Plato’s Dialogues: Euthydemus

I’ve been ignoring our friend Socrates lately, offering the excuse that I’m just too busy. That’s no way to treat a friend, though, so I’ve made some time to catch up with him and Plato, this time with the dialogue Euthydemus. It may not be Plato’s most insightful dialogue, but I do think it’s his most entertaining. Translator Benjamin Jowett even says that it’s “apt to be regarded by us only as an elaborate jest.” If you’re a fan of rhetorical gymnastics and watching people get verbally dunked on, then this is the dialogue for you.

Euthydemus is another work with a framing device, this time beginning with our old friend Crito asking Socrates who he’d been speaking with earlier that day; there’d been such a crowd gathered around that Crito couldn’t even get close enough to hear the conversation. Socrates had, it seems, met with the Sophists Euthydemus and his older brother Dionysodorus. After hearing them brag of their own wisdom, he, not quite seriously, I’m sure, asks them to teach his young friends Cleinias and Ctesippus, who were there with him. As Euthydemus begins to question Cleinias, though, Dionysodorus whispers to Socrates, “Whichever he answers, I prophesy that he will be refuted, Socrates.”

Say it with me, everyone:

It’s a trap!

I’ll go ahead and quote Euthydemus’ full line of questioning here, since it gives one an idea of how the whole dialogue proceeds:

Now Euthydemus, if I remember rightly, began nearly as follows: O Cleinias, are those who learn the wise or the ignorant?[…]

[H]e answered that those who learned were the wise.

Euthydemus proceeded: There are some whom you would call teachers, are there not?

The boy assented.

And they are the teachers of those who learn—the grammar-master and the lyre-master used to teach you and other boys; and you were the learners?

Yes.

And when you were learners you did not as yet know the things which you were learning?

No, he said.

And were you wise then?

No, indeed, he said.

But if you were not wise you were unlearned?

Certainly.

You then, learning what you did not know, were unlearned when you were learning?

The youth nodded assent.

Then the unlearned learn, and not the wise, Cleinias, as you imagine.

At these words the followers of Euthydemus, of whom I spoke, like a chorus at the bidding of their director, laughed and cheered.

Now, given the crowd’s reaction and Dionysodorus’ warning, we can already tell what the two Sophists are mainly after, and it’s not wisdom or virtue. In fact, Socrates says after this first line of questions, “The word was hardly out of his mouth when Dionysodorus took up the argument, like a ball which he caught, and had another throw at the youth,” and elsewhere comparing them to dancers. In other words, they’re entertainers first and foremost, interested primarily in putting on a good show, displaying their rhetorical prowess by defeating opponents in argument, and winning the praise and admiration of their followers.

Most of their trick relies on equivocation. Consider these questions from Dionysodorus:

For tell me now, is not learning acquiring knowledge of that which one learns?

Cleinias assented.

And knowing is having knowledge at the time?

He agreed.

And not knowing is not having knowledge at the time?

He admitted that.

And are those who acquire those who have or have not a thing?

Those who have not.

And have you not admitted that those who do not know are of the number of those who have not?

He nodded assent.

Then those who learn are of the class of those who acquire, and not of those who have?

He agreed.

Then, Cleinias, he said, those who do not know learn, and not those who know.

Interestingly, Socrates gives this exchange a positive spin, telling Cleinias that they’re simply giving him an initiation of sorts into the art of dialectic and are playing with him. He adds:

The two foreign gentlemen, perceiving that you did not know, wanted to explain to you that the word ‘to learn’ has two meanings, and is used, first, in the sense of acquiring knowledge of some matter of which you previously have no knowledge, and also, when you have the knowledge, in the sense of reviewing this matter, whether something done or spoken by the light of this newly-acquired knowledge; the latter is generally called ‘knowing’ rather than ‘learning,’ but the word ‘learning’ is also used; and you did not see, as they explained to you, that the term is employed of two opposite sorts of men, of those who know, and of those who do not know. There was a similar trick in the second question, when they asked you whether men learn what they know or what they do not know.

