Xenophon’s Socratic Cameos-Euthydemus & The İllusion of Knowledge

Socrates and his students- Painter- Johann Friedrich Greuter, 1590-San Francisco- Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Xenophon’s ‘Memorabilia’, book 4, chapter 1-2. Translated by Otis Johnson Todd (1883-1952), Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1923, digitization by the Perseus Project funded by The Annenberg/CPB Project, public under a Creative Commons Attribution.

We all know Socrates’ famous saying: “I know that I know nothing.”. Here in this dialog, Xenophon introduces Socrates’ method that will show Euthydemus his real self, opposite the image he fancies about himself. Xenophon writes: ‘I will now show his method of dealing with those who thought they had received the best education, and prided themselves on wisdom. He was informed that Euthydemus, the handsome, had formed a large collection of the works of celebrated poets and professors, and therefore supposed himself to be a prodigy of wisdom for his age, and was confident of surpassing all competitors in power of speech and action’. So, let’s witness this process together:


§ 4.1.1  BOOK 4

Socrates was so useful in all circumstances and in all ways, that any observer gifted with ordinary perception can see that nothing was more useful than the companionship of Socrates, and time spent with him in any place and in any circumstances. The very recollection of him in absence brought no small good to his constant companions and followers; for even in his light moods they gained no less from his society than when he was serious.

§ 4.1.2  Thus he would often say he was in love; but clearly his heart was set not on those who were fair to outward view, but on those whose souls excelled in goodness. These excellent beings he recognised by their quickness to learn whatever subject they studied, ability to remember what they learned, and desire for every kind of knowledge on which depend good management of a household and estate and tactful dealing with men and the affairs of men. For education would make such beings not only happy in themselves, and successful in the management of their households, but capable of conferring happiness on their fellow-men and on states alike. His method of approach varied.

§ 4.1.3  To those who thought themselves possessed of natural endowments and despised learning, he explained that the greater the natural gifts, the greater is the need of education; pointing out that thoroughbreds by their spirit and mettle develop into serviceable and splendid creatures, if they are broken in as colts, but if unbroken, prove intractable and sorry jades; and high-bred puppies, keen workers and good tacklers of game, make first-rate hounds and useful dogs, if well trained, but, if untrained, turn out stupid, crazy, disobedient brutes. It is the same with human beings.

§ 4.1.4  The most highly gifted, the youths of ardent soul, capable of doing whatever they attempt, if educated and taught their duty grow into excellent and useful men; for manifold and great are their good deeds. But untrained and untaught, these same become utterly evil and mischievous; for without knowledge to discern their duty, they often put their hand to vile deeds, and through the very grandeur and vehemence of their nature, they are uncontrollable and intractable: therefore manifold and great are their evil deeds.

§ 4.1.5  Those who prided themselves on riches and thought they had no need of education, supposing that their wealth would suffice them for gaining the objects of their wishes and winning honour among men, he admonished thus. Only a fool, he said, can think it possible to distinguish between things useful and things harmful without learning: only a fool can think that without distinguishing these he will get all he wants by means of his wealth and be able to do what is expedient: only a simpleton can think that without the power to do what is expedient he is doing well and has made good or sufficient provision for his life: only a simpleton can think that by his wealth alone without knowledge he will be reputed good at something, or will enjoy a good reputation without being reputed good at anything in particular.

§ 4.2.1  I will now show his method of dealing with those who thought they had received the best education, and prided themselves on wisdom. He was informed that Euthydemus, the handsome, had formed a large collection of the works of celebrated poets and professors, and therefore supposed himself to be a prodigy of wisdom for his age, and was confident of surpassing all competitors in power of speech and action. At present, Socrates observed, he did not enter the Agora owing to his youth, but when he wanted to get anything done, he would be found sitting in a saddler’s shop near the Agora. So, to make an opening, Socrates went to this shop with some of his companions.

