Custos Verbi: On the Vocation of the Philosopher in Plato's Sophist

Custos Verbi: On the Vocation of the Philosopher in Plato's Sophist

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle lists six assumptions that we have about the wise man. He knows “all things” (πάντα) insofar as he is able (ὡς ἐνδέχεται). He also knows difficult things (τὰ χαλεπά). His knowledge is more precise (ἀκριβέστερον) and teachable (διδασκαλικώτερον) than that possessed by others. Significantly, Aristotle says the wise man chooses his knowledge for its own sake or, what is the same thing, for the sake of knowing itself (ἡ αὑτῆς ἔνεκεν καὶ τοῦ εἰδέναι χάριν αἱρετή). Lastly, the wise man has a claim to rule (i.e. he is ἀρχικώτερος), since the wise man ought to give orders, not follow them (οὐ γὰρ δεῖν ἐπιτάττεσθαι τὸν σοφὸν ἀλλ᾽ἐπιτάττειν).

Plato has the Eleatic Stranger attributes all but one of these marks to the sophist. One could say, then, that the wise man and his eristic doppelgänger have five things in common: an apparent knowledge of all things, a knowledge of difficult things, precise language, teachability, and a claim to rule and give orders (i.e. προστατικοὶ λόγοι).

All five marks touch upon the word, upon λόγος. As opposed to craftsmen, philosophers and sophists bear an essential relation to speech. They do not produce or make things, they speak. This relation to λόγος simultaneously differentiates them from others, but it also makes them extremely difficult to distinguish from one another. In fact, in what follows, I hope to show that the two cannot be distinguished simply through an analysis of their λόγοι and the λεγόμενα disclosed in their speech. Rather, the distinction must be sought at a deeper, one could even say existential, level. One must look at how each man relates or comports himself the word and to the beings disclosed therein.

Aristotle’s fifth mark is helpful in this regard, since it does not determine the wise man’s λόγος (i.e. whether it is of the difficult, all things, etc.) so much as his relation to the word. His use of αἱρετή signifies his comportment to the word. Aristotle is telling us that the wise man chooses his science and eo ipso the words and propositions presupposed for his for their own sake. That is, he sees words and the truths therein as choice worthy and thus loveable. He is not so much a philologist but a lover of the truth as it is revealed in and through language, but he does love the word insofar as it is an instrument of ἀληθεύειν. Thus, he wants to preserve the word and the being/truth it signifies from those who would wish to do it harm or undermine its ability to signify determinate beings.

Plato’s Stranger, by enumerating the similarities between the two and gathering the two together, prepares us for a fundamental division along the lines of Aristotle’s fifth mark. That is, their comportments come into view at the same time, like the accounts of being and non-being, insofar as both men have profoundly different relationships to the word and eo ipso to being. If the philosopher is a true lover, both of the words as signs of things and of the truths signified, the sophist is none other than a tyrant, an unscrupulous manipulator of the word. He is, in short, a man who loves neither speech, those in whom speech finds expression, nor ultimately the things speech urges us to see.

In order, then, to distinguish the wolf from the dog and thus remain on our guard against similarities, we must first see why one might confuse the two. We must let the similarity appear in full force, if we are to avoid it.

Returning, then, to Aristotle’s marks, it seems that both the wise man and the sophist speak about (and thus judge) all things. The Stranger compares the sophist to an artist able to make all things quickly and sell them cheaply. As the artist makes all things (ποεῖν σύμπαντα), the sophists exhibits “simulacra said about all things” (εἰδωλα λεγόμενα περὶ πάντων). Τhe sophist and the wise man, then, speak about and claim to judge all things, though, significantly, the sophist drops Aristotle’s crucial caveat (i.e. ὡς ἐνδέχεται, “insofar as such speech is possible”).

Second, the sophist knows what is difficult. Aristotle says that difficult things are difficult because they are removed from the senses. Things revealed by the senses appear to everyone. Thus, they are apparent, obvious, and common. What is available to νοῦς, by contrast, is harder precisely because it is ἀφανές, non-apparent or self-disclosive. The Stranger tells us that the sophist too speaks of difficult things insofar as he speaks “of divine things, and of as many things as are not apparent to the many” (περὶ τῶν θείων, ὅσ᾽ἀφανῆ τοῖς πολλοῖς). The divine is a prime example of the ἀφανές, since the gods or God rarely, if ever, show themselves or Himself in ordinary experience. Thus, as the wise man claims knowledge of separate substance, the sophist, claims to know what is holy and beyond ordinary perception.

