but here a three pieces picked more or less at random: Slate, Pitchfork, New Yorker

- An astounding amount of historical material from Shimer's first decades has been made available online, (mostly) courtesy of NIU, for example:

- Most photos in the Shimer College Flickr stream are now licensed CC-BY, allowing them to be freely reused (e.g. on Wikipedia) as long as Shimer is credited. (If you haven't tangled with copyright issues in the digital age, it's easy to miss how much awesome is wrapped up in that development.)

Of course, the most awesome thing of all is that Shimer's extremely high baseline level of awesomeness has made it through yet another year intact.

So, then.... if, like me, you approve of the above developments (or any fraction thereof), I hope you'll join me in making a year-end donation to Shimer College.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Donation Time!

If you receive emails from Shimer, you'll already have received the year-end donation pitch, so consider this a friendly reminder. (If you don't, consider this a friendly reminder to get right with the Lord.)

Here's the link. Use it in good health. Preferably before midnight on New Year's Eve.

I'm putting in what I can. 

If you're one of those folks who likes to say that you appreciate the various things I do for/in the community (inadequate though my actions invariably are), this is an excellent opportunity to show it.

Happy New Year!

PS. There has been some carping about the year-end appeal not catering sufficiently to alums' elevated moral sensibilities, or something.  In the spirit of the season, I'll refrain from saying what I think of people who decide not to donate to Shimer because a given pitch didn't appeal to their personal tastes.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

New Shimer College presidential blog: "Evocations"

Shimer College president Susan Henking has notched up yet another first, becoming Shimer's very first president with a blog:

Evocations: Reflections and questions from Shimer's College President

(From the title of the most recent post, however, it seems that the good Dr. Henking could just as well have stuck with the (original?) name embedded in the blog URL, "Provocations".)

In any case, judging from the initial posts on the blog, it's shaping up to be a damned interesting one. So if you're subscribed to this blog, you'll definitely want to subscribe to that one.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Montaigne Scholarship competition info: first deadline January 15

It's that time of the year again.  Make sure any potential Shimerians know. From




7th Annual
Michel de Montaigne
Scholars Competition

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Michel de Montaigne Scholarship will be awarded to first-time applicants to Shimer on the basis of merit in writing and discussion—the activities that Shimer students undertake in the classroom (and beyond!) every day.

The scholarship honors Michel de Montaigne, the French Renaissance author and essayist. Participants read an essay by Montaigne, discuss it in a classroom setting, and write an essay. A committee of faculty members evaluates each participant's performance and selects the scholarship winners. Results will be announced in March.

Participants will be sent a copy of the selected Montaigne text for the competition once they submit the scholarship registration (see below).

Full and partial tuition scholarships for four academic years

Saturday, February 16
9:30am - 4:00pm

Shimer College
3424 S. State Street
Chicago, Illinois 60616


1.  Submit a complete Application for Admission by January 15, 2013. You can apply online or download an application and return it my mail.

If you are applying online, please email pdf copies of your writing samples and letter(s) of recommendation to Please mail the application fee to the street address above.

If you are mailing your application, please send all material to the street address above. Please leave ample time for your application to arrive by mail by the January 15, 2013 deadline.

A complete Application for Admission comprises:
  • Completed and signed application form. Please note: you may apply as a Weekday/Weekend or Early Entrant student. Special Status students are not eligible for the Montaigne Scholarship. Please select appropriate application form.
  • Writing samples as requested
  • Letter(s) of recommendation as requested
  • High school transcripts
  • $25 application fee payable to Shimer College
2.  Register for the Montaigne Scholarship by February 1, 2012.

3.  To be eligible for a Montaigne Scholarship, you must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The form can be completed anytime after January 1 and must be completed before a scholarship can be awarded.  Note: Students who are awarded federal or state grants may have their scholarship adjusted if the combined amount of all aid exceeds the cost of tuition.

Apply and reserve your space! Space is limited.

Important Montaigne Scholarship Dates:

After January 1 Submit completed FAFSA form online

January 15 Deadline to submit completed Application for Admission online or as a hardcopy
February 1
Deadline to register online for Montaigne Scholarship competition
February 16 Competition takes place at Shimer College

Contact us with any questions at 312.235.3543 or

The scholarship competition is of course open to all prospective Shimer students, including those applying to the weekend college or early entrance programs.

For more information on the Montaigne experience, see this post by Alex Rosenberg, or of course this video by Michael Doherty:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Agenda for November 14 Assembly

Note the unusual day and time.

Shimer College Assembly Agenda

Wednesday, November 14th
3:15 p.m.
Cinderella Lounge

Approval of Minutes

Academic State of the College Address: Dean Barbara Stone (1/2 hour)

Motion to the Assembly from the Financial Aid Policy Committee:  that the Assembly continue the current membership of the committee with the exception of one student in order to continue developing the Federal Work Study Program.

Elections (15 minutes)
Election of member(s) to the Financial Aid Policy Committee
Election of replacement member to the Judicial, Appeals and Grievance Committee

Questions on Committee Reports (20 minutes)
Financial Aid

Report on Fundraising: Mary Pat Barbarie (15 minutes)

Report on Budgetary and Administrative matters:  Susan Henking (20 minutes)

Report from the Board of Trustees (5 minutes)



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

#ScatteredFamily: An experimental Shimer hashtag

For much of the 20th century, official Shimer publications featured news from alumnae and alumni under the heading "Scattered Family" or "The Family Scattered." Here, for example, is a column from the inaugural issue of the Frances Shimer Quarterly in 1909, and here is one from the Shimer College Record of October 1958. More recently, of course, the column in the Symposium has generally gone by a more prosaic name, but it seems to me that this is one of those old forms that is worth reviving -- updated for our ever-more-scattered age.

