Being and Non Being Part 9

In this dialogue that we are following the quest is to understand Being and Non Being and if both exist or only one and not the other. In this offering the Stranger and his assistant look at this in more detail and try and discover if being partakes of the Whole or if the whole moves or remains still and if it admits parts. What perplexes the Stranger is that Sophists can speak authoritatively on any subject (including Being and Not Being) and maintain that they know, even about a subject as tricky as being.

This leads him to state ‘Since, then, we are in a difficulty, please to tell us what you mean, when you speak of being; for there can be no doubt that you always from the first understood your own meaning, whereas we once thought that we understood you, but now we are in a great strait. Please to begin by explaining this matter to us, and let us no longer fancy that we understand you, when we entirely misunderstand you.’

He further questions those who assert the oneness of all things and questions what they mean when they refer to Being. In other words, are we just these bodily functions or are we the thoughts in the mind or are they both part of the same whole? He would question them as follows: (note that the italics are my comments)

STRANGER: One, you say, alone is? ‘Yes,’ they will reply. And there is something which you call ‘being’? And is being the same as one, and do you apply two names to the same thing? So can being be one and whole or many?

THEAETETUS: What will be their answer, Stranger?

STRANGER: It is clear, Theaetetus, that he who asserts the unity of being will find a difficulty in answering this or any other question.


STRANGER: To admit of two names, and to affirm that there is nothing but unity, is surely ridiculous?

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

STRANGER: And equally irrational to admit that a name is anything? So could we be our name?


STRANGER: To distinguish the name from the thing, implies duality. In other words, I am a plumber. And yet he who identifies the name with the thing will be compelled to say that it is the name of nothing, or if he says that it is the name of something, even then the name will only be the name of a name, and of nothing else. In other words saying I am a GOOD plumber, good will actually be the name of nothing. And the one will turn out to be only one of one, and being absolute unity, will represent a mere name.

If I said I am Peter I would be forced to say that Peter is just a name

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

STRANGER: And would they say that the whole is other than the one that is, or the same with it? If I acknowledged that I am the sum of many parts, name, mind, body and this sum of parts is whole.

THEAETETUS: To be sure they would, and they actually say so.

STRANGER: Yet that which has parts may have the attribute of unity in all the parts, and in this way being all and a whole, may be one?

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

STRANGER: But that of which this is the condition cannot be absolute unity?


STRANGER: Because, according to right reason, that which is truly one, must be affirmed to be indivisible. I cannot consist of many parts and still maintain that I am one and whole.

THEAETETUS: Certainly. This is a mistake we often make

STRANGER: But this indivisible, if made up of many parts, will contradict reason.

THEAETETUS: I understand.

STRANGER: Shall we say that being is one and a whole, because it has the attribute of unity? Or shall we say that being is not a whole at all?

THEAETETUS: That is a hard alternative to offer. I agree

STRANGER: Most true; for being, having in a certain sense the attribute of one, is yet proved not to be the same as one, and the All is therefore more than one. And yet if being is not a whole, though having the attribute of unity, and there be such a thing as an absolute whole, being lacks something of its own nature?

Upon this view, again, being, having a defect of being, will become not-being?

And, again, the All becomes more than one, for being and the whole will each have their separate nature. But if the whole does not exist at all, all the previous difficulties remain the same, and there will be the further difficulty, that besides having no being, being can never have come into being.


STRANGER: Because that which comes into being, always comes into being as a whole, so that he who does not give whole a place among beings, cannot speak either of essence or generation as existing. This is difficult to understand as a flower for example, comes into being as a whole and thus must partake of being

THEAETETUS: Yes, that certainly appears to be true.

STRANGER: Again; how can that which is not a whole have any quantity?   Because that which is of a certain quantity must necessarily be the whole of that quantity. I am not too sure that I understand this


STRANGER: And there will be innumerable other points, each of them causing infinite trouble to him who says that being is either one or two.

THEAETETUS: The difficulties which are dawning upon us prove this; for one objection connects with another, and they are always involving what has preceded in a greater and worse perplexity.

STRANGER: We are far from having exhausted the more exact thinkers who treat of being and not-being. But let us be content to leave them and proceed to view those who speak less precisely; and we shall find as the result of all, that the nature of being is quite as difficult to comprehend as that of not-being.

This line of questioning might be difficult for us to follow as we might lack the ability to discern things as being true or not. Besides, some people might be unwilling or unable to answer such thorough questioning. What follows is a line of questioning put to these less-exacting thinkers, as the Stranger calls them. This might include people like us. 

STRANGER: Let them say whether they would admit that there is such a thing as a mortal animal.

THEAETETUS: Of course they would.

STRANGER: And do they not acknowledge this to be a body having a soul? (when the word soul is mentioned in Socratic texts the meaning to me is the inner organ of mind that transmigrates from body to body)

THEAETETUS: Certainly they do.

STRANGER: Meaning to say that the soul is something which exists?


STRANGER: And do they not say that one soul is just, and another unjust, and that one soul is wise, and another foolish?

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

STRANGER: And that the just and wise soul becomes just and wise by the possession of justice and wisdom, and the opposite under opposite circumstances?

THEAETETUS: Yes, they do.

STRANGER: But surely that which may be present or may be absent will be admitted by them to exist?

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

STRANGER: And, allowing that justice, wisdom, the other virtues, and their opposites exist, as well as a soul in which they inhere, do they affirm any of them to be visible and tangible, or are they all invisible?

