CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition


1 The Euthydemus is a well-populated dialogue. There are seven main characters – Socrates and Crito, in direct dialogue with each other in the frame; the two sophistic brothers, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus; the two young men, Cleinias and Ctesippus, the objects of the sophists' attention; and an Anonymous commentator who talks to Crito at the very end, and in the framing time of the day before. [1] Each of the characters is carefully described, focussing attention on their various claims to knowledge. Socrates is an old man, slow to learn (272b-c) and incredulous at the sophists' claim that he may know everything (293b). Cleinias is offered to the sophists as a target for their skill (275a1-2). Ctesippus, the emulative admirer of Cleinias, offers himself as a victim to the sophists and learns their skill fast. [2] Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, treated throughout as a pair, [3] are introduced at the very beginning of the dialogue as ‘new-fangled sophists', [4] and repeatedly described (by others and themselves) as having wisdom of an amazing kind. And the Anonymous certainly thinks himself to be wise (304d), occupying, as both he and Socrates suppose, a place between philosophy and politics.

2 So a central theme of the dialogue is wisdom or knowledge and how it is to be acquired, and how we know we have it. But Socrates' opening gambit – that these are ‘new-fangled (kainoi) sophists' – might focus our attention on a different but connected theme – that of process and change. In what follows I shall argue that the Euthydemus is thus constructed around the question of ‘what is it to change from being ignorant to being wise?', or ‘how is the becoming in becoming wise possible?' This question is first asked by the introduction of the dramatis personae, amplified in the dialogue's running theme of the ‘protreptic to knowledge', and reflected in the contrasting processes of learning proposed for the seven characters.

3 So in what follows I claim that there is continuity between the way the dialogue is composed – in particular in the way each of the main actors is described – and its philosophical purposes. Indeed, this seems to me to be quite generally true of the way Plato writes – that the intricate detail of the dialogues does a great deal of the philosophical work. This claim can only be substantiated case by case – in what follows, I offer the Euthydemus as one such case.

4 I shall argue that the sophists invite their interlocutors [5] to say that there is no such thing as process, only the replacement of one property by its successor (the succession view of change). But the theme of protreptic and learning proffers a different account of change, as the process towards an end (the progressiveview of change). And I shall suggest that the discussion of protreptic invites us to think about the normativity of change, by thinking about the relation between the process and its end: is the process extrinsic to the end (so somehow a means to it) or intrinsic, somehow itself constitutive of the end? The sophists' puzzles about the metaphysics of change ask this question; and the dialogue, including its list of characters, invites us to see how Socrates would answer.


5 A brief but important argument, at the very centre of the dialogue, generates a huge furore among the participants. Dionysodorus argues (283c-d) that since Socrates and Ctesippus wish Cleinias to become wise, he is not yet wise, but ignorant. So they wish him to become who he is not yet, and no longer to be who he is now. [6] But then wishing Cleinias no longer to be who he is, is surely wishing him dead?

6 The regular objection to the sophists' argument is that it is straightforwardly fallacious: wishing Cleinias no longer to be such as he is now is not the same thing as wishing Cleinias no longer to be who he is now, nor wishing him thus dead. But notice that this charge of fallacy is theory-laden. [7] It supposes that there is a contrast, on which we can antecedently rely, between who we are and such as we are; that the world is in fact arranged in ways where the subject of change persists through its change of property. But without some such antecedent contrast, Ctesippus (provoked to rage) is not in a position to rebut what they say: without some distinction between property change and substantial change, he is not in a position to resist the charge of killing Cleinias.

7 Notice, too, that the distinction in question may be a complex one. Crito's first set of questions about the sophists tells us, of course, that he has never come across them before. But Socrates' account of who they are is characterised by their refusing to stand still. [8] They have moved around a lot, for one thing, and have only recently ended up hereabouts. But they are also pretty fluid in their occupation (they started as all-in wrestlers, then forensic debaters) until now, when they have, as Socrates puts it, put an end to their all-in wrestling (272a4-5). For now they are so brilliant at fighting in words that no-one can come against them, whatever the opponent may say (271c-272b). At each stage, it is notable that their professional changes determine who they are, [9] and at each stage their new character completely replaces its predecessor. The changes that affect these characters involve the succession of properties (or of identities, even); who they are is just replaced at each stage. These are indeed new-fangled sophists, reinventing themselves with each new profession.

8 How is the self-invention of the sophists connected to killing Cleinias? Socrates ties the disastrous privacy of the sophists' language [10] with their pedagogy. Their clone [11] Ctesippus has, in the course of the dialogue, learned something pretty fast, just as they promised.