So, as an experiment, I've started tagging tweets about the doings of Shimer alums with the hashtag #scatteredfamily. If you're on Twitter, please feel free to follow suit, whether for your own news or someone else's.

Of course, this is not an entirely noise-free channel; occasionally someone from outside the community will happen to use the tag for their own reasons. But from what I've seen so far, this doesn't appear to happen very often.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Shimer College Open House for prospective students, October 8 2012


OCTOBER 8, 2012

The faculty and students of Shimer invite you to visit us on Columbus Day, Monday, October 8, 9:30am to about 2:00pm (or later if you'd like to sit in on afternoon classes).

College for a Day

You will tour the campus, meet Shimer faculty, students, and staff, and get a chance to experience a Shimer class: a class with no more than twelve students discussing a text that has been pivotal to the development of civilization.

Feel free to bring your parents, a friend, or both.

Complete this online registration form to let us know that you are coming.

Call 312.235.3504 or email us with any questions you have. We hope you can join us in the Great Conversation.

Shimer College
Office of Admission
3424 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60616

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Susan Henking interviewed about Shimer on Out of Bounds Radio (PRX)

Earlier this week, Shimer College president Susan Henking was interviewed by Tish Pearlman on the Out of Bounds Radio Show, which airs on WEOS and WSKG in upstate New York and is syndicated online by PRX.

Listen to the excellent half-hour interview here -- or right here:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Banned Books reading at Shimer College, October 4 2012

Thursday, October 4, 6:45 – 8pm
Shimer College, Cinderella Lounge
3424 S. State St.
Shimer College invites Chicago to participate in an evening of short readings from the (sadly) long list of books that have been banned, burned and otherwise barred from the public. Reflecting on the history of book burnings as depicted in The Book Thief, this event coincides with the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week. Come read from your own favorite once- or currently-threatened book or from one selected by the students, staff and faculty of Shimer. For more information call (312) 235-3529 or email

See also event pages on:, Goodreads, LibraryThing.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Shimer College Assembly, 9/9/2012

The first meeting of the Assembly of Shimer College for this academic year will be held on Sunday, September 9, 2012, at 4 PM in the Cinderella Lounge at Shimer.

No agenda is currently available, although it has apparently been circulated to the internal community.

Proceedings will be livetweeted at @shimerians, with overflow to @samuelhenderson and/or @saradevil if needed.

Update: unedited transcript of livetweet, with tweets in chronological order: 

 Meeting of Shimer College Assembly to commence shortly.

9 items on agenda. 1. Approval of minutes of 4/1 Assembly.

2. Proposal for Suspension of Constitution (temporary suspension of weekend program representation requirements)

3. Agenda Committee Reports & election of officers (speaker &c.)

4. Financial overview, including intro by Susan Henking, budget, fundraising & admissions reports.

5. "Governance" including reports from Board of Trustees & "summer committee on governance"

6. Election of QLC 7. Election of student rep to IIT student govt.

8. Announcements 9. Adjournment

Eileen gavels the Assembly to order.

""We're doing things a little bit differently than we have in the past."

Parliamentarian KateLynn to speak on manners in the Assembly.

KateLynn: "It's important that we remember the rules of the Assembly" -- stay on topic, wait to be recognized, etc.

Eileen: "I'm hoping that by the end of the Assembly today we will all have a clear idea of what is happening at our college."

To item 1, approval of minutes. No objections.

Thanks to Adrian Nelson for stepping in to take role of secretary.

To item 2, suspending Constitutional requirements for WE student membership on committees.

If no weekend students available for a committee, noms of weekday students to be accepted.

Sara(h): "I would hope that if we did suspend that, that people would recognize that being on committees is still important."

... that the sense of responsibility to serve should continue to be recongized.

Jim D: support proposal; there is precedent for this.

Aron D: It seems a bit strange to suspend the constitution; shouldn't there be a line to allow this change?

Albert: There is such a provision, but it only allows the requirement to be lifted for the *following* Assembly after a vote is taken.

Jim: I misspoke.

Harold S: Point of information: WE student participation goes back to a time when WE college had 30-40 students.

"It was not some kind of malicious power grab from Weekend College."

The motion passes.

Next: elections for 2 weekend spots on APC.

Eileen: "No one's jumping up and down."

Requirements: at least 1 semester in good academic standing (i.e. not on probation).

Nominations: Nate Wright.

Nomation: Sarah Scalise.

Approx. 40 total in attendance.

Allison S., KC S., and Alex R. are currently on APC.

Additonal nominations: Kelsey Crick, Daniel L.

This is constituency voting, but in this case all students vote.

Ann D explains constituency voting for new attendees.

Each student has 2 votes.

"The new members of the APC are Dan and Sarah"

Item 3: committee reports.

Eileen B: Agenda is Agenda Comm's primary report, but will explain the committee's work in some detail.

"During the time that Albert calls the civil war, we realized how much of the Assembly's working depended on good faith."

"We are a group that rules by persuasion."

"We had written our constitution in 1980, and a lot of the assumptions that we had ... needed to be made apparent, so that people buying

the community had an articulated sense of what we were about."

Started w/ad hoc committee that reported in spring, followed by summer committee. "The work is in progress."

"I expect that work to continue by whoever the new Agenda Committee is and who the next Speaker is."

"working together to create a situation in which the ethos of the college is defined by transparency, equality,

confidentiality but not secrecy."

"That's what the Agenda Committee is here to protect and to promote."

Expect the Agenda Committee to convene some firesides, aim for updated constitution by end of this calendar year.

On to elections, first of Assembly & then of committee.

First up: the Speaker.

Nominations: Eileen B.

Long silence. Jim D is nominated: "I respectfully decline."