THEAETETUS: They would say that hardly any of them are visible.

STRANGER: And would they say that they are corporeal?

THEAETETUS: The soul would be said by them to have a body; but as to the other qualities of justice, wisdom, and the like, about which you asked, they would not venture either to deny their existence, or to maintain that they were all corporeal. I would imagine the reason that they believed the soul to have a body would be because it is something that they can perceive in that they can observe the workings of the mind.

STRANGER: Verily, Theaetetus, I perceive a great improvement in them; the real aborigines, children of the dragon’s teeth (In Greek myth, dragon’s teeth feature prominently in the legends of the Phoenician prince Cadmus and in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. In each case, the dragons are real and breathe fire. Their teeth, once planted, would grow into fully armed warriors), would have been deterred by no shame at all, but would have obstinately asserted that nothing exists which they are not able to squeeze in their hands. In other word’s seeing is believing

THEAETETUS: That is pretty much their notion.

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power. We would acknowledge that thoughts have the power to affect one another.

THEAETETUS: They accept your suggestion, having nothing better of their own to offer.

STRANGER: Very good; perhaps we, as well as they, may one day change our minds; but, for the present, this may be regarded as the understanding which is established with them.


STRANGER: Let us now go to the friends of ideas and of their opinions too. You shall be the interpreter.


STRANGER: To them we say “You would distinguish essence from generation”?

THEAETETUS: ‘Yes,’ they reply.

STRANGER: And you would allow that we participate in generation with the body, and through perception, but we participate with the soul through thought in true essence; and essence you would affirm to be always the same and immutable, whereas generation or becoming varies? In other dialogues reference is made to being and becoming where being is seen as unchanging and becoming is ever-changing.

THEAETETUS: Yes; that is what we should affirm.

STRANGER: Well, fair sirs, we say to them, what is this participation, which you assert of both? Do you agree with our recent definition?

THEAETETUS: What definition?

STRANGER: We said that being was an active or passive energy, arising out of a certain power which proceeds from elements meeting with one another. Perhaps your ears, Theaetetus, may fail to catch their answer, which I recognize because I have been accustomed to hear it.

THEAETETUS: And what is their answer?

STRANGER: They deny the truth of what we were just now saying to the aborigines about existence.

THEAETETUS: What was that?

STRANGER: Any power of doing or suffering in a degree however slight was held by us to be a sufficient definition of being?


STRANGER: They deny this, and say that the power of doing or suffering is confined to becoming, and that neither power is applicable to being.

THEAETETUS: And is there not some truth in what they say?

STRANGER: Yes; but our reply will be, that we want to ascertain from them more distinctly, whether they further admit that the soul knows, and that being or essence is known.

THEAETETUS: There can be no doubt that they say so.

STRANGER: And is knowing and being known doing or suffering, or both, or is the one doing and the other suffering, or has neither any share in either?

THEAETETUS: Clearly, neither has any share in either; for if they say anything else, they will contradict themselves.

STRANGER: I understand; but they will allow that if to know is active, then, of course, to be known is passive. And on this view being, in so far as it is known, is acted upon by knowledge, and is therefore in motion; for that which is in a state of rest cannot be acted upon, as we affirm.


STRANGER: And, O heavens, can we ever be made to believe that motion and life and soul and mind are not present with perfect being? Can we imagine that being is devoid of life and mind, and exists in awful unmeaningness an everlasting fixture?

THEAETETUS: That would be a dreadful thing to admit, Stranger.

STRANGER: But shall we say that has mind and not life?

THEAETETUS: How is that possible?

STRANGER: Or shall we say that both inhere in perfect being, but that it has no soul which contains them?

THEAETETUS: And in what other way can it contain them?

STRANGER: Or that being has mind and life and soul, but although endowed with soul, remains absolutely unmoved?

THEAETETUS: All three suppositions appear to me to be irrational.

STRANGER: Under being, then, we must include motion, and that which is moved.

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

STRANGER: Then, Theaetetus, our inference is, that if there is no motion, neither is there any mind anywhere, or about anything or belonging to anyone.

THEAETETUS: Quite true.

STRANGER: And yet this equally follows, if we grant that all things are in motion—upon this view too mind has no existence.


STRANGER: Do you think that sameness of condition and mode and subject could ever exist without a principle of rest?

THEAETETUS: Certainly not.

STRANGER: Can you see how without them mind could exist, or come into existence anywhere?


STRANGER: And surely we must contend in every possible way against him who would annihilate knowledge and reason and mind, and yet ventures to speak confidently about anything.

THEAETETUS: Yes, with all our might.

STRANGER: Then the philosopher, who has the truest reverence for these qualities, cannot possibly accept the notion of those who say that the whole is at rest, either as unity or in many forms: and he will be utterly deaf to those who assert universal motion. As children say entreatingly ‘Give us both,‘ so he will include both the moveable and immoveable in his definition of being and all.

You might have heard the phrase that the life continuum is both a movement and a rest and that even when the body is busy with an activity, the mind can be at rest. In fact, this is the ideal way to apply ourselves to work, where instead of the discursive mind dictating terms and conditions it just rests until called into action by reason. I get the feeling that this is where the Stranger is heading. There is the other common analogy of the ocean, where the water on the surface can be in turmoil yet at its deepest level, it remains still.