Truth and Sophistry

You hurry over as quickly as you can without spilling anything. After finding an open seat, you begin to listen. The man is clearly a little tipsy and annoyed by some lecture he heard about a certain philosophical dialogue.

: ...We have to disagree with this nonsense; people want to reject what is true about the dialogue, and then champion the nonsense that remains. It's ridiculous; the Eleatic philosopher is doing things well until our fan fiction author corrupts him. Admittedly the author has his good aspects, but he is notorious for using his brand of theatre to deceive. Hellenic philosophy was born in the colonies, and I reckon it's fair to say that it was tortured and maimed shortly after it arrived in Athens.

As the title suggests, the dialogue defines the term "sophist", but I think the title is also an accidental warning about the author's intentions. The main speaker is a philosopher from Elea, and in giving an account of the term "sophist" he demonstrates a particular method of divvying-up what-is. He uses this method to identify the sophist within the Whole. I appreciate this part; the dialogue provides us with a valuable 4th century account of how Eleatic philosophers went about identifying particular details of Being.

It seems obvious to me, based on this dialogue and other works, that Eleatic philosophers were quite active in the Hellenic world throughout the 4th century. Whether they all knew each other and considered themselves colleagues, or whether there were multiple, independent groups spread across the Hellenic world, I won't venture to say. Even if all these thinkers associated with each other and formed a single group, there may have been rival internal schools, or at least it might have appeared that way to outsiders eager to misrepresent them. We can argue about whether to harmonise or distinguish Parmenideans and Melisseans, but for today I'll just point out that Eleatics were clearly active and famous, and personally I think we can add people like Diodorus Cronus to their ranks.

But to get back to the dialogue, I appreciate the way the Eleatic philosopher approaches the challenge, and I have a similar style myself. Yet what did we hear in that ridiculous lecture today? A complaint that the Eleatic philosopher's method is arbitrary and silly. What an indefensibly stupid thing to say!

The method is not arbitrary or silly – the philosopher is revealing the sophist by highlighting its particular location in the Whole. The philosopher has perceived something - the sophist. Now, he has to help the listener see it. So he identifies the distinctions that make the sophist special, he uses those distinctions to capture the meaning he wants to convey. It’s okay to talk about hunting, and then hunting of man, then hunting of man as prey, and for money, and so on. He is taking the broad region of Being where the sophist dwells, and then slowly narrowing it down in particular ways, until our own eyes are drawn to it.

I found it particularly interesting that the philosopher talks about the words being used as a net to capture the meaning, which of course immediately reminds one of ZhuangZi. For the Eleatic philosopher and for ZhuangZi, the words are trapping the meaning, but the meaning itself is distinct from the words. The goal was always to illuminate some aspect of what-is, to help you perceive it against its surroundings.

So that’s my immediate reaction to what those commentators said about this aspect of the dialogue. They call the method arbitrary or silly, but I think it appropriate. For everything is, and in that context there is distinction, and we can use these distinctions to lead others to what we have found.

The next and final thing I want to speak about is the ontological section of the dialogue. Specifically, how to handle negation. For Being is omnipresent, so how can it be negated or otherwise escaped? The simple answer is that any attempt to do so will fail. As mentioned, if you reference something by saying “it is nothing”, you are actually affirming that it is singular, or if you say “they are nothing”, then you are affirming they are plural. My point is, no matter how you speak of things you are necessarily making affirmations.

So how do we say that something “is not”? For in a dialogue about the sophists, we obviously want to say that something “is not true”, or “is false”. Yet obviously it cannot be a “nothing”, for we are speaking about a claim, it is singular or plural, it has some internal meaning, and so on. So we come to the general solution, which is brought about by distinction – we interpret “is not” as “other than”. So if we say an apple is not an orange, we are saying that one is “other than” the other – we affirm the apple, the orange, and their distinctions. If the sophist is not providing an accurate account of something, we will say it is other than a true account. No matter the example, all of its content is given some status or presence.

So then what constitutes the truth, and how do we classify falsehood? It is here that our author works his deception – he has the Eleatic philosopher declare that we must refute Parmenides and go down some incoherent path of Athenian nonsense. Which is where my second objection to the lecture crops up – it was claimed that the author has somehow achieved something masterful here, when really he has done nothing more than assign his own foolishness to a philosophical school that could have saved him from error!

For yes, Being is truth, where “truth” is defined as “what is”. So all is true, without exception. Yet we also have a second definition for “truth” that is opposed by “falsehood”. It is this second definition we are using to describe the sophist’s incorrect account of things. It is false because the two things do not accord; the sophist is presenting an account, which is something, but it is inaccurate because it differs in certain ways from that which it is describing. For it to be accurate, there would need to be a certain matching relationship; it’s like two halves of a tally, but the sophist's half doesn't fit the subject.

Of course, in the dialogue the Eleatic philosopher discards his beliefs and tries to reject omnipresent Being. This is where he is no longer the Eleatic philosopher, but rather a puppet that is forced to parrot the author's own misteachings.

The Eleatic philosopher is made to complain that we “agree unwillingly that that which is not in a way is”. Actually, we should absolutely agree with that, wholeheartedly, for that is the path of truth. Everything is. The difficulty is in understanding and accurately expressing all of its details. For what-is goes beyond just a list of things, it also includes the multitude of relations and the overall context and structure of reality. It is whole, complete, and perfect, and everything is included, even the sophist’s mistakes.

But instead, the author discusses opposites and tries to reduce Being to a third thing that is separate and somehow above the first two. Ultimately, he goes so far astray that he posits a Being and a Non-Being, and he assigns the truth to Being and the multitude of lies to the non-Being, and makes a dog’s breakfast of the whole thing. He does his best to blind us all to the Whole; it is a sad example of what happens when one tries to follow the path of seeming.

I could harp on about all the other failings of the dialogue and the lecture we heard today, but what of it? We here know that affirmation is the name of the game, that even in negation there is affirmation! For to paraphrase our true friend Melissus, if there are many then they ought to be the same way as the one is. All must conform with the Whole.

Now let us put aside the chaotic gibberish of our Athenian friend and his supporters, and drink to this fine meal and free ale!

The man raises his cup, whereupon all his friends raise their own glasses and cheer, before clinking them together and drinking deeply. They then resume their conversation, seemingly unaware of your presence. For your part, you have finished your soup and feel the need to move on.


  1. Tidy up after yourself, before going to visit the nearby grove...
  2. Backtrack to the entrance hall and then visit the exhibits...