Eileen: "this has not happened to me before."

Eileen Buchanan to remain as Speaker.

Next up: Parliamentarian. KateLynn does not wish to continue.

KL: I've learned a lot being Parliamentarian, you need to have a good familiarity with Robert's Rules, broader knowledge than just the abrgd

Nominations: Adam Bechtol, Albert F.

The new Parliamentarian of Shimer College is Adam Bechtol.

Now, to the Secretary. Eileen: Job is to take accurate notes & get them out in fairly reasonable order.

Adrian N: Being secretary is basically taking the minutes, listening to everything everybody is saying.

Adrian N: attention to detail, good listening skill, "and hopefullyl someone who has better hearing ability than I do."

Many are nominated and decline respectfully.

"Adrian, would you consider doing it again, humble as you are?" "I'd really rather not."

Nominated: Aron Dunlap.

Aron D is acclaimed Secretary of the Assembly of Shimer College.

Eileen asks Bev to speak about what the committee has been doing.

JAG committee has found that having a student as Ombudsperson is not a good idea in terms of legal/insurance issues.

Amending the Constitution not a great idea immediately, just want to inform the community.

Grey L: main reason is that student ombudsing is not considered best practice anywhere, especially due to legal responsibilities.

"We don't want any students here to get in trouble."

Ann D: Wouldn't this issue also apply to staff/faculty, who don't have ombuds training?

Grey: Ombuds is not usually appointed in the way it is at Shimer.

Susan H: "In institutions that elect ombudspeople, they provide training."

Susan: Staff & faculty are covered by institutional insurance "should we make a mistake in the undertaking of our work."

"The main difference ... should there be something that gets messed up, many of us have more to be taken away by the force of law"

than Shimer itself does." ... thus, it's key that whoever takes this job be covered by insurance.

Institutional officers face legal sanctions for failure to report e.g. harassment, drug use, etc.

Ann D: "Are we going to provide training this year?" Susan: "I think we have to." "It is very easy to get such training on the IIT campus."

Jim U: We have a manual from IIT with good information.

Gail: Is this different from issues with student RAs? Susan: Ombudspeople are in a different category legally.

"Neither protected by nor subject to employment law" because not an employment position.

Staff & faculty "are protected by, and oppressed by, employment law." In this case it's protective.

Students could be trained, but insurance is a different issue, probably not feasible.

Grey L: JAG also considered peer counseling, peer mediation as an alternative approach to keeping benefits of a student Ombudsperson.

Grey: as ombuds, "either you do nothing, or it's very very very busy."

"It can be very stressful. I didn't find it to be bad," but at times you have to be very careful what you say & have to be very committed

... to confidentiality. Eileen: Ombuds at Shimer does not handle academic disputes, but does handle other disputes between members.

Nominations: Daniela B.

Additional nominations: Harold S., Albert F.

Runoff between Daniela & Harold.

Harold Stone is the new Ombudsperson of Shimer College.

Next up: nominations for the Agenda Committee (3 slots).

Nominations: Brenton S, Matt K, Mey L, Jo B, Albert F

"Our new Agenda Committee is Brenton, Matt and Albert."

Now on to item 4, Financial Overview.

Susan H will give broad-strokes overview.

"The first thing that I think is absolutely crucial is" .. .that just because no academics on agenda, doesn't mean we only care about $.

Can't be successful academically without financial element.

"What you choose to spend your money on is the things that are important to you."

"It's always bad to spend a lot more than you have."

"Our goal for the year is to meet our values and to balance the budget."

Two ways to balance budget when challenged: spend less or make more.

Somewhat more than 75% of Shimer revenue comes from tuition.

"The rest of it comes from a combination of the hard work of Devt and others."

Out of whack w/other institutions in having to raise the remaining ~25% every year.

Three goals: 1. to have a clearly articulated budget. We have one, but it has not been submitted, so currently operating w/o budget.

2. Live within the budget. 3. Understand the process of sticking with a budget, so that issues don't recur.

"The thing that most rapidly drives people ... from the edge of poverty to irrecoverable poverty" is a car breakdown.

Goal for this year is to use the lean budget to get us to a place where "emergencies can be dealt with" and we can plan ahead.

"The strategic imperatives here are to balance the budget," including raising the $ needed.

"This institution raises more every year than a lot of institutions do."

The problem is having to raise that amount every year.

Attracting & retaining students is key.

"You should not have been able to hire a president", because the budget should have already been there.

"there will never again be a president who can't figure out what's going on with the money."

"It will be a transparent process, within the limits of reason."

"Compassionate transparency."

"There's a difference between secrecy and confidentiality," but some budget processes must be confidential.

"We're not going to be successful in either of our two major forms of revenue" "if we aren't clearly known" & in an accurate way.

Marketing, branding, "having a website that is somewhat more functional, also known as functional."

Budget in its broadest sense: how we bring fiscal transparency & clarity in line with the educational mission. "It involves everybody."

Next, Sandra Collins CFO.

Sandra: I want to elaborate on what Susan was saying.

"Although we do quite a bit of fundraising every year, our unfunded financial aid eats up 100% of it."

"That's a key in understanding the budget." Unfunded financial aid: aid Shimer gives from Shimer $.

"Most colleges have funded financial aid streams. Shimer has very few."

(continuing livetweet of Shimer College Assembly via @shimerians )

Mary Pat: the national average of alumni giving is about 13%.

Shimer is very very close.

"Our average alumni gift is about 3 times the size of the national average."

"We have a small pool, and about 9. something % of that is really really reaching to support Shimer."

"The average gift from a Shimer alumnus is about $250."

"Overall in higher education, giving is increasing"

"The plan that Susan and I are working on" is about diversification of funding sources, not just alumni.

