Your Dog is Your Father: The Deceptive Simplicity of Eristic in the Euthydemus

Your Dog is Your Father: The Deceptive Simplicity of Eristic in the Euthydemus

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Your Dog is Your Father: The Deceptive Simplicity of Eristic in the Euthydemus

What is particularly striking about the opening exchanges of the Euthydemus between Socrates and Crito is that they seem to establish the setting and characters of the dialogue concretely—Socrates and his attractive young friend Clinias meet the well-known brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus at the Lyceum and ask them to display what Crito calls their “particular wisdom,” and what they call simply “virtue.” However, within these first few pages of dialogue, we already begin to sense something about the brothers that makes them difficult to pin down. When Crito asks, “Where do they come from, and what is their particular wisdom?”, Socrates is vague on their origins—they are from both Greece and Italy, and at the time of the dialogue, they are exiles with no proper city (271c). Thus, they seem to be from everywhere at once. Their “particular wisdom” turns out to be quite unparticular as well—Socrates claims they can win any fight, making them, one would assume, wise at everything. Whereas both Socrates and Crito dwell on the physical and character descriptions of Clinias and even Ctesippus, the brothers, who are ostensibly the primary focus of the dialogue, are given no personal description at all (271b, 273a). Indeed, when Ctesippus takes up a tirade against them in the Lyceum, he is completely unable to identify them, addressing them as, “men of Thurii or Chios, or from wherever and however you like to be styled” (288b). In his frustration at their elusiveness, he articulates this very unnatural ability of the brothers to be from everywhere and argue any position, and quite accurately compares them to Proteus, the shape-shifter (288c).

Moreover, the brothers are interested in hiding their past occupations in order to appear to be purely teachers of “virtue,” as Euthydemus insists (273d). Socrates makes a point of reminding both the audience in the Lyceum and Crito that the brothers achieved their reputation as teachers of military combat and rhetoric (271d-272b, 273c). Euthydemus is eager to belittle these skills, laughing when Socrates praises them and calling them “diversions” to his main interest (273c). However, Socrates does not discard them as easily, and in his later conversation with Crito, he praises the brothers as “all-round fighters” and considers their skill at eristic to be the “finishing touch to pancrastic art,” implying that we must view it in concert with their previous interests in order to understand what is so striking about it that it should motivate Socrates to want to seek out their tutelage (272a).

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So what is it that military combat and speechwriting have in common? Socrates points out that they are both forms of fighting, but leaves the exact arena for this fight unclear. However, the arena, like the settings of the athletic contests to which they are compared, must be a public one—the battlefield and the courtroom, respectively. Military combat and speechwriting are both public arts that offer private gains to the citizens of democracies in the form of honor and power. In short, they are political arts. One is the art of politics abroad, the other is politics within the city. Thus, while the art of politics is never raised explicitly in the dialogue, it is clearly present beneath the surface of the argument. There is an emphasis on the youth of the prospective student—Socrates offers Clinias to the brothers for their demonstration instead of himself, and he later laments his old age to Crito because it prevents teachers from taking him seriously. He is too old to become a professional practitioner of anything he is taught, whereas Clinias offers something to the brothers that Socrates lacks. As in the Protagoras, the argument itself is nominally about the appropriate education of young men, but there is an understanding that the education of someone of the civic stature of Clinias is to have an end in politics. The value of military skill and rhetoric to political success is self-evident, but the value of eristic is not quite as clear. Indeed, Euthydemus’ and Dionysodorus’ demonstration of their art is clever but completely superficial. Throughout the dialogue, various interlocutors and auditors of their display see right through their tactics—first Ctesippus, then the unnamed auditor whose scorn for the brothers’ tricks is described by Crito, and finally Crito himself.

So why does Socrates express such interest in eristic that he proposes to become a student of the brothers, even after he tells Clinias that what they have demonstrated is mere “frivolity” (278b)? How does eristic complete the set of political arts that Euthydemus and Dionysodorus already possess? And what about it requires Euthydemus and Dionysodorus to occlude their pasts, dodge Socrates’ questions, and present themselves as enigmas?

