The Sophist as Capital

What is a Sophist According to Plato?

I asked you all last week to read Plato’s Sophist, a later dialogue in Plato’s writings concerning the definition of a role in Athenian society – the sophist. I have found a better and easier e-copy than what I provided in the syllabus through the Perseus collection at Tufts University. I will refer to the “section numbers,” I am told that they are called “Stephanus pagination,” as this will help you track the discussion with more ease than me just referring to the dialogue generally. If you click the link above, it’ll take you to Perseus and start you with the first section of this dialogue. Look on the left-hand side and you’ll find the section numbers in a menu. 

Sophist comes as the second in a three-part conversation beginning with the Theaetetus. One could and some do spend their lifetime on Plato and his works, but I won’t trouble you with reading Theaetetus as it is primarily concerned with knowledge though it does lead into discussions of “the good life,” that are continued in Sophist and Statesman (your reading for this week and the third in the series). Sophist, I feel, is a relatively straightforward text once one gets the hang of reading Plato. As a reminder, much of the dialogue is written in a style that includes summaries of the finer points made and rejoinders that should help you track the conversation. As you’ll notice, Socrates does very little talking in both Sophist and Statesman but gets the ball rolling between the primary interlocutors in the dialogue: the Eleatic Stranger (referred to as “the Stranger,” in this post) and Theaetetus, an interlocutor of Socrates’ at the time. Again, it’s difficult to track when this was written and if it really corresponded to the life of Socrates at the time. Plato was Socrates’ student, so it’s kinda odd to think he’d be a fly on the wall for these conversations – dutifully scribbling down the things his master has uttered. 

The Stranger, we gather, is kind of like a visiting scholar, or guest speaker from the town of Elea and is trained in the most current philosophies of his day. He is clearly of the Eleatic School, and is well versed in Parmenides’ method of deduction as well as the Parmenidean arguments concerning the universe, its oneness, its unchanging character and its unity as all things. We see through the dialogue that he employs an argument or two from Parmenides to arrive at a few thoughts concerning the character and role of the sophist in Athens, and much of Parmenides and the paradoxes he introduced recur in Platonic philosophy, and, I believe, the contemporary philosophy of our day through sticky problems in language that don’t take seriously enough process philosophy. I’ll point out a few places of interest before diving into a more sustained analysis of the dialogue but these points shouldn’t be left to the side as they have bearing on much of how ‘we’ interpret and understand ourselves and problems like certainty embedded within political decision-making and discourse. 

Joel and Ethan Cohen aren’t philosophical slouches. Sam Elliot offers some wise words to the Dude (Jeff Bridges) as an unnamed Stranger in The Big Lebowski.

 The Parmenidean argument for a static, unchanging unified field of being that we call the universe is not only logically compelling, but also, and to a degree half-right scientifically. The argument (which you can find above in the links provided) posits the existence of being and the non-existence of non-being through an argument that treats linear, deductive logic as the only path to Truth and eschews perception as only able to generate mere opinion. Parmenides is quite serious about this claim and his philosophical orientation is one of trying to understand the nature of things or Nature itself. In so doing, he rejects inductive reasoning as a method for arriving at truth and this begins a fight between at least three major philosophical schools at the time: the Eleatic School, the followers of Heraclitus – the Heraclitians, and the Atomists – a school of ancient philosophy buried by power (probably Plato’s power) that had already posited the make up of all matter as composed of atoms and their movements. Unfortunately, it seems that Plato (or the Stranger) did not take the Atomists seriously and brushed their natural philosophy aside in favor of engaging the juxtaposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Had he taken the Atomists seriously, we may have publicly understood atoms earlier than we did, but I must leave this matter aside.

Louis C.K., possibly a sophist, arrives at the Parmenedian argument for being at the end of this clip. It is often said that children are the best philosophers and I think he demonstrates why.

Heraclitus takes an opposite route to arriving at Truth, and is famously memmed as asking why one can never step in the same river twice. Why can’t one ever step into the same river? Because it’s always moving. This means that the felt or wished permanence of an object is simply an illusion as all reality is flux. In other words, the Truth about the Real is that it is always changing and this is in stark contrast to Parmenides and his followers. Little has been recovered from Heraclitus or Parmenides and we have their students and writing fragments as well as Platonic dialogues to thank for our civilizational memory of these early disagreements. Socrates, we’ll see, tried to reconcile Parmenides and Heraclitus and we’ll judge whether he was successful when we come to The Republic in a week or two. If you notice, we’re still kinda stuck with the paradoxes they introduce as we grapple with larger problems in the expansion and being of the universe, theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, the big bang theory, other questions and issues in particle physics. To say that either Parmenides or Heraclitus, or the Atomists, were ahead of their time is to miss their impact on civilization. In some sense, we might not have “their time,” without them and indeed our notion of “time,” might be different.

