In 366 B.C. Plato returned to Athens after a year in Syracuse where he attempted to turn the tyrant Dionysius II to philosophy; he was to return to Sicily in a year to resume his instruction of Dionysius. During his year in Athens he wrote the Parmenides for his disciples in the Academy to protect his theory of Forms. When his stay in Athens became protracted, the Parmenides was to fulfil its protective function in relation to Dionysius. In the Second Letter Plato exhorted Dionysius to compare and examine his thought and work with that of the sophists surrounding him, looking at them side by side (paratheȏmenos, 313c8), ‘if the examination is going to be true, my things will grow on you’ (prosphusetai). In ‘Plato’s involvement with Dionysius’, on which I work at present, I have argued that after the Parmenides Plato wrote the Symposium, presenting Dionysius with a gem that could not be matched by anything the sophists could offer him. As Plato’s stay in Athens protracted further, he decided to take on his detractors in the Sophist. The definition of the sophist with which he ends the dialogue corresponds to this purpose: The sophist’s art consists of contradiction-making (enantiopoiologikȇ), which is a kind of insincere conceited mimicry (eirȏnikou merous tȇs doxastikȇs mimȇtikon, 268c8-9), for the sophist appears to know everything, because he has mastered the art of contradicting experts in every field of human knowledge (232e-233c). On the way to this definition Plato made points which have little to do with his arriving at it.
In ‘Plato’s involvement with Dionysius’ I argue that Plato wrote four dialogues in between his return to Athens from Sicily in 366 B.C. and his departure to Sicily in 361 B.C.: Parmenides, Symposium, Sophist, and Statesman. The Parmenides with its defence of Plato’s theory of Forms is the basis to which the subsequent dialogues are all linked. The whole point of the Parmenides is to show that the arguments Parmenides had raised against the Forms were falsities (Parm. 133b7), and what he was offering to Socrates was not conducive to philosophy. Parmenides ends his criticism of the theory of Forms in the Parmenides by suggesting to the young Socrates that he should train himself in what is regarded as adoleschia, ‘idle talk.’ (Parm. 135d) The Eleatic Stranger opens his task of defining the sophist with a series of definitions in the last but one of which adoleschia comes to the fore as part of the art of eristic; the sophist differs from the adoleschikos, the man of ‘idle talk’, only in so far as he earns his money by his disputations, whereas the adoleschikos neglects his own affairs and gets impoverished because of his delight in disputations (Soph. 225c-d). The negative light in which adoleschia is presented in the Sophist sheds negative light over Parmenides’ advice to Socrates in the Parmenides. This aspect of the Sophist comes even more prominently to the fore in the Stranger’s next and last provisional definition, where he defines the sophistic art as the art of purifying:
‘Some appear to have arrived at the conclusion that all ignorance is involuntary, and that no one who thinks himself wise is willing to learn any of those things in which he is conscious of his own cleverness … They cross-examine a man’s words, when he thinks he is saying something and is really saying nothing, and easily convict him of inconsistencies in his opinions; these they then collect by the dialectical process, and placing them side by side, show that they contradict one another about the same things, in relation to the same things, and in the same respect.’ (Soph. 230a5-b8, tr. Jowett)
Jowett’s ‘these they then collect by the dialectical process’ stands for Plato’s sunagontes tois logois; i.e. bringing together by means of logoi, that is ‘in discussion’. There is no reference to ‘the dialectical process’ in Plato’s text; Plato in the dialogue reserves the term ‘dialectical’ for knowledge of the Philosopher (253c8) who ‘necessarily proceeds with knowledge (met’ epistȇmȇs) in the path of argument (Jowett’s fine translation of Plato’s dia tȏn logȏn, 253b9-10); the Philosopher has dialektikȇ epistȇmȇ ‘dialectical knowledge’ (253d2-3).’
The Stranger’s reference to adoleschia in the preceding definition of the sophist pointed to the Parmenides, and so does his characterization of the sophist’s art as the art of purification, consisting of refutation, elenchus. The Stranger elaborates: ‘The purifier of the soul is conscious that his patient will receive no benefit from the application of knowledge until he is refuted, and from refutation learns modesty (prin an elenchȏn tis ton elenchomenon eis aischunȇn katastȇsas)’ (230c-d, tr. Jowett). In the preamble to the Sophist, when Theodorus introduces the Eleatic Stranger to Socrates as ‘a disciple of Parmenides and Zeno’, Socrates is apprehensive: ‘May not your companion be one of those higher powers, a cross-examining deity (theos ȏn tis elenktikos), who has come to spy out our weakness in argument (phaulous ontas en tois logois epopsomenos), and to cross-examine us (te kai elenxȏn)?’ (216b3-6, tr. Jowett)
Parmenides subjected the young Socrates to severe elenchus, which he never succeeded to fully overcome, although he succeeded in transforming adoleschia suggested by Parmenides into something specifically Socratic. Parmenides told Socrates that he must examine the consequences that follow from any given hypothesis, ‘not only if each thing is hypothesized to be, but also if that same thing is hypothesized not to be’ (135e9-136a2). Socrates perfected this into the art of elenchus, eliciting a thesis from his interlocutor and then leading him in discussion (tois logois) to negate the very same thesis.
Although the Stranger classifies elenchus as a sophistic art, he emphasizes its benefit: ‘We must admit that refutation is the greatest and chiefest of purifications, and he who has not been refuted, though he be the Great King (basileus ho megas) himself, is in an awful state of impurity; he is uninstructed and deformed in those things in which he who would be truly blessed ought to be fairest and purest.’ (230d6-e3, tr. Jowett) Speaking of the Great King, i.e. the King of Persia, Plato in my view speaks to Dionysius. For in the Second Letter he refers to Dionysius’ complaint that he did not explain to him ‘the nature of the First’. He reminds him how it was when he tried to explain it to him ‘in the garden under the laurels’. For when he revealed to him the nature of the First, ‘the King of All, for whose sake all things are, and which is the cause of all things that are beautiful’, Dionysius declared that he had formed this notion himself and that it was the discovery of his own (313a6-b1): ‘So then, after you had either, as is probable, got the true solution from someone else – [the King of All is identical with the Good of the Republic] – or had possibly (by Heaven’s favour) hit on it yourself, you fancied you had a firm grip on the proofs of it, and so you omitted to make them fast; thus your view of the truth sways now this way, now that, round about the apparent object; whereas the true object is totally different.’ (313b3-c1, tr. Bury)
In the Sophist, the Stranger is chary of ascribing elenchus to the sophists ‘Lest we should assign to them too high a prerogative’ (231a3, tr. Jowett). But he marks it as such, for the purifier of the soul moves with his elenchus within the realm of not-knowing, and thus in the darkness of not being (tou mȇ einai skoteinotȇs, 254a4-5). Elenchus as such does not lead to the realm of light, to knowledge of truth, to the Forms; at his trial, in the Apology Socrates associates his art of elenchus with his philosophic not-knowing (Ap. 20c4-24b2). In the Symposium Diotima takes recourse to elenchus at the beginning of her intercourse with Socrates; she must remove from his soul his mistaken notion of Eros. But after that, elenchus plays no part in the ascent to the Form of Beauty, which she outlines. The ascent culminates in a sudden vision of Beauty (210e). Diotima doubts whether Socrates would ever attain this stage (209e5-210a2).