An Excerpt from Plato’s “Philosopher”

A papyrus manuscript, purported to contain a fragment of Plato’s long-lost Philosopher, the sequel to Sophist and Statesman, was recently discovered quite by accident in the library of an old Ribchester manor. A Bag of Raisins has obtained access to a translation and offers it for your edification and amusement:

Eleatic Stranger [? – identity of speaker here inferred from context]: …not even the student of nature in general, for this one is not the philosopher either, but rather again the natural scientist, in the broadest sense of that name.

Young Socrates: That is true.

Eleatic Stranger: Where then shall we seek the philosopher’s art, if the philosopher is neither a type of mathematician nor a type of scientist, and among the scientists, neither a student of nature nor a student of mind?

Young Socrates: It seems that there is nothing left for the philosopher’s art to be. For, having agreed that philosophy was a form of knowing or believing, we examined all the disciplines which could fairly be said to be forms of knowledge or belief, dividing them carefully so as to leave nothing out. Yet the more carefully they were divided, the farther they seemed from the ideal of the true philosopher; but even the broadest categories were concerned with something other than the subject of wisdom itself.

Eleatic Stranger: So it does seem. And yet…

Young Socrates: You have spied another approach?

Eleatic Stranger: Consider this. We have examined all the forms of knowledge that concern themselves with that which is. Perhaps the philosopher’s art is concerned rather with that which is not?

Young Socrates: This is a strange suggestion. Surely, if philosophical knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, it must be concerned with the highest sort of being, and not with nothing.

Eleatic Stranger: This was what we assumed from the outset, and it still seems a noble saying. Yet when all the forms of knowledge concerning that which is are found to be something other than wisdom, the only possibility remaining is that it is a knowing of that which is not, if indeed such a form of knowledge can be said to be at all.

Young Socrates: I am at a loss to know how to proceed. It seems that the head of Protagoras has risen to lecture us once more.

Eleatic Stranger: Then we must be sure to avoid his counsel! But listen, young Socrates. We know that those who maintain beliefs concerning that which is maintain them in the form of sayings, do they not?

Young Socrates: They do.

Eleatic Stranger: In what form then does one maintain a belief concerning that which is not?

Young Socrates: I cannot say.

Eleatic Stranger: How can one maintain a belief in the form of a saying which is not a saying?

Young Socrates (laughs): One cannot…save only in this one way, which your own clever saying shows, o Stranger. One must maintain one’s belief in the form of a contradiction, which says and does not say at the same time.

Eleatic Stranger: Just so. And this, I believe, is the only place left to us to seek the form of knowledge peculiar to the philosopher, in the art of maintaining contradictions.

Young Socrates: Say on.

Eleatic Stranger. So let us consider once again, young Socrates. In what ways might we justly divide the art of maintaining contradictions?

Young Socrates: Are not all contradictions identical in what they say? What divisions are possible here?

Eleatic Stranger: Those concerning, not the content of the contradiction, but the way in which it is maintained. and the purposes to which it is put.

Young Socrates: I see.

Eleatic Stranger: The division of the art of maintaining contradictions is thus fourfold. We must determine, first, with respect to the manner in which the contradiction is maintained, whether seriously or in jest; and second, with respect to the purposes of its maintenance, whether the contradiction is maintained for theoretical or practical purposes, that is, as an adjunct to our understanding of the world, or as aimed at altering our life in that world.

Young Socrates: I understand.

Eleatic Stranger: And now, at last, we are in sight of our quarry.

Young Socrates: Say on.

Eleatic Stranger: The one who maintains contradictions in jest for practical purposes is perhaps the easiest to identify; is he not the joke-teller, the comedian?

Young Socrates: So he is.

Eleatic Stranger: Then who is the one who maintains contradictions in jest for theoretical purposes?

Young Socrates: I am not sure who would do such a thing. Assuming contradictions had any value for the understanding, why would one not maintain them seriously? In truth, I am confused as to how one can ‘maintain contradictions for theoretical purposes’ at all.

