The dramatic power of the dialogues of Plato appears to diminish as the metaphysical interest of them increases (compare Introd. to the Philebus). There are no descriptions of time, place or persons, in the Sophist and Statesman, but we are plunged at once into philosophical discussions; the poetical charm has disappeared, and those who have no taste for abstruse metaphysics will greatly prefer the earlier dialogues to the later ones. Plato is conscious of the change, and in the Statesman expressly accuses himself of a tediousness in the two dialogues, which he ascribes to his desire of developing the dialectical method. On the other hand, the kindred spirit of Hegel seemed to find in the Sophist the crown and summit of the Platonic philosophy – here is the place at which Plato most nearly approaches to the Hegelian identity of Being and Not-being. Nor will the great importance of the two dialogues be doubted by any one who forms a conception of the state of mind and opinion which they are intended to meet. The sophisms of the day were undermining philosophy; the denial of the existence of Not-being, and of the connexion of ideas, was making truth and falsehood equally impossible. It has been said that Plato would have written differently, if he had been acquainted with the Organon of Aristotle. But could the Organon of Aristotle ever have been written unless the Sophist and Statesman had preceded? The swarm of fallacies which arose in the infancy of mental science, and which was born and bred in the decay of the pre-Socratic philosophies, was not dispelled by Aristotle, but by Socrates and Plato. The summa genera of thought, the nature of the proposition, of definition, of generalization, of synthesis and analysis, of division and cross-division, are clearly described, and the processes of induction and deduction are constantly employed in the dialogues of Plato. The 'slippery' nature of comparison, the danger of putting words in the place of things, the fallacy of arguing 'a dicto secundum,' and in a circle, are frequently indicated by him. To all these processes of truth and error, Aristotle, in the next generation, gave distinctness; he brought them together in a separate science. But he is not to be regarded as the original inventor of any of the great logical forms, with the exception of the syllogism.
There is little worthy of remark in the characters of the Sophist. The most noticeable point is the final retirement of Socrates from the field of argument, and the substitution for him of an Eleatic stranger, who is described as a pupil of Parmenides and Zeno, and is supposed to have descended from a higher world in order to convict the Socratic circle of error. As in the Timaeus, Plato seems to intimate by the withdrawal of Socrates that he is passing beyond the limits of his teaching; and in the Sophist and Statesman, as well as in the Parmenides, he probably means to imply that he is making a closer approach to the schools of Elea and Megara. He had much in common with them, but he must first submit their ideas to criticism and revision. He had once thought as he says, speaking by the mouth of the Eleatic, that he understood their doctrine of Not-being; but now he does not even comprehend the nature of Being. The friends of ideas (Soph.) are alluded to by him as distant acquaintances, whom he criticizes ab extra; we do not recognize at first sight that he is criticizing himself. The character of the Eleatic stranger is colourless; he is to a certain extent the reflection of his father and master, Parmenides, who is the protagonist in the dialogue which is called by his name. Theaetetus himself is not distinguished by the remarkable traits which are attributed to him in the preceding dialogue. He is no longer under the spell of Socrates, or subject to the operation of his midwifery, though the fiction of question and answer is still maintained, and the necessity of taking Theaetetus along with him is several times insisted upon by his partner in the discussion. There is a reminiscence of the old Theaetetus in his remark that he will not tire of the argument, and in his conviction, which the Eleatic thinks likely to be permanent, that the course of events is governed by the will of God. Throughout the two dialogues Socrates continues a silent auditor, in the Statesman just reminding us of his presence, at the commencement, by a characteristic jest about the statesman and the philosopher, and by an allusion to his namesake, with whom on that ground he claims relationship, as he had already claimed an affinity with Theaetetus, grounded on the likeness of his ugly face. But in neither dialogue, any more than in the Timaeus, does he offer any criticism on the views which are propounded by another.