Mary P: trying to start a glossary of relevant terms for the community.

E.g., capital, "money that doesn't go to the operating fund," a rarity in recent Shimer history.

Elaine: the revenue stream from Admissions comes from student contributions, govt contributions, etc.

E.g. if Kemp Foundation "adopts" a kid in middle school, provides mentoring & college tuition.

Need more students, more self-funding students, "more people who know about us" to help w/ other two.

Elaine & Isabella working on "developing brand identity."

"We want people with whom we're trying to communicate to know us by our brand."

Elaine: "Everybody at the school is a recruiter."

"We must expand our prospects pool in the next 2 months" to reach 50 in next entering class.

Gail: is there recruiting for weekend program, or is it being shut down? Elaine: not shutting it down; working on figuring out how2 recruit.

Sarah: Development/Business/Admissions fireside?

Albert: Do we have funded financial aid, if so, what % is it?

Sandra C: funded financial aid is a very small % of the budget -- 10-15% of FA dollars.

Sandra: One of the ways the community can help is finding the grants/scholarships/etc. that go unused.

"This can help the college & help you" by reducing debt after graduation.

Jim U: We did have a student a few years ago who did a semester project looking for scholarships, was successful.

Adam: what efforts are being made to make the budget process more transparent?

Susan H: comparing past to current experience, Shimer does not have good record of knowing what & when we're spending.

First step is to figure that out & build a realistic budget based on that.

Budget has barely been finalized, & already well into the fiscal year.

"It is important to recognize the incredible work that your administrators did" in face of steep budget deficit.

Susan & Ed decided it was more important to avoid a budget.

"You wouldn't have wanted to read a budget report that said what it would have said without the work of the senior staff."

"You all, I think, owe them a debt of gratitude" for getting us to a place where Shimer doesn't have to close.

"We're not as panicked now, and we can be more transparent in the future."

Sandra: We started the process the minute that the HLC left, and didn't come to a balanced budget until the last week of May.

"One reason is that the administrators had never been through a budget process before."

"The next budget process will definitely be different," will take recommendations for savings from students.

"I have not heard one recommendation that we did not venture into during the budget process."

"I just want to make it very clear that there was no intentional secrecy."

"Our financials have been in the negative for the last 3 years."

"When the HLC comes back here, we have to have positive financials in order to remain accredited."

Mary Pat: hoping to have Development chat on Community Wednesday.

Albert: We have tried to raise $750k per year for last several years; how much $ do we have to raise per year to be in the black?

Sandra: The development # in budget is derived from various revenue streams -- grants as well as giving.

total is slightly over $1 million.

Susan: Our goal is not to get by, but to be a sustainable institution.

Next up: election of the Admissions Committee.

Eileen: Suggesting electronic elections.

"Marc, do you think that we can do it?" Marc: "Probably."

Eileen: "it's not my preference," but meeting is already running long.

The motion passes. Ann: "It concerns me that the people who know computers most understand it."

Susan recaps administrative changes "1. You have a new president."

Continuing to work out relationship between in-college management & Board's policy setting.

Various personnel shifts; happy to answer any questions in regard to them.

there has been 1 layoff & several reductions in time, due to budgetary constraints.

Susan: "compassionate transparency involves protecting the rights of employees."

New director & assistant director of admissions (applause).

susan: trying to figure out what it means to be a Shimerian institution as well as a Shimer ethos.

Audit is imminent; "be incredibly nice to them, because they're crucial to us."

"In the last 20 years, higher education has changed dramatically" in terms of reporting requirements &c.

Will be reviewing ways to get into reporting compliance while remaining within the Shimer ethos.

Example: every document has a different non-discrimination statement.

Will be doing this as transparently as possible, but also with an eye to keeping legal expenses low.

"We need to recognize that we have operated as a culture of sacrifice on the part of faculty & staff for too long."

Barb reports from BOT.

"At the Board meeting in May, a new member was welcomed named Chris Vaughan." ('87)

Board approved exam as graduation requirement -- will be discussing that more in State of Academic Affairs speech.

Priorities: admissions & development.

Tim E: "One of the concerns students have is that the BOT be working for & with the school & not against school's will & policies."

"In the two years I've been on the Board, every Board member has respected the Assembly to the fullest extent."

"We have a Board of Trustees that is working for the college now, and for the students, not against them."

Jim D: "I've been on other boards of trustees," and sometimes CEO & board end up at loggerheads; support & trust for Susan was gratifying.

Susan: at Board retreat, looked at book called "Turnaround," about fragile institutions.

Eileen: Hoping to finish up by 6:15.

Albert: One job of the Agenda Committee is to update the constitution w/updates duly approved by Assembly.

"there has been considerable conversation about not just updating but revision of the constitution."

committees involved so far: informal committee mentioned earlier, which in 4/1 Assembly was formally endorsed as Committee on Governance.

Committee was to present preliminary suggestions at this Assembly.

Over summer, committee met, w/ Albert Dave S & Eileen; came up w/ 8 different recommended revisions to the Constitution.

These recommendations are to be passed on to the long-term committee on governance.

recommendation 1. General recognition that the Assembly & committees no longer play a primary role in the administration of Shimer College.

purpose shifts to advising & ensuring communication, transparency, "and preservation of the college's core values."

2. in view of #1, consolidating the Administrative & Budget committees.

3. Recognition in the preambles of other governing institutions.

4. End WE/WD distinction for purpose of apportioning membership in committees.

5. Other changes to the text of the constitution, to improve fidelity to practice &c..

Eileen: think about these recommendations & whether you would like to serve on a committee working on these.

Floor opened for nominations, encouraging self-noms.

Recommended size of committee: 5.

Non-members can come to meetings & contribute.

