(Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 341) Gabriele Cornelli - Plato’s Styles and Characters Between Literature and Philosophy-Walter de Gruyter (2016)
particular topic (hekaston: Phd. 101c) of the quest; the other is whatever percep-
tible objects relate to it, configured through the cooperation of sense-perception,
anamnêsis and thought expressed by the complex of doxa (Phd. 100e–103a).
But the state of epistêmê can never be attained through any kind of dialec-
tical process despite the nature and number of cognitive competences used to
achieve it. The Seventh Letter (344b) tries to overcome this gap promising a “sud-
den burst of the light of intelligence” produced by “rubbing together names, def-
initions, visions and sense-perceptions”. The Timaeus (37a–c) explains how the
circles of the Same and the Other cooperate to generate true beliefs and knowl-
edge. But the aporetic ending of the Theaetetus makes it clear that, with or with-
out the assistance of logos, true belief and epistêmê shall always be incommen-
3. The Theaetetus
At 188a–c in quick succession Socrates shows that if one can only know or not
know there is no way for any known thing to be not known (eidenai) and vice-
versa. Other approaches, as from being or not being, perceiving or not perceiv-
ing, lead to the same result (188c–189b).
This conclusion is subsequently confirmed from the varying perspectives of
allodoxia, the block of wax and the aviary (189b–200c), and reaffirmed in the
last section of the dialogue, which shows that the gap between doxa and epistê-
mê cannot be bridged by logos (206d–210d). Though this aporetic conclusion
may be interpreted in a number of ways⁴ I suggest Plato advances it as a reductio
There is the possibility of interpreting the aporetic conclusion as a consequence of the non
admission of Forms by the argument (Mi Kyoung-Lee 2008, 414).
José Trindade Santos
4. The Sophist I
Such reductio explains why the search for epistêmê is abandoned in the Sophist
and replaced by a quest beginning (236e) and ending (259b) with being, not-
being and being and not-being⁵. The Guest (EG) affects being puzzled by the
fact that each Greek cosmologist has used several names and expressions to
refer to one single entity: “being” (“the all”: 244b; “the one”: 244b–c; “the
whole”: 244d), thus attaching different descriptions to it (243b–c). He then
asks what could these people have meant⁶ when they used the term ‘being’
4.1 The Sophist II
And yet, up to this point the reader is being told quite a different story, for most
of the dialogue has been focused on the protean figure of the sophist. How is it
possible that a man who, to his pupils, appears to be wise in all things ends not
being wise at all (233c, 234e–235a)? How can he:
truly possess the knowledge of all the things about which he seems to be able to argue⁷
The answer to this questions lies in the scandalous dialectical device through
which he manages to turn every argument topsy-turvy. By using Parmenides’
prohibition against saying that “things that are not are” (B7.1), the sophist man-
ages to avoid falsity and contradiction with the allegation that:
[what is not] is inconceivable, inexpressible, unspeakable and irrational (238c, 241a).
Plato denounces this dialectical strategy in two other dialogues – the Euthyde-
mus (283e–284c, 285d–286b) and the Cratylus (429d–430a) – without attempting
to refute it. Apparently in the Sophist he sets his mind on disarming it once and
for all, and with good reasons. For the sophist’s resistance to contradiction made
Plato approaches the study of reality through the criticism of the relevant Greek doctrines on the
nature of being (242c-249d), from which he elicits his own position on the topic (247d-e; 249c-d).
In order to express this new approach Plato resorts to an unusual succession of verbs in a
relatively short passage (243c-244b): legô, dêloumai, phthengomai, tithêmi, kaleô, sêmainô.
H. N. Fowler’s translation of the dialogue, published in the Loeb series (translations of other
dialogues are mine).
“Reading Plato’s Sophist”
him the next best candidate to the status of wise man, explaining the success he
enjoys not only with his disciples, but also among occasional listeners at his
public exhibitions (Euthd. 276b–c, 303b; Sph. 232d, 240a–b).
Nevertheless, a straight refutation of the argument on which the sophist’s di-
alectical strategy stands is not easily worked out. For, as long as truth and falsity
are equated with being and not-being, respectively (237b sqq.), the very possibil-
ity of falsity demands that in a way not-being must be and being not be (241d).
