ABSTRACT: The structure of the Euthydemus, together with other more subtle hints, shows that Plato's purpose in the dialogue is to contrast two educational methods: eristic, as represented by the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, and dialectic, as represented by Socrates. Plato has made the educational failure of eristic so evident in the dialogue that the question arises why he should have thought it worth attacking at such length. The reply is suggested that it was the sophists' claim to teach virtue that was particularly galling to Plato. He wishes to show further, that the character of their eristic tricks is to deny the possibility of teaching at all, since the either/or basis of their arguments amounts to a denial of becoming. Plato brings these matters to a head less than half-way through the dialogue, at 286E, when he has Socrates ask his 'stupid question' as to what the sophists teach, if they really believe that there is no false speaking, no refutation, and no ignorance. The paper concludes by agreeing with Holger Thesleff that the Euthydemus is 'pedimental' in construction, although disagreeing with him as to where the central peripateia occurs. To place the turning point, as I would do, at 286E, is to show that the theme of the dialogue is paideia.


Plato could hardly have made it more clear to the reader of the Euthydemus that his purpose in that dialogue is to contrast two kinds of education, to the praise of one and the detraction of the other. The very structure of the dialogue leads to this conclusion. Within an outer frame, in which Socrates' old friend Crito expresses anxiety about the education of his two young sons, are set five dramatic scenes. Of these the first, third, and fifth consist of displays of eristic technique on the part of two visiting sophists, the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. The remaining two scenes, the second and fourth, show Socrates in the exercise of dialctic.

Not content with this overt juxtaposition of the two educational methods, Plato contrasts the two in subtler ways. Socrates and the young man Cleinias, for whose educational future he and his friends are concerned, are surrounded, not only by the alternating eristic scenes, but physically, in the actual seating arrangements indicated by Plato; Dionysodorus sits down on the left of Socrates, Euthydemus on the right of Cleinias. We appear to have an attempt on the part of eristic to encircle and imprison dialectic.

A further contrast is displayed by Plato when we are allowed to witness the effects on Cleinias of the two methods. At the hands of Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, the boy is simply bewildered and humiliated; when Socrates takes over, he begins to make distinct philosophical progress, such astonishing progress, in fact, that the listening Crito can hardly believe it 290E. Plato drives home this particular contrast not only by allowing Cleinias to emerge as a promising thinker in the second of the two dialectical encounters, but also by allowing the eristic antics of the sophists to become sillier and sillier, so that, in the end, as the crown of their achievement, they are inquiring whether Heracles is a bravo or a bravo Heracles 303A.

Another means of contrast adopted by Plato is to show, in the case of eristic, that its practitioners care nothing for the future of their pupils; all they require is someone who is willing to answer 275C. Their purpose is to give a demonstration of eristic tricks with a view to attracting students and making money. Socrates and his friends, on the other hand, desire that the young man "become as good as possible" 275A. Socrates' treatment of Cleinias is kindly, leisured, and adapted to the needs and abilities of the particular pupil before him; the sophists, on the other hand, indulge in a rapid-fire procedure that reaches no definite conclusion and that takes no account of individual differences. Plato emphasizes, further, the ease with which the eristic technique can be learned, (we in fact see Cleinias' admirer, Ctesippus, acquiring the knack before our very eyes 299Eff.), and surely implies, if he does not say, that one hardly becomes a master of dialectic over-night. (In the Republic, as we know, he lays down the lengthy course of studies required in detail.)

As the dialogue proceeds, it hardly seems to matter to the sophists in what order their arguments are deployed, so adept are they at "snatch[ing] at every word" 305A. To Socrates, on the other hand, order and sequence are of the essence. And so on and so on.


We must raise the question, then, if Plato has made the contrast between dialectic and eristic so extreme, displaying the educational success of the one and the contrasting failure of the other, why is eristic even worth refuting as a method of education?

To answer this question, we need to ask another: to what particular form of expertise do the sophists lay claim? Formerly they were experts in military matters and in the battles of the law courts 271D, but now they treat these things as diversions. To this assertion Socrates replies,

I was astonished and said, Your serious occupation must certainly be splendid if you have important things like these for your diversions! For heaven's sake, tell me what this splendid occupation is! 273D (1)

And Euthydemus replies,

Virtue, Socrates, is what it is, he said, and we think we can teach it better than anyone else and more quickly. 273D

In other words, the sophists are not proposing merely to give lessons in the technique of how to bring off eristic tricks; they are claiming to encroach on Socratic territory.

