Persons of the Dialogue : THEODORUS ; THEAETETUS ; SOCRATES ; An ELEATIC STRANGER, whom Theodorus and Theaetetus bring with them ; The younger SOCRATES, who is a silent auditor.
The Sophist, like the Phaedrus, has a double character, and unites two enquiries, which are only in a somewhat forced manner connected with each other. The first is the search after the Sophist, the second is the enquiry into the nature of Not-being, which occupies the middle part of the work. For ‘Not-being’ is the hole or division of the dialectical net in which the Sophist has hidden himself. He is the imaginary impersonation of false opinion. Yet he denies the possibility of false opinion; for falsehood is that which is not, and therefore has no existence. At length the difficulty is solved; the answer, in the language of the Republic, appears ‘tumbling out at our feet.’ Acknowledging that there is a communion of kinds with kinds, and not merely one Being or Good having different names, or several isolated ideas or classes incapable of communion, we discover ‘Not-being’ to be the other of ‘Being.’ Transferring this to language and thought, we have no difficulty in apprehending that a proposition may be false as well as true. The Sophist, drawn out of the shelter which Cynic and Megarian paradoxes have temporarily afforded him, is proved to be a dissembler and juggler with words.
The chief points of interest in the dialogue are: (I) the character attributed to the Sophist: (II) the dialectical method: (III) the nature of the puzzle about ‘Not-being:’ (IV) the battle of the philosophers: (V) the relation of the Sophist to other dialogues.
I. The Sophist in Plato is the master of the art of illusion; the charlatan, the foreigner, the prince of esprits-faux, the hireling who is not a teacher, and who, from whatever point of view he is regarded, is the opposite of the true teacher. He is the ‘evil one,’ the ideal representative of all that Plato most disliked in the moral and intellectual tendencies of his own age; the adversary of the almost equally ideal Socrates. He seems to be always growing in the fancy of Plato, now boastful, now eristic, now clothing himself in rags of philosophy, now more akin to the rhetorician or lawyer, now haranguing, now questioning, until the final appearance in the Politicus of his departing shadow in the disguise of a statesman. We are not to suppose that Plato intended by such a description to depict Protagoras or Gorgias, or even Thrasymachus, who all turn out to be ‘very good sort of people when we know them,’ and all of them part on good terms with Socrates. But he is speaking of a being as imaginary as the wise man of the Stoics, and whose character varies in different dialogues. Like mythology, Greek philosophy has a tendency to personify ideas. And the Sophist is not merely a teacher of rhetoric for a fee of one or fifty drachmae (Crat. 384 B), but an ideal of Plato’s in which the falsehood of all mankind is reflected.
II. The question has been asked, whether the method of ‘abscissio infiniti,’ by which the Sophist is taken, is a real and valuable logical process. Modern science feels that this, like other processes of formal logic, presents a very inadequate conception of the actual complex procedure of the mind by which scientific truth is detected and verified. Plato himself seems to be aware that mere division is an unsafe and uncertain weapon, first, in the Statesman, when he says that we should divide in the middle, for in that way we are more likely to attain species; secondly, in the parallel precept of the Philebus, that we should not pass from the most general notions to infinity, but include all the intervening middle principles, until, as he also says in the Statesman, we arrive at the infima species; thirdly, in the Phaedrus, when he says that the dialectician will carve the limbs of truth without mangling them; and once more in the Statesman, if we cannot bisect species, we must carve them as well as we can. No better image of nature or truth, as an organic whole, can be conceived than this. So far is Plato from supposing that mere division and subdivision of general notions will guide men into all truth.
III. The puzzle about ‘Not-being’ appears to us to be one of the most unreal difficulties of ancient philosophy. We cannot understand the attitude of mind which could imagine that falsehood had no existence, if reality was denied to Not-being: How could such a question arise at all, much less become of serious importance? The answer to this, and to nearly all other difficulties of early Greek philosophy, is to be sought for in the history of ideas, and the answer is only unsatisfactory because our knowledge is defective. In the passage from the world of sense and imagination and common language to that of opinion and reflection the human mind was exposed to many dangers, and often
‘Found no end in wandering mazes lost.’
On the other hand, the discovery of abstractions was the great source of all mental improvement in after ages. It was the pushing aside of the old, the revelation of the new. But each one of the company of abstractions, if we may speak in the metaphorical language of Plato, became in turn the tyrant of the mind, the dominant idea, which would allow no other to have a share in the throne. This is especially true of the Eleatic philosophy: while the absoluteness of Being was asserted in every form of language, the sensible world and all the phenomena of experience were comprehended under Not-being. Nor was any difficulty or perplexity thus created, so long as the mind, lost in the contemplation of Being, asked no more questions, and never thought of applying the categories of Being or Not-being to mind or opinion or practical life.