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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

Sophist by Plato is a dialogue primarily between the characters of Socrates and Theaetetus, but others are also involved. Socrates is attempting to explain to the young man what a Sophist is and what the ideas of philosophy, purification, and education really mean and do for people in a society.

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There are several main points that Plato is trying to achieve in this work. The first is to give an understanding of what a Sophist does—the function they perform, especially in a society that already has philosophers, teachers, and statesmen. The Sophist is more than just a teacher or master of rhetoric—they are almost a physical and spiritual guide for young, enterprising individuals. A Sophist has the goal of purifying the body and mind of his pupils. He does this by educating and leading them in several areas.

To purify the body, he leads them in instruction on medicine and physical education so that they can become physically fit and healthy. The reason behind this, as is explored in Plato's Republic with the definition of the guides of civilization, is to make moral, strong leaders who will be fit and healthy enough to last for a long period of time.

The act of purifying the mind deals with removing the two evils inherent in people—vice and ignorance. With a proper philosophical education and motivation, the individuals can strive to cure vice by living morally upright lives and engaging in honest work. To dispel ignorance, the Sophist instructs them in a wide range of subjects so that their knowledge may be complete and they will be able to speak at length about any subject.

The Sophist, according to Plato, is essentially a man of many hats and is therefore extremely difficult to describe. He is referred to as a juggler and magician at times and reduced to an idea that can only be possible in child's play or must be some fabricator of reality. Plato assures the characters, however, and the reader, that true Sophists exist and are there as guides to mold the leaders of the nation.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 161

Some scholars believe Plato intended to write a trilogy consisting of Politikos (later period, 365-361 b.c.e.; Statesman, 1804), the Sophist, and a third dialogue on the philosopher. Because the first two dialogues search for definitions that not only will delimit the statesman and the Sophist but also will show how, if at all, they differ from the philosopher, it seems likely that Plato planned a third dialogue in which he would define the philosopher and describe the appropriate search for knowledge. In the Sophist, Plato defines Sophists and describes the kind of activity that properly belongs to them. The dialogue Theaettos (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Theaetetus, 1804) is also intimately connected to this series, for in it Plato begins the quest for a proper definition of knowledge and for an answer to many of the problems that plagued him as he worked out his theory of ideas. The Sophist follows Theaetetus and carries on the search for an answer.

The Sophist Defined

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In attempting to define “sophist,” Plato makes use of the technique of classification by which he goes from the most general terms to the more specific. He makes use of a similar approach in the Statesman in order to distinguish the true ruler from apparent ones. In their pursuit of the nature of Sophists, Socrates and a stranger from Elea point out many facets of their character, especially with regard to what they profess to know, which indicate to them that although a correct definition ought to point to that, and that alone, which is essential to the nature of Sophists, they find that they profess to be master of many arts.

The Sophists’ most pronounced trait is the ability to discourse persuasively; they claim that through the art of rhetoric, they can give one knowledge in all fields. It is denied by the stranger that one can have knowledge in all fields, a denial in accord with Plato’s view expressed throughout his works and emphasized in Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) that one can know and do only one thing well. Therefore, Sophists, although they proclaim themselves experts in many areas, must have and present only the appearance or image of a subject rather than the reality. Sophistry, if it is an art (for how can the practitioners of sham be artists?), is the art of image making. The stranger then pursues an analysis of image making.

Reality and Appearance

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Image making has two parts or kinds. First, one may copy an original; examples are the craftsperson who copies a natural object and the painter who makes a likeness of someone’s face. Second, there are those who make semblances—what appear to be likenesses but are in some way out of proportion. The second type of image making raises certain questions. What is meant by this world of semblances? A semblance is apparently not real, and yet it cannot be said to be unreal or nothing, for it is something. However, what kind of a something? Plato is again struggling with the Parmenidean problem of the existence of a world of appearances, which is neither of the world of forms or ideas nor of the world of not-being or nothing; rather, it seems to hover somewhere in between, to be a world of change, of becoming.

The Eleatic stranger had previously proclaimed himself, or had been proclaimed, a student of Zeno and of Parmenides, and he shows his indebtedness to them in his pursuit of these questions. The concern over the world of appearances brings up related problems over the judgments made about that world. For in dealing with that which is not real (that is, that which changes), one must use negative judgments, yet these judgments apparently refer to some object. Plato is emphasizing that when one uses a locution such as “is not,” one seems to be denying the existence of something. However, of what? There is nothing that one can be talking about because apparently it, whatever it is, is not, and hence is not anything. This sort of puzzle sets off a discussion in the Sophist over certain aspects of epistemology and ontology that had troubled pre-Socratic philosophers and to which Plato addressed himself. The discussion concerns the three realms of not-being (nothing), becoming, and being, and what sort of knowledge and judgment is appropriate to each.