At the first visit, one of them asked:

§ 4.2.2  Was it by constant intercourse with some wise man or by natural ability that Themistocles stood out among his fellow-citizens as the man to whom the people naturally looked when they felt the want of a great leader?

In order to set Euthydemus thinking, Socrates said:

If in the minor arts great achievement is impossible without competent masters, surely it is absurd to imagine that the art of statesmanship, the greatest of all accomplishments, comes to a man of its own accord.

§ 4.2.3  Some time afterwards, meeting Euthydemus again, he saw that he was reluctant to join the circle and anxious not to betray any admiration for the wisdom of Socrates: Well, gentlemen, said he, when our friend Euthydemus has attained his full powers, and some question of policy is before the Assembly, he won’t be backward in offering advice: that is obvious from his behaviour. I fancy he has prepared a noble exordium to his addresses, with due care not to give the impression that he is indebted to anyone for his knowledge. No doubt he will begin his speech with this introduction:

§ 4.2.4  Men of Athens, I have never yet learnt anything from anyone, nor when I have been told of any man’s ability in speech and in action, have I sought to meet him, nor have I been at pains to find a teacher among the men who know. On the contrary, I have constantly avoided learning anything of anyone, and even the appearance of it. Nevertheless I shall recommend to your consideration anything that comes into my head.’

§ 4.2.5  This exordium might be adapted so as to suit candidates for the office of public physician. They might begin their speeches in this strain:

‘Men of Athens, I have never yet studied medicine, nor sought to find a teacher among our physicians; for I have constantly avoided learning anything from the physicians, and even the appearance of having studied their art. Nevertheless I ask you to appoint me to the office of a physician, and I will endeavour to learn by experimenting on you.’

The exordium set all the company laughing.

§ 4.2.6  Now when it became evident that Socrates had gained the attention of Euthydemus, but that Euthydemus still avoided breaking silence himself, and thought that he assumed an air of prudence by remaining dumb, Socrates wanted to put an end to that affectation. How strange it is, he said, that those who want to play the harp or the flute, or to ride or to get skill in any similar accomplishment, work hard at the art they mean to master, and not by themselves but under the tuition of the most eminent professors, doing and bearing anything in their anxiety to do nothing without their teachers’ guidance, just because that is the only way to become proficient: and yet, among those who want to shine as speakers in the Assembly and as statesmen, there are some who think that they will be able to do so on a sudden, by instinct, without training or study.

§ 4.2.7  Yet surely these arts are much the harder to learn; for many more are interested in them and far fewer succeed. Clearly then these arts demand a longer and more intense application than the others.

§ 4.2.8  For a time, then, Socrates continued to talk in this strain, while Euthydemus listened. But on finding him more tolerant of his conversation and more attentive, Socrates went alone to the saddler’s; and when Euthydemus had taken a seat beside him, he said: Tell me, Euthydemus, am I rightly informed that you have a large collection of books written by the wise men of the past, as they are called?

By Zeus, yes, Socrates, answered he, and I am still adding to it, to make it as complete as possible.

§ 4.2.9  By Hera, retorted Socrates, I do admire you for valuing the treasures of wisdom above gold and silver. For you are evidently of opinion that, while gold and silver cannot make men better, the thoughts of the wise enrich their possessors with virtue.

Now Euthydemus was glad to hear this, for he guessed that in the opinion of Socrates he was on the road to wisdom.

§ 4.2.10  But Socrates, aware that he was pleased with his approbation, went on to say: Tell me, Euthydemus, what kind of goodness do you want to get by collecting these books?

And as Euthydemus was silent, considering what answer to give, Possibly you want to be a doctor? he guessed: Medical treatises alone make a large collection.

Oh no, not at all.

But perhaps you wish to be an architect? One needs a well-stored mind for that too.

No, indeed I don’t.

Well, perhaps you want to be a good mathematician, like Theodorus?

No, not that either.

Well, perhaps you want to be an astronomer? And as he again said no, Perhaps a rhapsodist, then? They tell me you have a complete copy of Homer.

