"The Sophist" by Plato
What would Plato think of deconstruction?
“Finishing the Sophist tonight and my brain hurts.”
This lament was posted recently by one of my Online Great Books seminar mates in our Slack discussion channel. I’m sure many of us empathize with him. Opinions on Plato vary widely among the dozen or so members of our seminar who have been reading his Socratic dialogues and other works over the last year. Our sentiments on Socrates’ character, especially, range from adulation to disgust and everything in between. It’s hard to take a neutral stance on Plato, which usually makes for challenging reading but lively seminar discussions!
So where to begin with The Sophist? It is generally classified as one of Plato’s later dialogues and can be read in conjunction with The Statesmen, as we are doing. Like many of Plato’s dialogues, it uses a “question-and-answer” format between 2 or more interlocutors. Unlike a lot of the earlier dialogues we’ve read, however, the gadfly Socrates takes a back seat after the introduction. Most of the conversation occurs between a mysterious, unnamed visitor from Elea and a young man we first encountered in the eponymous dialogue, Theaetetus.
Socrates kicks off the discussion by asking whether the terms sophist, statesmen, and philosopher refer to the same or distinct identities. (We recall, of course, Socrates’ dislike of sophists, i.e. so-called “wise men” who offered their teaching services for a fee—a practice Socrates scorned.) The Visitor accepts the challenge and begins an investigation with Theaetetus into the nature of the sophist, “by searching for him and giving a clear account of what he is.” (218c)*1 Using a method of classification by “division and collection”, the Visitor and Theaetetus place the sophist into the following 5 categories:
A hunter of rich, young men (223b)
A traveling salesman peddling ideas about virtue in other cities (245d)
A retailer peddling ideas about virtue in his own city (245d)
A verbal athlete seeking profit in debate (224e)
A teacher who cleanses the soul of its hubris by refutation (226a)
While searching for a 6th category, the interlocutors run into an ontological problem: Do the falsehoods, appearances, and other “non-entities” that sophists deal in have being? The Visitor reminds Theaetetus that the philosopher Parmenides had already ruled out this possibility, even forbidding it as an object of inquiry: “Never shall it force itself on us, that that which is not may be; Keep your thought far away from this path of searching.” (282d). Ignoring Parmenides, they launch into a mind-bending exchange through no end of twisting ontological rabbit-holes while seeing how many times in a given sentence they can conjugate and negate the verb to be. Result: brain pain for the rest of us!
But should any of this matter to us today?
Yes, I think it should. Plato’s questions about being also raise questions about form, meaning something like the immaterial reality out of which the nature of a thing manifests. Even in Plato’s time, strict materialists rejected this idea. “One group drags everything down to earth from the heavenly region of the invisible, actually clutching rocks and trees with their hands…they insist that only what offers tangible contact is, since they define being as the same as body.” (246a) I find this one of the most interesting passages in The Sophist, as the Visitor evaluates the opposing claims of materialists vs idealists, each in their turn.
Philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 20th century would develop his theory of deconstruction as a critique of Platonic forms and their resulting hierarchies of being. Besides playing havoc with language and structure, Derrida’s “convulsive movement” had far-ranging impacts to the effect of undermining traditional western values and plunging our culture further into post-modern confusion, especially about history and literary criticism. I’m certainly no expert on deconstruction (nor do I care to be!), but I imagine that Plato would call the post-structural critic a “completely unmusical and unphilosophical person”(259e)—in other words, a sophist!
Check out this great, short summary of The Sophist.
These numbers refer to the “Stephanus numbers,” a system of annotation of Plato’s works.