Being and Non-Being 4

By Peter Worman

Last week you were introduced to the dialogues of Plato, specifically his work titled The Sophist. This week you will be introduced to the Platonic system of question and answer called dialectic, or to give the word its dictionary meaning “the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions” that is used in this and other Platonic works.

I must admit that I really struggled to write this piece and landed up writing and re-writing the post a dozen times at least, largely because as is mentioned in the dialogue, the Sophist and the art of sophistry is extremely beguiling. So what I eventually decided to do was to firstly give an example of the type of question and answers used, to give you an idea of the process.

To enable the participants of the dialogue to gain an understanding of the Sophist they used a time-honoured process of firstly investigating a lesser art, in this case that of the angler. The actual dialogue took many pages so I’ll just include an example:

STRANGER: Let us begin by asking whether he is a man having art or not having art, but some other power.

THEAETETUS: He is clearly a man of art.

STRANGER: And of arts there are two kinds?

THEAETETUS: What are they?

STRANGER: There is agriculture, and the tending of mortal creatures, and the art of constructing or moulding vessels, and there is the art of imitation—all these may be appropriately called by a single name.

THEAETETUS: What do you mean? And what is the name?

STRANGER: He who brings into existence something that did not exist before is said to be a producer, and that which is brought into existence is said to be produced.

THEAETETUS: True.

STRANGER: And all the arts which were just now mentioned are characterized by this power of producing?

THEAETETUS: They are.

STRANGER: Then let us sum them up under the name of productive or creative art.

They duly summed up their conclusion as follows:

Then now you and I have come to an understanding not only about the name of the angler’s art, but about the definition of the thing itself. One half of all art was acquisitive—half of the acquisitive art was conquest or taking by force, half of this was hunting, and half of hunting was hunting animals, half of this was hunting water animals—of this again, the under half was fishing, half of fishing was striking; a part of striking was fishing with a barb, and one half of this again, being the kind which strikes with a hook and draws the fish from below upwards, is the art which we have been seeking, and which from the nature of the operation is denoted angling or drawing up.

As you will appreciate their questions and answers are exhaustive and leave no stone unturned.

Using the same methodology, they attempted to define the Sophist and they arrive at the conclusion that this trader in virtue again turns out to the Sophist, whose art may now be traced from the art of acquisition through exchange, trade and merchandise, to a merchandise of the soul which is concerned with speech and the knowledge of virtue. But that which proceeds by rules of art to dispute about justice and injustice in their own nature, and about things in general, we have been accustomed to call argumentation. The added that the Sophist was not averse to using bombastic and aggressive methods to achieve their ends.

For me, what it revealed, was how important it is to ask the right questions from a point of view of not knowing. So often these days the person who asks the question is so busy formulating an answer while his opponent is answering his earlier question that he does not hear the answer. We are so determined to be right which presupposes that we know which then makes a mockery of our question. This process just goes round in circles like boxers sparing with one another. A telling fault of the Sophist is this belief that they know, which as the Stranger argues, is a grave error because no human being can know everything. The All Knowing being resides within all of us, but it needs the internal organ of mind to stop chattering before it is heard.

The Stranger conceded that was is needed for this inherent knowledge to arise is a process of purification, and this is what we will look at next week. In the meantime, let us observe our speech and listen to the speech of others and try and identify where this speech originates. Does it arise from a place of stillness or are its hallmarks more bombastic? Examples of bombastic speech that it is confrontational, trying to prove that you know more then you do or overt use of aggression.

Good luck!