In discussing the worlds of reality and appearance, the stranger dismisses rather quickly that of not-being or the totally unreal. Generally speaking, the totally unreal cannot be the subject of discourse because one’s statements cannot have no reference whatsoever; one cannot talk about nothing. In addition, the very attempt to do so is ambiguous and misleading. One seems to be talking about something, the totally unreal, and one uses pronouns as if they referred to a thing; and yet, as noted, one is not talking about anything. One contradicts oneself when attempting to talk about nothing because one must talk about something.

There is still a puzzle that must be solved: When one uses a statement that either tells one that something is or that something is not, then of either alternative one can say that it is true or it is false. In either case, one seems to be stating a sentence that conveys meaning. Hence, one cannot always be talking about the totally unreal or the meaningless when one utters negative or even false judgments. It remains to be seen if this problem can be treated successfully. The analysis given by Parmenides (who is the stranger’s inspiration) that there is only that which is or is not cannot be adequate; false statements seem to refer to something “in between.” Thus Plato parts company with Parmenides and holds that the realm of becoming, events in space and time that undergo change, has a status that cannot be ignored by the philosopher. Before this realm is examined, however, some attention must be given to what is meant by the “real.” The Eleatic stranger begins by reviewing what some of the earlier philosophers have said about it.

The Eleatic stranger treats briefly those who had held that hot and cold are real, or that one is but the other is not, or that the real is a third thing. When he comes to Parmenides, he treats him in more detail. Parmenides had claimed that the real is one being. A question is raised in that Parmenides used two names, “one” and “real,” to designate this entity: How can there be two names to designate one entity? Plato apparently believed that these two names designated two separate and distinct forms or ideas—the form of oneness and that of realness—hence Parmenides’ analysis was not about one thing, but two. A more detailed analysis of this view is given. If the real is a whole made up of parts, then it cannot be unity or oneness itself; these imply a lack of parts, but obviously a whole made up of parts indicates a plurality of entities. In such a case, of course, one can speak quite properly of such a whole (made up of parts) as having unity, but one cannot say that there is only one being and no other. The real is not a whole, yet wholeness exists. The real, then, cannot be what is. That realness and wholeness must exist means that a plurality exists. Another possibility is, if wholeness does not exist, then the real will be a plurality of many parts with no totality. However, if so, it cannot then be that which is, nor can it ever become that which is.

Idealism vs. Materialism

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The discovery of the unsatisfactory character of Parmenides’ view of reality leads to a general discussion of idealism versus materialism as philosophical positions; Plato picturesquely calls this “the battle between the Gods and Giants,” between those who dwell in the heavens—the realm of ideas—versus those who dwell on the earth—the realm of the tangible. The Giants, or materialists, claim that only the tangible is real, whereas the idealists, or Gods, point out that moral qualities can be present in some and absent in others; these are qualities that are not tangible yet must be admitted as real. The question as to what is real leads both camps to search for a mark or sign by which they may know the real. The materialists suggest, and the Eleatic stranger considers it tentatively, that only that which has the power to affect or to be affected by an agent is the real. The Eleatic stranger makes out the following objection to the materialists: The materialists demand a quality that they can sense before they proclaim something real; they admit, however, that they can be aware of the presence or absence of “justice” within themselves or others; but such awareness is not of a sensible quality but of an intellectual one, and its object, justice, is an idea.

In discussing the idealists, the Eleatic stranger first considers the view that proclaims that only that which is changeless can be an object of knowledge and truly real. However, can the changeless be an object of knowledge if to know is to act on in some sense? For if that which is an object of knowledge is acted on, then it is changed; but if it is changed, then it cannot be that which is changeless. Hence, either knowledge is not that which acts on something, or, if it is, then that which is changeless and, by definition, not capable of being acted on, cannot be known. It is here that the Eleatic stranger questions whether only that which is changeless is real. (He thus again breaks with the Parmenidean school.) He argues that life, soul, and intelligence—all of them “objects” that undergo change—belong to the domain of the real. The school of Heraclitus is next attacked—that school that had maintained that only change, flux, was real. If all is flux, there can be no intelligence in real things; for if nothing were the same from moment to moment, nothing could be known. Therefore the stranger from Elea concludes that reality must consist both of that which is changeless and of that which changes, if we are to have intelligence in the world.

Plato seems to wish to bridge the gap created by the Parmenideans and the followers of Heraclitus in their construction of what is real by pointing out that each group errs when it rejects that which the other regards as real. In this dialogue, the matter is not pursued further. Instead, a return to a previous discussion ensues that seems much like the one just concluded but is different. The discussion concerns “reality” rather than the “real,” and it treats reality as a form among forms. It is in this sense that Plato holds reality to be changeless, and hence he does not contradict what he had just affirmed—that the real includes that which is changeless as well as that which changes. If reality included both change and changelessness, one would have three forms rather than one—but that is impossible.

The argument brings out an important point in Platonic metaphysics. Each time a combination of forms is considered, an impasse is reached when it is revealed that there is more than one form involved in the discussion. If the one is real (or exists), then oneness, unity, reality, and existence are all involved, for if reality were not present, we could not talk of the one as real.

