The Sophist is a dialogue of Plato's late period. The subject under discussion is the definition of the nature of the sophist, and its distinction from that of the philosopher. The central topic brings along various important issues of the platonic philosophy such as dialectics, and the theory of the Forms.
Even though the Sophist does not contain information on the dramatic context, its author readily links it with the dramatic scenery of his dialogue. The opening line of the Sophist informs us that the interlocutors are picking up a discussion that came off during the previous day; thus, we presume that the current exchange is taking place in a gymnasium, the day after Melitus put charges against Socrates, and thus, shortly before the philosopher's condemnation to death. Even though Socrates initiates the dialogue by positing the question -the determination of the nature of the -, he does not actively participate in the ensuing inquiry. Surprisingly, a new member, a fictional and unnamed person, the Visitor from Elea, who is an advocate of and Zeno, holds the leading role in the exchange by spelling out the central ideas. His key partner is Theaetetus, a mathematician and a member of the ; a young man very much of the same countenance as Socrates. Another character, the geometer and astronomer Theodorus, pulls out after the initial introductions; while another person, a young Socrates, attends in silence. Not only the minimal dramatic scenery, and the limited part of Socrates, but also the reduced effect of the dialogue adds to the morphological idiosyncrasy of this work. In reality, the protagonist articulates his theory while he secures the ready consent of his respondents. This fact has led many scholars to construe the Sophist as a treatise of the Aristotelean sort.
The exact year that the Sophist was composed cannot be determined. However, its style, language, and content add up to the late period of Plato's authorship - and in particular to the period between the Theaetetus and the Statesman. In fact, the Shophist shares the same dramatic background as the Statesman, as well as the method of division. In the Sophist, Plato creates the anticipation for a trilogy, which was to include a third member about the nature of the philosopher. Nevertheless, many scholars believe that the two existing works meet the needs of the absent project.
In the first part of the dialogue (216a-242b), the Visitor along with Theaetetus employ, somewhat gratuitously, the method of division to the effect of arriving at six definitions of "the beast" (226a) they are hunting. In an attempt to be separated from the politician, the sophist appears as: (1) a hired hunter of rich young men, who uses flattery and persuasion as baits; (2) a wholesaler of the knowledge of virtue; (3) a retailer of lessons about the soul; (4) a seller of his own learning; (5) an athlete in verbal combat about justice and injustice, distinguished by his expertise in debating (eristic), and steadily intent on making money; and (6) a professional teacher who cleanses the soul of ignorance. By the end of the process of definitions, Theaetetus finds himself in perplexity, for the negative features of the sophist have gradually been mitigated to the effect of blurring the lines between him and the philosopher. In a fresh attempt, the Visitor brings forward a basic characteristic of the sophist: his ostensive wisdom. This wisdom, however, is not real, and therefore the sophist's knowledge bears on belief, and not on truth. Even worse, the sophist is an imitator, a producer of images that bear the same names as the real things - thus fooling the mindless youth. From this point, the Visitor embarks in a new application of the method of division in order to arrive at the indisputable definition of the target kind: the sophist. The new starting point is the art of imitation, which is dichotomized into (a) likeness-making (eikastikê), by which someone produces an imitation by keeping to the proportions of the original, and (b) appearance-making (phantastikê), by which the maker does not keep to the proportions of the original. Now, if the interlocutors mean to subordinate the sophist's art under one of these two kinds, they must first sort out two features of the aforementioned arts: what is "this seeming but not being, and this saying things but not true things" (236e1-2)? In other words, they must demonstrate the possibility of false statements and false beliefs. The nub of this problem lays on the fact that the existence of falsity entails, somehow, the existence of not-being. This assertion contrasts the Parmenidean dictum that it cannot be proved that things that are not are. Thus, the Visitor takes issue with Parmenides, for the latter's principle would dismiss the targeted definition of the sophist: if not-being doesn't exist, then the sophist cannot be a producer either of "likenesses" or "appearances", and therefore he cannot produce false statements, nor deceive.
In the second part of the dialogue (242c-264b), the Visitor makes a digression in an attempt to examine previously formulated theories about being; a strategy that will eventually come down to his own theory. Most of the thinkers of these accounts remain unnamed; and they are not ascribed the title of the philosopher. Their common feature is that they formulate myths that result in obscurity and aporia. A special reference is made to the "friends of the bodies" and the "friends of the forms" (248a3). The Visitor's criticism against them brings forward the conclusion that change and rest -as prerequisites of knowledge- are beings. According to the theory of the association of kinds, the philosopher, like the musician or the grammarian, is able, through dialectics, to study the combinations and the separations of kinds. Specifically, he can "discriminate forms that are different from each other but are included within a single form that’s outside them… or many forms that are completely separate from others" (253d-e). The Visitor applies the method of dialectics in five universal forms which he characterizes as great: in the forms of being, rest, and change, two more forms are added: the same and the different. The last two, that have already been anticipated, are now introduced under the stipulation that every kind is the same as itself and different from the others. Now, the emphasis is placed on the form of the different, for it links the argument with the vexed notion: not-being (for the interest of which this digression was made). Every kind shares in being, but in being different than the kind of being, it is, at once, not being. Therefore, "when we say not-being, we don’t say something contrary to being, but only something different from it" (257b3-4). The next step the Visitor takes is to apply this outcome to the field of speech in order to account for the existence of falsity. False is the statement that asserts a predicate of a subject that is not of the subject (e.g., the statement "Theautetus flies" is a statement about Theautetus, but it asserts of the subject (Theaetetus) something different than what is of the subject). By the same token, falsity applies to the relevant areas of thought, belief, and imagination.
The Visitor has now overcome the obstacle of Parmenides by demonstrating the relative existence of not-being as difference. This demonstration has by implication allowed for the existence of copies, false statements, and false beliefs. On this account, the Visitor arrives, in the third part of the dialogue (264c-268d), at the final definition: this is the sophist who by speech forces his discussant to contradict himself, and produces appearances by pretending to know things that he ignores. On that point the dialogue comes to a conclusion with Theaetetus' explicit, and young Socrates' silent, concession.
It is hard to discern one single aim of the dialogue, for the various topics it arrays (the discrimination between the philosopher and the sophist, the method of division, the theory of association of the kinds, and the notion of not-being) are interwoven, and technically analysed on an equal footing. The reader, however, faces a greater challenge: even though the dialogue takes up typical platonic themes such as, the soul, the nature of the philosopher in contrast with that of the sophist, and the distinction between the model and its copy, for all that, it neglects their linking element: . Furthermore, the reader becomes perplexed by the subtlety of the arguments: the being has the ability to act and suffer; change is one of the beings; not-being exists in some way, and it can be known; the dialectician studies the combinations and differences of the kinds that are eligible for association. Given all that, modern linguistic and analytic tradition believes that the Sophist signals Plato's turn unto questions of logical analysis and theory of predication; therefore, it credits him with the establishment of formal logic.
That said, we should also bear in mind that the two recurring themes of the distinction between the original and the copy, and of the notion of imitation which at work throughout the dialogue, point to the theory of Forms. Many scholars couple this assumption with the fact that the theory of Forms reappears in the, and the . By that reason, they deny the conversion of the Forms into universal kinds, or linguistic constructions, and insist on reading the Sophist through an ontological perspective. In holding out the notions of imitation, image, and difference, they consider the Sophist as a milestone in Plato's attempt to improve his metaphysics, and connect it with the steady ethical and political programme of the platonic philosophy. This construal denounces the (not unjustified) characterization of the dialogue as aporetic.
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