BOOK REVIEW: Euthydemus by Plato

EuthydemusEuthydemus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

In this Socratic dialogue, Socrates is pitted against two brothers, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, who are Pankrationists turned Sophist. [Pankration is an ancient Greek martial art, but Socrates is verbally sparring with the men in their role as roving philosophy teachers and not as wrestlers.] We don’t hear the interaction firsthand, but rather as Socrates describes events to his friend Crito after the fact.

Socrates seeks to get the two sophists to answer his favorite question, whether virtue is a form of knowledge and can be taught. The brothers take a tag-team approach against a youth named Cleinias to “teach.” Soon, Socrates attempts to reign in the conversation, which has devolved into nonsense because the brothers use a go-to approach that involves logical fallacies that turn on false dichotomies, semantic manipulation, and the imposition of all-or-none conditions on propositions that aren’t all-or-none.

This moves to the brothers proposing that the crowd wants Cleinias to perish because they seek to make him become something he isn’t (i.e. wise.) This brings Ctessippus angrily into the debate (he is fond of Cleinias and sharp-witted, but more emotionally ruled than Socrates.) While a Buddhist would destroy the brothers’ fallacious reasoning with ease, it takes a second for Socrates to undermine the argument by pointing out that if that version of Cleinias perished only to be seamlessly replaced by a new and improved version, it would – indeed – be a great thing.

The rest of the dialogue is the brothers using faulty logic to “prove” such things as that a person knows nothing or everything, and side-stepping questions about why individuals who already know everything would benefit from paying a Sophist. I’d call this a better than average dialogue, well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Protagoras by Plato

Protagoras AnnotatedProtagoras Annotated by Aristocles Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Hippocrates woke Socrates to announce that the famous sophist, Protagoras, is in town. Hippocrates hopes Socrates will make introductions and recommend him as a student to the sophist. The two head off to meet with Protagoras who is at the home of a wealthy Athenian, along with an assembly of wisdom-seekers. Along the way, Socrates questions Hippocrates as to whether the young man actually knows what a sophist is and what such a person teaches. (i.e. A painter would teach one to paint, but what does one get for one’s money paid to a Sophist?)

This is one of the more popular early Socratic dialogues of Plato, perhaps because it’s not so one-sided as many others — Protagoras holds his own more than most. In fact, when the discussion begins with the question of whether virtue is teachable, Socrates comes away convinced by Protagoras’ arguments that it is. (Though it’s also possible Socrates is just agreeable to fast-forward to the question that he’s interested in – i.e. the nature of virtue.) Protagoras offers a mythology-based explanation for the teachability of virtue and then preempts counterarguments such as good parents raising despicable children (and vice versa) via reasoning.

However, then Socrates takes the debate to his wheelhouse – the questions of what virtue is, is it one thing or many, and – if many – can one be both virtuous and non-virtuous through a mix of different traits? Protagoras says that there are distinct parts to virtue (e.g. courage, temperance, wisdom, etc.) Socrates then inquires about the nature of these parts. Are they parts like the various parts of the face (i.e. distinct of both form and function?) Or are they like a series of gold pieces (different in size and shape, but materially identical?) Protagoras claims they are more like the former (i.e. parts of the face / substantially different.) Socrates uses this to work Protagoras into a corner, seemingly advocating that each of the aspects of virtue is substantially distinct, but also that they can be so intermingled as to be indistinct.

For some reason, Protagoras doesn’t challenge the false dichotomization on which Socrates’ arguments are based. (Consider the distinction between the nose and the mouth. If the question is about getting food into the body, these are completely different. If the question is getting air in and out, they are veritable twins.) It’s possible that Protagoras doesn’t challenge these false dichotomies because he has an interest in maintaining them for his own purposes, but by that point it’s also possible that he is just seeing red. Protagoras gets miffed, and even more so when Socrates tries to insist that the sophist give up the mode of argument with which Protagoras is most persuasive (i.e. stories and extended / elaborate explanations.) Socrates wants to keep his sparring in the kind of fast-paced Q&A slug-fest at which Socrates excels. The dialogue ends with Protagoras questioning Socrates, an endeavor for which Socrates seems to score a point (though the abrupt cut leaves some ambiguity – like the spinning top at the end of “Inception”)

This is definitely a must-read among early Socratic dialogues.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Clouds by Aristophanes

The CloudsThe Clouds by Aristophanes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This play scoffs at philosophers and sophists (in general) and Socrates, in particular. An old man, Strepsiades, is beleaguered by creditors, having purchased a horse and chariot for his son, Pheidippides. Strepsiades tries to get Pheidippides to study philosophy because the old man believes it will allow his son to argue away the debt. Pheidippides refuses, and so Strepsiades takes it upon himself to enroll as Socrates’ student. After some strained conversations and ill-timed masturbation, all parties conclude that the old dog can’t learn new tricks, and so Stresiades again tries to recruit his son. This time Pheidippides does join Socrates’ “think-shop” (called “the Thinkery” in some translations.)

Socrates’ characterization isn’t fair to the philosopher in some regards. If the works of Plato and Xenophon hold water, Socrates was neither a know-it-all nor was he obsessed with grandiose topics – rather, he claimed to know little and was said to have been only concerned with questions of how to live a better life (as opposed to lordly enigmas like the origin of the universe or the nature of reality.) However, this isn’t to say that Aristophanes has no valid point. That intense and abstract philosophical debate doesn’t change the hard facts of the world is a legitimate point. Debts aren’t erased by the creditor’s inability to successfully argue niggling points of grammar. Being stabbed by a jilted lover is no less painful if love is an illusion than if it equates to beauty or is a fundamental truth.
Much of the play’s humor is weakened (if not killed) by a lack of common context, but that’s not to say there aren’t jokes that still fly in the 21st century.

This short play is worth reading, as it presents a beneficial counterpoint to the Socratic dialogues.

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