Ancient History & Civilisation


Plato (who was to be followed in this by Aristotle) believed that one of the things that characterized the Sophists, or some of them, was bad argumentation. The word ‘sophism’ has come to mean an argument which has the appearance of a valid argument, but is invalid. In fact, at any rate in his earlier dialogues, before his thorough treatment of the subject in Sophist, Plato was probably less concerned about this than about the fact that they were explicitly or implicitly wedded to a set of standards and goals which he found superficial at best, and at worst downright immoral. However, these two aspects of sophistry—bad argument and misplaced ethics—were connected by their contemporaries and critics. When Aristotle defined a Sophist (On Sophistic Refutations 165a) as ‘someone who makes money by apparent but not genuine wisdom’, it should be remembered that wisdom was an important part of what constituted virtue in ancient Greece. Therefore, to pretend to have wisdom was immoral. For Aristotle, the demonstration that they only pretend to have wisdom is the demonstration that their arguments are invalid. Their immorality is subsidiary to their weakness at arguing. This is less true for Plato, because he is less clear at distinguishing logical fallacies (at any rate, he puts quite a few into the mouth of Socrates, who is generally reckoned to be Plato’s own mouthpiece). For Plato their immorality lay in their raising money by argumentative displays which treated the interlocutor as an opponent to be dazzled and defeated, rather than encouraged to change his life for the better. So in Euthydemus Plato has the Sophist brothers exploit bad arguments deliberately: that is, they are not arguing badly because they can do no better; they are arguing badly because they choose to do so, to confound their opponents. They are masters of the art of what Plato calls ‘eristic’, arguing to win.

Euthydemus contains a marvellous parody of bad and eristic arguments, a few of which are included here, concentrating on those which are most accessible in English translation. In formal terms the fallacy in each case is a form of equivocation. But it is also important to note that the Sophists’ arguments are driven by theory too; their fallacies run deeper than mere punning or equivocation. Lurking behind T2, for instance, may be the Eleatic denial of change, in such a way that to want Cleinias to change is to want him to cease to exist; and Eleaticism is explicitly brought out, by Socrates, as underlying T4. Protagoras may also be invoked behind T4: my knowledge at any given time is irrefutable, according to Protagoras, but if time consists of a series of such ‘given times’, then at any time in my life I have knowledge. Nevertheless, one is left with the feeling that explaining the sophisms with this degree of sophistication misses the point: Euthydemus is a sophisticated comedy, and the bad argumentation of the Sophists is the main joke.

The two Sophists are otherwise virtually unknown (their obscurity perhaps reflecting their mediocrity), but the fact that Euthydemus gains another mention by Plato at Cratylus 386d, and crops up briefly in Aristotle at On Sophistic Refutations 177b andRhetoric1401a, while Dionysodorus is mentioned by Xenophon at Memoirs of Socrates 3.1.1, is sufficient to guarantee their historical existence. According to Plato in Euthydemus 273C-d, the two Sophist brothers had originally taught military skills (one of the rarer Sophistic accomplishments) before turning to the verbal and argumentative pyrotechnics Plato illustrates.

T1 [Socrates speaking] Euthydemus started in from roughly this direction, I think: ‘Tell me, Cleinias, are clever or ignorant people those who learn?’

Faced with this momentous question, the lad blushed and looked at me in puzzlement. I saw that he was flustered and said: ‘Don’t worry, Cleinias. Just pluck up courage and give whichever answer you think is right. Remember, you’ll probably benefit enormously.’

While I was saying this, Dionysodorus had leaned over to me with a big grin on his face, to whisper briefly in my ear. ‘In fact, Socrates,’ he said, ‘I can tell you now that whichever answer the lad gives, he will be proved wrong.’

As luck would have it, Cleinias gave his answer at the same time as Dionysodorus was telling me this, so I didn’t have time to warn him to be careful; he replied that clever people are the ones who learn.

‘Do you or do you not acknowledge the existence of teachers?’ asked Euthydemus.

He agreed that he did.

‘And teachers teach learners—for instance, you and your schoolmates had a music-teacher and a writing-teacher, from whom you used to learn?’

He agreed.

‘So wasn’t it the case that when you were learners, you didn’t yet know what you were learning?’

He agreed that they did not.

‘And were you clever when you didn’t have this knowledge?’

‘Of course not,’ he said.

‘In fact, if you weren’t clever, you were ignorant, weren’t you?’


