I once read or heard, and I don’t remember who said it (for some reason, I think it was a podcast of Fr. Thomas Hopko; if anyone has heard it, please let me know the source), that we can consider that our minds are similar to a room. The pieces of furniture in these rooms are ideas—not the Platonic ones, but ideas that we form by our interaction with the environment. During a human life, even if we speak of wealthy young men, as the Stranger calls them in the Sophist, these ideas shape the room. Because of their various source, they often do not match, just as when we buy furniture at different moments in time and from different stores without considering what we have previously bought and what we have inherited or received as a gift. Since a mentioned The Sophist, the purpose of a sophist seems to be to create more stuff that humans can buy, so that their souls are filled even further. The effect is disastrous for a human being: it is the ignorance of the worse kind, when someone has no knowledge but believes one knows. One becomes one’s own god. Filling one’s room with more and more furniture, one can no longer see outside it and is no longer able to come out of the door, for there is no door: it has been covered with pieces of furniture. There are no windows, for they have been covered as well by the multitude of the pieces of furniture that populate the room.
This image is that of a hoarder, but one who is not aware of one’s own hoarderness. It is also the manifestation of a disease and of ugliness, and so we may say that one needs purification. But a sophist, at least according to Plato’s dialogue The Sophist, does not consider curing the people he interacts with. It would be in his disadvantage to do so. He is not a hoarder, but he is producing that which the hoarder buys. The main difference between him an a consumer is that a sophist realizes what the soul is: a place for ideas. In order to get ahead in this world, he creates them. He brings them to life, and he makes others live in them. If he is a good merchant, he needs to understand how his customers work, and their hoarderness makes his business thrive. Confusion and lack of clarity provide his element and, as consequence, he is hard to be grasped, because he has learned to be anything. As we see in Plato’s The Sophist, even if the impression is that consumers deal with him, they deal only with his appearance, and so they get entangled within a world that is not.
But then there is the one who engages in refutation. In The Sophist, this guy seems to be a sophist as well, for he engages in the art of refutation, the elenchus, the “greatest and most authoritative of purifications” (230d). It is the Socratic art of questioning, which he examines opinions with ease, brings them together in the same place, puts them side by side one another, “and in so putting them he shows that the opinions are simultaneously contrary to themselves about the same things in regard to the same things in the same respects” (230b). Or that we are hoarders. The art of purification has beauty as result. As the Stranger puts it, “one must hold in turn that whoever’s unrefuted, even if he is in fact the great king, if he is unpurified in the greatest things, has become uneducated and ugly in those things in which it was fitting for whoever will be in his being happy to be purest and most beautiful” (230d-e).
Is the refuter a sophist? He appears as one who engages in debates for the sake of debating. How often do we hear that Socrates is just a guy who likes to hear himself talking and who engages in fruitless discussion? I, for one, hear this too often. It shows how easy it is to perceive the work of refutation as the work of sophistry. After all, the Stranger claims in the dialogue that the philosopher and the sophist are both difficult to see vividly, so there is a connection, but in two different ways. “The philosopher,” he says, “devoted to the idea of that which is always through calculations, it’s on account of the brilliance of the place that he’s in no way easy to be seen, for the eyes of the soul of the many are incapable of keeping up a steady gaze on the divine” (254a; I’m using Seth Bernadette’s translation). The sophist is “a fugitive into the darkling of ‘that which is not,’ to which he attaches himself by a knack, and on account of the darkness of the region, he’s hard to get an understanding of” (254a). So perhaps the purpose of each could not be more opposed. Refutation fills not with ideas; instead, it cleanses the soul of them. It shows that all of these pieces of furniture do not match, that our rooms are ugly, regardless of the beauty of any piece of furniture that we may have there by mistake. On the contrary, sophistry creates more and more stuff and encourages a consumer society.
So perhaps there are two activities for a philosopher: refutation and dialectics. What connects them is that a philosopher is in both of them the agent of bringing to light that which is already present. In the case of refutation, it is the disease that is revealed so that it can be eliminated. A philosopher would not replace the previous stuff with anything else. In Socrates’ words from the Meno, he numbs others because he is numb himself. But even if his numbness is not to be understood as complete emptiness, a philosopher knows that what he has is not his. He rather has the privilege to discover it. And, through refutation, he places others in the possibility to discover it themselves, or to engage in dialectic. For in dialectic, a philosopher no longer interacts with others, but seems to be rather by himself, in a work of contemplation in the region of the divine, where one brings nothing with oneself because everything is already present, although in a hidden manner. Dialectic reveals the beauty of eternal ideas.
A philosopher and a sophist then both work with the souls of others, at least when dialectic is not involved. In their interactions with them, something happens: something comes to be. The lack of interest for truth in a sophist and also the presence of some awareness about how to catch others make the sophist produce that which is not so that it can be sold. The love for truth in a philosopher sends him into a work of revealing: first, revealing disease in those who have consumed not-being, second revealing beauty, even if it cannot be seen if one has not submitted oneself to refutation. It is, after all, a manifestation of material culture for a philosopher seems to become the incarnation of the region of the forms: if they are to be visible, they are visible in him. He has a grasp of the divine and he possibly manifests it. A sophist, having no grasp of the divine, presents himself as such, but does so to the level of perception of others. Perhaps it is this way: if we study them, we realize that philosophers and sophists are hard to be grasped. A philosopher reveals things, and, by consequence, he is not seen because of the brilliance of the region that is revealed. The sophist produces things, and by consequence is not seen because of the darkness of the region that he produces.
It’s the first Sunday of lent, and I spend it in traveling from a conference on Greek philosophy. A bit ironic, I would say. It is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in which people bring icons, to celebrate the faith. Icons that somehow make the Kingdom present. And I talked about the sophist, who instead of making the Kingdom present, that is, allowing it to come to life in him, creates images and presents them as the real Kingdom. The Sophist as a clarification between iconodules and iconoclasts… The iconoclasts rejecting the iconodules because, ironically, they do not accept the possibility of speech. And it really is ironic, for doing so they speak from the realm of non-being.
Isn’t life in dialectic tuning yourself to the music of the ideas? Or perhaps singing like a bird, and so allowing the Song to come to be in your particular voice?