9 In his closing commentary (303e4-304a5) on what has happened in the sophistic arguments, Socrates draws our attention to several features of the sophists' ‘clever feature': that the teaching they offer is extremely fast, not to say instantaneous; that what the pupil learns is to imitate them; that this imitation can be transmitted wholesale, to anyone and everyone; and that it somehow or other precludes talking to, or in front of, others who are not thus the clones of the sophists. These features are interconnected.

10 The sophistic enterprise is predicated on their interlocutors' conceding a radical account of truth presented in the central episode (283-288). [12] Statements are true if and only if they refer to what they are about; anything else is not a statement at all. This account of truth disallows truth-functional relations between statements (on pain of the possibility of falsification) and reduces statements to piecemeal disconnected truths. [13] So truths are episodic, and discussion is impossible. [14]

11 The episodic view of truth is presented (at 283e ff.) just after the Killing Cleinias argument: appropriately, because if statements are true on these terms, they are discontinuous from each other, and cannot, then, represent change other than as the succession of a series of states (indeed even the succession is disallowed, on pain of the possibility of falsification). [15] But such discontinuity characterises sophistic activity: [16] Socrates insists that what they teach is learned immediately; and that the learning in question amounts to some effect on the properties of the pupil (becoming like the sophists). If Cleinias learns, he becomes what he was not.

12 But the opening description of the sophists themselves suggests a stronger view: that such property change is a change in who the person is. Property change, that is to say, is indistinguishable from substantial change. So if Cleinias learns, he dies. If, that is, the episodic theory of truth is true, then change will work in the same way – episodically. What will that be like? Well, change will be something that occurs instantaneously (there will be no process of learning here, just a switch at a moment from one intellectual state to the next). But that occurrence, the Killing Cleinias argument suggests, will be a change in the person. In the same way, in learning sophistry, Ctesippus will become the clone of the sophists, just as they themselves were new–made when they changed from wrestling and the law to sophistry: new-fangled sophists indeed. [17]

13 The interwoven series of themes – the speed of change, identity and learning – invites us to think about the nature of property-change and its relation to substantial change. This, in turn, is connected with the question of how teaching and learning take place, and what we might think would count as progress or process in learning.


14 Other sophistic arguments suggest that there is no such thing as progress – in anything, but especially in learning. In this vein, Socrates appears at the beginning of the dialogue sitting alone [18] in the changing room at the gym, prevented from leaving by the divine sign, which told him to stay where he was (272e). [19] Socrates represents himself as old and slow to learn, [20] a source of embarrassment to his cithara teacher, Connus, whose young pupils call him a gerontodidaskolos… Later, likewise, the sophists complain that Socrates is an old Kronos (287b), whose interest in consistency is merely a curmudgeonly attachment to what is already past. At this point of the dialogue, the sophists' episodism ignores [21] the importance of consistency over time; while Socrates' insistence on it is taken to be a matter of his character (he is curmudgeonly) or his identity (he is in fact an ancient, and displaced, god).

15 The exchange highlights a running theme in the dialogue, that the interlocutors' theoretical commitments are tied to what we might say about their character and identity. The point is not merely that their character illustrates their other commitments; but rather their character depends on what those commitments are (so what you think affects who you are). The sophists, if they deny that there is anything to truth than individual true episodes, have no way of describing or explaining what it would be to persist, or to remain constant through those episodes; and they are introduced from the beginning as having no constancy over time. Conversely, if Socrates is to insist on consistency over time, he owes us an account of what that consistency is, of who it is that is committed to it over time, and why. His role as a slow learner depends on his being able to show us that there is such a thing as slow learning, and that someone can do it.

16 But now the sophists advance an argument (the Omniscience argument) [22] to show that all the knowledge that Socrates is anxious to acquire is knowledge he already has. [23] If Socrates admits that he knows something (which, surprisingly, he does), then he must be a knower. When Socrates attempts to qualify that claim, the sophists disallow it, via a Principle of Non-Contradiction (293b) [24] which insists that any property precludes its complement. [25] So Socrates' being a knower precludes his being a not-knower; or his being a not-knower precludes his being a knower. If he admits to knowing something, then he is committed to being a knower; and that across all qualifications of respect or time. In that case, Socrates knowledgeability is permanent – a feature of him even before his birth, even before the birth of the heavens (296d).