In the first place, it is important to view eristic not in terms of the particular arguments the brothers make, but in terms of the way they make their arguments. Eristic is, on one hand, the ability to refute any assertion with a laughably transparent argument in a purely destructive way, but this also implies the converse ability—to prove any premise, to construct an argument in the service of any idea. And herein lies its political value. In democratic Athens, it is the men whose proposals to the assembly are accepted who come into power. They are not judged by the truth or justice of what they propose, but how well they can make it appear true and just. Demagoguery is not without its value to the individual power seeker, as Alcibiades could attest after successfully arguing inThe Peloponessian War that his greed and self-intereest are actually a benefit to the city. It is possible to deliberate internally over the best policy for the city, to arrive at what one thinks is the best course, and then to propose it and defend its virtue. Politics in the best interest of the city or of truth is certainly one approach, but hardly an efficient one for the inidividual. For the individual who seeks power in his own interest without particular regard for the good of the city, the ability to justify any argument, even a false one, and to disprove any opposing proposal, even a good one, is the road to political power.

The most effective political skill, as exemplified by Dionysodorus and Euthydemus, is to have no personal position at all, but to be able to take up any position at will. A firm belief in the permanent righteousness of one idea is an impediment to the politician in a democracy, which is governed by the fickleness of public opinion. It is to put one’s idea ahead of one’s career, thereby spelling the end of the career once the idea falls out of public favor for whatever reason. The successful politician is one who is able to change courses when the circumstances change; he is Franklin Roosevelt reversing his New Deal policy by embracing industry and rebuffing labor before America entered the war and winning a third and then a fourth term. This ability is what makes the brothers so difficult to pin down. They refuse—to Socrates’ dismay—to take up anyone’s arguments but their own. They will not answer Socrates’ serious questions except to turn them into their own displays of their own skill, even in spite of Socrates’ attempts to demonstrate with Clinias what a real dialectic would look like.

In effect, however, they cannot answer Socrates’ questions honestly, because they do not really believe such answers exist, or, if they do, they are useless to political life. Whether or not they can teach Clinias to love philosophy, or whether philosophy is learned—this does not only not matter to them, but to become honest interlocutors with Socrates would require them to sacrifice their own goals in the name of defending a position which they risk being held to in the future. This, moreover, explains their personal shiftiness—their lack of hometown and attachment, as with other sophists, allows them to exist above any particular political community and simply teach the acquisition of power. When Socrates points out the very obvious problem with their argument that if there exists no such thing as contradiction, then there should be no need of teachers like Euthydemus and Dionysodorus for men who are already wise, Dionysodorus scolds him for being so pedantic “as to bring up now what we said in the beginning” (287b). They must avoid charges of hypocrisy by quickly changing the subject of the argument, as Dionysodorus does when Socrates later stumps him on the question of how he might have come to know that good men are unjust without having learned it (297b). The brothers must be at the questioning end rather than the answering end of every argument so that they can better play their game of verbal chess—anticipating their opponent’s answer as far ahead of him as possible in order to win. Because eristic requires that one begin with one’s conclusion already in mind, the brothers cannot participate in Socrates’ dialectic, which aims rather to work through an argument to discover a conclusion.

The problem with Dionysodorus’ and Euthydemus’ demonstration of eristic is, of course, that it does not convince everyone. Certainly, many auditors in the Lyceum are entertained, as Socrates indicates at the end of the dialogue when he says, “There was no one there who did not praise to the skies the argument and the two men…” (303b). However, those who do see through it are more important than those who do not—at the assembly, a man like Socrates or even Ctesippus could deal a fatal blow to their hopes of winning votes, and assemblymen like Crito, who is essentially in the role of the careful auditor, would not be likely to cast their votes in the brothers’ favor. To depend on such simple demonstrations would be risky at best. However, this is precisely why eristic is only one of three arts that comprise politics, and that one of the others is, conveniently, rhetoric.