To see why this claim was particularly galling to Plato, consider the three assumptions on which it is based. The first of these is that virtue is teachable. With this Plato would agree, so far as the actual formulation of the claim is concerned; he would not, however, agree with what the sophists conceive virtue to be, since, when we see them in action, their performance appears to have no moral content. The second assumption is that they, the sophists, are the teachers of virtue; again he cannot agree, since not only do they fail to teach, but, as already indicated, there is a fundamental difference between them and Socrates as to what virtue is. The third assumption is that the sophists' art can persuade an intending pupil of these first two propositions. By this point, however, the difference between Plato and the sophists is so radical that it can hardly matter to him whether their art is self-validating or not.

Plato's task, therefore, is to display the contrary of all three assumptions in the case of the sophists, and, more agressively, to show that the same three hold in the case of Socrates.

So we may begin by asking, is the sophists' art successful in persuading Cleinias that virtue is teachable? To this the answer is clearly no, since his experience at their hands has not persuaded him of anything at all. We see the boy out of breath, confused, and "going down for the third fall" 277D. Furthermore, the whispered comments of Dionysodorus in the ear of Socrates indicate that no positive result is even intended on the sophists' part. At 275E, for instance, Dionysodorus whispers, "I may tell you beforehand, Socrates, that whichever way the boy answers he will be refuted," and, again, at 276D, he says, "This is another, Socrates, just like the first." Since, therefore the sophists have failed to persuade Cleinias that virtue is teachable, the second point, that they are its teachers, does not even arise.

In an ironically charitable mood, one which is pervasive in the dialogue, Socrates suggests that Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are simply engaging in some species of Corybantic dancing as a preliminary to something more serious; he continues to assume that the sophists really have Cleinias' moral welfare at heart. The tenacity with which Socrates is made by Plato to keep up this pretense only serves to emphasize how far from any protreptic purpose the sophists really are.

In Scene II, however, when Socrates undertakes to show the sophists his idea of what "an exhibition of persuading the young man that he ought to devote himself to wisdom and virtue" 278D should be like, we have a total change in atmosphere. Gone are the carefully formulated trick questions designed to trip up the respondent by means of distinctions in words; Socrates even appears indifferent as to whether to speak of virtue or of wisdom, since he and the others want Cleinias to become both wise and good. The questions put to the young man relate specifically to the matter in hand; their content is ethical throughout. Their effect upon Cleinias resembles the leaping flame of the Seventh Letter 344B, since he concludes, without argument 282C that wisdom can be taught. Such being the case, it is hardly necessary for Plato to argue, as a separate point, that Socrates is its teacher, since we see that his questioning has led Cleinias to a firm resolve to love wisdom "as well as ever [he] can" 282D. Nor does Plato need to argue that the art of dialectic is self-validating, since we see Cleinias reaching important conclusions without such an argument. His initial instinct to go straight to Socrates and sit down 273B has borne much fruit.


In attempting to answer the question, why did Plato think Euthydemus and Dionysodorus worth refuting, I suggested that it was their educational pretensions that prompted his attack. Now if Plato's sole purpose in the Euthydemus had been to demonstrate the failure of the sophists to teach virtue, the dialogue could have been quite short. He has, I believe, an additional purpose, namely, to undermine their philosophical assumptions.

It may at first appear to be lending too much dignity to the sophists to credit them with having any philosophical assumptions, or at least any that they would care to reveal to the listening public. Nevertheless, they do proceed, particularly in the first and third scenes, on the recognizably Parmenidean basis that there is no becoming.

Consider the first set of arguments to which they compel Cleinias to submit: an analysis of these (which I do not propose to give here), would show that they are constructed in terms of exclusive opposites. So a typical introductory question is, "which are the men who learn, the wise or the ignorant?" 275D, where no mediating reply is permitted. Similar gambits are based on the opposition between knowing and not knowing, where again there is no possibility of any middle ground: if Cleinias should claim to be somewhat knowing or only slightly ignorant, the mechanics of the sophistical refutation would not work. The arguments of the sophists here belong to the same family as the better-known eristikos logos or "trick argument" put forward by Meno in that dialogue at 80E. The import of this argument is, as Socrates makes clear, that

a man cannot try to discover either what he knows or what he does not know; he would not seek what he knows, for since he knows it there is no need of the inquiry, nor what he does not know, for in that case he does not even know what he is to look for.