17 Two things may strike us about this. [26] First, the conclusion suggests that the property of Socrates' knowingness seems to outlast even its bearer: it seems to be permanent through time, and thus independent of the Socrates whose birth it precedes. So while Killing Cleinias supposed that a change of property would somehow determine its bearer, Socrates' Omniscience supposes that the persisting properties outlast the bearer. In both cases, change is redescribed as the complete replacement of the object, or of the property, or of its bearer. This is what I called the succession theory: that change just is the succession of one property after another, without any persisting subject to underlie the change, or any other way, apart from mere eternity, of accounting for how the process of change might work. [27] But Connus, Socrates' cithara teacher, may smell a rat here: what will happen if he actually succeeds in teaching Socrates something? Will there be a Socrates left when he does? Or does Socrates not need teaching at all, since he knows everything all along?


18 The opening sophistic exchange of the dialogue is a set-piece quartet of arguments about learning and knowledge between the two sophistic brothers and young Cleinias (275c-277c). In the first pair, on being asked whether it is the wise or the ignorant who learn, Cleinias first replies that it is the wise and then – when that answer is refuted by the thought that those who learn do not yet know (276a8) – that it is the ignorant. Then his second answer is refuted by the observation that in a dictation it is the wise who are doing the learning (emanthanon, manthanousin, 276c4,6). Likewise in the second pair of arguments, on being asked whether those who learn (manthanontes, 276d7) learn what they know or what they do not know, Cleinias first answers that it is what they do not know. But then, agreeing that those who take dictations know all the dictated letters, and so learn what they know, [28] Cleinias is finally reduced also to deny it. For learning is surely acquiring knowledge; while knowing is having knowledge already, not knowing is not yet having knowledge. So those who acquire knowledge are surely those who do not yet have it: and so, it is those who do not know who learn.

19 There are many accounts of what goes wrong here, [29] notably the complaint of equivocation between manthanein as ‘learn' and manthanein as ‘understand'. [30] Socrates says:


First, as Prodicus says, you should learn the correctness of names. This is what our visitors are showing you, that you don't understand that learning is the name men use for cases when someone from the beginning has no knowledge about some matter, and then later gets knowledge of it; but they use the same name for cases when someone already has the knowledge, and with this same knowledge considers that very same matter either in action or in speech. They more often call the latter understanding than learning, but they sometimes call it learning, too. But you had forgotten this, as they have demonstrated, that the same name is used for people in quite opposite conditions, for someone who knows, and for someone who does not. Pretty much the same thing was going on in the second question, too, when they asked you whether men learn what they know or what they do not know. (277e5-278b2)

21 However Socrates may not be pointing to a lexical contrast here (between two senses of the word ‘manthano') but rather to differences of aspect. [31] He may, that is, be drawing a contrast between cases where we use the word in its imperfective sense (clearest in English in the past – ‘I was learning') and its perfective (‘I learned'). This contrast reflects on the process of learning: on the difference between striving to learn (as Socrates strives to master the cithara) and succeeding in learning, in understanding (like the sophists, having become completely invincible in their skill). And that contrast, if it is made by means of a distinction between aspects, must not be equivocated. If the process of learning is to issue in having learned, the perfective must be the completion of the imperfect process; otherwise, the process itself becomes hopeless or just indefinite. So if we understand the point Socrates wishes to make in terms of differences of aspect, we need to understand those differences as related to a single process. At the same time, the contrast between the two aspects needs to be maintained, otherwise the muddle of the sophistic conclusions ensues. So even if learning is a single process, it is one that involves change of aspect: in particular, change in the imperfective and the perfective aspects of the process. And furthermore, the imperfective must be understood in terms of its perfection: the perfection comes later, but it is what explains the imperfection of the process itself. [32]

22 However, difference of aspect itself requires explanation: what sort of assumptions underpin the contrast? If, in the first pair of arguments, he grasped a difference between the imperfective learning and its perfective, Cleinias might agree that it is the wise who undergo the process of learning; but that in so doing they have not completed the process, so are still, indeed, learning. In the second pair of arguments, likewise, he could agree that those who learn from dictation are still in the process of acquiring knowledge, even although they do indeed understand what the dictation-master means by each letter. The articulation of the process of learning, that is to say, needs to account both for how it may develop and for how it may end up: so it demands an account both of the process itself, and of its end. [33]

23 The opening exchange between Cleinias and the brothers thus understood, in fact, turns on a contrast which is central to the whole dialogue: the virtue of wisdom [34] and its acquisition [35] and transmission. [36] Indeed, there is a direct connection between the frame discussion of education and the development of wisdom and the direct arguments about learning and wisdom. For the protagonists themselves are described in terms of their own progress towards wisdom: Socrates the slow learner versus the speedy skills of the sophists; Cleinias the young innocent versus the swift acquirer of sophistry, Ctesippus; and Crito the anxious outsider (with sons to educate) in brief discussion with the Anonymous, whose argument is that the process of learning should ideally remain incomplete, for fear of damaging the political prospects of the learner (that, perhaps, is why the Anonymous does not stay behind long to discuss his point of view). Is the frame dialogue any more than a figurative way of calling to the attention of the reader one of the central themes?