Third, although the sophist does not have precise (ἀκριβής) knowledge, his speech nonetheless has what Machiavelli might call its “effectual truth” (verità effettuale). That is, the sophist’s precision in speech (ἀκριβολογία) is, for all intents and purposes, an effective substitute for precise knowledge (ἀκριβής λόγος). In other words, both ἀκριβολογία and ἀκριβής λόγος have the same δύναμις, the ability to persuade. The philosopher convinces on account of knowledge, the sophist because he is incontrovertible in debate. Indeed, sometimes he is even better than the craftsman or man with knowledge, since these latter often lack eloquence.

This third mark is significant, since it sharpens the similarity between philosophers and sophists as well as the difference they share from ordinary craftsmen. For it is clear that, eloquence aside, the craftsman is different from the sophist because he does things the sophist can’t do. Although Protagoras’s writings might help someone debate Milo about wrestling, their utility in actual contest between the two is much more dubious.

That is, in a match, habits, art, and deeds matter more than speech. With respect to deeds, the sophist does not have the craftsman’s mode of ἀληθεύειν (the ability to live, act, and reveal beings according to truth). The wrestler, by contrast, really manifests this way of being human by having a δύναμις. His can throw other people to the ground and pin them—the sophist can’t. cannot. A fortiori, this difference between the sophist and craftsmen is even clearer in productive arts, where the architect, not the sophist, makes a house and the cobble, not the sophist, makes a pair of shoes.

Yet, while craftsmen and athletes can readily distinguish themselves from sophists, the same cannot be said for philosophers or mathematicians. The wrestler, mason, and cobbler can point to a product or skill by which they have a δύναμις, by which they can do something the sophist is unable to do. Theoretical sciences, by contrast, do not make anything. The mathematician may use diagrams, but his science is of intelligibles (e.g. the triangularity of triangles). He may produce ingenious weapons like Archimedes, but then he would be an engineer rather than a pure mathematician.

A fortiori this confusion or obscurity is even greater with respect to the wise man, who, according to Aristotle, chooses his science strictly for its own sake. The wise man revels in his science’s impracticality. The fact that he doesn’t make anything is a point of pride. Unlike the mathematician/engineer, the wise man is even closer to the sophist since the science of being is even harder to apply than the science of number. Both the sophist and the philosopher are unique in having precise but useless speech.

Fourth, the sophist, like the wise man, is a δίδασκαλος according to the Stranger’s sixth definition. The Stranger says the sophist is a διδάσκαλος τῆς ἀντιλογικῆς, a teacher of disputation. Moreover, he categorizes the sophistic art under διδασκαλική (as opposed to κολαστική) and παιδευτική (as opposed to νουθετητική). However, this definition seems to equate the noble sophist with the Socratic philosopher! The Stranger himself wonders at this result and is wary of attributing this definition to the sophist, lest he give him more honor than he is due. The Stranger’s trepidation, however, shows the strong family resemblance between the wise man and the sophist.

Finally, both the sophist and the philosopher have a claim to rule. The Stranger and Theaetetus underscore his relation to the law and τὰ πολιτικά when they say:

ΞΕ. Τί δ’ αὖ περὶ νόμων καὶ συμπάντων τῶν πολιτικῶν, ἆρ’ οὐχ ὑπισχνοῦνται ποιεῖν ἀμφισβητητικούς; ΘΕΑΙ. Οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἂν αὐτοῖς ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν διελέγετο μὴ τοῦτο ὑπισχνουμένοις.

The sophist, in other words, has an essential relation to the laws and life of the πόλις. Whereas the philosopher’s authority is grounded in his knowledge of the good, the sophist’s authority lies in his ability to make others “skilled in controversy” (ἀμφισβητητικούς). That is, he teaches men how to persuade others about his view of the good. If one admits the Nietzschean or Thrasymachean view of politics as a power struggle conducted by words not arms, then the sophist, like the philosopher, is indeed an authority on political virtue. For he teaches people how to win.

