The Humor of Socrates in the Euthydemus

Socrates is a funny guy. Yes, he is serious, but he is never solemn. You can be funny and serious at the same time. This dialogue, the Euthydemus, is a fine example.

First a little background: Socrates believes that Athenians are being poorly served by the Sophists, a group of self-proclaimed teachers of rhetoric (the art of political, legal, and philosophical persuasion). To him, Sophists pretend knowledge they do not have, and take money to “educate” those who know even less, but who leave their “teachers” thinking they know.

Sophists love to make speeches. They do not want to engage in the discipline of focused questioning and answering. They love to change topics, play with the ambiguities of language, entrance their listeners. They do not want to be shown that their words lack meaning.

Good education requires mental effort. When Socrates engages in conversation, he is looking for someone willing to exert themselves mentally. Someone willing to have humility and goodwill, someone willing to think through what they believe and change if necessary, someone willing to have the patience to focus on one thing at a time and come to an understanding of what that one thing means.

This is dialectic, a dialogue between two persons of goodwill who are able to exercise the patience, discipline, and mental focus and energy to clarify their understanding of a topic.

Rhetoric is the opposite. It’s not about coming together into truth. It’s about exploiting the ambiguities of language to gain the upper hand.

Dialectic is about acquiring knowledge.

Rhetoric is about winning.

In the Euthydemus, Socrates tells Crito about an attempt at dialectic he had with two brothers of a foreign land, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. They are self-proclaimed Sophists and teachers of Eristic, that is, fighting with words. They used teach fighting with arms and armor. But they have learned from teachers of rhetoric, and for a price will teach anyone how to fight with words, how to win any argument.

Plato here immediately establishes the humor of the situation. Here are two young men who are not very bright. They think they can move easily from teaching fighting with arms and armor to fighting with words. You see, they realize that rhetoric is the Next Big Thing, the new money-making business, and one does not have to break a sweat to charge a fee and teach verbal swordplay.

This is like someone who thinks they can become a rocket scientist because they have fired rocket launchers!

These brothers use Eristic to exploit the logical ambiguities of words. Here’s an example of how the brothers play off the ambiguity of the verb is. They are talking about Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus:

Yes, I said, he is my half-brother, the son of my mother, but not of my father.

Then he is and is not your brother, said Dionysodorus.

Not by the same father, my good man, I said, for Chaeredemus was his father, and mine was Sophroniscus.

And was Sophroniscus a father, and Chaeredemus also?

Yes, I said; the former was my father, and the latter his.

Then, he said, Chaeredemus is not a father.

He is not my father, I said.

But can a father be other than a father? Or are you the same as a stone?

I certainly do not think that I am a stone, I said, though I am afraid that you may prove me to be one.

Are you not other than a stone?

I am.

And being other than a stone, you are not a stone; and being other than gold, you are not gold?

Very true.

And so Chaeredemus, he said, being other than a father, is not a father?

I suppose that he is not a father, I replied.

For if, said Euthydemus, taking up the argument, Chaeredemus is a father, then Sophroniscus, being other than a father, is not a father; and you, Socrates, are without a father.

Can you see what the brothers are doing here? They are not interested in an honest search for truth. They are using verbal wordplay and the ambiguity in the nature of the verb is to come to illogical conclusions.

The verb is can be used in two ways:

1) Identity: Something is. “He is Socrates.”

2) Relation: Something is in relation to something else. “He is a father.”

The word father describes a relation, not an identity. An identity applies in every case.

A relation only has meaning in terms of what it is related to, and it does not apply in every relation (in every case). But the brothers play on the word as if it were an identity.

And they can play with language in this silly way all day.

To Socrates and Plato, any idiot can use verbal wordplay to create an incoherent mish-mash of meaninglessness.

A Sophist says what he thinks other people will believe rather than what is true.

Socrates says what he thinks is true even though other people won’t believe it.

A Sophist trains others in a skill for money.

Socrates educates because it is good for people. He does not accept money.

Training is for workers and slaves.

Education is for free people.

Socrates then is a true educator in the original sense: Educare means “to lead people out of.”

For Socrates, true education leads people out of the slavery of false beliefs into the freedom of the truth.

To Socrates, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are so idiotic that they are only dangers to themselves. Socrates plays with them and is gentle with them. He indulges humorously with them.

But with other Sophists, like Protagoras and Gorgias, Socrates is not so gentle.

Because they should know better.

*****

The Best Complete Plato

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