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Plato’s Euthydemos: education is murder

So education can be framed as murder. At least that is what two sophists in Plato’s Euthydemos try to argue (283b-d). The argument is roughly this:

  1. Educating someone means attempting to make him wiser
  2. Making someone wiser only makes sense if you recognize this person is as of yet not wise
  3. So educating him means forcing him to become what he is not. So you will not allow him to be as he is / you deny him his current existence
  4. So you want to end his current existence
  5. So educating someone means killing him.

The argument is a sophism, and Plato wants us to understand it as such. The challenge for the reader (and perhaps Plato was baffled by the same challenge) is to find out what is going wrong.

There seem to be at least two lines to take.


Line one: clearing up the verb ‘being’

First of all, we might complain that the sophists conflate two completely different senses of the verb ‘to be’. Every time the word is mentioned, it sounds the same, but the meaning is different.

If we say that someone should become what he is not, we are talking about qualities. We don’t want the student to stop existing altogether, but we just want to change some of the qualities he possesses. Or put differently, at first the student does not yet belong to the group of wise people (whether this group is empty or not), and we desire him to belong to this group.

In other words, we don’t want him to stop being simpliciter, but we simply want him to start being something else. 

We should separate the ‘is’ of predication from the ‘is’ of existence.


Line two: thinking identity

But there is a second line to take. For instance, we might think that what and who a student is, is closely entangled with the qualities he possesses. To educate someone means to recognize that what a student is, is not really what he ought to be.

Now on this line, the sophists do not present a total paradox. It is possible to say that the exact peculiarities of who a person is at this moment in time will indeed change if he or she gets educated. In a sense, the exact person which you are at this moment will ‘end its existence’ when you change even a single aspect of yourself.

In that case, the force of the argument turns on the question how radical a change should be seen as irrelevant.

On the one hand, it seems clear that someone can ‘not be himself’. If our facial features suddenly change, we might not recognize ourselves anymore. If a relationship breaks up, we might not really know what to do with ourselves. And if we are indoctrinated by some cult, our friends might rightfully say that the old ‘us’ was murdered.

(Darth Vader killed Anakin Skywalker)

But on the other hand, it also seems clear that a lot of changes are both inevitable and harmless. Our hair grows, and doesn’t remain the same length. We cut it, and it becomes shorter again. We look at the ground, turn our head, and look at the sky. We are in the kitchen, move about, and we are in the living room. We are hungry and we eat. We watch a television show and we remember it. I change my clothes and put a hat on, yet I didn’t murder myself: I’m still me.

So on this second line, it all boils down to this: is education something which is ‘continuous’ or ‘autonomous’ enough not to be seen as brainwashing? Is the student not still the same person, just with different qualities? The question seems settled: doing math doesn’t turn you into another person. (And therefore it doesn’t excuse you from all the terrible things you did yesterday).


(The core point in this second line is an analysis of identity between objects OR the rules governing the relation between personal identity and qualities. It seem to me there are several ways to put the issue, depending on the particular school of analysis you belong to.)

(I’ve met logicians who would claim their identity was strong enough to survive them turning into a rock. To them, the limits to identity are not that narrow. Or: they don’t consider their substance to be that substantial) 



It should be noted however, that on this second line, the sophists actually seem to have a point. They are right, if they can proof that education is something on line with the sort of brainwashing which might make us exclaim that ‘our friend is no more’.

So proving them wrong means being optimistic: whatever it is that ‘becoming wiser’ means, it is something which does not violate the identity of the student. It is not like brainwashing, memory wiping, reprogramming, etc.

But this seems to be a valid point for discussion.

Why is education not like memory wiping? Is it about influence on someone’s life? The speed of the change? The amount of discontinuity? Or: can ignorance be an identity?

(Below some remarks on the context and text)



– Plato, Euthedemos, in: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1967. Online at:



In the Euthydemos, Socrates recalls a conversation he had with two sophists from Chios, by the name sof Dionysodoros and Euthydemos. The two sophists are praised for being excellent fighters, both with words and in the literal sense (271e). 

(And so Plato again draws attention to the great attraction the sophists had on the ambitious youths in Athens) 

Once one of the promising youths, Kleinias, enters the scene, the dialogue turns into a four way discussion between Socrates, one of Kleinias admirers, and the sophists. Socrates main question seems to be whether what these sophists have to offer has any real value.


The text

“These were my words, Crito; and I set about giving the closest attention to what should follow, and observing in what fashion they would deal with the question, and how they would start exhorting the youth to practise wisdom and virtue. So then the elder of them, Dionysodorus, entered first upon the discussion, and we all turned our eyes on him expecting to hear, there and then, some wonderful arguments. And this result we certainly got; [283b] for wondrous, in a way, Crito, was the argument that the man then ushered forth, which is worth your hearing as a notable incitement to virtue.

Tell me, Socrates, he said, and all you others who say you desire this youth to become wise, whether you say this in jest or truly and earnestly desire it.

At this I reflected that previously, as it seemed, they took us to be jesting, when we urged them to converse with the youth, and hence they made a jest of it [283c] and did not take it seriously. This reflection therefore made me insist all the more that we were in deadly earnest.

Then Dionysodorus said: Yet be careful, Socrates, that you do not have to deny what you say now.

I know what I am about, I said: I know I shall never deny it.

Well now, he proceeded; you tell me you wish him to become wise?


And at present, be asked, is Cleinias wise or not?

He says he is not yet so—he is no vain pretender.

And you, he went on, [283d] wish him to become wise, and not to be ignorant?

We agreed.

So you wish him to become what he is not, and to be no longer what he now is.

When I heard this I was confused; and he, striking in on my confusion, said: Of course then, since you wish him to be no longer what he now is, you wish him, apparently, to be dead. And yet what valuable friends and lovers they must be, who would give anything to know their darling was dead and gone!)






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