Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 8, Euthydemus and the difference between sophistry and philosophy

We have finally reached the last installment of my chapter-by-chapter commentary on Early Socratic Dialogues, the wonderful collection with new translations put out by Penguin and edited by Chris Emlyn-Jones. (The first five installments can be found at the old Footnotes to Plato, here; part 6 is here; and part 7 here.) This last entry is about the Euthydemus, whose main purpose is to contrast the Socratic approach to philosophy with that of the Sophists, represented by Plato in the form of the brothers Euthydemus (the title character) and Dionysodorus. 

Since the Sophist Protagoras is mentioned here in the past tense, while the general Alcibiades is referred to as being still alive, historians place the action between 420 and 405 BCE. Philosophical and linguistic analyses situate the dialogue near the end of the early Socratic period, but with Plato still firmly presenting his mentor’s thinking, as distinct from the middle and late dialogues, which are more representative of Plato’s own mature philosophy. The Euthydemus is also one of the most amusing and best written of all Plato’s dialogues. Indeed, since it features a prologue and a clearly defined epilogue, it is even tempting to treat it as a (philosophical) play.

In the Euthydemus, Plato overtly labels the brothers’ approach as “eristic,” a technical term meaning contentious, or designed for victory. This is meant to be obviously distinct from the Socratic aim of arriving at the truth, or at least at better understanding. The eristic approach used by Euthydemus and Dionysodorus is, more specifically, of the antilogic type, meaning that it proceeds from a given logos, for instance the position adopted by an opponent, to the establishment of a contradictory logos in such a way that the opponent must either accept both logoi, or at least abandon his first position. The goal is neither truth nor understanding, but the defeat of an interlocutor seen as an opponent.

Setting aside legitimate qualms about just how fairly Plato characterizes the Sophists (I am planning a post on Protagoras to explore this question), this strikes me as so modern as to be uncanny. Much of our current discourse, especially on social media, and particularly about politics, seems to be designed, Sophist-style, to defeat our perceived ideological opponents, not to actually help us all to arrive at a better comprehension of the complex issues of our time. We should all attempt to be more Socratic than Sophistic, treating our interlocutors not as adversaries, but as fellow travelers in a moral quest, as the translator of the dialogue aptly puts it.

Throughout the dialogue, the two Sophists clearly engage in fallacious reasoning, and Socrates’ responses are usually logically superior. But they are not perfect. Again, as the translator observes, for Plato and Socrates philosophy was a way of life, not an exercise in logic chopping. So even imperfect arguments can be useful if they shed light on an important point.

Many of the problems with the reasoning put forth by Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are not even due to actual fallacies, but are rather the result of misleading questions. For instance, if I were to ask you: “have you stopped beating your wife?,” you are immediately put on the defensive by a yes/no question that implies that you do, in fact, beat your wife. It isn’t an argument at all, though it implies a certain factual view of things.

The most recurring actual fallacy in the Euthydemus is that of equivocation, for instance when someone shifts from speaking of something in relative terms to speaking in an unqualified manner. The brothers, in the dialogue, move from “knowing something” to “knowing” without further qualifications, thus opening the path for all sorts of misunderstandings and bad arguments, of which Plato was keenly aware, and that Aristotle later classified systematically (of course, given his obsession for taxonomy!).

Another important thing to keep in mind while reading the dialogue (I hope you will!) is that the Sophists claimed to be able to teach virtue. Which, of course, raises the twin issues of (a) whether virtue is the sort of thing that can, in fact, be taught; and (b) whether one can find someone capable of teaching it. Famously, Socrates argued in the positive with regard to (a), but also claimed that he didn’t know anyone (including himself) that qualified for (b).

One additional leading theme in the Euthydemus is that of the relationship between philosophy and politics. Socrates argues that there is a clear separation between the two, as it is evident from the case of a king who is well versed in politics but not in philosophy. Yet, both Socrates and later Plato maintain that the best person to govern a state is, in fact, the philosopher, because he possesses virtuous knowledge, i.e., wisdom. It’s an interesting theory, which has been tested very few times in the course of history, the obvious examples - at least in the Western tradition - being Marcus Aurelius and Julian "the Apostate".

It is worth noting, in this respect, that much of the Euthydemus is devoted to a search for what branch of knowledge makes an individual happy. Why, then, the jump to the governing of a state? Because here we encounter the embryonic version of the more mature Platonic vision as rendered later on in the Republic: in principle, self-government (which leads to happiness, for Socrates) is the same as government of a community (which aims at the flourishing of the state). Plato practiced what he preached: not only he spent considerable effort (and almost lost his life) in trying to influence the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I (as his disciple, Aristotle, did later on with Alexander the Great), but many of his students at the Academy turned out to be politically influential in several Greek cities.

Finally, let’s take a look at some of my favorite bits from the Euthydemus. Here is Socrates being sarcastic about the expertise of the two brothers:

As to your question about their expertise, Crito, it’s astonishing: they are absolutely omniscient – I hadn’t realized before what pancratiasts really are. (271c)

And again, this time about the teaching of virtue:

I was astonished. ‘If you treat such important matters as peripheral,’ I said, ‘then what on earth can your main occupation be? It must be pretty impressive. Tell me, please.’
‘Virtue, Socrates,’ he said. ‘We think that we are the finest and quickest teachers of virtue alive.’
‘Good heavens!’ I said. ‘That’s fantastic! How did you two come across this godsend? (273d)

Here is a naked example of the Sophist attitude, clearly distinct from that of Socrates:

Dionysodorus had leaned over to me with a big grin on his face, to whisper briefly in my ear. ‘In fact, Socrates,’ he said, ‘I can tell you now that whichever answer the lad gives, he will be proved wrong.’ … ‘All our questions of this sort are designed to trap people, Socrates,’ he said. (275e and 276e)

Later on Socrates makes the argument that possession of the sort of things that people normally want (wealth, power, etc.) does not make one happy:

‘Well then, suppose someone has acquired wealth and all the good things we just mentioned, but doesn’t put them to use: would the mere possession of these things cause him to be happy?’
‘Of course not, Socrates.’ … 
‘For this to be so, do they need to be used correctly, or not?’ I asked.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I’m inclined to think that it is more untoward for something to be used incorrectly than to be left alone, because the one situation is actually bad, but the other is neither good nor bad. Isn’t that our position?’
He agreed. (280d-e)

And the conclusion of the argument is that we should seek wisdom, because only that makes us truly happy:

‘What emerges from all this? Surely that nothing else is good or bad, and that of the pair we’ve been discussing, wisdom is good, ignorance bad?’
He agreed.
‘Well, our investigation isn’t over yet,’ I said. ‘The desire for happiness is universal, and we found that happiness stems from use – correct use – of things, and that correctness, in turn, and good luck, are products of knowledge; it apparently follows that everyone should be expending all their efforts on making themselves as wise as possible. Isn't that so?’
‘Yes,’ he said. (281e, 282a)

And that, my friends, is why we should all study philosophy.

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