Oh no, not at all; for your rhapsodists, I know, are consummate as reciters, but they are very silly fellows themselves.

Then Socrates exclaimed:

§ 4.2.11  Surely, Euthydemus, you don’t covet the kind of excellence that makes good statesmen and managers, competent rulers and benefactors of themselves and mankind in general?

Yes, I do, Socrates, answered Euthydemus, that kind of excellence I greatly desire.

Why, cried Socrates, it is the noblest kind of excellence, the greatest of arts that you covet, for it belongs to kings and is dubbed ‘kingly.’ However, he added, have you reflected whether it be possible to excel in these matters without being a just man?

Yes, certainly; and it is, in fact, impossible to be a good citizen without justice.

§ 4.2.12  Then tell me, have you got that?

Yes, Socrates, I think I can show myself to be as just as any man.

And have just men, like carpenters, their works?

Yes, they have.

And as carpenters can point out their works, should just men be able to rehearse theirs?

Do you suppose, retorted Euthydemus, that I am unable to rehearse the works of justice? Of course I can, — and the works of injustice too, since there are many opportunities of seeing and hearing of them every day.

§ 4.2.13  I propose, then, that we write J in this column and I in that, and then proceed to place under these letters, J and I, what we take to be the works of justice and injustice respectively.

Do so, if you think it helps at all

Having written down the letters as he proposed, Socrates went on:

§ 4.2.14  Lying occurs among men, does it not?

Yes, it does.

Under which heading, then, are we to put that?

Under the heading of injustice, clearly.

Deceit, too, is found, is it not?


Under which heading will that go?

Under injustice again, of course.

What about doing mischief?

That too.

Selling into slavery?

That too.

Then we shall assign none of these things to justice, Euthydemus?

No, it would be monstrous to do so.

§ 4.2.15  Now suppose a man who has been elected general enslaves an unjust and hostile city, shall we say that he acts unjustly?

Oh no!

We shall say that his actions are just, shall we not?


And what if he deceives the enemy when at war?

That too is just.

And if he steals and plunders their goods, will not his actions be just?

Certainly; but at first I assumed that your questions had reference only to friends.

Then everything that we assigned to injustice should be assigned to justice also?


§ 4.2.16  Then I propose to revise our classification, and to say: It is just to do such things to enemies, but it is unjust to do them to friends, towards whom one’s conduct should be scrupulously honest.

By all means.

§ 4.2.17  Now suppose that a general, seeing that his army is downhearted, tells a lie and says that reinforcements are approaching, and by means of this lie checks discouragement among the men, under which heading shall we put this deception?

Under justice, I think.

Suppose, again, that a man’s son refuses to take a dose of medicine when he needs it, and the father induces him to take it by pretending that it is food, and cures him by means of this lie, where shall we put this deception?

That too goes on the same side, I think.

And again, suppose one has a friend suffering from depression, and, for fear that he may make away with himself, one takes away his sword or something of the sort, under which heading shall we put that now?

That too goes under justice, of course.

§ 4.2.18  You mean, do you, that even with friends straightforward dealing is not invariably right?

It isn’t, indeed! I retract what I said before, if you will let me.

Why, I’m bound to let you; it’s far better than getting our lists wrong.

§ 4.2.19  But now, consider deception practised on friends to their detriment: we mustn’t overlook that either. Which is the more unjust deception in that case, the intentional or unintentional?

Nay, Socrates, I have lost all confidence in my answers; for all the opinions that I expressed before seem now to have taken an entirely different form. Still I venture to say that the intentional deception is more unjust than the unintentional.

§ 4.2.20  Do you think there is a doctrine and science of the just, as there is of letters?


Which, in your judgment, is the more literate, the man who intentionally blunders in writing and reading, or the man who blunders unintentionally?

The one who blunders intentionally, I presume; for he can always be accurate when he chooses.

May we not say, then, that the intentional blunderer is literate and the unintentional is illiterate?