KateLynn: move that we approve the 5-member restriction. Motion passes.

Here follow the final tweets of the livetweet of the Shimer College Assembly, not posted in real time due to connectivity issue.

Next up, Bev reporting from JAG committee.

Since the last assembly, handled 1 case, and have been working on revising bylaws; now sent to lawyer for review.

(No major changes since last year's rewrite.)

Also revised description of JAG in Assembly constitution.

New JAGC members should plan on having some kind of training, which will last a few hours.

Will hold new committee in abeyance until seeing whether system of having Assembly & Board report to one another regularly is workable.

Final item: Announcements.

Elaine: There's food, please eat it.

Sarah S: FAPC has been working on changes to Federal Work Study, currently sending out feedback form.

Bev: Everyone should do the math problem I sent out.

Marc: Do we have plans institutionally for voter registration? Barb: yes. I am a voter registrar & will send out something in next few days

Eileen: Yes, everyone needs to register. Barb: And vote.

Thus endeth the not-so-live tweet.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Text of David Shiner's Euthyphro lecture

Text of the lecture given by David Shiner prior to his departure to lead Shimer's Oxford program this fall.

Piety, Knowledge, and Critical Inquiry in Plato’s Euthyphro (with reference to Plato’s Apology)
August 22, 2012

Every Shimer student in the Weekday program reads Plato’s Euthyphro as their first assignment in preparation for Orientation.  This is appropriate, because Platonic dialogues such as the Euthyphro are typical of the sorts of texts that work particularly well in the Shimer classroom.  The meanings of such texts are rarely immediately obvious, or at least not completely so; because of this, they reward close reading, critical investigation, and deep reflection. By contrast, a technical manual, such as the ones included with cars and DVD players, aims to plainly communicate a single meaning that can be contradicted only by statements that are patently incorrect.  That’s one reason why we don’t study technical manuals at Shimer, or their first cousins, textbooks.  With that in mind, I’m going to explore some aspects of the Euthyphro in an effort to uncover at least part of the meaning of the dialogue.

The plot of the Euthyphro is simple, and the text is relatively brief by Platonic standards.  Socrates encounters a man named Euthyphro at the site where his (Socrates’) trial is about to take place.  Each man tells the other one why he is there.  Socrates is a defendant.  He recounts the charges against him, charges that will be familiar to readers of Plato’s Apology, including the allegation that he has committed heresy by inventing new gods and failing to acknowledge the old ones (3A).  Euthyphro is a plaintiff who is prosecuting his father for manslaughter.  When Socrates expresses surprise that Euthyphro would do such a thing, Euthyphro, who claims to be an unrecognized authority on religious matters, responds that reverence for the gods demands it.  Socrates then proposes that, since Euthyphro is such an expert on piety, he will become Euthyphro’s pupil in order to prove to his accusers that he is “eager for knowledge about religion” (5A), which will presumably undermine the charge of heresy that has been leveled against him.  During the remaining three-quarters of the dialogue, Socrates asks Euthyphro questions about the nature of piety, presumably as pupil to teacher.  Euthyphro consistently proves unable to supply an account of piety that meets the standards of Socratic inquiry, and the dialogue ends without such an account having been satisfactorily provided.

Or, to put it more accurately, the dialogue ends without a satisfactory explicitly-stated account of piety.  Is there an implicit conception of piety that reveals itself upon deeper investigation?  This is the general question I will be investigating this afternoon.  

In order to begin this investigation, I’ve selected a passage to serve as a point of departure. That passage occurs near the end of the dialogue, after Euthyphro attempts at Socrates’ request to summarize the achievements of the gods.  He does so at some length, in response to which Socrates responds, in part, as follows: “You, Euthyphro, might have answered my question in far fewer words….If you had done so, I should by now have obtained from you all the information I need about piety” (14B-C).

On the basis of that passage, the following question arises: what are those “far fewer words,” and what is that “information”?  Nothing in the Euthyphro explicitly answers those questions, so that any attempt to find the answers – indeed, even to discover whether those questions have answers – necessarily involves looking beyond, as well as at, the manifest content of the dialogue.  So let’s do that.

First, we’ll examine the evidence concerning Euthyphro’s claim to be a religious authority. We’ve already noted that Euthyphro justifies his prosecution of his father on the grounds of piety.  In explaining this to Socrates, he admits that all his relatives disagree with both his prosecution of his father and his justification for it; they have unanimously told him that “it is an act of impiety for a son to prosecute his father for manslaughter” (4D).  In response to this, Socrates asks him, “But, in the name of Zeus, Euthyphro, do you think your knowledge about the divine law and piety and impiety is so exact that, when the facts are as you say, you are not afraid of doing something impious yourself in prosecuting your father for murder?”  To this, Euthyphro responds, “I should be of no use, Socrates, and Euthyphro would be no better than the common run of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge about all that sort of thing” (4E-5A).

Plato gives us ample reason to be skeptical of Euthyphro’s claim.  Earlier in the dialogue, even before explaining the details of his pending court case, Euthyphro tells Socrates, “I have never predicted a word that wasn’t true” (3B), offering his unerring prophetic ability as evidence of his wisdom concerning divine matters. Shortly thereafter, alluding to the prosecution that he is about to undergo, Socrates says, “There’s no knowing how his case will turn out – except for you prophets” (3D).  Euthyphro replies, “I daresay it will come to nothing, Socrates, and you will conduct your case satisfactorily” (3E).  Given that readers of this dialogue would be well aware of Socrates’ subsequent conviction and execution at the hands of the Athenian court, as rendered in the Apology and other contemporary accounts, Plato could hardly have made Euthyphro’s lack of prophetic ability plainer to his audience.  This episode casts considerable doubt on Euthyphro’s subsequent claims concerning his knowledge of religious matters, which in turn implies that his self-confidence on that score is unwarranted.

