Confronting the Philosophers
Unlike the vast majority of the Platonic dialogues, which feature Socrates as the primary interlocutor, the conversation depicted in Plato's Sophist is led by a Stranger from Elea. While some scholars claim that Socrates' silence throughout the majority of the dialogue and Plato's replacement of Socrates with another philosophic protagonist imply an abandonment of Plato's "earlier," Socratic concerns, careful attention to the Sophist suggests otherwise. In fact, the Sophist appears to be one of the few places in the Platonic corpus where Plato chooses to have two mature philosophers (Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger) confront each other. Plato's dramatic chronology suggests that the conversation depicted in the Sophist takes place the day after Socrates has heard the indictment against him. Thus, the Sophist is part of the series of Platonic dialogues that portray the last days of Socrates--the days leading up to his trial and execution at the hands of the Athenian multitude. At the beginning of the Sophist, Socrates playfully describes the Eleatic Stranger as a cross-examining philosopher-deity who has come to evaluate and judge his philosophical logoi. Additionally, Socrates encourages the Eleatic Stranger to explain the relationship between the philosopher and the sophistic appearance that the philosopher takes on before the ignorant multitude. Socrates remarks imply that while the Athenian demos may not have genuinely understood him, a more accurate inquest can be made by a fellow philosopher. In fact, in the Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger indirectly interrogates the philosophical claims made by Socrates in a variety of other Platonic dialogues. However, the Eleatic Stranger does not simply valorize Socrates' approach to philosophy. While the Eleatic Stranger and Socrates often share similar interests, concerns and conclusions, the Eleatic Stranger is also highly critical of and offers alternatives to some of Socrates' characteristic logoi. In this way, Plato appears to stage a philosophical trial of Socrates in the Sophist--one that encourages his readers to think deeply about the true character of the philosophical life. This dissertation examines the similarities and the differences between Plato's Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger in order to shed light on Plato's own conception of the nature and limits of the philosophical life. It takes the form of a commentary on Plato's Sophist and highlights the conflicts between Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger. Special attention is paid to the Eleatic Stranger and Socrates' disagreements about philosophical methodology and philosophical ontology, both of which are highlighted by the Stranger's critical remarks about Socratic logoi. It is argued that Plato does not side either with the Eleatic Stranger or with Socrates. Instead of simply dismissing one of his philosophical protagonists, Plato encourages his readers to confront both and, thus, begin the investigation of the true nature of philosophy for themselves.