Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.58 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.58

Beatriz Bossi, Thomas M. Robinson (ed.), Plato's 'Sophist' Revisited. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 19.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2013.  Pp. x, 304.  ISBN 9783110286953.  $154.00.  

Reviewed by Coyle Neal, Southwest Baptist University (


This book is a collection of sixteen papers originally presented in May of 2009 at the "International Spring Seminar on Plato's Sophist". It is divided into three broad sections:

I. Defining Sophistry, in which the papers explore the primary subject matter of Plato's Sophist, i.e. the question of what a "sophist" is and what one does;
II. Parricide: Threat or Reality? in which the relationship between Plato and his philosophical predecessors (especially Parmenides, but including other Presocratics as well) is examined through the filter of the Sophist;
III. Mimesis, Image and Logos, in which various other philosophical issues in the dialogue are discussed.

Before briefly surveying each essay, I should point out that this volume as a whole is excellent. The authors not only know their subject matter well, they manage to be articulate, competent, and thoughtful writers without sacrificing depth or complexity. (Since some of these essays have been translated, no doubt praise is due the translators as well.)

I. Defining Sophistry

"Protagoras and the Definition of 'Sophist' in the Sophist" by Thomas M. Robinson provides an introduction to Sophistry itself, including the various ways sophistry is presented in the dialogue under consideration. Robinson also gives a deft explanation of the tricky relationship between the Sophists and Socrates.

"Why is it so Difficult to Catch a Sophist? Pl. Sph. 218d3 and 261a5" by Francesc Casadesús Bordoy is an excellent exploration of Plato's use of images (especially Homeric images) to explain and define the slippery and ever- changing nature of the Sophists.

"Plato's Enquiry concerning the Sophist as a Way towards 'Defining' Philosophy" by Josep Monserrat Molas and Pablo Sandoval Villarroel examines the relationship between the Sophist and ontological being. This paper consequently suggests that there is more to the dialogue than just the definition of a "sophist", and has much to do with the "hiddenness" of the philosopher. Molas and Villarroel employ a non-traditional interpretation in the style of Heidegger, with results that are quite intriguing and bear much more examination than is provided in this short work.

"The Sixth Definition (Sophist 226a-231c): Transposition of Religious Language" by Alberto Bernabé uses a philological analysis of the "sixth definition" of a Sophist to draw a linguistic line between Socrates and the Sophists. Specifically, Bernabé argues that Plato employs religious language and, in context, defines the Sophists as the equivalent of religious charlatans rather than true philosophers.

"Remarks on the First Five Definitions of the Sophist (Soph. 221c-235a)" by Michel Narcy takes up this stream of thought and puts the first five definitions of a "Sophist" in their context within the Platonic corpus and within Greek thought as a whole. The result is a clear contrast between the Sophist and those like Socrates who are true philosophers.

"Socrates and 'Noble' Sophistry (Sophist 226b-231c)" by José Solana argues that the difficulty of the sixth division of the Sophist is neither out of line with the overall theme of that dialogue nor only interpretable in the context of the trilogy of dialogues of which Plato may have intended it to be part. In fact, it is both coherent and consistent in the text of the dialogue itself and in terms of what we know of broader Greek thought.

"The Method of Division in the Sophist: Plato's Second Deuteros Plous" by Kenneth Dorter provides a lucid explanation of the role of the Sophist in developing the theory of forms as a practical, real-world enterprise in the context of Plato's "Eleatic" trilogy.

II. Parricide: Threat or reality?

"Plato's Ionian Muses: Sophist 242 d-e" by Enrique Hülsz begins the second division of the book by suggesting that, pace Aristotle, Plato is much more sympathetic to Heraclitus' true philosophy of universal flux (as opposed to its pop-philosophical caricatures).

"Does Plato refute Parmenides?" by Denis O'Brien is a lengthy defense of an older argument by him (O'Brien) that has been met with some skepticism in the academic literature. O'Brien’s argument is that a close examination of the text suggests that, rather than clearly refuting Parmenides, Plato actually advances beyond his system. This essay is especially engagingly written; O'Brien is conversational in tone while still clearly expositing the Platonic text and giving a fair hearing to his opponents.

"Back to the Point: Plato and Parmenides—Genuine Parricide?" by Beatriz Bossi admits that the Plato/Parmenides relationship is a tough one to work out—it may very well be that Plato is attacking a caricature, while simultaneously adopting a modified Parmenidean philosophy that combines change and stability while relying on language to reveal the true nature of being and difference.

"Plato's Eleaticism in the Sophist: The Doctrine of Non-Being" by Antonio Pedro Mesquita is a review by a confessed Aristotelian (a "sin" quickly forgiven) which argues that the Eleatic argument is a necessary foundation for coming to the Platonic one, however at odds the two may be at the end of the day.

"The relativization of 'separation' (khorismos) in the Sophist" by Néstor-Luis Cordero suggests that Platonic dualism in the Sophist is a post-second-trip-to-Sicily purification of Plato's earlier thought (along with Parmenides and Theaetetus) that recognizes the difficulty of the relationship between being-as-such and the forms—both of which ultimately resolve into the existential Form of Being itself that unifies all.

III. Mimesis, Image and Logos

"Theaetetus sits—Theaetetus flies. Ontology, predication and truth in Plato's Sophist (263a-d)" by Francesco Fronterotta is about the relationship between truth and language. Fronterotta focuses, appropriately enough, on the details of Plato's language and how that language is expressive of true and false logos, but only when a great deal of logical subtlety and specific textual contexts are kept in mind. Be sure to read the footnotes.

"Difference and Negation: Plato's Sophist in Proclus" by Jesús de Garay examines how the Neoplatonic thinker Proclus guides us in reading the Sophist, specifically in the context of Plato's unified corpus. As we would expect from a Neoplatonist, the result is a mixture of rational and mystical interpretation that uses the concepts of negation and unity as the means of approaching the One. This paper includes a good overview of the Sophist in general Neoplatonic thought.

"Difference in Kind: Observations on the Distinction of the Megista Gene" by David Ambuel would have, in my opinion, been best placed at the beginning as it provides a good philosophical introduction to a number of the essays in this volume. This paper attempts to resolve the Eleatic-Heraclitean impasse in Plato by eliminating the difference between motion and rest by means of the approach to Being through the dialectic.

"Mimesis in the Sophist" by Lidia Palumbo, the final essay in the volume, examines the relationship between falsity and mimesis (imagery). The danger, Palumbo suggests, is that "all falsity is mimetic", not that "every mimesis is false" (269). Yet even this is a complex issue, since true falsity is "confusing an image for its model", not an image for an image or a model for a model (269). This last paper is an appropriate conclusion since it raises the question of how truth may be discovered when the tools we so regularly use to approach truth are themselves suspect.

Overall, this is an excellent volume and will be of great interest to anyone who wishes to think more carefully about the Platonic search for truth in general, and the Sophist specifically.

One final note: the ghost behind this volume (who only occasionally peeks through) is Heidegger, whose work on the Sophist and Plato is consistently in the background of each of these essays. If there is one thing that would have made an already excellent volume even better, it would be a more thorough treatment (either critical or appreciative, or, ideally, both) of Heidegger's interpretation of Plato. Not that this should have been a book of essays on Heidegger, just that a more direct interaction would have added yet another layer of philosophical richness to an already rich volume.

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