Movement, Rest, and Reality

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The Eleatic stranger then considers the questions raised in the discussion, questions concerning the possibility of the combination of forms and of negative judgments. The forms considered in this discussion are movement, rest, and reality (or existence). Some forms must be compatible with others in that some kind of combination must be possible between them if they are to be said to be real. Thus, unless movement combines with reality and unless rest does also, neither of them is real. Not all forms are compatible in this way, however, or else we would run into absurdities; for instance, movement cannot combine with rest, for if it did then we could say of movement that it is at rest, and of rest that it is in movement. The task of philosophers in their search for wisdom and truth is to investigate which forms combine and which do not; this task is to be accomplished by philosophic discourse—by dialectic. The Eleatic stranger reminds his cohorts in discussion that their task is to seek out the Sophist, who dwells in the realm of seeming or perhaps of not-being, rather than the philosopher. He suggests that after their present task is finished, they may come back to philosophers and their realm (thus giving credence to the view that Plato intended to write a dialogue on the philosopher). In the search for what is real, the purpose is to clarify the realm that the Sophist inhabits.

The stranger continues this discussion by bringing up two more forms: sameness and difference. He does so because in speaking of two or more forms, we are automatically involved with sameness and difference. For example, rest is the same as itself (partakes of sameness) and different from movement. Sameness and difference must be separate forms, for if movement and rest were equivalent to sameness then they would be equivalent to each other. That is, they would both partake of sameness and thus be the same; yet although they are the same with regard to themselves respectively, they are not with regard to each other. The same holds for difference.

Having pointed out that the five forms are separate and distinct, the Eleatic stranger then considers them with regard to judgments involving the locutions “is” and “is not.” He points out an important feature of the verb form “is”: It has at least two senses; namely, “exists” and “is identical to,” or “is the same as.” The statements considered are as follow: (1) motion is not (rest). Motion is (real or exists); (2) motion is not (the same). Motion is the same (as itself); (3) motion is not (the different). Motion is different (from difference).

The Eleatic stranger then concludes that of any form, we may say that it is not (any other form) and that it is (real or exists). It is here that the break with Parmenides is complete, for it can be shown that his statement, “That which is’ cannot not be’” is incorrect, because “That which is” can “not be” (be other than) all other existents; and thus we can have as a true statement the following: “What is’ can not be.’” Furthermore, we can also have as a true statement, “What is not’ can be.’” That which is not everything else is still itself (exists). Parmenides has thus been refuted in saying that “that which is” can in no sense “not be” and that “that which is not” can in no sense “be.”

This argument can also be applied to Sophists, and they can be shown to be wrong when they state that we cannot speak of what is not; it has been shown that we can and do so speak, when, for example, we say that “is not” means “is not the same as.” Can we reconcile the problem, however, when “is not” refers to “falsity”?

False Statements and Judgments

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The Eleatic stranger presents an analysis of statements (essentially of descriptive statements) to clarify the problem of false judgments. Of every statement, it may be said that it must contain at least a name (an expression applied to that which performs the action) and a verb (an expression applied to the action). Every statement must also be about something. Lastly, every statement has a certain character; that is, we say of it that it is either true or false. The examples that the stranger considers are “Theaetetus sits” and “Theaetetus flies.” The first is true for Theaetetus is in fact sitting. The second is false for it describes the subject Theaetetus as doing what he is not doing. Thus it states that things that are not, are (exist). It appears here that Plato in his analysis has presented us with an application of the views just worked out by the Eleatic stranger regarding the five forms and the possibilities of combination. Falsity occurs whenever the incorrect forms are used in describing the action of the subject (assuming that the correct subject is used). In this way, Plato feels that he has shown that false statements are meaningful.

Plato has so far dealt with the problem of false statements, and he has shown in what sense they are about something and in what sense they are meaningful. His analysis, although incomplete, points toward a fuller discussion that, as noted, was probably to be made in the dialogue on the philosopher. He tackled the problem, not as he felt the Sophists had done, with a shallow display of verbal paradoxes, but rather by a provocative analysis and a suggested solution in terms of his theory of forms or ideas. Descriptive statements are about something, often tangible, performed by something or someone—thus, they denote—but to an extent, they derive meaning from the relation they express between the action described and the form(s) of which they partake. With this attempt made, the Eleatic stranger returns to a final consideration of the Sophist.

He concludes that as a species of image maker, the Sophist belongs to those who deal in semblances. Their forte is in the construction of contradictions that, they freely admit, are intended to confuse and deceive. The mimicry they advocate is based not on knowledge but on opinion. Because it is an art that deals in a shadow-play of words, it is not a discourse that aims at wisdom. When Sophists encourage the use of their arguments to persuade the people and gain mastery over them, their profession is that of the demagogue and not of the statesman.


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Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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