The brothers’ style of arguing in the dialogue is in fact a rare departure from the other sophists Socrates encounters, most of whom eschew dialectic in favor of myths and speeches. But Euthydemus and Dionysodorus remain loyal to the basic form of the dialectic, if not to its intent, and it is Socrates, if anyone, who makes the speeches. In this sense, eristic is the skeleton of an argument—the mere determination and ability to make a case for anything—and it is rhetoric that will serve to flesh it out into a convincing speech for an assembly. The brothers are thus constrained to simplicity and superficiality in demonstrating eristic alone without infringing upon the claims of rhetoric; if they were to demonstrate sophisticated eristic which incorporate rhetoric, their auditors would mistake it for a real argument rather than a demonstration of a skill. Socrates is partially right to point out that the brothers’ approach is dangerous because it will be discovered and easily imitated by auditors (303e). However, it will only be dangerous if the political value of eristic is recognized when it is imitated, otherwise, its imitators will acquire nothing more than skill at silly word games. They will know how to “prove” to you that your dog is your father and you beat him, or that your clothes are capable of speech.

However, if eristic is the basis of political rhetoric and it is an argument made solely to win, what about it makes it so attractive to Socrates, who is interested neither in acquiring political power nor in arguing for the sake of winning? Much more so than rhetoric, eristic is the foundation of the art of argument. Eristic may be about winning, while dialectic is about discovering truth, but the method of questioning and directing answers is strikingly similar to Socrates’ demonstrations with Clinias. In fact, when both of these demonstrations are sandwiched by Plato between the exchanges with Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, and they are almost indistinguishable in form and method, save for their intentions and conclusions. We are asked to derive intentions from our experience of Socrates in his opening conversation with Crito, in which he describes his earnest desire to learn from his experiences with teachers, both in the story about the harp lessons and in his intention to learn from the brothers. The difference in their conclusions rests largely with the fact that Socrates’ and Clinias’ conclusions do not strike us as patently absurd, as do Euthydemus’ and Dionysodorus’. However, we must understand that the brothers, too, are capable of making reasonable conclusions that are no more true than their absurd assertions.

Thus, what one can learn from them is the art of argument, of which the ability to anticipate and direct the answers of one’s opponent is a part, as well as the ability investigate a question from many sides and be wary of the ways in which the use of language may unknowingly mislead even well-intentioned interlocutors. Even in a competitive argument in which the aim is to win, truth might accidentally be stumbled upon. This, after all, is the premise of deductive logic and the scientific method. One begins with the hypothesis and aims to demonstrate its truth. Certainly, the aim of science is ideally not supposed to be power, and when the data fails to support the hypothesis, a new experiment should be designed rather than an argument made that all data proves all hypotheses. But the difference between using eristic as a means to power and a means to truth is only a difference of intention, and when it is used in combination with rhetoric—when it appropriates history, science, and law to prove its agenda, it is a tool of the politician and no longer one of the philosopher.

At the end of the dialogue, Crito rejects the education of the brothers, but it is not clear that he understands why he does so. He seems to believe the man he encounters outside the Lyceum who claims that eristic is useless, but Socrates questions the intentions of such men, who are neither philosophers nor politicians, but who have pretensions to both vocations (306). These people too seem to engage in a kind of eristic, though for honor rather than power. They are the pundits, the journalists, and the academics, those who are “moderately versed in philosophy, and moderately too in politics” and whose art seems to consist wholly in deconstructing the work of those who are really occupied—the politicians and the philosophers (305d). However, this in itself is also only a partial path to wisdom; after tearing down another’s argument, they are left only with a wrong opinion at their feet, but no right ones behind it. They are, in short, what Crito and Socrates, being at this point too old to enter politics, might become with an education from Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, and it is only at this point, when Socrates sees the failure of eristic to supplement philosophy in private life as well as in public, that he changes his mind about studying with Euthydemus and Dionysodorus.
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