Shortly thereafter, in response to Socrates’ request he state what piety is, Euthyphro recounts a well-known portion of the classic Greek foundation myth, whereby Zeus puts his father, Cronos, in chains as punishment for his misdeeds.  Euthyphro offers this and similar stories in justification of his own prosecution of his father.  Socrates’ response to that story is one of doubt – doubt not about Euthyphro’s attempted justification, but about the veracity of the myth itself.  He asks Euthyphro whether he thinks that he (Socrates) is being brought to trial because he “somehow” finds it difficult to accept such stories about the gods.  He then concedes that he might be wrong to doubt those stories, and that if religious experts - such as Euthyphro claims to be - believe in such stories, Socrates will be duty-bound to believe them too.  This, he says, is because “I myself admit that I know nothing about the subject” (6A).  In other words, Socrates’ lack of knowledge leads him not only to doubt received wisdom, but even to doubt his own doubts.

With this, Plato tacitly draws a clear distinction between the two interlocutors in the dialogue.  Euthyphro claims to know everything about religion.  Socrates claims to know nothing about it.  On the basis of his claim to possess religious knowledge, Euthyphro is certain that he can prosecute his father with total confidence, in part on the basis of the analogy of himself with Zeus, the king of the gods, the all-knowing.  On the basis of his claim to lack religious knowledge, Socrates professes himself to be certain neither of the veracity of the stories of the gods nor of his own doubts about those stories, and thus is not confident about anything at all concerning that subject.  Therefore, as Socrates explicitly states, if Euthyphro actually has the knowledge that he claims to have, that will trump Socrates’ ignorance, and Socrates will accept Euthyphro’s authority on matters concerning piety.  

The key word here is “if.”  Socrates puts every condition hypothetically, setting the stage for him to try, throughout the rest of the dialogue, to discover whether Euthyphro actually has the knowledge that he claims to have, and for Euthyphro to try to demonstrate that he does in fact have it.  

If Euthyphro had his way, it is likely that his demonstration of his self-proclaimed expertise would entail telling Socrates, in addition to the story of Zeus and Cronos, “a great many other facts about our religion, which will astonish you, I’m sure, when you hear them” (6D).  But a Platonic dialogue is not a story-telling session, but rather an exercise in critical inquiry.  So Socrates doesn’t simply accept Euthyphro’s claim, as we might put it, “on faith”: to do so would appeal to exactly the sort of unquestioning certainty to which he does not have recourse, since, as a self-proclaimed non-knower, he wouldn’t have any basis on which to accept that claim.  Instead, he tells Euthyphro that stories about conflicts between the gods do not answer his question, which is about the nature of piety.  In order to satisfy Socrates’ request, then, Euthyphro will have to try to demonstrate his religious expertise in a different way – a way, as the rest of the dialogue makes clear, for which he is ill-equipped.

Several other aspects of Socrates’ response to Euthyphro’s story about Zeus and Cronos are worth noting.  By asking Euthyphro whether he thinks that his, Socrates’, difficulty in believing such stories is the reason that he has been prosecuted, Socrates shifts the conversation from a declarative to an interrogatory mode – or, as we might say, from a lecture format to a dialogue format.  He also subtly and skillfully changes the subject from piety itself to the status of knowledge claims about piety, from dogmatic statements to hypotheses.  Dogma consists of authoritative and unquestionable declarative statements; hypothesis, by contrast, regards declarative statements as assumptions subject to critical inquiry.  In identifying the heart of the matter with the latter rather than the former, Plato often makes it clear where Socrates doubts, and where Euthyphro - and we – should be doubting as well.  For example, as was already mentioned, Euthyphro exhibits absolute confidence in the veracity of the stories of quarrels between the gods of classic Greek mythology.  Socrates responds that this puts the Greek gods in the same position as human disputants “assuming that they are divided about questions of right and wrong, as you claim” (8D).  The key word here is “assuming.”  Socrates neither agrees nor disagrees with Euthyphro’s implicit claim that the gods quarrel, but rather holds it as an hypothesis.  This orientation toward hypothetical constructions is reinforced the very next time that Socrates speaks, when he states “that each single act is disputed by the disputants, whether they are men or gods – assuming the gods do dispute” (8E).  These back-to-back instances of characterizing statements about the disputes of the gods as assumptions rather than matters of dogma clearly demarcate the difference between Socrates and Euthyphro with respect to their approach to knowledge claims, at least those concerning religious matters.  Euthyphro professes himself to be certain that the gods dispute with one another; in fact, he claims to know much more about those disputes than the ordinary Athenian does (6B).  Socrates neither affirms nor denies that claim, instead holding it to be an assumption and therefore subject to further investigation.  

Critical inquiry demands the hypothetical mode championed by Socrates; dogma eschews it. In agreeing to be enlisted in Socrates’ project of critical inquiry, Euthyphro tacitly assumes that his claims will ultimately be vindicated.  This is hardly surprising, since he is certain that they’re true. But although he is naïve to allow himself to be enlisted in critical inquiry, he is enlisted willingly.  For example, midway through the dialogue he offers an amended version of one of his earlier definitions of piety, after which Socrates asks him, “Should we then consider this definition in its turn, Euthyphro, to see whether it is satisfactory, or should we let it pass and simply accept both our own and other people’s assumptions, taking the speaker’s mere word for the truth of what he says?  Or should we inquire into the correctness of this statement?”  “We should inquire,” Euthyphro replies.  “All the same, I think that this definition is now correct” (Euthyphro, 9E).