24 Well, the frame gives us the self-representation of the characters – characters who are apparently committed to various other views. So the very contrast between the slow nature of Socrates and the instantaneous changes of the sophists [37] brings to our attention a striking contrast about the nature of change, and contextualises it in the lives of individual persons – giving that contrast, that is to say, ethical content. Socrates' slow process of learning appears to be cumulative and pluralist; his musical education is not a replacement for his learning of the wisdom philosophising seeks, but a complement to it: his life instantiates the progressive view of change. For the sophists, on the other hand, their process of becoming new-fangled sophists involves their discarding their earlier skills – the end of their process of learning must be separable from the process itself which becomes insignificant once the end is reached. That they discard their earlier skills, rather than merely switch from one to another, shows that in their self-representation there lies a strong claim about the metaphysics of change: that the process and its end are distinct and separable, that change is succession. This contrast between succession and progression, I shall suggest, is central to understanding the project on which the dialogue is engaged.


25 The Euthydemus is often described as a protreptic dialogue. But its own account of what protreptic is, is not at all clear. The sophists claim to have the skill to teach virtue, and Socrates admiringly invites them to show it to those present (274a). But first, Socrates asks them a question: will they be able to make virtuous only the person who has already been persuaded that he should learn from them, or is it a part of their skill also to persuade someone unconvinced either that virtue is teachable, or that they are its teachers (274d-e)? They claim to be able both to persuade such a doubter and to teach him, and that both activities are features of their art. Socrates invites the sophists to turn Cleinias to philosophy; [38] and seems to suggest that the turning is distinct from the philosophising. Philosophising and the practice of virtue, that is to say, are here presented as the end of protreptic, but an end that is not included in the process itself: and just such a contrast is conceded by the sophists' allowing that teaching someone virtue, and persuading them that they need to be taught virtue, are distinct. [39] The same assumption is at work in the first set of sophistic arguments about learning and knowing: the assumption that learning and its end are distinct.

26 We might think about this as a model in practical reasoning: the reason to suffer the sophistic arguments, say, is because their end is worth having. The normativity of the process, then, lies in its being a means to some end, where the end is desirable in itself. [40] So the sophists take unperfected learning to be distinct from its perfection, such that the process towards wisdom is external to it, a different state of the agent left behind once the process is done: and this will be compatible with the succession model of change. But Socrates complains that the sophists' arguments are mere play, not serious (278c); how is his model of proptreptic different?

27 In urging the sophists to talk in full seriousness, he asks them to show ‘their protreptic wisdom'; and this he now glosses as giving a display of turning the youth to how he should practice wisdom and virtue (278d). The terms of Socrates' exhortation have subtly changed: if protreptic is towards the practice of wisdom and virtue, protreptic wisdom may be an inclusive process such that the practice of philosophy is somehow continuous with the activity of wisdom itself, and the change is progressive. On a progressive model of change, the end of the change may be internal to the process, such that the imperfection is continuous with its perfection.

28 On such a model, however, the source of normativity is different. Socrates now embarks on a long argument to show that wisdom is the only good itself by itself; and that all the other goods are made good by wisdom. [41] The argument has as its conclusion that everyone should prepare themselves as much as possible to become as wise as possible; and if – as they agree – wisdom is teachable, then everyone should philosophise as much as possible. This, Socrates claims, is the sort of protreptic argument he is after (282d). On Socrates' account, then, what we should be doing is becoming as wise as possible; this is what philosophising is. But then there needs to be a new model of how this change might work. It needs to avoid the succession model, since that makes discontinous the process and its end. Equally, however, it needs to avoid the denial of change altogether (the denial advanced by the Omniscience argument). Socrates needs to show how philosophising is somehow activating wisdom without implying that it is the completed state. He needs, that it to say, a model on which practicing wisdom, being actively eager for wisdom, philosophising, is how we learn, but is still distinct from the completed virtue, wisdom itself. It is to promote such a model, I suggest, that Socrates sets up both his opponents and the sequence of sophistic arguments. On Socrates' account, philosophising must be a process which is somehow internal to its end, of becoming wise; throughout he speaks of process and becoming, by contrast to the sophists' talk of acquisition, and their dangerous assumption that we are either wise or not. The normativity of the process is derived from its end; but in such a way that the end is internal to the process: getting wiser is getting better, all the time.

