In preparation for Stoic Camp New York 2015 I have been reading one of Plato’s dialogues, the Euthydemus. My co-organizer, Greg Lopez, and I picked it because it is crucial to understand the Stoic concept of wisdom.
The version I have is published by Focus, with an introduction by Denise Schaeffer, translation by Gregory McBrayer and Mary Nichols, and a nice and very informative accompanying essay by Nichols and Schaeffer.
It’s a bit of a weird dialogue, and it was neglected by scholars until recently. It features Socrates (of course), engaging two Sophists — Euthydemus, and his brother Dionysodorus — who sound for all the world like the caricatures of a pair of modern academic postmodernists. The strange thing, though, is that it isn’t clear the extent to which Socrates himself takes these two characters seriously, even at some point professing admiration for them and their ways, as opposed to displaying his sarcasm at its best (I tend to lean toward the latter interpretation).
The other unusual thing in the dialogue is that we don’t get to hear it directly, as it is normally the case with Plato. Rather, we are presented with Socrates’ recounting of the conversation to his friend Crito, who incidentally has his very own Platonic dialogue dedicated to his name.
One of the crucial points of the dialogue (279-282) is Socrates’ exhortation of wisdom, where he explains that wisdom is all that matters because wise people do well and prosper in anything they do. Happiness, he claims, doesn’t derive from having goods, or knowledge, but from using those things wisely. Socrates goes even so far as to suggest that if one is not wise one is better off without goods or knowledge, because he would risk using them unwisely, which is worse than not having them at all.
For Socrates even virtues like courage, moderation and justice (the three Stoic virtues other than wisdom) are good only insofar one is virtuous, and can therefore deploy them properly. This is congruent with the famous Stoic doctrine of the unity of virtues — the idea that, really, there is only one virtue, namely, wisdom, which however manifests itself in a number of different contexts. It also makes sense of the idea that therefore there cannot be, say, a courageous evil person: courage is a moral virtue, not just a matter of facing dangerous situations. In order to be truly courageous one has to face the right kind of dangerous situations. (So, for instance, displaying courage in facing an enemy of one’s polis is morally good; but putting one’s life at risk in order to pull off a stunt and impress people is not courageous at all, according to this view.)
However, Socrates then qualifies his position (282) by saying that it makes sense to seek wisdom from others only if wisdom is something that can indeed be taught. But of course we know from a number of other Platonic dialogues that Socrates very much thinks wisdom can be taught, otherwise his entire enterprise of philosophizing by engaging other people would be fundamentally pointless.
At 288-293 Socrates resumes his exploration of wisdom, claiming that what is necessary is a special kind of knowledge, “in which making and knowing how to use what is made coincide” (289b), unlike, say, knowledge of making a musical instrument, which is not necessarily accompanied by knowledge of how to play it. Wisdom is precisely this combination of knowing how to make and knowing how to use.
But making and knowing what? Socrates examines a number of candidate answers, rejecting them. For instance, wisdom is not knowledge of how to make speeches, since some speech writers don’t know how to use what they write, and some orators don’t know how to write their own speeches. The same goes for generalship, or the art of politics.
Sprague, one of the commentators of the Euthydemus cited by Nichols and Schaeffer, claims that at this point the discussion has moved to the level of a “second-order art,” a type of knowledge that brings happiness (in the sense of eudaimonia) “not by teaching . . . any particular skill, but by imparting an intellectual and moral quality.” Wisdom, that is, is a type of moral knowledge.
One of the intriguing aspects of the Euthydemus is the distinction it makes between sophistry and philosophy (though the details of how this actually comes through in the dialogue itself are still being debated among scholars). In some respects, it looks at some points during the dialogue like Socrates isn’t that different from the two brothers: they are all playing games with words, if you like. But the crucial distinction comes out when Socrates asks Dionysodorus whether he really believes what he is saying (which at several points sounds absurd, as when the brothers argue that everybody knows everything) or whether he says it “for the sake of argument” (286). Dionysodorus simply refuses to acknowledge the distinction between the two scenarios, something that Socrates himself would never do. Philosophy, then, is more than just playing with words. It is a self-reflective activity where one is engaged in a (admittedly never ending) quest for wisdom, because, as Socrates’ friend Crito, reminds us (288), we ought to pursue wisdom as it is good for us, since it is the sort of “second-order art” that teaches us how to live the eudaimonic life.