Sunday, May 22, 2016

2 Bertrand Russell on Sophists

In the ‘Preface’ to his History of Western Philosophy Russell writes: ‘This book owes its existence to Dr Albert C. Barnes, having been originally designed and partly delivered as lectures at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania.’ In his Autobiography, in Chapter 13, ‘America 1938-1944’, he writes: ‘My duties with Dr Barnes began at the New Year of 1941 … I was warned before accepting his offer that he always tired of people before long, so I exacted a five-year contract from him. On December 28th, 1942, I got a letter from him informing me that my appointment was terminated as from January 1st … When my case came into court, Dr Barnes complained that I had done insufficient work for my lectures. So far as they had gone, they consisted of the first two-thirds of my History of Western Philosophy, of which I submitted the manuscript to the judge, though I scarcely suppose he read it. Dr Barnes complained of my treatment of the men whom he called Pither-gawras and Empi-Dokkles. I observed the judge taking notice, and I won my case.’ (Published in the Routledge Classics in 2010, pp. 442-443)

Russell does not explain who Pither-gawras and Empi-Dokkles were meant to be, but if Ctesippus was one of these, Dr Barnes had a point. Russell wrote in his History: ‘Take the following passage from the Euthydemus, in which two Sophists, Dionysodorus and Euthydemus, set to work to puzzle a simple-minded person named Ctesippus.’ For Ctesippus depicted by Plato in his dialogue is anything but simple-minded. In my post on ‘The royal logos in Plato’s Sophist and the royal art in his Euthydemus’ I included a passage in which Ctesippus enters the dialogue:

Socrates was eager to see ‘where the sophists would start in their exhortation to the young man [Cleinias] that he should practice wisdom and virtue (283a3-4). Dionysosorus, the elder of the two brothers, began as follows: ‘Tell me, Socrates and the rest of you who say that you want this young man to become wise, are you in jest or in real earnest?’ When Socrates answered that they were all in profound earnest, Dionysodorus resumed his questioning of Socrates: ‘And so you say that you wish Cleinias to become wise … And he is not wise yet … you wish him to become wise and not ignorant … You wish him to be what he is not, and no longer to be what he is? … You wish him no longer to be what he is, which can only mean that you wish him to perish. Pretty lovers and friends they must be who want their favourite not to be, or to perish.’ Ctesippus angrily interposed: ‘What can make you tell such a lie about me and the others, which I hardly like to repeat, as that I wish Cleinias to perish?’ Euthydemus stepped in: ‘And do you think, Ctesippus, that it is possible to tell a lie?’ – Ctesippus: ‘I should be mad to say anything else.’ – Euthydemus: ‘And in telling a lie, do you tell the thing of which you speak or not? … And he who tells, tells that thing which he tells, and no other? … And that is a distinct thing apart from other things? … And he who says that thing says that which is? … And he who says that which is, says the truth. And therefore Dionysodorus, if he says that which is, says the truth of you and no lie.’ – Ctesippus: ‘But he is saying what is not.’ Euthydemus: ‘And that which is not is not? … And that which is not is nowhere? … And can anyone do anything about that which has no existence, or do to Cleinias that which is not and is nowhere? … Then no one says that which is not, for in saying what is not he would be doing something; and you have already acknowledged that no one can do what is not. And therefore, upon your own showing (hȏste kata ton son logon), no one says what is false (oudeis pseudȇ legei); but if Dionysodorus says anything (all’ eiper legei Dionusodȏros), he says what is true and what is (t’alȇthȇ te kai ta onta legei).’ (283b4-284c6, tr. Jowett)

It is thus in the discussion with Ctesippus that Euthydemus raises the question ‘And do you think, Ctesippus, that it is possible to tell a lie (ȇ dokei soi hoion t’ einai pseudesthai)?’ which becomes the philosophical crux of the dialogue, supported as it is by Euthydemus’ claim – which goes back to Parmenides – that not being is not, which, thus linked, lie in the centre of Plato’s Sophist.