Jowett says in the introduction to his translation of the dialogue that, though these logical fallacies the brother Sophists use may seem obvious to us, this was still fairly early in the development of logic and philosophy, and shows us the sort of sophistry that Plato had to deal with. That said, though Jowett is right that this seems like easy stuff to most of us now, Plato’s dialogue still serves as a reminder to avoid playing these types of games ourselves, and to watch out for it when arguing with others.

That, I think, is the main point, but there are a few minor things I’d like to address. One is that the brothers’ arguments, though doubtlessly frustrating to debate against, are entertaining to read because they’re essentially just riddles or word-games, not actual arguments. However, they grow old quickly and the two are difficult to like. Yet, several dialogues back I actually did like the similarly arrogant Hippias. Why? After some thought, I it comes down to this: Hippias, though an arrogant Sophist, did at least attempt to argue in good faith. His arguments may not have been valid, but he wasn’t consciously trying to fool people, either. Dionysodorus and Euthydemus, though, are malicious, and do consciously try to embarrass Cleinias and Ctesippus for the entertainment of the crowd. Later in the dialogue, when questioning Socrates, they get irritated with him because he won’t fall into their traps. He knows what they’re up to and blocks their attempts at equivocation by qualifying his answers instead of just saying “yes” or “no” as Cleinias naively did.

There’s also an interesting point where Crito interjects after relating some of Cleinias’ answers:

CRITO: And do you mean, Socrates, that the youngster said all this?

SOCRATES: Are you incredulous, Crito?

CRITO: Indeed, I am; for if he did say so, then in my opinion he needs neither Euthydemus nor any one else to be his instructor.

SOCRATES: Perhaps I may have forgotten, and Ctesippus was the real answerer.

CRITO: Ctesippus! nonsense.

SOCRATES: All I know is that I heard these words, and that they were not spoken either by Euthydemus or Dionysodorus. I dare say, my good Crito, that they may have been spoken by some superior person: that I heard them I am certain.

I suspect that Plato is winking to the audience here by hinting that this dialogue did not happen exactly as Socrates relates. Similarly, Plato’s dialogues in general are, to a greater or lesser extent, fictional, despite the device of portraying them as real conversations. They may well have some basis in conversations Plato either took part in or overheard, but that is all.

At the end of the dialogue, Crito raises a few other interesting points, which Plato only touches on briefly. One is that he shares the opinion of a man he’d spoken with earlier that day, disapproving of Socrates conversing with such sophists at all. Socrates doesn’t really offer a defence of casting pearls before swine, though, but asks what sort of man this was Crito had spoken to. Crito answers that he was a speechwriter, which Socrates then calls an “amphibious” class, “one of those whom Prodicus describes as on the border-ground between philosophers and statesmen.” They think highly of themselves because they are knowledgeable of both fields, but Socrates argues that they are worse than either philosophers or statesmen:

[I]f philosophy and political action are both good, but tend to different ends, and they participate in both, and are in a mean between them, then they are talking nonsense, for they are worse than either; or, if the one be good and the other evil, they are better than the one and worse than the other; only on the supposition that they are both evil could there be any truth in what they say. I do not think that they will admit that their two pursuits are either wholly or partly evil; but the truth is, that these philosopher-politicians who aim at both fall short of both in the attainment of their respective ends, and are really third, although they would like to stand first.

Finally, the dialogue ends with Crito telling Socrates that he’s concerned about hiring a teacher for his own son, since there are so many like Euthydemus out there. Socrates calms his fears, saying, “do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of philosophy herself. Try and examine her well and truly, and if she be evil seek to turn away all men from her, and not your sons only; but if she be what I believe that she is, then follow her and serve her, you and your house, as the saying is, and be of good cheer.”

This was a fairly short dialogue, so we’ll leave it there. Up next is another relatively short one, Menexenus.

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