Considering Plato’s Sophist

The Sophist, a favorite of Martin Heidegger, begins without introduction and takes place morning after the end of the Theaetetus. Unlike the Theaetetus, it has no introduction from the Megarians many decades later.

Theodorus, a man who ‘meets his obligations,’ opens the dialogue: “It is in accordance with yesterday’s agreement…” (116 A). He has brought with him an unnamed stranger from Elea, of the school of Parmenides and Zeno. Socrates wonders whether or not he might be a god, as gods and philosophers often disguise themselves as apparitions appearing as a sophist or a statesman. In caring mainly for the city of Athens, Socrates does not ask for the stranger’s name, but proceeds to ask what the stranger understands to be a sophist, statesman, and philosopher. The first two follow in the preceding dialogues, however we do not receive a Platonic dialogue entitled the Philosopher.

The stranger engages with the young Theaetetus in the discussion while Socrates and Theodorus listen.  First, the stranger leads Theaetetus into a lengthy discussion of the many facades of the sophist -an artist, a soothsayer, a money-maker and so on. The discussion ends inconclusively, however, and turns to the question of being and non-being. They spend a great deal of time discussing the nature of being non-being, as non-being becomes, in fact, a question of being if it is discussed holistically, posing a problem for the sophist who is a proclaimer of non-being. The dialogue inconclusively and is the second part of what Seth Bernardete called “The Being of the Beautiful” -a trilogy of the TheaetetusSophist, and Statesman.

For this reading I used Seth Bernardete’s translation of Plato’s Sophist.

Examining The Platonic Dialogues

The word “dialogue” comes down to us from the Greeks. It means to converse with one another, or to meet with one another. Thus Plato’s “dialogues” are conversations between people, and they also inspire gathering and conversation. In examining the kind and character of each Platonic dialogue, we proceed as biologists as if dissecting contents to reveal the form of the dialogues.

In the first place there are two kinds of Platonic dialogues: narrated and performed. A narrated dialogue is one in which people are recounting, or recalling, the scene of the dialogue. It serves as a kind of introduction to the setting and there are nine narrated dialogues, with six narrated by Socrates. An example of a narrated dialogue is the Theaetetus. A performed dialogue simply begins en media res without an introduction and is the most common type of Platonic dialogue as there are twenty-four performed dialogues.

A second division of the Platonic dialogues is between Socratic and non-Socratic dialogues, wherein Socrates is the chief speaker. In the vast majority of dialogues (twenty-eight) Socrates is the chief speaker. An example of a non-Socratic dialogue is the Laws or the Sophist.

Third, we notice the large number of proper names serving as titles for the dialogues (twenty-seven of thirty-five, such Theaetetus or Phaedrus). Elsewhere in ancient literature we find proper names as the titles of tragedies (Oedipus or Antigone), however in the Platonic dialogues the proper names are mostly contemporaries of Socrates, not classical heroes. However, in some ways the Platonic dialogue is a kind of harmony between tragedy and comedy (see the end of the Symposium). In only four dialogues does the title reveal the true subject matter: RepublicLawsSophist, and Statesman.

Lastly, the setting and the characters of the dialogues. All of the dialogues occur within Athens, excluding the Laws (and its debatable sequel the Eponimis). However, the Phaedrus occurs outside the city walls of Athens and the Republic takes place down the harbor of the Piraeus. In no dialogue does Socrates speak with a common worker -a laborer, artisan, blacksmith and so on, despite the fact that he is always considering them and in the Apology he identifies the people with whom he engages.

As has been said, one of the central problems with writing is that the text is universal and equally shared among all people. That is, the writer must speak to everyone on an equal standing. However, the Platonic dialogue, in its deliberate ambiguity and obfuscation, is an attempt to overcome this problem of writing -that is, to transcend the finitude of the passing moment, while preserving the esotericism of the teaching: to communicate something common to many people while preserving a more exclusive teaching for a few.

Initial Thoughts on Plato’s Laches

In Plato’s short dialogue called the Laches we encounter the question of courage. Lysimachus and Melesias are seeking guidance from some of Athen’s older and more experienced men on the best way to raise their sons so they will become good. Both Lysimachus and Melesias are ashamed because they did not fight in battle the way their forefathers did against the Medes (i.e. the Persian War). Both men believe that a teacher must have experience in order to properly instruct the youth. Lysimachus proposes that they ask Nicias and Laches since they were both warriors. Lysimachus was told the best way to teach boys is by fighting in armor. When Lysimachus broaches the question, Laches says he is astonished that he has not asked Socrates. Laches praises Socrates for his marching at Delium during the Pelopponesian War. He praises Socrates’s courage.