29 But Socrates' argument to this point is itself a protreptic argument. So does Socrates think that when he does protreptic he does philosophy, or merely turns people to the point where philosophy might begin? Does the Socratic model of protreptic follow the sophistic means/end structure? Or is being turned to philosophy itself philosophising?


30 The dialogue ends with the encounter, on that previous day, between Crito and the Anonymous [42] about the relative merits of philosophy and politics. The Anonymous, like the other interlocutors, has a view about what philosophy is; and he sees it, too, according to a determinate model of change. For the Anonymous, philosophy is an activity which should only be engaged in moderately; [43] beyond that, proper politics should take over. The Anonymous, therefore, denies the sophistic account of change: for the Anonymous, as for Socrates, change is not a succession, but an activity governed by norms. But the Anonymous disagrees with Socrates, because he supposes that the norms in play are somehow external to the activity itself: they are given by the context, the place and time, the opinions of others, the needs of society. [44] For the Anonymous, unlike for Socrates, changes like philosophising (or like being turned to philosophy) have norms outside themselves. The challenge he poses to Socrates is to show that becoming wise has norms that are internal to it. The same challenge is posed by the blank slate who is Crito: the figure who is the most outside the dialogue as a whole, since he has no views about what was said the day before. The ending of the dialogue puts into focus just how we should account for Socrates' view.

31 Return to the contrast between the succession view of change (where we either have a property or not: all or nothing) and the progressive one (where a property is slowly developed). For Socrates, the nature of the process is imperfective, it is the process of becoming wise, or as wise as possible; it is a process whose normative component is its internal end, wisdom. For the sophists, on the other hand, the process is one that is external to its end; and the pupil will succeed only when the end is reached and the process left behind. The normativity here can only be understood in the terms they offer, where the succeeding property is somehow or other better than its predecessor; and so needs to replace it. This is how the sophists are new-fangled; and it is how Ctesippus can become sophistic so fast: change is replacement. On Socrates' account, the normativity of the process of learning is provided by its end; but that end is internal to it, pervades the whole process, and explains the value of the process as it occurs. This is how Socrates can be a slow learner, and still practice philosophy.

32 For Socrates, then, wisdom is what I call a transformative good. In one sense, established in the first Socratic episode, wisdom is what makes other goods good for the wise man: so it transforms the wise man's goods (this is the argument of 281). But it is also a good which transforms its possessor, just because it is what generates the normativity of becoming wise. In developing wisdom, the learner becomes better; and it is wisdom that thus transforms the person who learns. [45] This kind of transformation is, I submit, a major focus of the encounters between Socrates and the sophists in this dialogue, focused as they are on the nature of change and development, and its value. So wisdom is a transformative good in two connected ways: it transforms its possessor; and it transforms what other things are good for its possessor. For Socrates, therefore, the norm is internal to the person who practices philosophy; and it does not depend on any of the external constraints which the Anonymous describes. But understanding it as such requires that the nature of change be better explicated: it is for this reason that the Euthydemus gives us all seven characters.

33 The main characters of the Euthydemus represent two different hypotheses about the nature of process and change. On the first, succession, hypothesis, the sophists become new-made when they start to practice a new skill, the skill of sophistry. By the same token Ctesippus, in acquiring their skill, acquires it fast. And this metaphysical position, in turn, underpins the sophists' opening argument about the change that is learning, so that coming to know is an alteration distinct from the process towards it. [46] This might allow us a simple consequential account of why we should care: if the end is good, then the means are worth it.

34 For this model of change, taken as a description of any change at all, to learn is to die; for on this model of change there is nothing to who we are but the properties that characterise us, so that successive properties generate successive persons. This thought reappears in Socrates' final complaint against the sophists that they can only speak to those who are like them: ‘cut off or clone'. This model of change, that is to say, will support only an etiolated and questionable account of the characters of the dialogue. The peculiar relations between the sophists; between them and their followers and the strange identity of Ctesippus bear this out.

