Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.05

Georgia Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi, Playful Philosophy and Serious Sophistry. A Reading of Plato’s 'Euthydemus'. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd 115.   Berlin; Boston:  Walter de Gruyter, 2014.  Pp. x, 203.  ISBN 9783110368093.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Laura Viidebaum, New York University (


[The reviewer apologises to the author and editors for the lateness of this review.]

Given its close focus on the sophistic argumentation strategies of its eponymous characters, the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, and its neatly arranged ring structure and comic tone, Plato’s Euthydemus is an attractive test case of Platonic writing for literary scholars as well as philosophers. Paul Natorp famously labelled the dialogue as a ‘Satyrspiel’, 1 whereas Aristotle seems to have used the dialogue (or a common source for the fallacies of Euthydemus/Dionysodorus) as an inspiration for his Sophistical refutations. Despite the rich potential for both philosophical and literary insight, the dialogue has received comparatively little attention in the scholarship, and there is certainly a need for an exploration of this work that would do justice to its philosophical and literary merits. Georgia Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi’s book, a revised doctoral dissertation from the University of Virginia, promises to do just that. Although she writes primarily from a classicist’s perspective, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi does not shy away from discussing complex philosophical issues that emerge in the course of her analysis and in many cases she succeeds in elucidating the knotty points of the dialogue. However, the presentation of the overall argument and her efforts to bring together the literary and philosophical aspects of the dialogue would have required far more interpretative work in order to persuade, and ultimately the book seems to offer little that is really new.

The book consists of four thematically arranged chapters, thus rearranging the narrative order of the dialogue, which alternates the so-called sophistic sections with Socrates’ protreptics. The brief Introduction explains the motivations for Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi’s undertaking of the project and sheds light on her methodology and position within the vast scholarship of Plato’s dialogues. Since she finds ‘little in this dialogue that constitutes “philosophical doctrine”’ (2), she argues that one must do more than simply focus on arguments: it is imperative, she infers, to focus on the literary/dramatic aspects of the work. Her aim is to provide a unified interpretation of the Euthydemus as a dialogue particularly interested in investigating the tensions between play and seriousness and in staging this tension through the portrayal of Socrates and the sophist brothers. This is hardly a controversial approach to the dialogue and the brief overview of scholarship (2-3) does not really help situate her contribution within the scholarly discussions of Plato’s dramatic form and of the Euthydemus more precisely.

Chapter One focuses on the two so-called protreptic scenes of the dialogue and claims that they should be read in parallel as contributing to one single protreptic. By pin-pointing several problematic passages in Socrates’ argumentation, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi argues that Socrates himself employs a number of fallacies ‘which contribute to his depiction as a potentially playful character’. She then goes on to juxtapose Socrates’ dialectical method to the eristic of the sophists. According to Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi, the aim of highlighting the similarities between Socrates’ dialectic and the sophists’ eristic is to draw attention to what really distinguishes them—the purpose of their educational activity: the sophists employ these misleading techniques to procure their own success, whereas Socrates uses them in order to captivate the young men’s attention and thus persuade them to engage more properly with philosophy. This is a standard interpretation of the presentation of philosophy vs. eristic in the dialogue and Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi’s method of pursuing Socrates’ each argumentative step carefully with references to relevant discussions in the scholarship makes this chapter useful for students looking to get an overview of the recent debates. Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi promotes the view, advocated previously by J. Annas, that the first protreptic is essentially separating wisdom from virtue (contra G. Vlastos),2 and claims that wisdom is not only necessary but also sufficient for happiness (38). She argues, however, that in order to come to that conclusion, Socrates is inconsistent and, eventually, deceives Cleinias by deploying a deliberate fallacy. For reasons that remain unexplained, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi interprets Socrates’ deception as a playful feature of his dialectic. But, whether playful or not, Socrates’ fallacious (?) argumentation looks like an implicit critique on Socratic methods, or of the protreptic genre more broadly. In fact, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi’s take on the role of the protreptic in this dialogue might have been sharpened had she included a discussion on the use of terminology (‘protreptic’, ‘apotreptic’ etc.) and the context of protreptic writings. At a time when philosophical schools appear to have employed this ‘genre’ as a way to promote their teaching and philosophy to the public, we might not necessarily have to assume that Plato’s use of protreptic is unambiguously positive or approving. Slings’ important contribution on protreptic writing is conspicuously absent here.3

