Euthydemus has the subtitle “on disputation” (eristikos), and, as I remarked in the case of the Sophist, it brings forward figures who are both clearly sophistic in the pejorative sense of that word, and at the same time are engaged in activities which could arguably be confused with the activities we associate fondly with Socrates.
There are some odd things about the dialogue (as I’m learning, there are odd things about an awful lot of the dialogues!). It is comic in a number of ways (discussed in an interesting article by Ann Michelini*, which you can find here if you have access to JSTOR): Socrates himself takes the role of an Aristophanic Strepsiades: an old man returning to school to learn about clever new things. The brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, having been exiled from the colony of Thurii (an early indication of the potential dangers in their activities?) have shown up at Athens to give displays of their wonderful skills at disputation. Socrates, in his most extreme eiron act, expresses amazement and wonder at their abilities, and asks Crito to go along with him and become their student.
Most of the dialogue is Socrates recounting to Crito the demonstration Euthydemus and Dionysodorus put on of their powers to a large audience in the locker-room of the Lyceum (literally the “un-dressing-room” — does this sort of thing go on at gyms these days? Not in OUR locker-rooms!). Besides the two disputing brothers, we have the sweet young Cleinias and his lover Ctesippus, as well as a crowd of followers of Euthydemus and Dionysodorus: clearly there is something of a raucous atmosphere, as Socrates frequently describes shouts of laughter and applause when the brothers make some particularly amazing refutation.
And this seems to be the essence of the brothers’ skill: however you answer one of their questions, they will prove that you are wrong. In this way they seem designed as exemplars of that definition of “sophist” I quoted from the last dialogue. They are sort of doing what Socrates does — revealing that people do not actually know what they think they know — except they are doing it only for the purpose of refutation, not for the purpose of trying to get at truth. As with the not-being/falsehood issue I flagged at the end of the last post, here also the basic issue seems to be linguistic. Socrates points this out in a long speech aimed at giving poor Cleinias some recovery time, at 277d-278c:
Such things are the sport [paidia, literally games, play, kids-stuff] of the sciences… because, although one were to learn many or even all of such tricks, one would be not a wit the wiser as to the true state of the matters in hand, but only able to make game of people, thanks to the difference in the sense of the words, by tripping them up and overturning them, just as those who slyly pull stools away from persons who are about to sit down make merry and laugh when they see one sprawling on one’s back (278b).
This seems to be the issue underlying their (somewhat obscure) contention, a little later in the dialogue, that falsehood is impossible since it’s impossible to speak (about) what doesn’t exist. The verb “to be” in Greek can either just be used to link a subject to a predicate, or it can state existence, and Euthydemus seems to be (mischeivously) conflating these two senses. But actually the argument makes little sense to me either in English or even in Greek, and (as I said last time) I am really having a very hard time seeing why anyone is worried about this at all.
*”Socrates Plays the Buffoon: Cautionary Protreptic in ‘Euthydemus'” AJP 121.4 (2000) pp. 509-535