The style, though wanting in dramatic power, – in this respect resembling the Philebus and the Laws, – is very clear and accurate, and has several touches of humour and satire. The language is less fanciful and imaginative than that of the earlier dialogues; and there is more of bitterness, as in the Laws, though traces of a similar temper may also be observed in the description of the 'great brute' in the Republic, and in the contrast of the lawyer and philosopher in the Theaetetus. The following are characteristic passages: 'The ancient philosophers, of whom we may say, without offence, that they went on their way rather regardless of whether we understood them or not;' the picture of the materialists, or earth-born giants, 'who grasped oaks and rocks in their hands,' and who must be improved before they can be reasoned with; and the equally humourous delineation of the friends of ideas, who defend themselves from a fastness in the invisible world; or the comparison of the Sophist to a painter or maker (compare Republic), and the hunt after him in the rich meadow-lands of youth and wealth; or, again, the light and graceful touch with which the older philosophies are painted ('Ionian and Sicilian muses'), the comparison of them to mythological tales, and the fear of the Eleatic that he will be counted a parricide if he ventures to lay hands on his father Parmenides; or, once more, the likening of the Eleatic stranger to a god from heaven. – All these passages, notwithstanding the decline of the style, retain the impress of the great master of language. But the equably diffused grace is gone; instead of the endless variety of the early dialogues, traces of the rhythmical monotonous cadence of the Laws begin to appear; and already an approach is made to the technical language of Aristotle, in the frequent use of the words 'essence,' 'power,' 'generation,' 'motion,' 'rest,' 'action,' 'passion,' and the like.
The Sophist, like the Phaedrus, has a double character, and unites two enquirers, 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.), but an ideal of Plato's in which the falsehood of all mankind is reflected.
A milder tone is adopted towards the Sophists in a well-known passage of the Republic, where they are described as the followers rather than the leaders of the rest of mankind. Plato ridicules the notion that any individuals can corrupt youth to a degree worth speaking of in comparison with the greater influence of public opinion. But there is no real inconsistency between this and other descriptions of the Sophist which occur in the Platonic writings. For Plato is not justifying the Sophists in the passage just quoted, but only representing their power to be contemptible; they are to be despised rather than feared, and are no worse than the rest of mankind. But a teacher or statesman may be justly condemned, who is on a level with mankind when he ought to be above them. There is another point of view in which this passage should also be considered. The great enemy of Plato is the world, not exactly in the theological sense, yet in one not wholly different – the world as the hater of truth and lover of appearance, occupied in the pursuit of gain and pleasure rather than of knowledge, banded together against the few good and wise men, and devoid of true education. This creature has many heads: rhetoricians, lawyers, statesmen, poets, sophists. But the Sophist is the Proteus who takes the likeness of all of them; all other deceivers have a piece of him in them. And sometimes he is represented as the corrupter of the world; and sometimes the world as the corrupter of him and of itself.
Of late years the Sophists have found an enthusiastic defender in the distinguished historian of Greece. He appears to maintain (1) that the term 'Sophist' is not the name of a particular class, and would have been applied indifferently to Socrates and Plato, as well as to Gorgias and Protagoras; (2) that the bad sense was imprinted on the word by the genius of Plato; (3) that the principal Sophists were not the corrupters of youth (for the Athenian youth were no more corrupted in the age of Demosthenes than in the age of Pericles), but honourable and estimable persons, who supplied a training in literature which was generally wanted at the time. We will briefly consider how far these statements appear to be justified by facts: and, 1, about the meaning of the word there arises an interesting question: —
Many words are used both in a general and a specific sense, and the two senses are not always clearly distinguished. Sometimes the generic meaning has been narrowed to the specific, while in other cases the specific meaning has been enlarged or altered. Examples of the former class are furnished by some ecclesiastical terms: apostles, prophets, bishops, elders, catholics. Examples of the latter class may also be found in a similar field: jesuits, puritans, methodists, and the like. Sometimes the meaning is both narrowed and enlarged; and a good or bad sense will subsist side by side with a neutral one. A curious effect is produced on the meaning of a word when the very term which is stigmatized by the world (e.g. Methodists) is adopted by the obnoxious or derided class; this tends to define the meaning. Or, again, the opposite result is produced, when the world refuses to allow some sect or body of men the possession of an honourable name which they have assumed, or applies it to them only in mockery or irony.