Given these similarities, one might be forgiven for conflating the two. As we have seen, they share much in common. They both speak about and judge all things. They speak about difficult things like οὐσία, the divine, the just, and the pious. They are distinguished from the other crafts insofar as they possess precise, yet unproductive, speech. Both claim to teach. And finally, each has an essential relation to political life.

One could, following Heidegger, reduce these five points to a single determination. Both men bear an essential relation to λόγος. They are both determined as those who can speak about τὰ πάντα, τὰ χαλεπά, and τὰ πολιτικά with precision and in teachable way.

This reduction to of Aristotle’s marks to λόγος sharpens the similarity between the two. Paradoxically, it also makes it possible to distinguish them. For, by fastening on the essential structures of λόγος, namely its fundamental relation to being, we can more easily distinguish the how they treat the word as a disclosive instrument. Since sophists and philosophers recognize that speech is necessarily speech about something, that λόγος is τί κατὰ τινος. One can, therefore, distinguish them by looking to how they apply this knowledge of the instrument and how they use or relate to the instrument itself. Are they caretakers of this instrument? Do they assist it in its task? Or do they undermine, abuse, and manipulate it?

The sophist, one might say, is someone who methodically and deliberately sets out to abuse the word and undermine its function. He understands the disclosive power of λόγος, but he uses this knowledge to pervert λόγος. For example, he knows that speech necessarily relies on number (singular or plural), and time (past, present, or future) in order to signify. Thus, he knows that λόγος needs these structures, that they are its necessary preconditions. Therefore, since number and time both are, at least in some sense, the sophist conclude that λόγος by its very nature is incapable of speaking non-being. He then chooses to abuse this fact by claiming that all beings are true, knowing that no one could ever refute him in λόγοι. In effect, the sophist uses λόγος in order to put himself beyond the reach of refutation and accountability.

It is in this respect that the wise man truly distinguishes himself from the sophist, the philosopher chooses the word and the knowledge it brings about for their own sake. The philosopher wants to redeem and assist speech in its natural function. He does this by clarifying its relationship to being so as to save it from sophistic machination. Yet, he knows that in order to save λόγος, he must re-orient it to a definite part of being rather than being simpliciter.

The Stranger and Theaetetus proceed to save speech by laying bare once more its essential structures. They note that speech is always of “something” definite (τὸ τί), since one cannot speak being “naked” (γυμνόν). Speech must be of a being so-and-so, not being in toto. Yet, this raises a profound aporia. How can being be of a part, since to be a part implies difference and, in a way, not-being, the very thing the sophist denied was speakable. Hence, a defense of the word presupposes that beings are somehow marked by the same and the different.

This brief analysis of speech indicates the way the Stranger and Theaetetus will have to take in their redemption of the word. They will need to show, by means of heroic dialectical effort, that the forms can blend, both in being as well as in speech itself. They will need to find an account of being that accommodates sameness, otherness, motion, and rest. Unless they can fulfill this task, speech will be unable to move beyond τὸ γυμνόν ὄν and will remain vulnerable to abuse.

Consequently, being must be internally variegated pace Parmenides. Likewise, it must be identical so as not to give ground to those who assert (inconsistently) that words cannot signify, since beings are in flux and signification entails stability. It must admit of movement in order to make room for knowing and being known. Finally, it needs rest insofar as true speech is about what is and unchanging, as father Parmenides said all along.

Plato’s Stranger accomplishes an extraordinary task. He uncovers an ontological horizon within which words can do what they do, namely signify determinately. The ontology of the μεγιστά γενῆ is, therefore, not so much a strict ontology as it is a sanctuary for speech against unscrupulous men who seek to abuse it. While the Stranger certainly holds that sameness, difference, motion, and rest divide being the way vowels divide language, the achievement of the dialogue is emphatically not just ontological. Rather, it lies in a vision of being according to which the world is itself fit for speech and speech fit for the world. Moreover, it lies in making clear the responsibility and vocation of the philosopher. He is a guardian or caretaker of language and, therefore, of the truth of beings insofar as he defends λόγος, ἐπιστήμη, φρόνησις, νοῦς, and everything by which human beings ἀληθεύειν.

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).


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