Euthyphro’s confidence in this latest definition seems disingenuous, since he has already offered a couple of previous definitions in which he expressed great confidence and which subsequently dissipated in a poof of logic.  Nevertheless, this is typical of Euthyphro.  Unlike Socrates, he claims to be a “knower.”  As such, he evidently can’t fathom the possibility that submitting a presumed knowledge claim to critical inquiry potentially undermines it by converting it into an assumption, a hypothetical statement which by definition could be otherwise.  This inability appears to be a byproduct of his self-confidence, and Plato gives us extensive evidence that that confidence is unwarranted: Euthyphro’s demonstrably false claim of unerring prophesy, his presumptuous assertion that he is permitted to act in the same manner as the king of the gods, and his manifest inability to present a definition of piety that is sound enough to survive critical inquiry.  Nevertheless, Euthyphro continues to state throughout the dialogue that his accuracy in knowledge of divine matters makes him superior to other people.  And the fact he is still claiming to have “a better knowledge of religion than anyone else” (13E) as the dialogue approaches its conclusion indicates that he has learned little if anything as a result of his encounter with Socrates.

Socrates’ penultimate statement to Euthyphro implies this in several ways.  First, he exhorts Euthyphro to “tell me the truth [about the gods], for you know it if any human being does” (15D).  This statement invokes an implicit conclusion based on modus tollens, a valid logical syllogism with the following form: P implies Q; Q is false; therefore P is false.  In this particular case, the content of that syllogism is this: If anyone knows the truth about the gods, Euthyphro knows it; Euthyphro doesn’t know it; therefore no one knows it.  In other words, the events and arguments of the Euthyphro raise doubt as to whether any human being has the knowledge that Euthyphro claims to have.  Second, Socrates turns Euthyphro’s claim to possess divine knowledge into a negative hypothetical: “If you didn’t know all about piety and impiety, you would never have attempted to prosecute your aged father…” (15D).  This statement follows thematically from the previous one: after all that has transpired, Euthyphro should recognize that he does not in fact know what he claims to know about piety, which should at least leave him in serious doubt about whether his prosecution of his father is justifiable on religious grounds.  Finally, the fact that Euthyphro has made no evident progress during the course of the dialogue leads Socrates to say, “I am sure you think you know all about what is pious” and to exhort Euthyphro to “tell me your opinion” (15E, my emphasis in both cases).  That is, it is evident that Euthyphro thinks he knows what he claims to know, but it is by now equally obvious that he does not actually know it.  As a consequence Socrates refers to Euthyphro’s claim to be a religious expert, for the first time in the dialogue, as “opinion,” thereby tacitly indicating that Euthyphro should no longer claim to possess knowledge of such matters.  At this point Euthyphro departs, and the dialogue comes to an end.  

So that’s where things stand at the end of the Euthyphro.  Much dialogue has taken place, but nothing concerning the nature of piety has been posited and successfully defended.  Socrates doesn’t claim to know it; Euthyphro does, but his claims have been shown to be baseless.  Only a negative case has been made – that is, several proposed conceptions of piety have been refuted.  But is there a positive case to be inferred?  That is, is there in Plato’s view such a thing as true piety, and if so in what does it consist?

The Euthyphro is, on the surface at least, silent about this question.  In order for us to attempt to answer it, we must turn to its sequel: the Apology, Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense in court, the action of which immediately follows the events in the Euthyphro.
Early in the Apology, Socrates tries to account for the reputation that has among the people of Athens, which he believes has led to his prosecution.  His explanation begins as follows: “I have gained this reputation, gentlemen, from nothing more or less than a kind of wisdom.  What kind of wisdom do I mean?  Human wisdom, I suppose.  It seems that I really am wise in this limited sense” (20B).  Concerning “wisdom that is more than human” – that is, divine wisdom - Socrates goes on to tell the jury, echoing similar statements from the Euthyphro, “I certainly have no knowledge of such wisdom” (20D).  And how does Socrates know that he has any wisdom at all?  Because “the god at Delphi,” Apollo, famously declared through an oracle that no one was wiser than Socrates (20E-21A).  

In Plato’s account in the Apology, Socrates’ reaction to the oracle’s declaration was, typically, to wonder about it.  “I said to myself, ‘What does the god mean?  Why does he not use plain language?  I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small, so what can he mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the world?  He certainly cannot be telling a lie; that would not be right for him.’ And for a long time I was at a loss as to what he meant” (21B).  Socrates subsequently wanders around Athens trying to understand the meaning of the god’s declaration by asking questions of people who consider themselves wise or who are reputed to have wisdom.  In other words, Socrates responds to a knowledge claim by wondering about the meaning of the claim, doubting the claim, doubting his own doubt, and then investigating whether the claim stands up to critical inquiry – that is, by utilizing the same process we witnessed in his dialogue with Euthyphro.  The one difference in this method from the method employed in the Euthyphro is that, here, Socrates takes for granted that the oracle’s claim must be true if it is properly understood.  This, he says, is because the god “certainly cannot be telling a lie; that would not be right for him” (Quotation #6), which implies that a truth claim by a god must be treated somewhat differently from a truth claim by a human being.  Nevertheless, doubt, intellectual humility, and critical inquiry are all vitally involved in essentially the same way in both cases.

Socrates then goes on to tell the jury about his encounters with people in various walks of life who were reputed to be wise but, in response to critical inquiry, turned out not to be, because Socratic questioning revealed that their knowledge claims amounted to little or nothing.  This leads Socrates to conclude that while no human being has any knowledge to boast of, he himself at least has the modest advantage that, as he says in the Apology, “I do not claim to know that which I do not know” (21D).  This trait, which has come to be known as Socratic humility, follows directly from his earlier statement about the limitations of human wisdom.