The term 'Sophist' is one of those words of which the meaning has been both contracted and enlarged. Passages may be quoted from Herodotus and the tragedians, in which the word is used in a neutral sense for a contriver or deviser or inventor, without including any ethical idea of goodness or badness. Poets as well as philosophers were called Sophists in the fifth century before Christ. In Plato himself the term is applied in the sense of a 'master in art,' without any bad meaning attaching to it (Symp.; Meno). In the later Greek, again, 'sophist' and 'philosopher' became almost indistinguishable. There was no reproach conveyed by the word; the additional association, if any, was only that of rhetorician or teacher. Philosophy had become eclecticism and imitation: in the decline of Greek thought there was no original voice lifted up 'which reached to a thousand years because of the god.' Hence the two words, like the characters represented by them, tended to pass into one another. Yet even here some differences appeared; for the term 'Sophist' would hardly have been applied to the greater names, such as Plotinus, and would have been more often used of a professor of philosophy in general than of a maintainer of particular tenets.
But the real question is, not whether the word 'Sophist' has all these senses, but whether there is not also a specific bad sense in which the term is applied to certain contemporaries of Socrates. Would an Athenian, as Mr. Grote supposes, in the fifth century before Christ, have included Socrates and Plato, as well as Gorgias and Protagoras, under the specific class of Sophists? To this question we must answer, No: if ever the term is applied to Socrates and Plato, either the application is made by an enemy out of mere spite, or the sense in which it is used is neutral. Plato, Xenophon, Isocrates, Aristotle, all give a bad import to the word; and the Sophists are regarded as a separate class in all of them. And in later Greek literature, the distinction is quite marked between the succession of philosophers from Thales to Aristotle, and the Sophists of the age of Socrates, who appeared like meteors for a short time in different parts of Greece. For the purposes of comedy, Socrates may have been identified with the Sophists, and he seems to complain of this in the Apology. But there is no reason to suppose that Socrates, differing by so many outward marks, would really have been confounded in the mind of Anytus, or Callicles, or of any intelligent Athenian, with the splendid foreigners who from time to time visited Athens, or appeared at the Olympic games. The man of genius, the great original thinker, the disinterested seeker after truth, the master of repartee whom no one ever defeated in an argument, was separated, even in the mind of the vulgar Athenian, by an 'interval which no geometry can express,' from the balancer of sentences, the interpreter and reciter of the poets, the divider of the meanings of words, the teacher of rhetoric, the professor of morals and manners.
2. The use of the term 'Sophist' in the dialogues of Plato also shows that the bad sense was not affixed by his genius, but already current. When Protagoras says, 'I confess that I am a Sophist,' he implies that the art which he professes has already a bad name; and the words of the young Hippocrates, when with a blush upon his face which is just seen by the light of dawn he admits that he is going to be made 'a Sophist,' would lose their point, unless the term had been discredited. There is nothing surprising in the Sophists having an evil name; that, whether deserved or not, was a natural consequence of their vocation. That they were foreigners, that they made fortunes, that they taught novelties, that they excited the minds of youth, are quite sufficient reasons to account for the opprobrium which attached to them. The genius of Plato could not have stamped the word anew, or have imparted the associations which occur in contemporary writers, such as Xenophon and Isocrates. Changes in the meaning of words can only be made with great difficulty, and not unless they are supported by a strong current of popular feeling. There is nothing improbable in supposing that Plato may have extended and envenomed the meaning, or that he may have done the Sophists the same kind of disservice with posterity which Pascal did to the Jesuits. But the bad sense of the word was not and could not have been invented by him, and is found in his earlier dialogues, e.g. the Protagoras, as well as in the later.