In her reading of the second protreptic, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi argues that the scene does not end in complete aporia and that in introducing a discussion on politics Socrates suggests an intimate connection between politics and philosophy, thus implicitly evoking the Republic (48). Discussions of the relationship between the two dialogues have a long history, and Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi does not really say anything about the significance of the dialogue ending in only an ‘apparent’ aporia. Why would Socrates want to end the protreptic scene in an aporia if indeed there was a way out that Plato had explored in the Republic? Why is politics all of a sudden dismissed from the discussion (292e1-2)? And what is the role of proverbs expressed by Socrates at the end of the second protreptic (and in the dialogue more generally)?

Chapter Two argues that the three eristic scenes of the dialogue function as one continuum that, like the protreptic scenes, investigates what sort of knowledge leads to happiness (67). Hence, according to Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi, even though the dialogue divides into five different scenes, they are all unified by their preoccupation with the question about the object of knowledge and their implicit references to the theory of Forms. A large part of the chapter is essentially a summary of the arguments in their dramatic setting, and Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi gives less credit to previous scholarship and their engagement with dramatic features of the dialogue than is due.4 She is strong in noticing significant repetitions and aspects of the dialogue that may carry relevant philosophical implications, but less so in carrying out analyses of these arguments.

The second part of the chapter introduces an intriguing reading of the dialogue: Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi argues that the eristic and protreptic scenes run in parallel, ask similar questions, and even provide similar answers or aporiai. The first eristic scene and the first protreptic both enquire about ‘who learns what’ (108), while the topic of the second eristic and protreptic is being vs. non-being (allusions to the Forms) and the third eristic concerns omniscience (allusions to Recollection). Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi argues that by approximating the sophistic arguments to philosophical ones Plato illustrates ‘the very real danger of conflation between philosophy and eristic’. (110) The underlying mistake of the sophists is to use binary and mutually exclusive arguments, and Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi successfully shows how the sophistic argumentation is characterised in precisely this way in the Euthydemus and elsewhere in Plato. Furthermore, she argues that Socrates too is portrayed, in the earlier ‘Socratic’ dialogues as well as here in the Euthydemus, as making use of the same binary opposition, thus underscoring his similarity to the sophist brothers even more. What is lacking in this otherwise interesting discussion is an analysis of the relevance of these observations in the context of the dialogue. What would Plato want to achieve by subjecting his views to criticism by the sophist brothers? What does it mean in the context of the arguments of the Euthydemus to portray Socrates himself as falling victim to the same fallacies as the sophists? Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi is eager to emphasise the seriousness of the sophistic arguments (as they allude in distorted ways to views Plato had introduced elsewhere) and the playfulness of Socrates (by his use of deception or fallacious arguments) as the symbol of philosophical enquiry, but the meaning of all this remains unclear and is not really addressed, or even hinted at, before the final chapter.