This requires a clarification of what being and not-being are and how they relate
to each other.
Being envelops all kinds: namely Motion and Rest, all of them related
through the Same and the Other. As none of these is the others, if Being is
what everyone of them is, Not-Being is what all and each one of them are not.
Consequently, Not-Being is the contraposition (antikeimenon antithesis) of
Being to any of its parts⁸ (258b).
This result comes as a consequence of the reformulation of the meaning of
the negative from contrary to different (257b–259b), paving the way to a novel
approach to the interconnected problems of logos and truth/falsity⁹.
4.2 The Sophist III
Though it comes about as a kind of epilogue to the search, in fact it is through its
association with the preceding subsection on being and not-being that the strat-
egy of the sophist is put to an end. We find it in Euthydemus’ version of Parme-
nides B7.1, in Plato’s Euthydemus:
“nobody ever says the things that are not” (ta ge mê onta legein: 284c3–4), for he would be
By all means this is an extraordinary claim! If any logos must be of what is, then
it can only be read as its name¹⁰. Therefore no logos can say what is not, for, by
The same applying to any kind in contraposition to its difference (257e).
In Parmenides B2, the negative separates the two opposite ways “for thinking” (B2.2). The op-
position is composed by their qualification as the “authentic” and the “unknowable anonymous
path” (“of research”: B8.15–18; vide B2.2, B6.3, B7.2). Being only two (B2.2), the denial of one
immediately leads to its opposite (B2.3b; B2.5b).
If whatever is said about something is true, just because it was said, logos cannot state anything
about it, but only refer to it in the way a name does (this interpretation explains Cratylus’ denial of
false names: Cra. 429b; on the other hand, if “what is” is the only true name, “everything is in the
same way to everybody at the same time and always” – Cra. 386d – definitely abolishing the pos-
José Trindade Santos
saying it, it would make what is out of what is not (Euthd. 284c3–5). The so-
phism commences by advancing an ontological claim – saying gives being to
a thing (283e9–10) –, then gives it a logical twist: saying “one thing” that is
is telling the truth (284a7).
Such a devious argument justifies the pains the EG takes to establish logos as
“an interweaving” (symplokê: Sph. 259e, 262c) of name and verb (262d). Only
after “an action or inaction, being or not-being” are attributed to anyone or any-
thing (262c) comes the key assertion according to which logos does not merely
name, but, through the interweaving of name and verb, manages to “conclude
something” (“accomplish”: perainei ti: 262d). As only in logos there is “assertion
and negation” (263a–e), only logos may be true or false. Therefore, the associa-
tion of being with truth and not-being with falsity is dismissed.
4.3 The Sophist IV
There remains yet one tenet in the core of the Sophist: being and the way einai is
used in the subsection devoted to the Five Greatest Kinds (250a–259b). Even be-
fore, from the moment the argument tackles with the nature of images (236e–
237a; 240a–b), the reader notices something running amiss in the way the
verb ‘be’ should be understood. For example, in order to describe the nature
of images different types of propositions are required: any image is (“exists),
though (it is) not truly, as it is not the very thing it is the image of (240b2–13).
In order to interpret these sentences the reader must understand them in
three different ways: stating existence (“the image exists”), truth (“it is not
truly”) and identity (“it is not the thing…”). Later the EG legitimates predication
when “things that are or are not” are stated of and about some named entity
As in each one of these sentences whatever is said states “something that is”
about “what is”, the entity ‘being’ (i.e., “being”, “any being” or “what is”) is the
ultimate reference of all discourse¹¹. Therefore, if the name ‘being’ (244a–d) has
one definite meaning each one of the four types of sentences listed above must
be distinguished and separated from the others.
sibility of contradiction). Plato reacts to this quibble. Either name is, and it is other than the thing
(named), or it is not (being the same as the thing), and it is either the name of nothing or the name
of a name (Sph. 244d; notice the EG’s criticism of the opsimatheis: 251b-c).
See P. Curd’s thesis of “predicational monism” in Parmenides and Plato: “each thing that is
can only be one thing; it can hold only one predicate, and must hold it in a particularly strong
way” (1991, 242–243; related to Plato: 257, 263–264).
