Plato: Sophist- (Maybe) Solving the Problem of Being
Sophists have gotten a bad rap, largely due to Plato. Dedicated to teaching arête or excellence to young men, their emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion might not have really been indifferent to truth or given to deceit; but Plato portrayed them that way and, today, sophism still means deceitful persuasion. Let’s cut him some slack though- the sophists were closely connected to the trial that killed his teacher. He’s entitled to some bitterness.
The Sophist dialogue takes place the day after Theatetus– here Socrates, Theatetus and Theodorus meet with a stranger from Elea and agree to define the sophist, the statesman, and the philosopher; here, they focus on the sophist. The dialogue is, in fact, halfway an attack on sophists; halfway a discussion of Being and Not-Being. The attack is a bit dull, aside from its technique: dividing categories of profession into smaller groups in order to find out what is a sophist. The method is still novel at this time, although Aristotle will use it quite often. It is still used in all arguments about how “there are two kinds of…” In general, there are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t, and those who do think so but can’t count.
The discussion of Not-Being is frankly more important. Plato finally addresses an issue in Parmenides that had a huge impact on Greek philosophy, but which one has to wonder if it doesn’t amount to a semantic mistake. See, the Pre-Socratic philosophers had a real problem with the difference between Being and Becoming. The problem seems to arise because it must mean something to say a thing “is”, even though they all seem to “be” in a continual state of change. If you point at me at age 3 and say “That is Rufus”, and then point at me at age 73 and say, “That is Rufus”, what does “is” mean, given that you’re attributing the same being to two very different things? Is there some eternal me that always is- such as the soul? Or are we perhaps wrong about change? Or are we wrong about being?
For Socrates, the soul moderates between two distinct worlds: the metaphysical world of Ideas in a state of eternal and unchanging Being, and the changing, physical world of things in a state of Becoming. As we saw, earlier philosophers saw the existence of one as posing a problem for the other. Heraclitus saw everything as changing (or Becoming) and Parmenides thought only Being is real, but Socrates devised a bipartite system to answer the problem. Here he addresses his disagreement with Parmenides- a clear influence on his ideas- more directly, which he sees as a sort of parricide. He also addresses the problem of being.
Socrates doesn’t see it as a problem and I don’t either, but for somewhat different reasons. Being and Becoming are not really at odds. Put simply, what we call the changing, physical world of Becoming is just one moment in a larger fullness of Being that unfolds over time. Okay, maybe that’s not simple! Think of it this way: you and I go to the symphony tonight for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. In the middle, I stand up and say, “Now what they’re playing- that is the Requiem!” On one hand, I am literally saying that the Requiem is playing at that moment- in those notes. That is its being. However, that’s not its entire being. The entire fullness of its Being is the complete piece of music that is currently unfolding over time, and my word “is” references the full Being extended in time and space. I am referencing the entire piece of music, as should be obvious to you- you might tell me to sit down and shut-up, but you won’t likely be so literal as to assume I mean one note is the entire piece of music.
When you point to me and say “That is Rufus”, you’re pointing to me at a specific moment, while referring to me over the course of my life, in the fullness of my Being. And, let’s say that, in the intelligible world, the Forms are really that extended sense of Being that is already implicit in our language about the changing world of things. Just like a piece of ice sticking out of the water serves as a marker for the whole iceberg, language pointing to a thing that’s in a state of Becoming references the entire process- past, present, and future- which amounts to the fullness of its Being as unfolded in time.
Plato addresses more directly the problem Parmenides has with Becoming: if something changes, it must have not been at some time and something that will be in the future is not now; however, we cannot logically talk about Not-Being, since we’re then talking positively about something that has no existence. Parmenides sees this as a problem.
However, Plato makes the very important point that nobody in their right mind, who isn’t a philosopher, actually recognizes this problem! Why is that? He says it’s because Non-Being is not Negation- it has a relative existence, Difference, in relation to Being. More simply, if I say something is Not White, I’m not saying it has no specific colour; just that its colour is not white. When I speak of Not-Being, I’m referencing something different that has a relative existence in relation to Being.
Here Plato also introduces five “forms” or categories: Being, Motion, Rest, Same and Other, which are interesting, but it’s unclear how they add to his overall philosophy.
But because not-being has an existence, we can make statements that are false. The Sophist, allegedly, makes statements that are grammatically real, but which do not correspond to reality. In terms of the Philosopher, he’s something like a counterfeiter, and the danger is that the distinction between the two might be confused in people’s minds, which is, of course, what happened with Socrates, getting him killed.
1. I think this is how we solve the problem, or really why we don’t recognize a problem in the first place. I didn’t come up with this solution however. (I can’t remember who did, sorry.)