The first thing we note about the Euthydemus dialogue is the title. Unlike other Platonic dialogues wherein the focus is on a particular subject, like the Politeia, or dialogues that focus on the main person who is being interrogated by Socrates, like the Theatetus, the Euthydemus is unusual. The dialogue takes place within the context of a conversation between Socrates and one of his wealthy but boring followers named Crito. Crito also has another dialogue in which he is featured eponymously that takes place shortly before the death of Socrates involving a discussion on the appropriate response to injustice. So why is the dialogue named after Euthydemus? Why not a second dialogue with a title focusing on Crito? Why does Plato call our attention to Euthydemus?
To set the scene, Crito had heard about Socrates’s exchange at the Lyceum yesterday with a group of at least one stranger (referring to Euthydemus), and a young boy, Cleinias. Socrates recounts the story to Crito, as Crito couldn’t see very well because there was such a commotion. Euthydemus and Dionysodoros, brothers, visit Athens as strangers and with their new sophistic wisdom, they have gained a large following. Euthydemus is the younger of the two brothers. Socrates begins with his favorite question to the two brothers, since they claim to teach wisdom for a fee (recall a similar line of questioning in the Gorgias, Meno, and the Protagoras): ‘Can virtue be taught? And, if so, who are its teachers?’ He asks the brothers for a demonstration of their wisdom and to do so, he compels them to demonstrate their teaching abilities on the young Cleinias, an impressionable boy, so he might be persuaded to be virtuous.
Rather than teach Cleinias, the brothers dance around him (as Socrates puts it) with an eristic line of questioning where they ask Cleinias whether the wise or the ignorant can be taught and after he responds that the wise can be taught, he is roundly made to look foolish. The crowd loudly applauds as twice the brothers embarrass Cleinias by demonstrating that he is wrong. However, Socrates steps in after Cleinias blushes in defeat and he instead engages dialetic with Cleinias, in demonstration to the brothers. However, they do not ever acquiesce to Socrates’s request. Socrates tries twice, before they engage him directly and the dialogue ends when Socrates is without a response and one of the ‘favorites’ Ctessipus starts to imitate the sophistic nonsense of the strangers. Socrates concludes with some words of advice for the brothers.
Returning to Crito, Socrates encourages that he be careful what impressions they leave on the young and also he urges the lazy Crito to engage with the question of the idea in itself (the “thing in itself” as Kant would put it) rather than focusing on the character traits of the weak and inferior sophists, like Euthydemus, who is an extreme relativist, incapable of contemplating the truth and too busy propounding relativistic platitudes –a key piece of textual evidence in favor of this interpretation is when Dionysodoros leans over to Socrates after Euthydemus begins to engage the boy Cleinias and tells him that no matter what Cleinias answers he will trapped by Euthydemus. Either way he will be wrong in his response. Naturally, this leads to Scorates to accuse them of playing enchanting games for laughs from their crowd of followers rather than being seriously engaged in a dialectic. Although one is also left to wonder how serious Socrates is in his pursuit of the truth, as well.
Perhaps there is more in common between the philosopher and the sophist than initially thought –the sophist is a self-proclaimed teacher of virtue and the philosopher (at least in Socrates’s case) is one who proclaims his own ignorance, a learner.