This type of thing appears to have been widespread, as we may judge from the reference at Theaetetus 199A to persons whom it amuses "to turn and twist the expressions 'knowing` and 'learning`." It was still familiar to Aristotle, who at Metaphysics IX, 8 speaks of "the sophistical quibble, that one who does not possess a science will be doing that which is the object of the science; for he who is learning it does not possess it" 1049b33 (Ross). It should be noted, too, that Aristotle's method of dealing with this quibble is by means of his concept of potentiality, that is, to insist upon the importance of becoming. The effect of the sophists' arguments is, therefore, to undermine the whole enterprise of teaching and learning, since what the teacher normally does is to bring the pupil through a series of intermediate stages; he assists him, in other words, to "become" what he was not before. In more specifically Platonic terms, this implies the doctrine of recollection, as Plato makes particularly clear at Meno 81D where he says

when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledge-learned it, in ordinary language- there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection.

Plato sees a further attack on teaching and learning in Scene III of the Euthydemus, the second of the sophistic scenes, where the sophists deny the possibility of contradiction and false speaking. Socrates perceives quite correctly that such denials destroy the possibilities of refutation and the making of mistakes, and thus imply that no one is ignorant or in need of being taught. He therefore speaks as follows:

. . . perhaps I'm about to ask a rather stupid question, but bear with me . . . if it is impossible to speak falsely, or to think falsely, or to be ignorant, then there is no possibility of making a mistake when a man does anything? . . . [and] if this really is the case- what in heaven's name do you two come here to teach? Or didn't you say just now that if anyone wanted to learn virtue, you would impart it best? 286Eff.

This "stupid question" given to Socrates by Plato is devastating for the sophists' educational claims. These claims, as we have seen, are basically two: a general claim to be teachers, and, more specifically, a claim to teach virtue. I have tried to argue that an examination of their performance shows that they have cut the educational ground from under their own feet by their refusal to admit becoming; if, then, they cannot teach, then, a fortiori, they cannot teach virtue. In any case this latter claim turns out to have been disingenuous, and was perhaps prompted by a desire on the part of Euthydemus and his brother to associate themselves with more reputable sophists such as Protagoras. What they are really interested in teaching is not virtue but eristic. In their own words at 274A, "we are here to give a demonstration, and to teach, if anyone wants to learn," where the content of this proposed teaching is now left unspecified. As the dialogue goes on, all pretence of teaching virtue is dropped; the true motives of the sophists are made especially clear in the final pages, where Socrates addresses the pair as follows:

If you will take my advice, be careful not to talk in front of a large group; the listeners are likely to master it right away and give you no credit. Better just talk to each other in private, or, if you must have an audience, then let no one come unless he gives you money. 304A

Again Plato points an extreme contrast: Socrates was always willing to speak in front of a large group (Crito in fact chides him on this very point 305B), he never took money, and, as is clear from his treatment of Cleinias, he believed that virtue could be taught.

Since Plato has really delivered the death-blow to the sophists' educational pretensions with Socrates' "stupid question" at the end of Scene III, at a point not even halfway through the dialogue (in the sixteenth of the thirty-six Stephanus pages), it could be said that the rest of the Euthydemus consists in driving home an attack that has already been adequately grounded. What Plato appears to be doing in the remainder of the dialogue could almost be said to be flogging a dead horse, rather than introducing points that are essentially new. The dominant effect of the remaining two scenes is simply to drive the two educational methods still further apart. Thus we see Cleinias making even more remarkable progress in Scene IV, the second of his dialectical encounters with Socrates, than he has already done in Scene II, and the sophists, in Scene V, continuing in the direction of total silliness. (2) By the time Plato picks up the outer frame at 303B, the main work of the dialogue has long since been accomplished.


Am I saying, then, that the Euthydemus presents us with a case of Platonic overkill? I think this would be too extreme. Much more likely is that we have here a case of what Holger Thesleff has called "pedimental" construction. (3) Roughly speaking, his view is that the high point or "peripeteia" of many dialogues comes at or near the center, rather than later on. Thesleff's own choice of central section for the Euthydemus is the discussion of the Kingly Art at 291D-292E. If we were to think of the dialogue as primarily ethical, and to play down the educational contrast between dialectic and eristic that I have tried to emphasize, this choice would certainly be reasonable. But I believe that the true theme of the Euthydemus is paideia, and that Socrates' "stupid question" at 286E is intended by Plato to show us just this.


(1) Translations of the Euthydemus are my own, as from Plato: Complete Works edd. John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, Hackett: Indianapolis 1997. Quotations from other Platonic dialogues are from The Collected Dialogues of Plato edd. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen: Princeton 1961.

(2) I do not mean to suggest that nothing of importance occurs in Scene V; this would be to ignore the sophists' attack on the theory of forms at 300Eff., for instance. What I do intend to say is that the main philosophical work of the dialogue has been accomplished earlier.

(3) Studies in the Styles of Plato: Acta Philosophica Fennica Fasc. XX: Helsinki 1967 34, 59g, 167.