3. There is no ground for disbelieving that the principal Sophists, Gorgias, Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias, were good and honourable men. The notion that they were corrupters of the Athenian youth has no real foundation, and partly arises out of the use of the term 'Sophist' in modern times. The truth is, that we know little about them; and the witness of Plato in their favour is probably not much more historical than his witness against them. Of that national decline of genius, unity, political force, which has been sometimes described as the corruption of youth, the Sophists were one among many signs; – in these respects Athens may have degenerated; but, as Mr. Grote remarks, there is no reason to suspect any greater moral corruption in the age of Demosthenes than in the age of Pericles. The Athenian youth were not corrupted in this sense, and therefore the Sophists could not have corrupted them. It is remarkable, and may be fairly set down to their credit, that Plato nowhere attributes to them that peculiar Greek sympathy with youth, which he ascribes to Parmenides, and which was evidently common in the Socratic circle. Plato delights to exhibit them in a ludicrous point of view, and to show them always rather at a disadvantage in the company of Socrates. But he has no quarrel with their characters, and does not deny that they are respectable men.
The Sophist, in the dialogue which is called after him, is exhibited in many different lights, and appears and reappears in a variety of forms. There is some want of the higher Platonic art in the Eleatic Stranger eliciting his true character by a labourious process of enquiry, when he had already admitted that he knew quite well the difference between the Sophist and the Philosopher, and had often heard the question discussed; – such an anticipation would hardly have occurred in the earlier dialogues. But Plato could not altogether give up his Socratic method, of which another trace may be thought to be discerned in his adoption of a common instance before he proceeds to the greater matter in hand. Yet the example is also chosen in order to damage the 'hooker of men' as much as possible; each step in the pedigree of the angler suggests some injurious reflection about the Sophist. They are both hunters after a living prey, nearly related to tyrants and thieves, and the Sophist is the cousin of the parasite and flatterer. The effect of this is heightened by the accidental manner in which the discovery is made, as the result of a scientific division. His descent in another branch affords the opportunity of more 'unsavoury comparisons.' For he is a retail trader, and his wares are either imported or home-made, like those of other retail traders; his art is thus deprived of the character of a liberal profession. But the most distinguishing characteristic of him is, that he is a disputant, and higgles over an argument. A feature of the Eristic here seems to blend with Plato's usual description of the Sophists, who in the early dialogues, and in the Republic, are frequently depicted as endeavouring to save themselves from disputing with Socrates by making long orations. In this character he parts company from the vain and impertinent talker in private life, who is a loser of money, while he is a maker of it.
But there is another general division under which his art may be also supposed to fall, and that is purification; and from purification is descended education, and the new principle of education is to interrogate men after the manner of Socrates, and make them teach themselves. Here again we catch a glimpse rather of a Socratic or Eristic than of a Sophist in the ordinary sense of the term. And Plato does not on this ground reject the claim of the Sophist to be the true philosopher. One more feature of the Eristic rather than of the Sophist is the tendency of the troublesome animal to run away into the darkness of Not-being. Upon the whole, we detect in him a sort of hybrid or double nature, of which, except perhaps in the Euthydemus of Plato, we find no other trace in Greek philosophy; he combines the teacher of virtue with the Eristic; while in his omniscience, in his ignorance of himself, in his arts of deception, and in his lawyer-like habit of writing and speaking about all things, he is still the antithesis of Socrates and of the true teacher.
II. The question has been asked, whether the method of 'abscissio infinti,' 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.
Plato does not really mean to say that the Sophist or the Statesman can be caught in this way. But these divisions and subdivisions were favourite logical exercises of the age in which he lived; and while indulging his dialectical fancy, and making a contribution to logical method, he delights also to transfix the Eristic Sophist with weapons borrowed from his own armoury. As we have already seen, the division gives him the opportunity of making the most damaging reflections on the Sophist and all his kith and kin, and to exhibit him in the most discreditable light.
