Learning from Euthydemus

I’ve been studying Xenophon’s Memorabilia with friends over the past few months. Xenophon was a student and friend of Socrates. His memoirs are devoted to an account and defense of Socrates following the trial that resulted in his death.

It’s an interesting and classic work. We have used Amy Bonnette’s translation in Cornell’s Agora series as our text. It comes with an excellent introduction by Christopher Bruell and annotations by Bonnette. I have relied on Thomas Pangle’s The Socratic Way of Life: Xenophon’s Memorabilia for help along the way, though it is a challenging book in its own right.

Project Gutenberg has posted the looser translation by H.G. Dakyns online here. In this post I discuss Book IV, chapter 2. Tufts University has posted E.C. Marchant’s translation of the chapter here. Marchant’s translation of the Memorabilia is the one published in Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library. Marchant’s translation is convenient and readable but also too loose for close study.

Among other things, Xenophon sets out to demonstrate the injustice of the charges brought against Socrates and the benefit Socrates conferred on all kinds of people with whom he came in contact. In one section, for example, Xenophon shows Socrates teaching the fabulously beautiful courtesan Theodote how to make herself even more attractive. The episode concludes with her begging Socrates to take her on as his student.

Toward the end of the book Xenophon shows how Socrates benefited Euthydemus. Euthydemus was a bright and ambitious young man. He was among those “who held that they had received the best education and were proud on account of their wisdom.” Xenophon notes that “he had collected many writings of the poets and the sophists and due to these held himself to be already superior to his contemporaries on account of his wisdom and had great hopes of surpassing everyone in being able to speak and take action.” He thought he had a command of the requisite knowledge to undertake a political career.

In the course of a dialogue recounted in the second chapter of Book IV, Socrates persuades Euthydemus that everything he thinks he “knows” is wrong. Euthydemus thinks he has a handle on “justice.” Quizzing Euthydemus, Socrates proposes they compile a list with items under “justice” and “injustice.” It is a funny passage that does not end well for Euthydemus.

“I worry whether it might not be best for me to remain silent,” he finally tells Socrates, “for I probably know nothing at all.” Xenophon relates: “And he went away very dispirited, having contempt for himself and holding that he was really a slave.”

The dialogue form is conducive to venturing otherwise forbidden thoughts in a time of persecution. The form might usefully be employed to address the shibboleths shoved down the throats of students like Euthydemus in our own day. Let us have our best teachers turn to the dialogue form with students touting “equity” versus equality, “affirmative action” and racial preferences versus equal treatment, the history of the founding of the United States versus the 1619 Project, the quandary of “reparations,” and so on.

Who might be assigned the role of Socrates in the dialogues? “Frederick,” say, or “Victor,” or “Wilfred.”

Perhaps our friends at Encounter Books or one of the institutes might be persuaded to publish the dialogues as pamphlets to put in the hands of students who have been taught that they know it all. The pamphlets might open a few minds and save a few souls from — let us dare to use the term — “slavery.” They would make perfect graduation gifts, although graduation may be a little late to pry minds open.

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