Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Eleatic Stranger

A wonderful commercial in the 1980s began, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Well, I don’t even play a philosopher on TV, but I have “Philosophy” in the name of one of my degrees. So I’m going to play philosopher for a moment and say that I now have an opinion about one of the great puzzles of the history of philosophy: the puzzle of Socrates in Plato’s dialogs.

Looking back now, I can see that my ten-year plan is meeting one of the goals I set: I go through any dialog by Plato now, and I have a sense of how it fits within his whole body of work. Assuming that the order in which the dialogs appear in a complete edition at least roughly corresponds to the order in which Plato composed them, I can also see some lines of development. As I read the Sophist this month, for instance, I realized that it represents a change from some of Plato’s earlier thinking. For instance, this dialog proceeds with a confidence in its method that the earlier ones don’t.

Some of the biggest changes come in a section solving some of the paradoxes of Parmenides that fascinate and possibly trouble an earlier Plato. Here he dismisses some of the problems quickly, others with an interesting argument about Being. Plato’s arguments often include one particular weird premise, that an Idea of a quality has the quality it represents and is the only idea that has the quality, and this assumption causes big problems. Does Unity exist? Then isn’t Unity the same as Existence? Does Sameness differ from Motion? If Sameness is other than something else, isn’t Sameness the same as Otherness? And isn’t Motion always what it is? If so, then isn’t Motion the same as Rest? Or if Motion has motion, then how can we ever define this always changing thing? In the Sophist, Plato solves these problems by showing that these words must apply to the Ideas in multiple ways. That Being is not the same as Motion can’t possibly mean that Being Is-Not: how can Being not exist? Each Idea is other than all the rest, but that doesn’t make each Idea the same as Otherness (which incidentally would also make every Idea the same as Sameness). The Idea of Otherness and the otherness of all the Ideas are two different issues. The argument reminded me of Aristotle’s simple advice in his Topics: don’t let a Sophist trip you up with this mistake, since Being and Unity are simply predicates of everything. And the sudden admission that all Ideas have Being and Unity and Sameness and Otherness isn’t the only place the Sophist anticipates Plato’s most famous pupil. The dialog’s process of definition by division of species follows an extensive and systematic order that resembles Aristotle’s methods more than those of Plato’s earlier works.

Plato introduces another big change by having Socrates remain mute for most of the time. The lead in the argument here belongs to a mysterious character called the Eleatic Stranger. I don’t know who the Eleatic Stranger is, but his presence got me thinking that I understand the puzzle of Socrates a little more. Here’s the problem. Socrates didn’t write anything himself – nothing we know of anyway. All we know of him comes from secondary sources. He stars in most of Plato’s works and has a lot to say in them about wisdom and doubt and piety and rhetoric and the best form of government. Plato’s character of Socrates even explains the Forms that we usually call Platonic Ideas. But Aristotle tells us that Socrates spent most of his career working on ethics and that the Ideas came from Plato, not from his teacher. So some philosophers propose that the Socrates of the dialogs only represents the real Socrates to an extent, and looks less and less like the historical Socrates and more and more like Plato himself the later the date of the dialog and the more he talks about Ideas. But if Plato was so willing to put his own words into the mouth of his beloved mentor for most of his writing career, why leave him out almost entirely at this late stage of the game? In my new view, Plato must not have written any lines for Socrates that he couldn’t conceive of the actual Socrates at least supporting. And I’m guessing that what Plato wanted to say in the Sophist (and in its sequel, the Statesman) stretched the envelope too far, so for these he put his new teaching in the mouth of the mysterious Stranger and left Socrates sitting on the sidelines with only an occasional comment.

While Aristotle is on my mind, I’d like to update a post from last year, in which I proposed a reading list for anyone who wants to study Aristotle. I would now add at least portions of the Topics. And since my last point has nothing to do with Plato, Socrates, or the Eleatic Stranger, I have to admit that this post does not fully partake of Unity.

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