I quoted the given passage in my post before reading Russell’s chapter on ‘Protagoras’; Russell’s verdict on Ctesippus compels me to bring in some more. Ctesippus responded to Euthydemus’ last words as follows: ‘Yes, Euthydemus; but he speaks of things in a certain way and manner (alla ta onta men tropon tina legei), and not as they really are (ou mentoi hȏs echei).’ (284c7-8, tr. Jowett)

I can’t help breaking the flow of the passage, for I must comment on the problem of translation. Jowett translated ta onta at 284c6 – Euthydemus’ last words – as ‘what is’, but in Ctesippus’ response he translates ta onta as ‘things’. To Euthydemus’ ‘but if Dionysodorus says anything (all’ eiper legei Dionusodȏros), he says what is true and what is (t’alȇthȇ te kai ta onta legei)’ Ctesippus replies: ‘But he says “which is” in a certain manner (alla ta onta men tropon tina legei), but not as it is (ou mentoi hȏs echei).’ Of course there is a problem; ta onta is in the plural, ‘what is’ is in the singular.

I can’t help reflecting on ‘Russel’s struggles with certainty’, which I discussed in one of my earlier posts: Russel opened The Problems of Philosophy with a question: ‘Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man can doubt it?’ … Russel wrote in the ‘Postscript’ to his Autobiography that up to the age of thirty-eight he gave most of his energies to finding out whether anything could be known: ‘I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith. I thought that certainty is more likely to be found in mathematics than elsewhere. But I discovered that many mathematical demonstrations, which my teachers expected me to accept, were full of fallacies, and that, if certainty was indeed discoverable in mathematics, it would be in a new kind of mathematics, with more solid foundations than those that had hitherto been thought secure. But as the work proceeded, I was continually reminded of the fable about the elephant and the tortoise. Having constructed an elephant upon which the mathematical world could rest, I found the elephant tottering, and proceeded to construct a tortoise to keep the elephant from falling. But the tortoise was no more secure than the elephant.’

The quest for ‘certainty’ is not alien to the study of the history of philosophy. This quest led me inevitably to my learning English, German, French, Latin, and, most importantly, Ancient Greek. I put ‘certainty’ in quotation marks, for when one is doing one’s best in this field, one is always aware of the uncertainties involved.

Dionysodorus stepped in: ‘Why, Ctesippus, do you mean to say that any one speaks of things as they are?’ – Ct.: ‘Yes, all gentlemen and truth-speaking persons.’ – Dion.: ‘And are not good things good, and evil things evil?’ – Ctesippus assented. – Dion.: ‘And you say that gentlemen speak of things as they are?’ – Ct.: ‘Yes.’ – Dion.: ‘Then the good speak evil (Kakȏs ara legousin hoi agathoi) of evil things (ta kaka), if they speak of them as they are (eiper hȏs echei legousi)?’ [Again a point of translation. Jowett’s ‘Then the good speak evil of evil things’ misses the point, if I get the English right. When Dionysodorus says Kakȏs ara legousin hoi agathoi ta kaka, he means that the ‘good people speak badly’, i.e. incorrectly, ‘of bad things’.] – Ct.: ‘Yes, indeed, and they speak evil of evil men. And if I may give you a piece of advice, you had better take care that they do not speak evil of you, since I can tell you that the evil speak evil of the evil … I love you and am giving you my friendly advice, and, if I could, would persuade you not like a boor to say in my presence that I desire my beloved, whom I value above all men, to perish.’ (284c9-285a1, tr. Jowett)

When later on Socrates showed to the two sophists that their argument denying the possibility of error was self-refuting, Ctesippus was elated: ‘Men of Chios, Thurii, or however and whatever you call yourselves, I wonder at you, for you seem to have no objection to talking nonsense.’ (288a8-b2, tr. Jowett)

Let me end my defence of Ctesippus with the following passage. Socrates: ‘O heavens, Dionysodorus, I see now that you are in earnest; hardly have I got you to that point. And do you really and truly know all things, including carpentering and leather-cutting?’ – Dion.: ‘Certainly.’ – Soc.: ‘And do you know stitching?’ – Dion.: ‘Yes, by the gods, we do, and cobbling too.’ – Soc.: ‘And do you know such things as the number of the stars and of the sand?’ – Dion.: ‘Certainly; did you think we should say no to that?’ – At that point Ctesippus stepped in: ‘By Zeus, I only wish that you would give me some proof which would enable me to know whether you speak truly.’ – Dion.: ‘What proof shall I give you?’ – Ct.: ‘Will you tell me how many teeth Euthydemus has? And Euthydemus shall tell how many teeth you have.’ – Dion.: ’Will you not take our word that we know all things?’ – Ct.: ‘Certainly not, you must further tell us this one thing, and then we shall know that you are speaking the truth; if you tell us the number, and we count them, and you are found to be right, we shall believe the rest.’ (294b1-c10, tr. Jowett)

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