Euthydemus: Argumentative Ethics as Logic

With this essay on Euthydemus, The Review embarks on a year-long project to publish a short piece on each dialogue in Plato’s corpus, one a week. We intend for this project to be a collaborative effort, featuring essays by undergraduate, graduate students, and professors alike. If you have thoughts on a dialogue, reach out with a submission to!

In Plato’s Euthydemus, we see a total breakdown of the normal, intuitive success of the Socratic method: arriving at sound conclusions that challenge our traditional ethical understandings while staying within the realm of the logical. By contrast, the Euthydemus features refutations so wildly illogical to the modern reader that we are almost forced to take Socrates’ concluding remarks—these brothers are great philosophers who we should learn from—as ironic. Aristotle was intrigued by the dialogue and driven to establish in Prior Analytics a logical framework that would avoid argumentative disasters like Euthydemus by codifying basic principles of inference. Socrates isn’t similarly moved to investigate correct inference: instead, he simply chides the two brother interlocutors for not playing by the ethical rule book. I will argue that in the absence of a developed logical structure for argumentation, ethical guidelines serve an equivalent role. Moreover, this sort of ethical commitment to sound argumentation might be useful for thinking through modern argumentative environments. 

T1: Then, Dionysodorus, I said, you and your brother are the men of the present day best able to exhort a man to philosophy and the practice of virtue? // This is exactly what we think, Socrates. // Then put off the rest of your display to another time and give us a demonstration of this one thing: persuade this young man here that he ought to love wisdom and have a care for virtue, and you will oblige both me and all the present company.

T2: These things are the frivolous part of study (which is why I also tell you that the men are jesting); and I call these things “frivolity” because even if a man were to learn many or even all such things, he would be none the wiser as to how matters stand but would only be able to make fun of people, tripping them up and overturning them by means of the distinctions in words, just like the people who pull the chair out from under a man who is going to sit down and then laugh gleefully when they see him sprawling on his back. So you must think of their performance as having been mere play.

T3: Among the many other fine things which belong to your arguments, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, there is one which is the most magnificent of all, that you care nothing for the many, or in fact, for men of consequence or reputation, but only for persons of your own sort.

T4: However, we ought to forgive them their ambition and not feel angry, although we still ought to see these men for what they are. After all, we ought to admire every man who says anything sensible, and who labors bravely in its pursuit.

In analyzing the meta-argument, i.e. the sorts of arguments Socrates is inclined to make against the two brothers, we must first begin by considering how Socrates starts the dialogue: what kind of knowledge he asks of the brothers. In T1 he is interested in “the practice of virtue…persuade this young man here [Clinas] that he ought to love wisdom and have a care for virtue.” The kind of elenchus and argumentation that the brothers engage in is good only insofar as it is in the service of virtue acquisitionThis makes sense as knowledge and ethics are inextricably linked to Socrates. Already, the dialogue prods the reader to note the relationship between knowledge acquisition and virtue acquisition.

When later in the dialogue, the brothers have had their fill of making fun of Clinias, “dancing circles” around him for sport, Socrates again implores them to ditch their argumentative shenanigans. In T2 he makes an ethical argument against the sort of refutation the brothers’ have engaged in: it is as if they “pull the chair out from under the man who is going to sit down.” Their argumentative sin is not one of logic but of ethics; they haven’t thus far played fairly. This sort of critique comes out again at the end of the dialogue, when Socrates is delivering his final speech against/in favor of the brothers. In T3 he says “you care nothing for the many.” Taken in one way, this reads like Socrates’ usual argument against trial by jury; in another sense, however, we can take the brothers as not being sufficiently altruistic for good argument. They don’t care to improve the soul of their interlocutor, but only to mock him. They don’t have the “good will” that Socrates argues is fundamental to a good interlocutor in Gorgias.

Clearly, then, throughout the dialogue, Socrates implores the young men to stick to ethical guidelines, and time and time again they fail to do so. However, I would argue that when Socrates demands that his interlocutor acts virtuously, this isn’t simply a demand to be courteous to the arguer, as one would take ethical demands in modern debates, but rather a substantive rule to establish and maintain logic, in a time before Aristotle’s Prior Analytics

Socrates and his interlocutors are not products of enlightened, rational, systematized thinking. They don’t have access to the training in logical fallacies that students now get at a young age. That being said, they are well-equipped to speak about justice, fairness, and virtue. The interlocutors can identify a premise that seems right, even if they can’t, for lack of education, identify the specific fallacies that Euthydemes and Dionysodorus commit. But, crucially, when an individual engaged in argument operates with a bad will, they don’t say what seems right, but rather what seems expedient for their own argument’s success. In other words, it takes good will to employ intuition in the right way.

Moreover, if we are to buy into the equivalence “virtue is knowledge” there are two important methodological conclusions we might draw. First, the popular conclusion: “the path of knowledge will lead us to virtue.” This conclusion is heavily explored throughout the corpus and even in this dialogue: later, Socrates shows Clinias that wisdom is a sufficient and necessary condition for goodness. The second methodological conclusion is less explored: “the path of virtue will lead us to knowledge.” In the breakdown of the Socratic method in Euthydemus we see the importance of this second conclusion. Without virtuous debate, knowledge does not come. Instead, radically inaccurate and ridiculous conclusions are reached. 

Beyond the Socratic, pre-Aristotelian milieu, ethical guidelines for debate do, and should, matter in modern contexts. For Socrates in Euthydemus, both he and the interlocutors buy into similar logical systems; both Socrates and the brothers see the utility of elenchus in disproving false/incorrect definitions of ethical terms. They speak the same argumentative language, as it were, they simply lack a systematized understanding of this logical framework. However, increasingly, modern philosophical and political debates occur between people operating within different paradigms. In these cases, the two are not speaking the same argumentative language. And in these cases, it’s all the more important for ethical guidelines to enter the picture. For, ethical guidelines—having “good will” towards one’s interlocutor—create the space for agreement and incorporation of the other’s viewpoint. Good debate arises from the intellectual curiosity to incorporate other people’s beliefs into one’s own worldview. This necessarily requires a degree of empathy and good will.

Socrates does not fault the brothers’ for committing logical fallacies, perhaps because they aren’t. While they reach absurd conclusions, many of the arguments are actually logically correct (if we allow terms, like knowing, to be stripped of their conventional meaning). The issue with the brothers’ program is that it is entirely destructive. They don’t care to teach Clinias the value of wisdom, only to outwit him. They don’t have good will at heart.

Perhaps at this point, rather than concluding with a particular thesis, I’ll leave the debate open. Euthydemus presents a picture of the crucial role that good will can play in an argument. Good will is not simply an ethical imperative, but also a norm that ensures knowledge acquisition. It’s an open question whether good will is necessary for effective debate or whether it’s possible to argue well while remaining essentially adversarial. At the very least, arguing with good will—taking care for the soul of one’s interlocutors—certainly puts an argument on track to genuinely make progress.

Leave a Reply