Disney Corp.’s Pocahontas distills the disagreement between Parmenides and Heraclitus nicely in song.

I think that the endurance of the problems presented by the disagreements between the three schools above shows the importance of studying and understanding philosophy in the context of politics because it shows politics within the dialogues themselves as well as in inquiry generally. Much of the baulking and squawking concerning the atomists seems to be motivated by the politics of the time as neither naked perception nor logical deduction (the primary philosophical methods at the time) would reveal something like atomism or atomist thinking. The intuitive appeal of Parmenides and Heraclitus, it would seem, is the deciding factor in Plato’s engagement in both Sophist and elsewhere. One of the more interesting things to notice is that the dialogues flip between “God” and “gods” in their discussions. This could be a slip in translation, but it would appear that those taking Eleatic philosophy seriously tend to use “god,” and not “gods.” This could be a form of monotheism based on Parmenides’ arguments for oneness and universality already sweeping over polytheism that might separate the world into different parts ruled by different gods. At any rate, that Eleatic philosophy existed and had been taken seriously by anyone properly educated in the Greek world could give weight to the proliferation of Christianity through Greece and Rome regardless of the official religions at the time because it, following the Abrahamic tradition dating back to the ancient Jews at least, posits a monotheism that recognizes the unity of existence through Yahweh.

It is important to recognize that Parmenides, Heraclitus, and the Atomists were all concerned with Nature, or the field of existence – being – in which humans come to know themselves and others. One can find the discussions of pre-Socratics through the writings of Thales of Miletus, Anaxagoras (very cool and probably needs more study in the light of Biosphere/Noosphere debates), Anaxamander, Pythagoras, Zeno of Elea, and Xenophanes as still having something to say about the nature of reality and this is more acute during Socrates’ time. However, and importantly, the discussions being had were concerned with Nature, and we see that most of our thinkers listed above were trying to come up with ways of understanding and interpreting the universe. In this way, they’re considered “Natural philosophers,” as their primary objects of inquiry regarded the movements of the heavens and of “natural” bodies. Much of pre-Socratic philosophy was about getting the metaphysics right and then handing down ways to live based on those postulates. The Pythagoreans, for example, had an ethos based on his mathematical teachings as well as thoughts about the organization of society and politics. Socrates and Plato, however, flip the problem of inquiry on its head and while much of their writings on ethics and politics are subordinate to their discussions of metaphysics and epistemology, they spend considerable ink on more “practical” concerns such as justice, and goodness, how society ought to be organized and what sort of life is worth living. In other words, their inquiries seem to be conditioned by an omnipresent ought floating in the back of their minds as they try to respond to those who came before them while trying to present philosophical advice and edicts to their successors. 

Sophist and to a lesser extent Theateatus arrive at the crux of the discursive shift taking place during the life of Socrates. It concerns how one ought to live in order to be happy and becomes an ever present thought in the mind of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and its conduit is through the state itself as state and subject are brought into alignment through the practice of ethics and the formation of the just constitution. I’ll give you a preview in that the state, as we saw in Crito, is to become a sort of tutor or an instrument that cultivates the main question of ethics at the time – how to lead a good life. Again, in our readings from last week, we saw that this concern and commitment is central for Socrates who, in the end, dies by the pain of his own logic through state ordered suicide by hemlock. How to lead a good life is the primary concern for ethics during antiquity and this is to be accomplished through philosophical inquiry – if one is a philosopher. 

Sophist opens with Socrates posing a question to the Stranger. He asks whether the Eleatics make a distinction between three terms: sophist, philosopher, and statesman. This is a good question in the light of the details above not only because the Stranger is simply from another town that may have different customs, but because the Stranger is also a follower of Parmenides. Presumably, oneness and a static, unchanging unity of being might have trouble parsing out the finer details of living, or categorizing people as having or fulfilling different roles. This concern, however, should be left to the side and the Stranger indulges Socrates who then demands he argue with Theateatus. Much of the argument proceeds by the Stranger leading Theateatus through lines of questioning (as if he hadn’t enough from the day before) that help parse out a bit of reality at a time and he makes a few big cuts into the role and function of the Sophist who is their main target of inquiry. 