‘So, while learning what you didn’t know, you were learning because you were ignorant.’

The lad nodded.

‘Therefore, Cleinias, it is ignorant people who learn, not clever people, as you imagine.’

As if these words were a prompt by a director to a chorus, Dionysodorus’ and Euthydemus’ followers broke out into cheers and laughter. And before the lad could draw a proper breath, Dionysodorus took over and said, ‘Now, Cleinias, when the writing-teacher was reciting a piece, was it the clever or the ignorant children who learnt it?’

‘The clever ones,’ said Cleinias.

‘So clever people learn, not ignoramuses: you gave the wrong reply to Euthydemus just now.’

At this point, the pair’s admirers, delighted with their heroes’ cleverness, laughed and cheered very loudly, while the rest of us were speechless with amazement. Euthydemus recognized our amazement and, in order to astound us even more, kept on relentlessly questioning the lad, and in good choreographic style began to turn his questions back around the same spot. ‘Do those who learn learn what they know,’ he asked, ‘or what they do not know?’

Dionysodorus had another brief word in my ear: ‘This is another one just like the first, Socrates,’ he said.

‘Heavens!’ I exclaimed. ‘I can assure you that we were impressed by the first question.’

‘All our questions of this sort are designed to trap people, Socrates,’ he said.

‘That, I think,’ I said, ‘is why your pupils look up to you.’

Cleinias had meanwhile replied that those who learn learn what they do not know, and Euthydemus’ questions employed the same method as before. ‘But surely you know the alphabet, don’t you?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Right through?’

He agreed.

‘Now, doesn’t a recitation consist of letters?’

He agreed.

‘So, if you know the whole alphabet, then a recitation consists of what you know, doesn’t it?’

He agreed to this too.

‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘do you not learn a recitation, while someone ignorant of the alphabet does?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I do learn it.’

‘Therefore, you learn what you know,’ he said, ‘if you know the alphabet.’

He agreed.

‘So your answer was wrong,’ he said.

These words were hardly out of Euthydemus’ mouth when Dionysodorus took over the argument, as if it were a ball to catch and throw at the lad: ‘Euthydemus is having you on, Cleinias,’ he said. ‘I mean, wouldn’t you say that learning is the acquisition of knowledge of what is being learnt?’

Cleinias agreed.

‘And knowing is the current possession of knowledge, surely?’

He agreed.

‘Ignorance, therefore, is not yet possessing knowledge?’

He agreed with him.

‘Well, do people acquire something they already possess or something they lack?’

‘Something they lack.’

‘And you have agreed that ignorant people are among those who have a lack?’

He nodded.

‘And those who learn are acquirers, not possessors?’

He agreed.

‘Therefore, Cleinias,’ he concluded, ‘it is ignorant people who learn, not knowledgeable ones.’ (Plato, Euthydemus 275d2–277C7 Burnet)

T2 ‘Tell me,’ Dionysodorus said, ‘Socrates and all the rest of you who say you want this young man to become wise, is this a joke or do you really mean it? Are you serious?’

Now, the explanation, I assumed, for this banter and lack of seriousness was that, in spite of all, they had got the impression that our earlier request for them to speak with the lad had not been serious, so I said in no uncertain terms that we were incredibly serious.

‘Look out, Socrates,’ Dionysodorus rejoined. ‘You may end up taking your words back.’

‘I have looked,’ I said. ‘There’s no way that I shall ever take them back.’

‘All right, then,’ he said. ‘Now, you say that you want him to become wise?’


‘Is Cleinias wise at the moment or not?’ he asked.

‘Well, he says he isn’t yet,’ I said, ‘and he’s not given to idle talk.’

‘And you want him to become wise,’ he said, ‘and not to be ignorant?’

We agreed.

‘So you want him to become someone else and to stop being the person he now is.’

This took me aback, and before I could recover, he cut in: ‘In other words, since you want him to stop being the person he now is, you apparently want him to die, don’t you? Of course, it’s those who place supreme value on their beloved dying that make sterling friends and lovers!’

Ctesippus, nervous about his beloved, got annoyed when he heard this, and said: ‘If it wasn’t a bit impolite—after all, you’re a visitor, all the way from Thurii—I would have said “Go and die yourself!”, for getting it into your head to slander me and the others like that. I think it’s blasphemous to suggest that I could wish him to die.’