Eleatic Stranger: Do you not remember our old friend Gorgias, who argued that “nothing is, and if anything were, one could not think of it, and if anyone could think of anything, they could not speak of it to another”? And who from those beliefs as a foundation claimed authority to teach about all things, and did in fact teach his students how to think and speak about them?

Young Socrates: I do.

Eleatic Stranger: And when pressed, who did not deny that his beliefs were contradictory, but contented himself with confuting us, sometimes with our own arguments turned about, sometimes with skepticism about our premises? And yet this state of utter deprivation in relation to the truth seemed to him satisfactory; indeed he pitied us for our thought that any of these questions might be resolved and for our refusal to simply enjoy the free play of language, and to apply a kind of tactical mastery of that play to debate in the law courts or the seduction of innocents, as it suited us.

Young Socrates: I see now what you are getting at; and this is yet another guise in which we have encountered the Sophist. For it is he, the rhetorician, who maintains contradictions in jest for theoretical purposes.

Eleatic Stranger: So it is. But now I ask you to consider the serious maintainers of contradictions.

Young Socrates: A strange lot indeed, who maintain seriously something which cannot be true.

Eleatic Stranger: So they are. And yet, many of the most profound minds of humanity, men who have not succumbed to frivolity and who persist in their belief that something higher binds and guides us, reside in these groups.

Young Socrates: Let us discover then who they are.

Eleatic Stranger: Those who maintain contradictions seriously for practical purposes are generally religious men of sincere belief. They will say, for instance, that there are beings utterly beyond the world who act in the world, or that beings with an origin in divine goodness can create evil, and things of this sort. When confronted with the puzzles these ways of talking engender, such men will argue with you for a time; but eventually when driven into a corner they will not give up their belief, simply claiming that such things are mysteries that must be believed, that we will perhaps understand when our souls enter into the truth after death, but which are in a way beyond us to fully comprehend in this world.

Young Socrates: Some of our circle make fun of such men, for their poor arguments and unwillingness to be led past a certain point by reason.

Eleatic Stranger: I know those of whom you speak. For myself, I consider it ignoble to mock anyone of sincere commitment, especially since the more intelligent of these men are perfectly well aware where reason leaves off and mystery begins, so to speak. But tell me, is not mystic a suitable name for this type, he who maintains a contradiction seriously for practical purposes?

Young Socrates: It is suitable enough, although in truth many religious men of ordinary temperament would also fit the description, were they not overcome by shame at the apparent difficulties which pertain to their way of speech.

Eleatic Stranger: So indeed. At last, then, we reach our quarry, the philosopher. If the comedian is he who maintains contradictions in jest for practical purposes, and the sophist he who maintains them in jest for theoretical purposes, and the mystic he who maintains them seriously for practical purposes, that leaves just one quadrant open.

Young Socrates: And is this where we find our philosopher?

Eleatic Stranger: So it is: the philosopher is he who maintains contradictions seriously for theoretical purposes.

Young Socrates: This has the ring of truth; and yet it is a hard saying to understand.

Theaetetus: More than hard! For what serious theoretical purpose can maintaining a contradiction serve? One can understand the viewpoint of the rhetoricians, who seek only local advantage in contests of words, and view the contradiction now as a useful tool, now as a dangerous trap to be avoided, yet never one to be taken seriously with respect to its content. Yet surely the philosopher, the one possessed of wisdom, will not maintain a saying which says nothing, for the purposes of understanding. Perhaps you yourself are one of these rhetoricians, o Stranger of Elea, if you lead us down this path in jest.

Eleatic Stranger: No jest, young Theaetetus. But consider your master Socrates here. He is well known for bringing out the contradictory beliefs of those who come to him for wisdom, and for showing them that contrary to what they thought they are saying nothing at all. Yet in order to do this he must maintain their contradictions seriously long enough to make it clear to those who maintain them that they are contradictions – that they may see their opposed ideas as the ‘wind eggs’ they are.

Theaetetus: That much is true.