Apart from the disagreements between philosophical schools at the time, it seems that there are further disagreements between vocations and disciplines in Athens. Principally, we see a disagreement over “the good life,” and how to live it between the philosophers and their rivals (sometimes, kinda, maybe) the Sophists. The Sophists were a kind of intellectual class tasked with producing arguments and instructing wealthy young Greek males in the art of persuasion – rhetoric. We see their influence today in communications studies, English and language arts, law, politics and business, to say the least. Many people still claim this role as a sort of public persuader and present themselves as experts on many subjects including philosophy, gender religion, art, economics and politics. People like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Al Franken, and Bill Mahr fill a role that could be classified as sophistical and concern themselves with public opinion and, most importantly for any sophist, how to make money from the public opinion. In it’s thinnest distillation, one might consider a sophist as a sort of paid teacher who instructs the young. In this case, I might be a sophist, and we see in Apology that one of Socrates’ best defenses against the accusations of the Sophists is that he accepts very little money and mostly food and good company for his teachings. In this case, and based on my tax bracket and pay-stubs, I am probably not a sophist and could be making more money slinging bullshit and creating controversy rather than pursuing science and philosophy. I can only imagine that Ben Shapiro either does very well for himself, having a law degree from Harvard, or is just a shit lawyer and couldn’t make enough in that field; but he is intellectually descended from Sophists so maybe the practice of sophistry was an inevitable conclusion for him. 

 The Stranger makes a few interesting cuts through the process of division in answering Socrates’ question. You can trace this process as he makes some broad statements that seem to fit with both language and practice. For example, he splits “the arts” into two classifications that he defines functionally – that is, what they do and how they do it: that of productive arts and that of acquisitive arts (Sophist, 219a-221d). Productive arts are practices that produce something from the earth or are otherwise related to creative energies that bring something into being. Depending on your lens (especially if you’re Thomas Kuhn or Michel Foucault or Don Ihde) science could be considered a productive art as worlds of atoms and neutrinos come into being through their instruments and frameworks. For the Stranger, he uses agriculture or metallurgy – casting and milling instruments like eating utensils – as his primary examples of productive arts. He does not think that the Sophist belongs to this camp and seeks a negative definition to distance the sophist from the productive artisan.

The other branch of his division of the arts is that of acquisitive art. To this belongs hunting and angling and other arts that are not concerned with the production of things (the angler, presumably, does not create the fish they “hunt,” although I might problematize that with some readings in ecology later). The sophist, the Stranger believes, is engaged in a sort of acquisitive art having failed to land in the camp of the productive arts. How does he arrive at this definition? He simply observes the behavior of those who might call themselves sophists and makes logical cuts into his perceptions through methods of classification reliant on division. The sophist is a sort of artist, so presumably he fits somewhere. We have but two kinds of arts generally: productive and acquisitive arts. He doesn’t fit into the former, so he must fit into the latter, but what does he “hunt” if he does? 

The Stranger answers: 

“[221d] Stranger

Good gracious! Have we failed to notice that the man is akin to the other man?


Who is akin to whom?


The angler to the sophist.


How so?


They both seem clearly to me to be a sort of hunters…

[222a] Stranger

Now up to that point the sophist and the angler proceed together from the starting-point of acquisitive art.


I think they do.


But they separate at the point of animal-hunting, where the one turns to the sea and rivers and lakes to hunt the animals in those.


To be sure.


But the other turns toward the land and to rivers of a different kind—rivers of wealth and youth, bounteous meadows, as it were—and he intends to coerce the creatures in them…”

Notice that the Stranger articulates hunting, or acquisition generally, as based in coercion. Hunting, for the Stranger, is a coercive act and for the Greeks, and to some today, lying, or misrepresentation of one’s knowledge is an attempt at coercion. The philosopher – according to the Stranger – persuades through a special type of coercion that is the force of reason alone. The use of fallacious arguments is out of bounds for the philosopher but tools of the trade for the Sophist. The Sophist, through the use of fallacious arguments (bad ones that contain logical errors but can slip under the radar in persuasive speech), in other words, engages in the mass coercion of people – particularly wealthy and naive people, for money knowing full well that what they say is merely a representation and not necessarily a truthful one (Sophist. 234b-234e).

What would it look like if Justice was only concerned with the image? Mike Judge might have an answer for us in Idiocracy. But can idiots perceive truth, or are they unable to by definition?

We already have a disagreement over the good life in this dialogue: one between a class of people who believe that their job is to persuade regardless of “the Truth,” and another whose quest is “the Truth,” and who see their jobs as those who spread and nurture it (Sophist. 223b-224d, 233c, 235a). Perhaps the philosophers are deluded and maybe “the Truth,” doesn’t exist, but they believe it does, that they can pursue it, and that it is worth pursuing and once presented they believe it persuasive through the force of reason alone (Sophist 230d-230e, 253e). At some point, the conversation becomes confused and there’s a philosophical breakdown and then a rejoinder through Parmenedian metaphysics. I won’t bore you with much of the details, but the Stranger carries a sustained and interesting conversation concerning the ontological status of falsehood and whether the false could exist in the universe of oneness argued for by Parmenides. It’s an interesting question, but the Stranger eventually creates a special class of things through some tricky logic that can be considered false but his definition seems to be reliant on some sort of correspondence between a presented image and what it’s supposed to represent (Sophist. 253c-261b). There are sticky debates as to the nature of Truth, so I want to be careful in pointing out the above to you, but the above seems reliable. 