35 On the Socratic model, conversely, the relation between change and its end is such that the end is the norm determining the nature of the change. Change, then, is to be described in the imperfective aspect, and explained by its perfection, so that the process towards some end is gradual, and not replaced or succeeded by the approach towards the perfected norm. Instead, this account of change properly describes the human imperfections of the aspiration to virtue and the value of learning even when it is incomplete. It is this model of wisdom, too, that Socrates opposes to the mediocrity of the Anonymous, who fails to understand that if the normativity of the process of learning is internal to it, there is no value to be gained from merely pursuing it in a moderate way. For Socrates, too, our commitment to wisdom should be an all or nothing affair. [47]


  • [1]
    This paper is part of a wider project on the Euthydemus on which I have been working for some time. As a consequence, I rely here on the details of arguments I have made elsewhere: so, with apologies, I have referred to those arguments in the notes.
  • [2]
    He is silenced at 286b, but takes up the sophistic manner at 294b, and especially 294d1-3.
  • [3]
    Note CRITO's original impression that there is only one of them, 271a; and the repeated duals, from 271c, following Socrates' admiring remarks about their wisdom. This gives point to their falling out at 297a. This characterisation has, as I have argued elsewhere, significance for a central theme of the dialogue, the development of some principles in philosophical logic; ‘Silencing the Sophists: The Drama of Plato's Euthydemus', Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 1998, 139-168 [‘Silence']; ‘Does your Plato bite?' in DILLON J. and DIXSAUT M., eds., Agonistes: Festschrift for Denis O'Brien (Ashgate 2006) 107-21 [‘Bite'].
  • [4]
    Kainoi sophistai: it misses the complex point of this dialogue to suppose that this characterisation of the sophists as such is pejorative from the beginning.
  • [5]
    The sophists operate dialectically, and do not, on the whole, espouse any claim on their own behalf; this is a tricky position to adopt, but important to understand for uncovering the way the drama of the dialogue works. However both in their own behaviour and in their occasional commitments within different arguments the sophists become entangled in their own arguments; see ‘Silence'.
  • [6]
    This is how the sophists put the point at 283d2-3.
  • [7]
    Throughout the interpretation of the sophistic arguments it is important to remember that fallacies are indeed relative to background theory (in metaphysics, for example the contrast between object and property, or in logic, for example the principle of non-contradiction, or in epistemology, for example the thought that knowledge can be acquired) which we assume and the sophists do not. It is this assumption of background theory that makes fallacies theory-laden, and makes the accusation of fallacy against the sophists far from straightforward.
  • [8]
    There is a long tradition of interpreting this dialogue in terms of Heraclitus and Parmenides; e.g. SPRAGUE R.K., Plato's Use of Fallacy, New York 1962.
  • [9]
    This sequence is in answer to Crito's question about who they are.
  • [10]
    It only allows them to talk amongst themselves; it sews their own mouths up as it is spoken; 303c-304a.
  • [11]
    In ‘Silence' I argued for a principle of ‘cut off and clone' to describe the sophists' relations to their interlocutors.
  • [12]
    Cf DENYER N.C., Language, truth and falsehood in ancient Greek philosophy. London 1991.
  • [13]
    Again, I have argued for this in detail elsewhere: ‘Silence'; ‘Measuring Sincerity', Dialogos, 1998, 40-64. This piecemeal account of truth also precludes ordered relations between statements, for the same reasons: if everything is true, nothing about the context of a statement can falsify it.
  • [14]
    Discussion, that is to say, which takes different views to have some kind of bearing on each other. All that the episodic account of truth allows is the repetition of the same point; and even that (as in the case of the radical relativism of Protagoras) cannot be characterised as a repetition (since higher-order truths are under embargo).
  • [15]
    If a change is represented by a complex statement ‘Fx at t1 and ~Fx at t2', it allows truthfunctionality (here via the conjunction), which this account of truth disallows; if change is represented by an imperfective verb, see below, only the imperfective can be given in any particular statement.
  • [16]
    It is also the source of their self-refutation, if they have either principle or self to be subject to refutation at all: ‘Silence'.
  • [17]
    This gives some point, indeed, to a short exchange in the middle of the dialogue, in the interrupting frame. Socrates and Cleinias have been talking about what knowledge is responsible for happiness; they canvass several possibilities, but Cleinias comes up with a firm counter-argument (290d). This causes Crito to interrupt, incredulous that Cleinias should have said this (the passage serves, among many other functions, to draw attention to the fact that Socrates is narrating the whole exchange – and then casts doubt, somehow, on his veracity); when Socrates wonders whether it might be Ctesippus, Crito says ‘what sort of Ctesippus?'. Crito's slightly odd reply focuses our attention on both the properties of Ctesippus (surely he is not such as to say this?) and his identification (which Ctesippus could Socrates possibly have in mind?): and invites comparison, on rereading, both with the opening characterisation (where Ctesippus is characterised as a bit too uppity, hubristes, 273a, on account of his youth) and with its close, which gives us a Ctesippus whose properties change (he becomes like the sophists) as he learns, immediately. What sort of Ctesippus is there, then?
  • [18]
    The contrast with the sophistic pair and their band of followers is marked and significant.
  • [19]
    I shall not say more about the daimonion here; but it gives point to what happens next (especially, perhaps, to the first sophistic episode, with its discussion of knowledge and learning); it both invites us to think the moment important and to wonder whether it could possibly have the importance of the other episodes when the divine sign prevents Socrates from doing things.
  • [20]
    The sophists' speed at learning is a source of astonishment to him, 272b.
  • [21]
    Ignores rather than denies; it is not within the purview of episodism to make general statements about other statements.
  • [22]
    293b-296d: the opening argument of the third sophistic episode and – like the Killing Cleinias argument in the second – the dominant argument for the whole episode.