Indeed we must.

And which knows what is just, the intentional liar and deceiver, or the unintentional?

The intentional, clearly.

You say, then, as I understand, that he who knows letters is more literate than he who is ignorant of them?


And he who knows what is just is more just than he who does not know?

Apparently; but here again I don’t feel sure of my own meaning.

§ 4.2.21  Now come, what do you think of the man who wants to tell the truth, but never sticks to what he says; when he shows you the way, tells you first that the road runs east, then that it runs west; and when he casts up figures, makes the total now larger, now smaller?

Why, I think he shows that he doesn’t know what he thought he knew.

§ 4.2.22  Are you aware that some people are called slavish?


To what do they owe the name, to knowledge or to ignorance?

To ignorance, obviously.

To ignorance of the smiths’ trade, shall we say?

Certainly not.

Ignorance of carpentry perhaps?

No, not to that either.

Of cobbling?

No, to none of these: on the contrary, those who are skilled in such trades are for the most part slavish.

Then is this name given to those who are ignorant of the beautiful and good and just?

That is my opinion.

§ 4.2.23  Then we must strain every nerve to escape being slaves.

Upon my word, Socrates, I did feel confident that I was a student of a philosophy that would provide me with the best education in all things needful to one who would be a gentleman. But you can imagine my dismay when I realise that in spite of all my pains I am even incapable of answering a question about things that one is bound to know, and yet find no other way that will lead to my improvement.

Hereupon Socrates exclaimed:

§ 4.2.24  Tell me, Euthydemus, have you ever been to Delphi?

Yes, certainly; twice.

Then did you notice somewhere on the temple the inscription ‘Know thyself’?

I did.

And did you pay no heed to the inscription, or did you attend to it and try to consider who you were?

Indeed I did not; because I felt sure that I knew that already; for I could hardly know anything else if I did not even know myself.

§ 4.2.25  And what do you suppose a man must know to know himself, his own name merely? Or must he consider what sort of a creature he is for human use and get to know his own powers; just as those who buy horses don’t think that they know the beast they want to know until they have considered whether he is docile or stubborn, strong or weak, fast or slow, and generally how he stands in all that makes a useful or a useless horse?

That leads me to think that he who does not know his own powers is ignorant of himself.

§ 4.2.26  Is it not clear too that through self-knowledge men come to much good, and through self-deception to much harm? For those who know themselves, know what things are expedient for themselves and discern their own powers and limitations. And by doing what they understand, they get what they want and prosper: by refraining from attempting what they do not understand, they make no mistakes and avoid failure. And consequently through their power of testing other men too, and through their intercourse with others, they get what is good and shun what is bad.

§ 4.2.27  Those who do not know and are deceived in their estimate of their own powers, are in the like condition with regard to other men and other human affairs. They know neither what they want, nor what they do, nor those with whom they have intercourse; but mistaken in all these respects, they miss the good and stumble into the bad.

§ 4.2.28  Furthermore, those who know what they do win fame and honour by attaining their ends. Their equals are glad to have dealings with them; and those who miss their objects look to them for counsel, look to them for protection, rest on them their hopes of better things, and for all these reasons love them above all other men.

§ 4.2.29  But those who know not what they do, choose amiss, fail in what they attempt and, besides incurring direct loss and punishment thereby, they earn contempt through their failures, make themselves ridiculous and live in dishonour and humiliation.

And the same is true of communities. You find that whenever a state, in ignorance of its own power, goes to war with a stronger people, it is exterminated or loses its liberty.

§ 4.2.30  Socrates, answered Euthydemus, you may rest assured that I fully appreciate the importance of knowing oneself. But where should the process of self-examination begin? I look to you for a statement, please.

§ 4.2.31  Well, said Socrates, I may assume, I take it, that you know what things are good and what are evil?

Of course, for if I don’t know so much as that, I must be worse than a slave.

Come then, state them for my benefit.