“Reading Plato’s Sophist”
In order to “disambiguate” them Plato presents the reader with standard
cases in which they can easily be distinguished (as in the examples above). How-
ever, in order to be able to perform this task the EG is forced to develop a long
Its first steps are noticed in the abandonment of the strict dualism supported
by the “friends of Forms” (248a–b, 252a), entailing the communion of Movement
and Rest in Being (248e–249d). Subsequently the opposition of one to many is
resolved through the intermingling of Forms (252b), supported by the interrela-
tion of the Five Greatest Kinds (252d ff.).
It is a moot point whether Plato is successful in fully distinguishing these
types of the sentences in which einai is used. He commences by establishing
‘participation’ as the communion of different kinds (250b). This done, sentences
expressing identity are explained through the participation of their elements in
the Same (254d); existential sentences as participation in Being¹² (256a1). Pred-
icative ones express participation or communion between any two or more differ-
ent kinds in one another (252b, 253a–b). Finally the veridical reading of the verb
is separated from ousia as truth and falsity are explained as “qualities of logos”
(263b, d, 264a–b).
II Reading the Sophist
1. Form and content
I aimed at showing how Plato’s Sophist may be approached from the joint per-
spectives of form and content. Embracing Plato’s conception of “an open
ended search” I proposed a no less open ended interpretation of the dialogue.
As inter-textual connections are not explicitly allowed by Plato such propos-
al implies a number of unwarranted, hardly consensual assumptions. And yet,
they are necessary to catch a glimpse of the underlying program of the dialogue,
if we suppose Plato is trying to establish the basic concepts on which philosoph-
ical research depends.
The dialogue form captures this program through the interchange of the par-
ticipants. Three levels may be distinguished. While at the “authorial level” Plato
hides behind the Eleatic Guest’s questions and answers, at the “reception level”,
Following J. Acrkill’s proposal (1957, 251–259; 1965, 207–218), despite the criticism his inter-
pretation has received (G. Owen 1999, 440, n. 46, 446; L. Brown 1999, 455, 470 –472; 2008, 440 –
José Trindade Santos
Theaetetus’ responses act as guidelines to the points the reader should accept in
order to understand what is going on in the investigation. Finally at the “fictional
level” a number of “characters” are used to introduce conceptions required to
unfold the argument.
This particular strategy is manifest in the mention of fictional characters
whenever the course of the investigation is altered. Three key passages are para-
digmatic of this practice. Integrating the sophistic readings of B7.1 the “assault
on Parmenides” (241d) is used as a bridge allowing the transit from the problem
of how falsity stands to truth (237d–241b) to the quest on the nature of being and
not-being (242c–246a). The argument against the “friends of the Forms” rejects
the strict dualism of the Middle Dialogues (248d–249d) allowing the EG to intro-
duce Motion and Rest in “being and the all” (249d). The criticism of the “late-
learners” (251b–c) allows the move to the problem of predication, required to
prompt the solution advanced through the commingling of genera (253b–c).
In this perspective the Sophist is read as synthesis, from the points of view of
philosophical content as well as style. Plato uses the methodology applied in the
elenctic dialogues in a different approach. Instead of testing Theaetetus’ “knowl-
edge” he uses it to create a dialectical context suited to the sharing of opinions.
The understanding connecting both searchers acts as the model the reader is re-
ferred to in order to follow the unfolding of the argument, both representing the
inner dialogue of soul with itself (Theat. 189e-190a; Sph. 263e–264a).
2. The “program” of the dialogue
In the introduction to the central section of the dialogue (232b–236c; 236c–259b)
the EG confesses his bewilderment at the success enjoyed by the sophist. He
then proceeds to justify it with the effect caused by the sophist’s strategy of ref-
utation. This he shows is prompted by the combination of Parmenides’ argument
with the double equation of being/not being with truth/falsity (238d, 240c).
If ‘the veridical is’ should be understood as “whatever is really” and the “al-
together not veridical” as its contrary (240b), then ‘falsehood’ is “what is not”
(240d–e). Such conclusion manages to capture in contradiction anyone who ad-
mits that there is such a thing as “false opinion”. For, he who sustains that
“some opinions are false” either says “what is not”, states that what was said
“is not” or both (236e–237a, 240e; vide Euthd. 283e–286e; Cra. 429d:
Teaet. 167a–d, 170d), thereby violating Parmenides’ prohibition (B7.1: Soph. 237a).