The allegation that Socrates invented new gods was evidently based on the idea that anyone who questions the knowledge claims of others must presume to know what they do not.  As Socrates says in the Apology, “Whenever I succeed in disproving another person’s claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about that subject myself” (23A).  Such a conclusion is illogical, but the notion that those who refute the arguments of others must think they themselves know the truth is as widespread now as it was then, and just as fallacious.  The Shimer faculty refutes this erroneous conception every day.  Like Socrates, we don’t think of ourselves primarily as professors, for we have little if anything to profess.  But we do know a bad argument when we hear one, and so did Socrates.  He knew it when he heard it from Euthyphro, and he also knew it when he heard it from other Athenians who, like Euthyphro, lacked intellectual humility.  He had the temerity to point that out to them, and he paid for it with his life.

And why did he do that?  A number of passages in the Apology leave no room for doubt: he saw it as a matter of piety.  As he tells the jury, once he learned of the declaration of the oracle, “I pursued my investigation at the god’s command” in order to “establish the truth of the oracle” (22A).  Once he discovered the meaning of the oracle, namely that “real wisdom is the property of God, and…human wisdom has little or no value” (23A), his reaction was “to give aid to the god” by “undertaking service on the god’s behalf” (23B).  Later in his testimony to the jury, he sums up by stating, “God appointed me…to the duty of living the philosophic life, examining myself and others” (28E).  Many other statements from the Apology could also be quoted in support of the notion that Socrates regards critical inquiry as his religious duty.  He has taken on this duty even though he, as a mere mortal, does not and cannot have the “real wisdom” that belongs to God alone.

Socrates does claim to know a few basic facts about the gods, such as that they are responsible for everything good (“What they [the gods] give us is obvious to anyone, for we have nothing good that they don’t give us,” Euthyphro 15A) and that they cannot lie because it “would not be right” for them to do so (Apology 21B).  But when it comes to more complex issues about the attributes and achievements of the gods such as those rendered in the traditional stories of Greek mythology, as he tells Euthyphro, he “somehow” has difficulty believing them.  This is entirely consistent with his claim in both dialogues that he does not have knowledge of anything that is “more than human” (Euthyphro 6A-B, Apology 20E).  Socrates clearly believes in the existence and goodness of the gods, but he also appears to believe that human understanding of their attributes and achievements is quite limited, and that recognition of that limitation is a sign of proper humility, which is an essential feature of both piety and wisdom. This stands in stark contrast to Euthyphro, whose evident lack of piety and wisdom is manifest in his unwarranted self-confidence and lack of humility.  

The Apology concludes with Socrates telling the jury that has convicted him and sentenced him to death the following words: “Now it is time for us to be going, I to die and you to live; but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God” (42A).  This is a beautiful coda from a literary standpoint; but, more importantly, it underlines the lessons about piety and wisdom that pervade both the Euthyphro and the Apology.  Socrates’ accusers and a majority of the jury are sending him to his death because they are certain that death is an evil – otherwise, why invoke it as a punishment?  But, for Socrates, that sort of certainty is a matter of divine wisdom, not accessible by mere mortals.  Socrates’ statement therefore stands as a reminder that neither he nor his accusers possess that sort of wisdom.  We are reminded of the modus tollens near the end of the Euthyphro: If any human being knows the truth about the attributes and achievements of the gods, Euthyphro knows it; Euthyphro doesn’t know it; therefore no one knows it.  This conclusion, simply hinted at in the Euthyphro, becomes explicit in the Apology.

So, returning to our original point of departure, what are the “far fewer words” that Euthyphro could have used to describe the achievements of the gods, the words that, according to Socrates in Quotation #1, would have satisfied him and given him all the information he needed?  Those words would have had to say what is common to all of the gods, as against the controversies and intrigues that Euthyphro attributes to them and which set them in conflict with each other.  Those words would have had to state, or at least imply, the attributes and achievements of all of the gods.  But, as the dialogue bearing his name amply demonstrates, Euthyphro does not know this; and as the Euthyphro intimates and the Apology makes clear, no one else does either.  The highest wisdom attainable by human beings, as Socrates declares in the Apology, consists in knowing what one doesn’t know, and one especially cannot know anything which is unknowable by human beings, for example, divine wisdom.  Therefore, the “far fewer words” about piety and the gods that would have satisfied Socrates, but which Euthyphro was constitutionally incapable of providing, might well have been these: “I don’t know.”

The process of arriving at this tentative conclusion demonstrates how Plato’s Apology can be invoked to help us address important questions that are asked or implied, but not explicitly answered, in the Euthyphro.  If time permitted, we could go on to explore how the Crito, the dialogue whose action follows Socrates’ trial, serves similarly as a complement to the Apology, and how the dialogue that ends with Socrates’ death, the Phaedo, stands in a similar position to the Crito.  But I’ve already imposed enough on you for one day, so that exploration will have to wait for another time.

I’d like to conclude by reflecting critically on what I’ve said in the past half-hour or so.  I’ve investigated the evidence concerning a question proposed in the Euthyphro and come to a tentative conclusion about how it might be answered.  How certain am I of that conclusion?  In all honesty, not very certain.  And that attitude seems fitting to me.  Plato’s Socrates warns us not to claim knowledge beyond our measure.  In order to be true to that dictum, I believe, we should exhibit intellectual humility in attempting to understand the meanings of the works of those who are far wiser than we are, especially when those meanings are not entirely obvious.  In proposing a possible approach to uncovering part of the meaning of the Euthyphro, I have tried to remain faithful to the evidence Plato offers us while approaching my task with at least some degree of intellectual humility.  If, in so doing, I’ve fallen considerably short of the ideal of wisdom represented by Socrates, I hope that I have at least succeeded in avoiding the unreflective and unwarranted “certainty” exemplified by Euthyphro.