Nor need we seriously consider whether Plato was right in assuming that an animal so various could not be confined within the limits of a single definition. In the infancy of logic, men sought only to obtain a definition of an unknown or uncertain term; the after reflection scarcely occurred to them that the word might have several senses, which shaded off into one another, and were not capable of being comprehended in a single notion. There is no trace of this reflection in Plato. But neither is there any reason to think, even if the reflection had occurred to him, that he would have been deterred from carrying on the war with weapons fair or unfair against the outlaw Sophist.
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.
But the negative as well as the positive idea had sunk deep into the intellect of man. The effect of the paradoxes of Zeno extended far beyond the Eleatic circle. And now an unforeseen consequence began to arise. If the Many were not, if all things were names of the One, and nothing could be predicated of any other thing, how could truth be distinguished from falsehood? The Eleatic philosopher would have replied that Being is alone true. But mankind had got beyond his barren abstractions: they were beginning to analyze, to classify, to define, to ask what is the nature of knowledge, opinion, sensation. Still less could they be content with the description which Achilles gives in Homer of the man whom his soul hates —
os chi eteron men keuthe eni phresin, allo de eipe.
For their difficulty was not a practical but a metaphysical one; and their conception of falsehood was really impaired and weakened by a metaphysical illusion.
The strength of the illusion seems to lie in the alternative: If we once admit the existence of Being and Not-being, as two spheres which exclude each other, no Being or reality can be ascribed to Not-being, and therefore not to falsehood, which is the image or expression of Not-being. Falsehood is wholly false; and to speak of true falsehood, as Theaetetus does (Theaet.), is a contradiction in terms. The fallacy to us is ridiculous and transparent, – no better than those which Plato satirizes in the Euthydemus. It is a confusion of falsehood and negation, from which Plato himself is not entirely free. Instead of saying, 'This is not in accordance with facts,' 'This is proved by experience to be false,' and from such examples forming a general notion of falsehood, the mind of the Greek thinker was lost in the mazes of the Eleatic philosophy. And the greater importance which Plato attributes to this fallacy, compared with others, is due to the influence which the Eleatic philosophy exerted over him. He sees clearly to a certain extent; but he has not yet attained a complete mastery over the ideas of his predecessors – they are still ends to him, and not mere instruments of thought. They are too rough-hewn to be harmonized in a single structure, and may be compared to rocks which project or overhang in some ancient city's walls. There are many such imperfect syncretisms or eclecticisms in the history of philosophy. A modern philosopher, though emancipated from scholastic notions of essence or substance, might still be seriously affected by the abstract idea of necessity; or though accustomed, like Bacon, to criticize abstract notions, might not extend his criticism to the syllogism.
The saying or thinking the thing that is not, would be the popular definition of falsehood or error. If we were met by the Sophist's objection, the reply would probably be an appeal to experience. Ten thousands, as Homer would say (mala murioi), tell falsehoods and fall into errors. And this is Plato's reply, both in the Cratylus and Sophist. 'Theaetetus is flying,' is a sentence in form quite as grammatical as 'Theaetetus is sitting'; the difference between the two sentences is, that the one is true and the other false. But, before making this appeal to common sense, Plato propounds for our consideration a theory of the nature of the negative.
The theory is, that Not-being is relation. Not-being is the other of Being, and has as many kinds as there are differences in Being. This doctrine is the simple converse of the famous proposition of Spinoza, – not 'Omnis determinatio est negatio,' but 'Omnis negatio est determinatio'; – not, All distinction is negation, but, All negation is distinction. Not-being is the unfolding or determining of Being, and is a necessary element in all other things that are. We should be careful to observe, first, that Plato does not identify Being with Not-being; he has no idea of progression by antagonism, or of the Hegelian vibration of moments: he would not have said with Heracleitus, 'All things are and are not, and become and become not.' Secondly, he has lost sight altogether of the other sense of Not-being, as the negative of Being; although he again and again recognizes the validity of the law of contradiction. Thirdly, he seems to confuse falsehood with negation. Nor is he quite consistent in regarding Not-being as one class of Being, and yet as coextensive with Being in general. Before analyzing further the topics thus suggested, we will endeavour to trace the manner in which Plato arrived at his conception of Not-being.