The third chapter focuses on the characters participating in the frame of the dialogue: Socrates, Crito and the anonymous critic introduced at the end of the dialogue. Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi argues that from the first framing scene onwards the dialogue portrays the relationship between Socrates and Crito as rather ambiguous: Socrates praises the sophists throughout the dialogue, while Crito feigns ignorance of the discussion in order to hear Socrates’ perspective. Because of the playfulness of Socrates and his philosophical method, she argues, Socrates goes along with this pose and even suggests that the sophist brothers could be referred to as philosophers (143). What exactly the purpose of this playfulness might be remains obscure at this stage. Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi defends the widely established view that the anonymous man at the end of the dialogue should be identified with Isocrates, but for reasons other than those presented by Ries (1959) and Eucken (1983).5 She argues that even though the motivation for Plato’s Euthydemus and Isocrates’ Against the sophists is the same—to attack the sophists and to propose better alternatives to their methods—, Plato still felt the need to emphasise the ineptness of Isocrates’ educational system and of his concept of philosophy. As much as Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi tries to play up the innovativeness of her interpretation, it is difficult to find a discussion of the relationship between Plato and Isocrates that would argue anything substantially different.

The fourth and final chapter aims to draw together the multiple strands of interpretation offered thus far, and to give an explanation for the juxtaposition of play and seriousness throughout the book. Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi focuses on two motifs: laughter and the theme of seriousness vs. play. Methodologically, the chapter consists in descriptions of all occurrences of laughter, play and seriousness throughout the dialogue. Given the complexity of these themes, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi wisely steers away from heavy theoretical discussions on the topic of laughter/irony/play, and by focusing exclusively on the Euthydemus she argues that both themes function as structural pointers in the dialogue or as Plato’s way of highlighting significant moments in the discussion (162). Throughout the book, Sermamoglou- Soulmaidi draws attention to the similarity of Socratic enquiry to that of the sophists, and she argues here that the essential difference lies in their use of these topics: while Socrates uses play as a starting-point for more serious investigation, the sophists remain at this superficial level and do not plan to delve deeper into the underlying philosophical questions. Although this chapter offers many insightful close readings, it is essentially an overview summarizing the sections that feature laughter and seriousness vs. play. Indeed, other than emphasizing the use of these themes as structural markers, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi does not attempt in any way to go further in her interpretation. It is thus left to the reader to understand the significance of using these structural markers for the wider philosophical points at stake. Her persistent lack of interest in such central questions is frustrating and has the result that several useful discussions (many of them in footnotes) end abruptly without providing a more convincing discussion of the relevance of these to our reading of the Euthydemus.

Overall, Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi succeeds in presenting literary readings side-by-side with the philosophical aspects of the dialogue, but she has not created a constructive dialogue between the two. The author’s characteristic approach of summarizing without offering penetrating analyses of the passages is the most disappointing aspect of this book. Despite many valuable observations, the reader is too often left with the feeling that a good opportunity has been missed to shed more light on the dramatic marriage of sophistry and philosophy.

The book is written in clear prose and carefully edited (I noticed no spelling mistakes), except for a few formatting mishaps (the Greek in pp. 157, 158, 160, 162). It also includes an Appendix outlining the structure of the dialogue, a bibliography and three indexes.


1.   P. Natorp (1921) Platos Ideenlehre. Leipzig: Meiner. Given the importance of the dramatic context for Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi’s approach to the dialogue, it is surprising that this work is absent in her otherwise meticulous bibliography.
2.   G. Vlastos (1991) Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Chapter 8. Cambridge University Press; J. Annas (1994) ‘Virtue as the Use of Other Goods’ in T. Irwin and M. C. Nussbaum (eds.) Virtue, Love, and Form: Essays in Memory of Gregory Vlastos, Apeiron (26) 3-4, 53-66.
3.   S. R. Slings (1999) Plato: Clitophon. Cambridge University Press.
4.   T. H. Chance (1992) Plato's Euthydemus: analysis of what is and is not philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press) frequently takes dramatic elements into consideration, and R. S. W. Hawtrey’s commentary on the Euthydemus (1981) has an entire section on literary allusions and the dramatic form, to only name a few.
5.   K. Ries (1959) ‘Isokrates und Platon im Ringen um die Philosophia’ PhD dissertation, Ludwig Maximilian Universität München; C. Eucken (1983) Isokrates: Seine Positionen in der Auseinandersetzung mit den zeitgenössischen Philosophen. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010