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Jun 12, 2019

Belief in the Obvious

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Joshua Harris

Joshua Lee Harris

The King's University

Joshua Lee Harris specializes in the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

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Belief in the Obvious

Lessons from Plato’s Sophist

Sophist is perhaps one of those few terms in public discourse that retain something of their original currency, as expressed in the writings of ancient philosophers. When we accuse others of sophistry (and it is always others), we know more or less what we mean: clever obfuscation, lying, trickery, “fake news,” and so on. Sophistry is the art of the garrulous, so to speak—a concerted, skillful effort to make something false appear as something true, to make what is not seem like what is, “to make the weaker argument the stronger.”

Narcissus Caravaggio 1594 96 Edited

Narcissus, Caravaggio, circa 1594

The credulous person is the sophist’s prey. In fact, credulity is a condition of possibility for successful sophistry to exist in the first place. After all, you cannot deceive someone who does not believe what you are saying.

At least, this is how things seem.

In an especially weighty part of their heroic quest to “hunt” the sophist (i.e., to successfully define his true “nature” and “art”), young Theaetetus and the unnamed Stranger of Plato’s Sophist find themselves on the wrong end of a “counter attack” (Sophist, 239d). The young philosopher and his newfound mentor have just penetrated the enemy’s line, for it seemed as though the sophist would be found (among other places) in the identification of his distinctive art—namely, the “art … of making appearances,” or the art of crafting falsehoods that appear to be truths in the way that an image appears to be an original (239c).

This seems reasonable enough. Yet, being older and wiser than his green counterpart, the Stranger senses danger. Indeed, he anticipates the sophist’s ready reply to this otherwise compelling definition:

If we say [the sophist] has an art, as it were, of making appearances, he will easily take advantage of our poverty of terms [χρεία τῶν λόγων ] to make a counter attack, twisting our words to the opposite meaning; when we call him an image-maker [εἰδωλοποιός], he will ask us what we mean by “image” [εἴδωλον] , exactly. (239c–d)

Naïve Theaetetus is taken aback by his mentor’s apparent paranoia. “Obviously,” the bold youth replies, “we mean the images in water and in mirrors, and those in paintings, too, and sculptures, and all the other things of the same sort” (239d). In other words, says Theaetetus, the term image is easy enough to grasp from these particular examples. If one wants to know what an image is, one need only see. But again, the Stranger anticipates the sophist’s decisive counterstrike:

When you give this answer, if you speak of something in mirrors or works of art, he will laugh at your words [καταγελάσεταί σου τῶν λόγων], when you talk to him as if he could see. He will feign ignorance of mirrors and water and of sight altogether, and will question you only about that which is deduced from words [ἐκ τῶν λόγων]. (239e–240a)

We modern people—to the extent that we are modern—are intimately familiar with sophistry. We know the despair, embarrassment, and (sometimes) suffering that follow upon hearing something false and believing it to be true. We take measures to avoid it, nobly and rigorously shielding ourselves from the products of this deceitful art, with the comforting canopy of the scientific enterprise and its immense powers of precision with respect to what counts as true and false. Never before have we had so much control over what can be “deduced from words”—that is, that tenuous but necessary distance between what truly is and is not. We are incredulous by default, and thus immune to the sophist’s art, as stated.

But there is more to the story here.

By wielding the weapon of incredulity so fluently that it becomes our distinctively modern “second nature,” there is another, equally pernicious evil to which we unwittingly expose ourselves. This danger is that of receiving something true and believing it to be false.

Theaetetus is confused by the Stranger’s warnings about the sophist. After all, isn’t it clear what an image is? What he does not realize is that an image is, by definition, something that is and is not what it depicts. When Theaetetus peers downward and recognizes his face in the fabled Ilissos stream bed (see Phaedrus, 229a), he is “obviously” looking at himself. His young, perplexed demeanor is anything but mysterious. Yet, equally obviously, he is looking at something that is not himself. After all, Theaetetus is not his reflection—he is what his reflection reflects.

From the perspective of “that which is deduced from words,” the very notion of an image verges on the self-contradictory. Again, an image is and is not its original. That is, its very being threatens the incredulous intellect’s sacred division between what is clearly true and clearly false—between what clearly is and is not. Thus, armed solely with his weapon of choice, the sophist can only “feign ignorance” at what is obviously true. The obvious confounds the sophist.

What Plato teaches in this passage is also what great religious traditions at their best have observed consistently for centuries, beautifully and relentlessly. Spiritual mysteries are, in a sense, obvious. Recognizing a grandmother’s face in her child’s child, remembering her wit and wisdom after she has passed, loving her as a gift of the divine in which all things participate as images—the examples are legion. She is in her child’s child, but of course she is not. The creation is divine (as image), and of course it is not. We are reluctant to see beyond—or rather, see before—our interminable guard of incredulity. And accordingly, we are not just victims of sophistry. We have become sophists ourselves.

Whatever future our common humanity may have (or not have), it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it will depend intimately upon our ability to resist this subtler sophistry—a fortiori if our time is itself a “moving image of eternity” (Timaeus, 37d).


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