The analysis of the core of this dilemma reveals that the knot of the problem
lies in the collapse of two distinct levels of falsehood: one of the thing said, the
other of the statement asserting it. The way out of it is found only when the argu-
“Reading Plato’s Sophist”
ment establishes that, as “qualities” of discourse (263b–d), “truth/falsity” are no
longer applicable to things. In fact from “things that are” truth or falsity may fol-
low. Of “things that are not”, when ‘not’ means the opposite, nothing can be said
Perhaps surprisingly this interdiction confirms the previous sophistic allega-
tion that in this sense “what is not” is “unspeakable” (etc.: vide 239a, 241a). But
with his move the EG managed to undo the double equation (of being with truth
and not-being with falsehood) on which the sophist’s dialectical acumen stands
However, such conclusion cannot be reached until the meaning of the neg-
ative is reformulated, indicating that ‘not’ signifies “something different from the
words it is prefixed to” (257b-c). This thesis generalizes the preceding one, that
… is not the opposite of Being, but only something different (257b).
And yet, to get to this conclusion the EG previously had to reject two other the-
ses. One is the “late learners’” denial of the predicative strength of statements,
by which one may “call many names to a single thing” (251b). The other thesis
is Plato’s own. According to the Republic V 479 (vide Phaed. 78d) there is no gen-
eration in being, for “it is always unchanged and the same” (Soph. 248a). How-
ever, should this thesis be accepted, it would follow as a consequence that this
cosmos consists of two incommunicable worlds (Parm. 133a–135a).
3. The structure of the dialogue
The argument above should set philosophy on the right track and put the sophist
in his place. But it is not enough if both objectives are to be attained. It will
therefore be necessary to ground the exposition and resolution of the problems
of Being/Not-Being and truth/falsity on the structure on which philosophical re-
This work is done in the core of the central section of the Sophist (236c–
264b). In it Plato follows his ultimate proposal of exposing his conception of di-
I use ‘structure’ to point to the unity of the different parts in the central section of the dia-
logue (237–264). I give ‘program’ a broader meaning relating the Sophist to those dialogues in
which Parmenides’ arguments are prominent. These fall in two headings: the sophists (“the
school of Protagoras), in the Euthydemus, the Cratylus, and the Theaetetus; and Plato himself,
in the Phaedo, the Republic and the Parmenides.
José Trindade Santos
alectics (253d–e) embracing Being (254d–257b) and Not-Being (256d–258e) as
parallel (250e) conceptions until the relation uniting them finally comes forth
(259a–b). This is Plato’s answer to the question he addressed to the doctrines
the EG takes as representative of Greek philosophical tradition. What were
these men thinking whenever they used the notion of ‘being’ to refer to the cos-
mos (242c–243b)? Whatever is implied in any statement which asserts that some-
thing “is” (243d–e; vide 243d–244b)?
The greatest innovation contained in this conception of dialectics consists in
the previous separation and subsequent combination of the ontological and
epistemological perspectives on reality¹⁴. While the three first Greatest Kinds –
Being, Movement and Rest – refer to what exists, the Same and the Other provide
the dialectician with the ability to relate them using different kinds of state-
ments: existential, identitative and predicative ones (this last one exploring
the participation of Forms in one another: 255a–b, 256a).
Plato’s theory of Being shows how this kind includes all the others granting
them ‘existence’ (Being is everything that is, seen in itself). In his conception of
Not-Being he starts by making manifest the function played by the Other as ‘dif-
ference’ (Not-Being is Being seen from the perspective of any other kind: 255d,
256d–e). He then proceeds to condense in the idea of ‘contraposition’ (257d–
258c) the role played by Not-Being in the generation of ontological hierarchies.
In these each grade is what it is, in contraposition to all the others it is not, but in
relation to which it is and is said by discourse (258d–259b).
Does this reading of the Sophist show how form and content relate in the com-
position of the dialogue? To me such a well-knit structure suggests that Plato de-