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 Theaetetus, 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 which takes place shortly before the death of Socrates ( it concerns a discussion on the appropriate response to injustice). So why is the dialogue named after Euthydemus? Why not a second dialogue with a title focused on Crito? Why does Plato call our attention to Euthydemus?
To set the scene, Crito has recently 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 wild commotion. Euthydemus and Dionysodoros, both brothers, visit Athens as strangers. With their newfound 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 teaching Cleinias, the brothers dance around him (as Socrates puts it) with an eristic line of questioning. They ask Cleinias whether the wise or the ignorant man can be taught but when Cleinias responds that the wise can be taught, he is roundly made to look foolish. The crowd loudly applauds twice the brothers embarrass Cleinias two times by demonstrating his errors. However, Socrates steps in after Cleinias blushes in defeat and he instead engages in dialectic 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 about an impression he leaves on the youth and he also urges the lazy Crito to directly engage with the question of eidos (the “thing in itself” as Kant would put it) rather than focusing on the character traits of other 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 be trapped by Euthydemus. Either way he will be wrong in his response. Naturally, this leads Socrates to accuse the men of merely playing enchanting games for laughs from the crowd, 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 meets the eye –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.
For this reading I used the Rosamond Kent Sprague translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.
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