Socrates enters into a discussion with two sophists, Euthydemus and his brother Dionysodorus, who claim to be the best teachers of virtue alive, when what they really practice is the ability to trick people with the different meanings of words. They start by tricking Cleinias (a young friend of Socrates) by getting him to agree firstly that only ignorant people learn, and once he agrees, they tag-team the explanation and convince him the reverse – that only clever people learn – by not distinguishing between beginning to learn and succeeding in learning (understanding). When Socrates comes to debate with the brothers, he frustrates them by qualifying his answers to avoid their entrapment.
This was the last of the chapters in the Penguin edition Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor Saunders.
The Sophists’ style of argument is to make the student choose between two options then change the definition of the words to display their cleverness. They seek to win the argument regardless of the outcome of what they say, whereas Socrates claims to only be interested in reaching the truth. But truth to tell, I find they use a similar argument as Socrates, just more condensed and ludicrous.
Socrates reassures Cleinias by saying that Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are only playing with him, but describes their behaviour as if they were bullies (as they are)
“I call it playful because mastery of even a substantial amount, or even the whole, of this sort of stuff would by no means lead to increased knowledge of how things are, but to the ability to play games with people, tripping them up and flooring them with different senses of words, just like those who derive pleasure and amusement from pulling stools from under people when they are about to sit down, and from seeing someone floundering on his back”
And I also enjoyed a comment on speech-writers
“Speech composition …. After all, it’s an aspect of enchantment, and a close second best to it. Enchantment is the bewitching of wild animals, and pests like snakes, poisonous spiders and scorpions; speech-writing is in fact the bewitching and calming-down of assemblies – legal, political and so on.”
Think of that next time you hear a politician make a speech!
“Really Socrates, you shouldn’t answer questions with questions!….. You persist in being an unnecessarily reactionary old windbag!”
Personal rating : This one gets a 5 as I got a few laughs from Socrates with this confrontation. I will never be a Greek philosopher though.
Next : Aristophanes’ last surviving play, Wealth