This dialogue is commonly thought to have been composed by Plato in a period of transition from an early to a middle phase. Its main themes are the pursuit of happiness, and the juxtaposition of Socratic and eristic dialectic.

Theme of the dialogue

The central philosophical question raised in this dialogue is the following: how does one reach happiness? At the same time, the Euthydemus juxtaposes the Socratic method of philosophical inquiry with eristic. Finally, the dialogue raises some serious epistemological and ontological questions, which are spelled out primarily in the eristic scenes of the work.

Characters

Crito is a friend of Socrates, who also appears in the Phaedo and is Socrates’ interlocutor in the Crito. About the sophists Euthydemus and Dionysodorus we know very little aside from what we learn in the course of this dialogue. Cleinias is the younger cousin of the famous Alcibiades. Ctesippus is presented as Cleinias’ lover; he is also present in the Lysis and the Phaedo. Finally, there are some other men present in the discussion, who remain unnamed and silent, but occasionally burst into laughter and applause. The character appearing in the final scene of the dialogue, also left unnamed, is usually identified as the rhetorician Isocrates.

Time of Composition

This is usually thought to be an early Platonic dialogue, or one that belongs to the transitional period from an early to a middle phase. Some scholars, however, think it is a later work.

Structure and Content of the Dialogue

In the beginning of the Euthydemus Crito asks Socrates to narrate to him the conversation that the philosopher had held the day before at the Lyceum. For, although Crito was present, he had not managed to follow it. Socrates had engaged in discussion with Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, who presented themselves as teachers of virtue. Socrates urged them to give a display of their art, aiming to convince the young Cleinias that he ought to philosophize and pursue virtue.

First, the sophists discuss with Cleinias, but their aim is simply to refute him – and this they do. Socrates intervenes, undertaking to discuss himself with the young man, thus giving the sophists an example of how he invites them to display their method. In the second eristic scene, the sophists discuss with Ctesippus, who too, like his predecessor, gets refuted. Thereupon Socrates provides a second example of his method. When his second protreptic speech is completed, the sophists return for a third eristic scene, in which they put forth extreme views, employing a host of fallacies. But the audience applauds enthusiastically. Socrates’ narration to Crito comes to an end at this point, and at the same time the juxtaposition of the two methods, the Socratic and the eristic, is completed.

Upon completion of his narration, Socrates ironically suggests to Crito to become a student of the sophists. Crito appears reluctant to do so, and for the first time speaks of a person, whose name he doesn’t mention, and who, as he tells Socrates, had voiced criticism against the sophists. The dialogue ends with a question, which is left open: before turning to seek the appropriate teachers, Crito is invited to consider what philosophy really is.

The individual scenes

a. The two protreptic scenes

The first scene in which Socrates engages in discussion with Cleinias develops as follows: Initially, the two interlocutors agree that all men wish to be happy. In order to become happy, one needs to have a number of goods of different kinds: material goods (such as wealth), bodily ones (such as health), social (such as noble birth), and moral goods, such as justice. This list is capped by wisdom.

Once the constituents of happiness have been determined, Socrates notes that all these goods are truly good only when they benefit someone; and in order for someone to benefit from them, one needs to use them, and not only to possess them. In fact one ought to use them rightly, for the bad use of wealth, for example, could prove disastrous for its possessor. The right use of these goods is determined by wisdom. So wisdom must be sought by the man who wishes to be happy – and for this reason philo-sophy, or the love of wisdom, is useful. Socrates’ first protreptic speech comes to an end on this note.

The second protreptic picks up where the first protreptic had left off: philosophy is here defined as the acquisition of knowledge, and the new question raised is which kind of knowledge is to be sought. Socrates stresses that it ought to be a form of knowledge that is beneficial, and that it would benefit us if it were to indicate both how goods can be acquired and how they should be used. Socrates and Cleinias examine a series of arts in order to determine which one of them meets these requirements. But their investigation fails, and the question regarding the kind of knowledge necessary for happiness is left without an answer.

b. The three eristic scenes

All the questions the sophists ask Cleinias in the first eristic scene take the form of a dilemma. Each time, the sophists rely on verbal ambiguities to defend first the one, then the other horn of the dilemma. Thus eristic wisdom leads to an empty triumph – and yet the audience watching the display approves enthusiastically.

The second eristic scene begins with Dionysodorus claiming that whoever wishes that Cleinias become wise wishes that he stop being who he is, i.e. wishes for his death. Ctesippus exclaims that Dionysodorus is lying, but Euthydemus rushes to add that lying is impossible. Then Dionysodorus claims that arguing for the view opposite to that of one’s interlocutor is impossible. Ctesippus fails to handle the repeated “blows” of the sophists, and Socrates intervenes to demonstrate that the sophists have been inconsistent with respect to their earlier claims.

In the third eristic scene Socrates himself undertakes the role of the interlocutor of the sophists, who now make their most extravagant claim: they themselves, and also Socrates, and all men in general are omniscient. The dialogue is now becomes a comedy. Ctesippus intervenes afresh, but this time his attitude has changed: adopting the eristic method, he forcefully attacks the sophists. At the end of the scene Socrates comes back to the fore. Dionysodorus accuses him of impiety, alluding to the accusations that were actually put forth against the historical Socrates and led to his death. Comic and tragic elements in the dialogue become inextricably intertwined.

Questions of interpretation

In interpreting this dialogue, scholars have focused mainly on the protreptic scenes, in which Socrates occupies center stage and the central philosophical argument on the conquest of happiness is presented. According to the dominant interpretation, happiness requires a combination of conventional goods and virtue, typically identified with knowledge. Yet some scholars suggest that virtue alone (or knowledge alone) is sufficient for happiness.

The eristic scenes have received less attention. Yet these scenes are also philosophically interesting; in the second one of these, the discussion focuses on the question of being and non-being, while in the third the claims of the sophists are reminiscent of Platonic theories, here presented in a distorted way. For example, the sophists’ claim that they know everything, and that they possessed this knowledge even before they were born, is not far from the Platonic view that the souls come into contact with the Forms before entering the body, and that the process of learning is nothing but a process of recollecting knowledge formerly acquired. In this, as in other ways, the Euthydemus underlines the difficulty involved in drawing a distinction between sophistic and philosophy.

Author: Georgia Sermanoglou-Soulmaidi
  • Chance, T.A, Plato’s Euthydemus: Analysis of What Is and Is Not Philosophy. Berkeley, 1992.
  • Hawtrey, R. S. W .
  • Keulen, H. Untersuchungen zu Platons Euthydem. Wiesbaden, 1971.
  • McCabe, M. M. "Developing the Good Itself by Itself: Critical Strategies in Plato’s Euthydemus." Plato: Electronic Journal of the International Plato Society 2 (2002)
  • Palpacelli, L, L’ Eutidemo di Platone: una commedia straordinariamente seria. Milan, 2009.
  • Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi, G. Playful Philosophy and Serious Sophistry: A Reading of Plato’s Euthydemus. Berlin, 2014.
John Italos

John Italos

John Italos (c.1025 - c.1082) was one of the most original...

Aristotle

Aristotle

Aristotle was Plato's greatest student and philosophical...

Apuleius

Apuleius

Platonist philosopher, rhetorician and fiction writer (ca....

Heraclides of Pontus

Heraclides of Pontus

A 4th cent. BC philosopher, one of the first students of...