Well, that’s a simple matter. First health in itself is, I suppose, a good, sickness an evil. Next the various causes of these two conditions — meat, drink, habits — are good or evil according as they promote health or sickness.

§ 4.2.32  Then health and sickness too must be good when their effect is good, and evil when it is evil.

But when can health possibly be the cause of evil, or sickness of good?

Why, in many cases; for instance, a disastrous campaign or a fatal voyage: the able-bodied who go are lost, the weaklings who stay behind are saved.

True; but you see, in the successful adventures too the able-bodied take part, the weaklings are left behind.

Then since these bodily conditions sometimes lead to profit, and sometimes to loss, are they any more good than evil?

No, certainly not; at least so it appears from the argument.

§ 4.2.33  But wisdom now, Socrates, — that at any rate is indisputably a good thing; for what is there that a wise man would not do better than a fool?

Indeed! have you not heard how Daedalus was seized by Minos because of his wisdom, and was forced to be his slave, and was robbed of his country and his liberty, and essaying to escape with his son, lost the boy and could not save himself, but was carried off to the barbarians and again lived as a slave there?

That is the story, of course.

And have you not heard the story of Palamedes? Surely, for all the poets sing of him, how that he was envied for his wisdom and done to death by Odysseus.

Another well-known tale!

And how many others, do you suppose, have been kidnapped on account of their wisdom, and haled off to the great King’s court, and live in slavery there?

§ 4.2.34  Happiness seems to be unquestionably a good, Socrates.

It would be so, Euthydemus, were it not made up of goods that are questionable.

But what element in happiness can be called in question?

None, provided we don’t include in it beauty or strength or wealth or glory or anything of the sort.

But of course we shall do that. For how can anyone be happy without them?

§ 4.2.35  Then of course we shall include the sources of much trouble to mankind. For many are ruined by admirers whose heads are turned at the sight of a pretty face; many are led by their strength to attempt tasks too heavy for them, and meet with serious evils: many by their wealth are corrupted, and fall victims to conspiracies; many through glory and political power have suffered great evils.

§ 4.2.36  Well now, if I am at fault in praising even happiness, I confess I know not what one should ask for in one’s prayers.

But perhaps you never even thought about these things, because you felt so confident that you knew them. However, as the state you are preparing yourself to direct is governed by the people, no doubt you know what popular government is?

I think so, certainly.

§ 4.2.37  Then do you suppose it possible to know popular government without knowing the people?

Indeed I don’t.

And do you know, then, what the people consists of?

I think so.

Of what do you suppose it to consist?

The poorer classes, I presume.

You know the poor, then?

Of course I do.

And you know the rich too?

Yes, just as well as the poor.

What kind of men do you call poor and rich respectively?

The poor, I imagine, are those who have not enough to pay for what they want; the rich those who have more than enough.

§ 4.2.38  Have you observed, then, that some who have very little not only find it enough, but even manage to save out of it, whereas others cannot live within their means, however large?

Yes, certainly — thanks for reminding me — I know, in fact, of some despots even who are driven to crime by poverty, just like paupers.

§ 4.2.39  Therefore, if that is so, we will include despots in the people, and men of small means, if they are thrifty, in the rich.

I am forced to agree once more, cried Euthydemus, evidently by my stupidity. I am inclined to think I had better hold my tongue, or I shall know nothing at all presently. And so he went away very dejected, disgusted with himself and convinced that he was indeed a slave.

§ 4.2.40  Now many of those who were brought to this pass by Socrates, never went near him again and were regarded by him as mere blockheads. But Euthydemus guessed that he would never be of much account unless he spent as much time as possible with Socrates. Henceforward, unless obliged to absent himself, he never left him, and even began to adopt some of his practices. Socrates, for his part, seeing how it was with him, avoided worrying him, and began to expound very plainly and clearly the knowledge that he thought most needful and the practices that he held to be most excellent.


Socrates Teaching, Nicolas Guibal.
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