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Socrates and Sophist

Plato s Sophist is one of the only dialogues in which Socrates isn t the main character. This makes for an interesting question: why? Why would Plato stray from the norm of making his teacher the main focus of this dialogue? As I ve thought about this I ve come up with three possible explanations that may explain Plato s decision. It is impossible to come up with a definitive answer, but using my skills as an English major I hope to shed some light on the subject.

My first thought was that perhaps Plato thought that Socrates wouldn t agree with the argument being made in Sophist, this means that Socrates wouldn t admit to the possibility of false knowledge. I find this possibility hard to believe since Socrates was around and encountered people who made their living by arguing for others. Also, this theory doesn t explain why he would be encouraging the visitor to make the argument in the first place.

Another issue with this first theory is the fact that Plato has pretty much always agreed with Socrates teachings before this dialogue, why would he start to contradict him here? I have no answer to that question, but it seems a little absurd to me. It would also make more sense for him to be more vocal about disagreeing with his teacher. He makes sure that we know when he disputes someone else, Parmenides for example. Plato makes it perfectly clear, even announces the fact that he is disagreeing with Parmenides in Sophist. On page 31 Plato states, through the visitor, that In order to defend ourselves we re going to have to subject father Parmenides saying to further examination, and insist by brute force both that that which is not somehow is, and then again that that which is somehow is not. Plato has always defended Parmenides, and in Sophist he makes absolutely sure, at least twice, that everyone knows he is disagreeing with him. If Plato can openly refute someone he s respected as long as Parmenides, why not Socrates also?

My second theory for why Socrates is not the main questioner in Sophist is that perhaps Plato was ready to come into his own. Plato has been basically regurgitating the stories and beliefs of Socrates for his whole career up to this point. Perhaps Plato felt it was time to break away from that and strike out on his own. There seems to come a point every student s life when they take the information their teacher has given them and start making assertions of their own instead of merely recycling the ideas they were given. Maybe Sophist is that point for Plato. This could be the point where Plato decided to see what he could do without hiding behind Socrates and therefore only put Socrates in the beginning of the dialogue. It is hard to take this argument any further, because it relies too much on Plato s feelings.

My third theory about Sophist comes from the use of what I learned in Literary Theory. Not only is Socrates playing a bit part in this dialogue, there is a total stranger playing the main role in this dialogue, that is also an important issue. Not only is the main character a kind of stranger, especially to the reader, he doesn t even have a name. He is simply known as Visitor. If you know anything about literary analysis, you know that names play a huge role in the understanding of a work. Usually a writer puts forth great effort in choosing the perfect name for each character, accept those that aren t important, which brings me to my point. The fact that Plato didn t take the time to give us the name of this visitor establishes him as a fairly unimportant character. This gives us the impression that he s really an everyman character, the average Joe.

Perhaps the fact that Plato uses this average character to support the weight of the argument in Sophist implies something about the argument itself. I am inclined to say that Plato uses the everyman character to show that just about every man could make this argument for the existence of the Sophist. Moreover, Plato then wouldn t need Socrates to aid in the development of the argument. This also shows Plato s disrespect for anyone who is a sophist. The fact that anyone can prove that they exist, from the argument of false knowledge, shows how worthless Plato thinks the sophists are.

I think that this, my final, theory is the most plausible of them all, it seems to explain most clearly why Socrates isn t in the picture and why a visitor is. However, it is hard to make literary assumptions based in the knowledge of the 20th century and apply them to an ancient Greek work. Of course, we do the same thing with Greek drama, so maybe it isn t such a stretch. I don t think anyone will ever really know why Plato chose to stray from Socrates in Sophist, but making guesses is somehow more intriguing.


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