Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Sophist is a dialogue recorded by Plato around 360 BCE. As Sophist is a philosophical dialogue, the characters are not so much part of a plot but rather participants in a discussion about Sophistry. The Sophists, from whom the text derives its title, were a group of philosophers and professional teachers during Plato’s lifetime who educated Athenian youth for a fee. The participants in the conversation recorded in Sophist are as follows.
Socrates: One character who features in all of Plato’s work is Socrates. Socrates is famous for the Socratic Method, or using rhetorical questions to force his opponents to examine their beliefs. Unlike most of Plato’s dialogues, however, in Sophist, Socrates does not take the lead role in this conversation. Socrates does spark the conversation by asking the Eleatic Stranger if sophists, statesmen, and philosophers are “one or three” in Italy. Aside from these perfunctory lines at the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates observes the unfolding discussion silently.
The Eleatic Stranger: The unnamed leader of the dialogue is a guest of Theodorus and a visitor to Athens. He seems to be aware of Socrates’s fame and apologizes in advance for dominating the discussion. He engages the young mathematician Theaetetus in a dialectic and asks rhetorical questions to define and defend Sophistry.
Theodorus: An elder mathematician. Theodorus’s role in Sophist is largely to bring The Eleatic Stranger to meet with Socrates. After he introduces the Eleatic Stranger as a “true philosopher,” Theodorus fades into the background and does not speak again.
Theaetetus: A young mathematician, Theaetetus is eager to converse with the Eleatic Stranger and answers the rhetorical questions posed to him. Theaetetus helps the Sophist explore and explain his philosophy by answering his questions and requesting clarification on difficult points.
Unnamed Observers: It is implied at a few moments in the dialogue that there are a handful of silent listeners absorbing the conversation. Remember, Sophist is set in a public Athenian gymnasium, where citizens could easily listen in to portions of the discussion.