When they finally include Socrates in the inquiry, Socrates asks that Laches and Nicias give an account of how they would raise the two children to be the best of men, in which Laches gives a more profound response. After their respective responses Lysimachus asks Socrates which one he plans to vote on. Lysimachus is a simple-minded democrat who is incapable of having an opinion of his own, so he hides behind the opinion of the majority, whatever it may be. In this way Socrates exposes Lysimachus’s lack of courage.

Socrates quickly rejects the democratic view of the conversation, and instead he redirects the goal of their discussion to be focused on ends rather than means. That is to say, the conversation thus becomes teleological. The end is an inquiry into the form (eidos) of the souls of young men and in order to do this they must discover the meaning of virtue. First Socrates suggests they investigate a part of virtue -first they must consider what courage is. Note the differences between the Laches and other dialogues that consider the question of virtue, such as the Meno.

Laches is the first man to take up the question of courage and perhaps the most important person in the dialogue, as it has his namesake. He sets up a conditional statement: ‘If a man remains at his post and does not run away when defending his city from the enemy then he can be called a man of courage’. In examining his argument, Socrates reframes the definition of retreat by identifying hoplites and and other soldiers who have run away in apparent retreat but returned to battle to win the day. These men certainly cannot be called uncourageous.

In his second definition, Laches identifies courage as a kind of “endurance of the soul” (192C). Socrates makes a distinction by demonstrating that there is a kind of ridiculousness, like foolhardiness, that would also fall under this definition, yet we would not call foolhardiness courage. Laches gets frustrated with his inability to express what courage is, though he believes he knows the definition.

Next Nicias is invited to the “hunt”. Nicias claims that if a man is courageous, it is clear that he is wise. Socrates restates Nicias’s claim to suggest that courage must be some kind of wisdom. Nicias says courage is the knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war. Laches and Nicias debate with one another in the Socratic fashion. Eventually, Socrates demonstrates that Nicias’s account must be incomplete. However, Lysimachus invites Socrates to help him find a good teacher for the boys. Socrates says they must search for the best possible teacher first for themselves, and then for the boys. Socrates is invited to the house of Lysimachus tomorrow to arrange for these educational plans. Socrates says he will join, god willing.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of “The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues” edited by Thomas Pangle. This translation was completed by James H. Nichols, Jr.

Socrates’s Failure In The Lysis

Plato’s Lysis dialogue is unique for several reasons. It is one of the shortest Platonic dialogues and it is recounted by Socrates to an unknown individual or individuals after the fact. The dialogue explores the question of friendship and it ends inconclusively with an insufficient definition of friendship.

It begins with Socrates in a hurry to get from the Academy to the Lycaeum, the gymnasium in Athens. He was walking along the outer wall of Athens when a young man, Hippothales beckoned him over with other young, beautiful people at the palaestra, a wrestling school. Socrates soon discovers that Hippothales has love for the very young Lysis, well-known for his good looks and gentlemanly character. The dialogue is, appropriately, the precursor to the Phaedrus and the Symposium.

Socrates goes over to the young boys who are friends, Menexenus and Lysis, and he engages them in a line of questioning. He begins with an inquiry into whether or not it is better to be a slave or to be free. Then Socrates asks them if they, as children, are truly free under their parents rulership. Lysis, during the conversation, defends his parents rulership over him, as an appropriate gentleman. Socrates tries to find the boundary for when parents can control their child, and when they allow agency to the child. Socrates also notes that the children are led around and guided by their family slaves. In doing so, he seems to encourage rebellion against their families (perhaps akin to Aristophanes’s portrayal of Socrates turning sons against fathers in The Clouds).

The remainder of the dialogue engages the question of human imperfection and what should be desired in friendship: complete goodness, badness, or neither goodness nor badness? The question is thought to be resolved when they agree that friends are ideal if they are neither completely good nor bad, but Socrates notes a problem with this line of thinking and the question is never resolved.

However, at the conclusion of the dialogue there is a minor rebellion by the very young children, Lysis and others, against their slave attendants. This is perhaps the strongest example that gives credence to Socrates’s accusation in his trial. Recall that he was sentenced to death on two counts: 1) a kind of atheism that introduces new gods to the city and also 2) corruption of the youth. The Lysis is a demonstration of the latter.

For this reading I used Plato’s Dialogue on Friendship: An Interpretation of the “Lysis’, with a New Translation (Agora Edition) as translated by David Bolotin.