‘Oh, I see, Ctesippus,’ said Euthydemus. ‘You think it’s possible to lie, do you?’

‘Good heavens, of course!’ he said. ‘I’m not crazy!’

‘Do lies occur when someone mentions the thing which he mentions, or when he does not?’

‘When he mentions it,’ he said.

‘So if he mentions it, then, out of all facts, he is mentioning precisely the one which he is mentioning, isn’t he?’

‘Of course,’ said Ctesippus.

‘Then at least this thing which he mentions is one out of all facts, distinct from all other facts, isn’t it?’


‘So in mentioning this thing, he is talking about the fact of the matter?’ he asked.


‘But if he mentions the fact of the matter, if he mentions fact, then he is speaking the truth. So if Dionysodorus mentions facts, he is speaking the truth and not slandering you at all.’ (Plato, Euthydemus 283b4–284a8 Burnet)

T3 ‘Do animate or inanimate things have ideas?’ asked Dionysodorus.


‘Do you know an animate sentence?’ he asked.

‘Good heavens, no!’

‘Why, then, did you just ask me what the idea of my sentence was?’ (Plato, Euthydemus 287d7-e1 Burnet)

T4 Euthydemus started with a very generous offer. ‘Socrates,’ he said, ‘you’ve both been puzzling over this knowledge [the science of happiness] for a while now. Shall I instruct you in it or demonstrate that you have it?’

‘You marvellous man,’ I said. ‘Can you do that?’

‘Certainly,’ he said.

‘Then please, please demonstrate that I have it,’ I said. ‘For someone my age that’s easier than learning about it.’

‘All right, then,’ he said. ‘You answer my questions. Do you know anything?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘lots of things—unimportant things, though.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘Now, do you think it possible for anything not to be what it is?’

‘Of course I don’t. What a question!’

‘And you know something?’


‘So, if you know, you are in possession of knowledge?’

‘Yes, of that thing, anyway.’

‘That’s irrelevant. Aren’t you bound to know everything, if you are in possession of knowledge?’

‘Good heavens, no!’ I said. ‘There are plenty of other things I don’t know.’

‘Well, if you don’t know something, you are not in possession of knowledge.’

‘Of that, my friend,’ I said.

‘But that doesn’t alter the fact that you are not in possession of knowledge, does it?’ he asked. ‘But just now you said you were. So you both are what you are, and again are not what you are, in the same respect and at the same time.’

‘All right, Euthydemus,’ I said. ‘Touché, as they say. So how do I have that knowledge we were looking for? Because (a) it is impossible both to be and not be the same thing; (b) if I know one thing, I know everything, since I cannot at the same time both be and not be in possession of knowledge; (c) since I know everything, then I possess that knowledge too. Is that what you’re saying? Is that the bright idea?’

‘You are refuting yourself out of your own mouth, Socrates,’ he said. (Plato, Euthydemus 293a8–e1 Burnet)

T5 ‘Tell me,’ said Dionysodorus, ‘do you have a dog?’

‘Yes, a real scamp,’ said Ctesippus.

‘And has he got puppies?’

‘Yes, regular chips off the old block,’ he said.

‘So your dog is their father?’

‘Yes, I myself saw him mounting the bitch,’ he said.

‘Well, now, the dog is yours?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘He is a father, and he is yours—so he turns out to be your father, and you are brother to puppies!’ (Plato, Euthydemus 298d8-e5 Burnet)

T6 ‘Oh, so you know what each craftsman’s function is, do you?’ Dionysodorus asked. ‘Do you know, firstly, whose job it is to hammer metal?’

‘Yes, a smith’s.’

‘And to make pots?’

‘A potter’s.’

‘And to slaughter, skin, chop meat up, boil it, and roast it?’

‘A cook’s.’

‘Now, doing one’s proper job is right, isn’t it?’ he asked.

‘Very much so.’

‘And, as you agree, the proper thing for a cook is chopping and skinning? Did you admit that or not?’

‘I did,’ I said, ‘but please don’t hold it against me.’

‘The proper thing to do, then, obviously, is to slaughter cooks, chop them up, boil them, and roast them. Likewise, the proper thing is to hammer smiths and make pots out of potters!’ (Plato, Euthydemus 301c6–d8 Burnet)

T. H. Chance, Plato’s Euthydemus: Analysis of What Is and What Is Not Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

M. M. McCabe, ‘Persistent Fallacies’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 94 (1994), 73–93.

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