Eleatic Stranger: So here is the serious theoretical purpose to which maintaining a contradiction can be put: to show someone else who maintains that contradiction that there is actually no content to their own belief, and that the sayings they maintain say nothing at all.

Socrates: You are wise, Eleatic Stranger: but in this, I think, your wisdom seems peculiarly one-sided.

Eleatic Stranger: How so?

Socrates: You have indeed divined part of my art, and if you wish to call it the philosopher’s art, I will for the time being not object. And yet the way you characterize it cannot be correct.

Eleatic Stranger: Why not?

Socrates: You say that, as a philosopher, what I do is to draw out people’s contradictory beliefs, and maintain them in a way that shows them contradictory, so that the one who believes those things might realize them to be empty, and leave off believing them?

Eleatic Stranger: So I do.

Socrates: What then do you say about my own state of mind as I do this?

Eleatic Stranger: What do I need to say, beyond what I have already said? I have described your purposes, your manner, and the content of what you maintain all three.

Socrates: I think that you will not escape Theaetetus’ objection so easily as he was willing to let you off. For consider this. You say that I ‘maintain contradictions seriously for theoretical purposes.’ Yet if I know they are contradictions, how can I maintain them seriously at all? In this case, although my aim differs from what Protagoras, Gorgias, and their ilk are doing, nonetheless I do not maintain the contradiction seriously in my employment of it for theoretical purposes. No, in this case I am a kind of a rhetorician of the good, maintaining contradictions in jest for the benefit, I imagine, of those who speak with me.

Eleatic Stranger: I suppose it is so.

Socrates: Then further consider this. Let us say that this supposition is wrong, and that in spite of the oddity of maintaining a belief I know to be false, I somehow do so. You have granted that one practicing the philosopher’s art as you characterize it does not seek to impart this belief, but rather aims at a change in the character of his interlocutor, namely, to bring them from ignorance of their ignorance to knowledge of their ignorance, or something to that effect. Is this not so?

Eleatic Stranger: It is.

Socrates: And is the effecting of a change in someone’s character a theoretical or a practical purpose?

Eleatic Stranger: We would have to say practical.

Socrates: So in this case again the speaker you imagine, whether myself or someone else, does not fall into the category of philosopher, but that of mystic.

Eleatic Stranger: So it would seem.

Socrates: I think you will find, o Stranger, that if we follow your proposed divisions anyone who appears to be practicing the philosophical art must turn out to be either rhetorician or mystic. Nor does it seem likely that we will find one who is an exception to this rule; for one who genuinely believed a contradiction and sought to maintain it seriously for theoretical purposes would want to convince others of its truth, which would mean that he did not know it to be a contradiction at all, but rather thought it plainly true; and in so thinking presumably thought himself some sort of mathematician or scientist, all of which types you quite ably proved to be something other than practitioners of the philosophical art.

Eleatic Stranger: For the time being I can muster no response.

Socrates: It was inevitable that we should wind up here, having assigned the knowledge of the good to a subsection of the sciences of mind. For only with some prior accounting of the good could we distinguish between the philosopher’s art and the rhetorician’s. Let us therefore reconsider the path we took….

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3 comments on “An Excerpt from Plato’s “Philosopher”

  1. Lynette says:

    The Tractatus nonsense-debate, channelled by Socrates, Theaetetus, and the Eleatic Stranger. And the explanation for why the Philosopher dialogue is missing. I love this!

  2. Sara Ahbel Rappe says:

    Yet what prevents Socrates from following the path of the mystic? In this way, the Socratic aspect of the dialogues are equivalent to the Buddhist, “Sutranta” and the technical Platonic material is the equivalent of the “Abhidharma,” or analysis of experience.
    Very well written!

  3. seancstidd says:

    Hi! I like your parallels to the Sutta and Abidhamma Pitaka. Maybe we should draft Xenophon’s Socrates as the Vinaya for householders.

    ‘Mysticism’ is one of those words one can take a lot of different approaches to….

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