After a tour of Eleatic philosophy, the reader is treated to a more concrete rejoinder concerning the nature of the Sophist. The Sophist, says the Stranger, is a sort of image maker, someone who presents a self-brand as an expert in something, and may be, but doesn’t care about whether they present a “true” representation (Sophist. 264e-267a). We see that the Sophist does this because he hunts the young, naive and wealthy as his quarry but ensnares his victims through the deployment of false representations and chiefly, a representation of himself as an expert (Sophist. 267a-267c). The content of expertise is left to the side in their conversation and it’s not clear how one “becomes” an expert in the Stranger’s eyes, but it seems, quite conveniently, to pursue inquiry through philosophical reflection and conversation. That is, through an excision of one’s malignant beliefs about something – reality, and all its components – to realize one’s ignorance.

Kill the sophist and the image is what survives.

The Sophist is never ignorant of anything, so says the Stranger. He is constantly staging his knowledge for the capture of money and the imagination. In this way, his art concerns that of the fantastic (fantastic in this sense as producing or emanating from fantasy or a sort of entertainment) (Sophist. 267a-267c). Sophistry imitates knowledge, and is considered a mimetic art by the Stranger and this complicates his definition further because it would appear as if making appearances, or mimetic images is a sort of production. If that’s the case, then how does the Sophist belong to the acquisitive arts and not the productive arts? It is because he makes falsehoods through his images. Nothing of any real meaning stands behind his representations as he feigns knowledge and expertise through his extractive enterprise. In this light, the Sophist is a sort of bewitching parasite – an incubus or succubus (today, at least) of sorts – that latches onto money or power and draws as much as it can from its host (Sophist. 268b-268d). The Stranger says: 


Then shall we call one the simple imitator and the other the dissembling imitator?…



I am considering, and I think I can see two classes. I see one who can dissemble in long speeches in public before a multitude, and the other who does it in private in short speeches and forces the person who converses with him to contradict himself.


You are quite right.


And what name shall we give to him who makes the longer speeches? Statesman or popular orator?


Popular orator.


And what shall we call the other? Philosopher or sophist?


We cannot very well call him philosopher, since by our hypothesis [268c] he is ignorant; but since he is all imitator of the philosopher, he will evidently have a name derived from his, and I think I am sure at last that we must truly call him the absolutely real and actual sophist. [268d] of the image-making art, and is not divine, but human, and has been defined in arguments as the juggling part of productive activity—he who says that the true sophist is of this descent and blood will, in my opinion, speak the exact truth.”

There you have it. The Sophist is a professional bullshit artist and I know you can find many of those today. But what distinguishes the Sophist from the Statesman? And what of the Statesman from the Philosopher? The philosopher is that seeker of truth, a practitioner in the sweet science of self-pugilism and a knower, or discoverer of ignorance. The Sophist, in the word of the Stranger “runs away into the darkness of not-being, feeling his way in it by practice, and is hard to discern on account of the darkness of the place.” (Sophist. 254a)  

We also need a rejoinder at this point in our course. You’ll see above that the Sophist is an image-maker in the sense of a false-representer of knowledge. He does this to draw in capital and both lives on and builds his life in the image of capital. As you may recall from your reading in Marx, capital can go through transmutation and can materialize in different forms. One of those is that of an instrument (Marx, GI, p.3) an impersonal instrument of production. The Stranger makes an interesting remark regarding the production of “fantastic” art [you’ll remember from above that “fantastic” here does not mean good, but more of an untruthful spectacle or entertainment]: 


One kind is that produced by instruments, the other that in which the producer of the appearance offers himself as the instrument.


What do you mean?


When anyone, by employing his own person as his instrument, makes his own figure or voice seem similar to yours, that kind of fantastic art is called mimetic. (Sophist. 267a)
Recall also that Thucydides named the establishment, plunder and frustration of capital as one of the principal reasons for the Peloponnesian War. Further, recall that Marx says the formation of capital is related to and springs forth from settled society (Marx, GI, p.5) and further, that capital can be considered an agent and takes specific (read particular) embodiments (Marx, GI, p.11). Taking together the Stranger, Thucydides and Marx, we may assert that the Sophist is a sort of embodiment of capital that draws in, ensnares, and produces more capital through persuasion and is not at all concerned with “the Truth,” but the production of discourse within society for personal gain (Marx, GI, p.3, 5, 11; Sophist, 245a, 267a, 268b-268d; Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1). To that end, those who project and protect a self-brand where they pretend to be experts on anything and everything are instantiations of capital that have been with us since antiquity – the Sophists. The best way to stop them (they’ll kill philosophers when given the chance as they did with Socrates!) might be to tune them out, and to that you’ll see that I’ve not included their videos above.

The song playing is called “Dead Flowers” and is sung by Townes Van Zandt.