  • [23]
    See ‘Escaping one's own notice knowing: Meno's paradox again' Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 2009, 233-56.
  • [24]
    ‘Waving or drowning? Socrates and the sophists on self-knowledge in the Euthydemus', in BOYS-STONES G. R, EL MURR D. and GILL C., The Platonic Art of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • [25]
    Socrates has no weaponry, here at least, to show that contradiction needs to be qualified – as Aristotle would say, in respect, or time, or any of the other ways that deal with the sophistic puzzles.
  • [26]
    Apart from the way in which the sophists seem, astonishingly, to invoke ideas that we may find familiar from the Meno – indeed this playing on the Meno is common in the dialogue as a whole, done apparently by both the sophists and Socrates.
  • [27]
    Again, I leave on one side here the way in which episodism may be in difficulties in even expressing this thought, since the relation between the characters of the dialogue and their characters exposes the various accounts of change, rather than presupposing them.
  • [28]
    ‘Well, then, don't you learn what that person dictating utters, or does the person who doesn't know the letters learn?' (277a6-8) There is a problem here both with the text [ou at a6 is an editor's addition] and with the role this move plays in the argument. Cleinias has already conceded that he knows the letters (and so that he knows, at least under some description, ‘what' is dictated). This now seeks to integrate that claim into the train of thought about manthanein. Euthydemus' point could be that if Cleinias knows the letters, then he is learning what he knows, in the sense that what he learns through the dictation is framed in terms of what he already knows. Or his point could trade on the way in which manthanein may signify something closer to ‘understand': in that case this sentence merely reiterates what is already conceded (Cleinias insists that he understands what the dictation says). The final move of the argument ‘surely you learn what you know' leaves the interpretation open; and this openness itself, I suggest, is what is picked up by Socrates in his diagnosis of what went wrong; to this I shall return.
  • [29]
    One might suspect the sophistic argument of trading on the scope of knowing or its composition (if I know the letters of some sentence that tells me something new, do I already know what the sentence tells me?). We should bear in mind again my slogan above, that the charge of fallacy is theory-laden.
  • [30]
    And certainly one can find instances within the Platonic corpus where manthano seems to be used to mean ‘understand'. Compare e.g. Meno 84d4, in a context which is similarly engaged on how to understand learning.
  • [31]
    I have acknowledged elsewhere my debt to David SEDLEY who first suggested to me this construe of the contrast Socrates draws, in a seminar in Cambridge many years ago. I do not attribute responsibility to David for what I make of the contrast here or elsewhere. I make a great deal more of this passage and its significance in ‘First Chop your Logos' for CASTAGNOLI L. and DI LASCIO V., Ancient Logic, CUP under consideration.
  • [32]
    That this is indeed what Plato would have us see here is underlined, I suggest, by the repeated emphasis on the process of learning throughout these arguments: so, in the first, the temporal qualifiers (‘not yet', ‘while', 276a); in the second, the noticeable imperfective of emanthanon at 276c4, picked up at 276c6; in the third, the complex play between manthanein (imperfective or perfective?) and epistasthai (perfective); in the fourth an explicit contrast between learning as getting knowledge and knowing as having knowledge (277b7-8), where getting is glossed in terms of ‘not yet having' (277c1). The contrast made explicit in the final argument of the quartet – between getting and having – focusses our attention on the nature of the process of knowing, and the nature of its end state. And one way of characterising that contrast is as a difference of aspect.
  • [33]
    There are, of course, other assumptions that need to be spelled out here – such as the differences between knowing one thing and knowing a whole field; for my present purposes I leave those assumptions on one side.
  • [34]
    Emphatically thematic from 271c2 onwards.
  • [35]
    272a-b onwards, and note especially the temporal qualifiers 272b, picked up later in the dialogue e.g. at 287b.
  • [36]
    From 272c.
  • [37]
    Highlighted in the discussion of consistency and disagreement at 283-7.
  • [38]
    ‘So you, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, of all the men nowadays would best turn [people] to philosophy and the practice of virtue?' ‘We think so, Socrates.' ‘Well, then please leave the display of everything else to some other occasion, and display this very thing. Persuade this young man that he must philosophise and practise virtue, and do a favour to me and everyone else here.' (274e-275a)
  • [39]
    This is confirmed both by the sophists' concession that their wisdom is a thing they have acquired; and by Socrates' fear (275b) that Cleinias might be turned towards some other occupation.
  • [40]
    In the sophistic case the means/end reasoning is complex (as means/end reasoning so often is): there is the turning towards learning, where the turning is the means to the learning; and there is the learning which is the means to having learned.
  • [41]
    I have defended this account of the argument elsewhere, ‘Indifference readings: Plato and the Stoa on Socratic Ethics', in Classics in Progress: Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome ed. T.P. Wiseman, British Academy 2002, 363-398 .
  • [42]
    The figure of Isocrates is surely in the background of this character: discussion of this is for another time.
  • [43]
    metriôs, 305d.
  • [44]
    His interest in social norms is evident in his opening attack on what he claims to be the shameful value of philosophy, 305a.
  • [45]
    There is a similar tale to tell about how normativity elucidates the contrast between the Socratic and the sophistic accounts of ‘saying': ‘Chop'.
  • [46]
    Indeed, that may be the only way in which the succession model can explain the relation between a process of change and its end, in making whatever happens in the process distinct from the end state.
  • [47]
    As always, in the course of writing this paper, I have benefited from the generosity of others for and comments. My thanks especially to the audience in Brasilia at the IPS conference in 2012, to its organiser, Gabriele Cornelli, to Catherine Collobert and, as always, to Verity Harte.

Seven characters in search of a teacher: process and progress in the Euthydemus

I argue that the presentation of the seven different main characters in the Euthydemus has a philosophical purpose: to allow us to model different accounts of change. Each account underpins different ways of thinking about learning – more particularly about learning philosophy. These accounts, I argue further, are offset against different accounts of value. Socrates' account of the ‘protreptic to wisdom' is explained as a transformation of the agent, and one which can properly be described as a normative process.


Je soutiens que la présentation des sept principaux personnages dans l'Euthydème a un but philosophique, celui de nous permettre de modeler différentes compréhensions du changement chez l'individu. Chaque compréhension sous-tend plusieurs façons d'envisager comment il est possible de penser l'apprentissage – en particulier l'apprentissage de la philosophie. Ces compréhensions sont en outre, comme je le montre, posées au regard d'un système de valeurs ; l'interprétation socratique qui repose sur une « protreptique de la sagesse » est expliquée comme une transformation de l'agent, qui peut être correctement décrite comme processus normatif.


  • DENYER N.C., Language, truth and falsehood in ancient Greek philosophy, London, 1991.
  • Online MCCABE M.M., « Silencing the Sophists: The Drama of Plato's Euthydemus », Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, 1998, 139-168.
  • MCCABE M.M., « Indifference readings: Plato and the Stoa on Socratic Ethics', in Classics in Progress: Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome, T.P. Wiseman (ed.), British Academy, 2002, 363-398.
  • MCCABE M.M., « Does your Plato bite? », in J. Dillon and M. Dixsaut (eds.), Agonistes: Festschrift for Denis O'Brien, London, Ashgate, 2006, 107-121.
  • Online MCCABE M.M., « Escaping one's own notice knowing: Meno's paradox again », Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 2009, 233-256.
  • MCCABE M.M., « Waving or drowning? Socrates and the sophists on self-knowledge in the Euthydemus », Festchrift for Christopher Rowe, in G. Boys-Stones, D. El Murr, C. Gill. (eds.), The Platonic Art of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • MCCABE M.M., « First Chop your Logos » for L. Castagnoli and V. di Lascio, Ancient Logic, CUP under consideration.
  • SPRAGUE R.K., Plato's Use of Fallacy: A Study of the Euthydemus and Some Other Dialogues, New York, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.
Mary Margaret McCabe
King's College London
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 07/12/2018
Distribution électronique pour P.U.F. © P.U.F.. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait