What Performative Contradiction Reveals: Plato’s Theaetetus and Gorgias on Sophistry
2. Performative Contradiction in Plato’s Theaetetus
Well, I was delighted with his general statement of the theory that a thing is for any individual what it seems to him to be [ὡς τὸ δοκοῦν ἑκάστῳ τοῦτο καὶ ἔστιν]; but I was astonished [τεθαύμακα] at the way he began—namely, that he did not state at the beginning of the Truth that ‘Pig is the measure of all things,’ or ‘Baboon’ or some yet more outlandish creature with the power of perception [τι ἄλλο ἀτοπώτερον τῶν ἐχόντων αἴσθησιν] … It would have made it clear [ἐνδεικνύμενος] to us that, while we were standing astounded at his wisdom as though he were a god [ὥσπερ θεὸν ἐθαυμάζομεν ἐπὶ σοφίᾳ], he happened to be in reality no better positioned in his wisdom [ἐτύγχανεν ὢν εἰς φρόνησιν οὐδὲν βελτίων] than a tadpole—let alone any other human being [βατράχου γυρίνου, μὴ ὅτι ἄλλου του ἀνθρώπων]. Or what are we to say, Theodorus?(161c–d)14
If whatever the individual judges by means of perception is true for him [εἰ γὰρ δὴ ἑκάστῳ ἀληθὲς ἔσται ὃ ἂν δι᾽ αἰσθήσεως δοξάζῃ]; if no man can assess another’s experience better than he [καὶ μήτε τὸ ἄλλου πάθος ἄλλος βέλτιον διακρινεῖ], or can claim authority to examine another man’s judgment and see if it be right or wrong [μήτε τὴν δόξαν κυριώτερος ἔσται ἐπισκέψασθαι ἕτερος τὴν ἑτέρου ὀρθὴ ἢ ψευδής]; if, as we have repeatedly said, only the individual himself can judge of his own world [αὐτὸς τὰ αὑτοῦ ἕκαστος μόνος δοξάσει], and what he judges is always true and correct [ταῦτα δὲ πάντα ὀρθὰ καὶ ἀληθῆ]: how could it ever be, my friend, that Protagoras was a wise man [σοφός], so wise as to think himself fit to be the teacher of other men [ὥστε καὶ ἄλλων διδάσκαλος ἀξιοῦσθαι δικαίως] and worth large fees; while we, in comparison with him the ignorant ones [ἀμαθέστεροί], needed to go and sit at his feet—we who are ourselves each the measure of his own wisdom [ἡμῖν … μέτρῳ ὄντι αὐτῷ ἑκάστῳ τῆς αὑτοῦ σοφίας]?(161d–e)
Can we avoid the conclusion that Protagoras was just playing to the crowd [δημούμενον] when he said this? I say nothing about my own case and my art of midwifery and how ridiculous we look [ὅσον γέλωτα ὀφλισκάνομεν]. So too, the whole business of philosophical discussion [καὶ σύμπασα ἡ τοῦ διαλέγεσθαι πραγματεία], examining and trying to refute each other’s appearances and judgments [τὸ γὰρ ἐπισκοπεῖν καὶ ἐπιχειρεῖν ἐλέγχειν τὰς ἀλλήλων φαντασίας τε καὶ δόξας], when each person’s are correct [ὀρθὰς ἑκάστου οὔσας]—this is surely an extremely tiresome piece of nonsense [φλυαρία], if the Truth of Protagoras is true, and not merely an oracle speaking in jest from the impenetrable sanctuary of the book [ἀλλὰ μὴ παίζουσα ἐκ τοῦ ἀδύτου τῆς βίβλου ἐφθέγξατο].(161e–162a)
Each of these private teachers who work for pay, whom the politicians call sophists and regard as their rivals, inculcates nothing else than these opinions of the multitude which they opine when they are assembled [μὴ ἄλλα παιδεύειν ἢ ταῦτα τὰ τῶν πολλῶν δόγματα, ἃ δοξάζουσιν ὅταν ἁθροισθῶσιν] and calls this knowledge wisdom [καὶ σοφίαν ταύτην καλεῖν]. It is as if a man were acquiring the knowledge of the humors and desires of a great strong beast which he had in his keeping, how it is to be approached and touched, and when and by what things it is made most savage or gentle, yes, and the several sounds [φωνὰς] it is wont to utter [φθέγγεσθαι] on the occasion of each … knowing nothing in reality about which of these opinions and desires is honorable or base, good or evil, just or unjust, but should apply all these terms to the judgements of the great beast, calling the things that pleased it good, and the things that vexed it bad, having no other account to render of them … Does it not seem to you that such a one would be a strange educator [ἄτοπος ἄν σοι δοκεῖ εἶναι παιδευτής]?(493a–c).20
I take my stand on the truth being as I have written it. Each one of us is the measure both of what is and of what is not [μέτρον γὰρ ἕκαστον ἡμῶν εἶναι τῶν τε ὄντων καὶ μή]; but there are countless differences between men just for this very reason, that different things both are and appear [ἔστι τε καὶ φαίνεται] to be to different subjects. I certainly do not deny the existence of both wisdom and wise men—far from it. But the man that I call wise is the man who in any case where bad things both appear and are for one of us, works a change and makes good things appear and be for him [μεταβάλλων ποιήσῃ ἀγαθὰ φαίνεσθαί τε καὶ εἶναι] … What we have to do is to make a change from the one to the other, because the other state is better. In education too what we have to do is to change a worse state into a better state; only whereas the doctor brings about the change by the use of drugs, the sophist does it by the use of words [ἀλλ᾽ ὁ μὲν ἰατρὸς φαρμάκοις μεταβάλλει, ὁ δὲ σοφιστὴς λόγοις]. What never happens is that a man who judges what is false is made to judge what is true. For it is impossible to judge what is not, or to judge anything other than what one is immediately experiencing [παρ᾽ ἃ ἂν πάσχῃ]; and what one is immediately experiencing is always true [ταῦτα δὲ ἀεὶ ἀληθῆ] … Similarly, the wise and good orator is the man who makes wholesome things seem just [δίκαια δοκεῖν] to a city instead of pernicious ones. Whatever in any city is regarded as just and admirable is just and admirable; but the wise man replaces each pernicious convention by a wholesome one [χρηστὰ], making this both be and seem so [ἐποίησεν εἶναι καὶ δοκεῖν]. By the same token the sophist who is able to educate his pupils along these lines is a wise man, and is worth his large fees to them [κατὰ δὲ τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον καὶ ὁ σοφιστὴς τοὺς παιδευομένους οὕτω δυνάμενος παιδαγωγεῖν σοφός τε καὶ ἄξιος πολλῶν χρημάτων τοῖς παιδευθεῖσιν]. In this way we are enabled to hold both that some men are wiser than others, and also that no man judges what is false [καὶ οὕτω σοφώτεροί τέ εἰσιν ἕτεροι ἑτέρων καὶ οὐδεὶς ψευδῆ δοξάζει]. And you, too, whether you like it or not, must put up with being a ‘measure.’(166d–67d)
Well, then, Protagoras, we too are expressing how it seems to a man—I might say, to all men [καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀνθρώπου, μᾶλλον δὲ πάντων ἀνθρώπων δόξας λέγομεν]—when we say that there is no one in the world who doesn’t believe that in some matters he is wiser than other men, while in other matters they are wiser than he [καὶ φαμὲν οὐδένα ὅντινα οὐ τὰ μὲν αὑτὸν ἡγεῖσθαι τῶν ἄλλων σοφώτερον, τὰ δὲ ἄλλους ἑαυτοῦ]. In emergencies—if at no other time—you see this belief. When they are in distress, on the battlefield, or in sickness or in a storm at sea, all men turn to their leaders in each sphere as to God, and look to them for salvation because they are superior in precisely this one thing—knowledge [οὐκ ἄλλῳ τῳ διαφέροντας ἢ τῷ εἰδέναι]. And all the world of human beings is full of people seeking teachers and masters for themselves and for other living creatures and for works/deeds [καὶ πάντα που μεστὰ τἀνθρώπινα ζητούντων διδασκάλους τε καὶ ἄρχοντας ἑαυτῶν τε καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων τῶν τε ἐργασιῶν]; and on the other side, there are those who believe that they are competent to teach and competent to lead [οἰομένων τε αὖ ἱκανῶν μὲν διδάσκειν, ἱκανῶν δὲ ἄρχειν εἶναι]. In all these cases, what else can we say but that men do believe in the existence of both wisdom and ignorance among themselves [αὐτοὺς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἡγεῖσθαι σοφίαν καὶ ἀμαθίαν εἶναι παρὰ σφίσιν]? … And they believe that wisdom is true thinking, while ignorance is a matter of false judgment [οὐκοῦν τὴν μὲν σοφίαν ἀληθῆ διάνοιαν ἡγοῦνται, τὴν δὲ ἀμαθίαν ψευδῆ δόξαν]? [Theodorus answers affirmatively.] What then, Protagoras, are we to make of your argument [τί οὖν, ὦ Πρωταγόρα, χρησόμεθα τῷ λόγῳ;]? Are we to say that all men, on every occasion, judge what is true? Or that they judge sometimes truly and sometimes falsely [ἢ τοτὲ μὲν ἀληθῆ, τοτὲ δὲ ψευδῆ;]? Whichever we say, it comes to the same thing, namely, that men do not always judge what is true; that human judgments are both true and false [μὴ ἀεὶ ἀληθῆ ἀλλ᾽ ἀμφότερα αὐτοὺς δοξάζειν].(170a–c)
It will be disputed, then, by everyone, beginning with Protagoras [ἐξ ἁπάντων ἄρα ἀπὸ Πρωταγόρου ἀρξαμένων ἀμφισβητήσεται]—or rather, it will be admitted by him [ὑπό γε ἐκείνου ὁμολογήσεται], when he grants to the person who contradicts him that he judges truly [ὅταν τῷ τἀναντία λέγοντι συγχωρῇ ἀληθῆ αὐτὸν δοξάζειν]—when he does that, even Protagoras himself will be granting that neither dog nor the ‘man in the street’ is the measure of anything at all which he has not learned [τότε καὶ ὁ Πρωταγόρας αὐτὸς συγχωρήσεται μήτε κύνα μήτε τὸν ἐπιτυχόντα ἄνθρωπον μέτρον εἶναι μηδὲ περὶ ἑνὸς οὗ ἂν μὴ μάθῃ] … Then since it is disputed by everyone [ἀμφισβητεῖται ὑπὸ πάντων], the Truth of Protagoras is not true for anyone at all, not even for himself [οὐδενὶ ἂν εἴη ἡ Πρωταγόρου Ἀλήθεια ἀληθής, οὔτε τινὶ ἄλλῳ οὔτ᾽ αὐτῷ ἐκείνῳ]?(171b–c)
3. Performative Contradiction in Plato’s Gorgias
I call it the ability to persuade with speeches [τὸ πείθειν ἔγωγ᾽ οἷόν τ᾽ εἶναι τοῖς λόγοις] either judges in the lawcourts or statesmen in the council-chamber or the commons in the Assembly or an audience at any other meeting that may be held on public affairs. And I tell you that by virtue of this power you will have the doctor as your slave [ἐν ταύτῃ τῇ δυνάμει δοῦλον μὲν ἕξεις τὸν ἰατρόν], and the trainer as your slave; your money-getter will turn out to be making money not for himself, but for another—in fact, for you, who are able to speak and persuade the multitude [ἀλλὰ σοὶ τῷ δυναμένῳ λέγειν καὶ πείθειν τὰ πλήθη].(452e)
4. Conclusions: What Performative Contradiction Reveals
They cross-examine someone when he thinks he’s saying something though he’s saying nothing [διερωτῶσιν ὧν ἂν οἴηταί τίς τι πέρι λέγειν λέγων μηδέν] … They collect his opinions together during the discussion, put them side by side [καὶ συνάγοντες δὴ τοῖς λόγοις εἰς ταὐτὸν τιθέασι παρ᾽ ἀλλήλας], and show [ἐπιδεικνύουσιν] that they conflict with each other at the same time on the same subjects in relation to the same things and in the same respects. The people who are being examined see this, get angry at themselves, and become calmer toward others [οἱ δ᾽ ὁρῶντες ἑαυτοῖς μὲν χαλεπαίνουσι, πρὸς δὲ τοὺς ἄλλους ἡμεροῦνται]. They are set free from their inflated and rigid beliefs about themselves that way [καὶ τούτῳ δὴ τῷ τρόπῳ τῶν περὶ αὑτοὺς μεγάλων καὶ σκληρῶν δοξῶν ἀπαλλάττονται], and no setting-free [ἀπαλλαγῶν] is more pleasant to hear or has a more lasting effect on them … The people who purify the soul, my young friend, likewise think that the soul won’t get any advantage from any learning that’s offered to it until the one doing elenchos puts the one undergoing elenchos into a state of shame, [πρὶν ἂν ἐλέγχων τις τὸν ἐλεγχόμενον εἰς αἰσχύνην καταστήσας] removes the opinions that interferes with learning, and shows it forth purified, believing that it knows only those things that it does know, and nothing more [τὰς τοῖς μαθήμασιν ἐμποδίους δόξας ἐξελών, καθαρὸν ἀποφήνῃ καὶ ταῦτα ἡγούμενον ἅπερ οἶδεν εἰδέναι μόνα, πλείω δὲ μή].(Sophist 230b–c)
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
Compare Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians VII.60 (=DK 80B1) and its formulation in Plato’s Theaetetus at 151e. In what follows, I will also discuss the parallel refutation of Protagoras’ homo mensura doctrine in Plato’s Cratylus 385e–387a, though in a much less detailed way than what is found in the Gorgias and Theaetetus. See also Euthydemus 286a-287a for relevant attention to the problematic character of the homo mensura doctrine.
For a persuasive account of Protagoras’ commitment to humanism, if not relativism, see (Versenyi 1962). For an interpretation of Protagoras generally that emphasizes relativism, see (De Romilly 2002). For an argument expressing doubts about Protagoras’ relativism, and doubts about sophistic theories being generally “relativistic”, see (Bett 1989). For discussion of how later Greek philosophy interpreted Protagoras’ homo mensura doctrine as subjectivist so as to entail the idea (also attributed to Protagoras) that “it is possible to dispute with equal validity on either side of every question, including the question whether it is possible to dispute with equal validity on either side of every question”, see (Burnyeat 1976a, pp. 60–61). For the argument that there is a robust anti-relativism presented in Plato’s portrait of Protagoras in Protagoras, see (Taylor and Lee 2020); for a contrary view, see (Sentesy 2020).
On the question of whether Gorgias is a sophist, Taylor and Lee (2020) note the following: “At Apology 19e–20c Plato represents Socrates as naming four individuals who undertake to teach or educate people (paideuein anthrōpous) in return for fees; they are Gorgias (from Leontini in Sicily), Hippias (from Elis, in the north-western Peloponnese), Prodicus (from Ceos, off the southern tip of Attica) and Euenus (from Paros, in the southern Aegean). Of the four only Euenus is expressly said to teach “human and political excellence” (tēs … arêtes … anthrōpinēs te kai politikēs, i.e., success in the running of one’s life and in public affairs), but the context strongly suggests that the other three are seen as offering the same kind of instruction.” Schiappa (1999) warns against the overgeneralization implicit in using the term “sophistic”, especially with respect to Gorgias, 56.
I have noted that ‘Protagoras’ is ventriloquized by Socrates in the Theaetetus in order to mark the asymmetry between Gorgias and Protagoras in these two dialogues: Gorgias as a character articulating his own views in dialogue with the character of Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, and ‘Protagoras’ as a construction ventriloquized by the character Socrates in dialogue with other interlocutors in the Theaetetus. See Barney (2006) for the argument that “Gorgias and Protagoras can plausibly be seen as forming a united front of deflationary anti-realism … There is no reality beyond appearance, and no hope for any knowledge which would be different in kind from our fallible opinions” (p. 94). Consider, further, that Plato’s Socrates treats rhetoric and sophistry as proximate (engus) practices that are at issue in Socrates’ refutation of Gorgias (at Gorgias 465c, passim). See the discussion of these issues in (Tusi 2020).
Yet, the peritrope argument as applied to Protagoras is criticized in Chappell (2006): “Protagoras never claims that ‘Every appearance is true’; he claims only that ‘Every appearance is true for the person to whom it appears.’ … The Peritrope does not disprove this thesis; indeed it does not even address it. There is no inconsistency between ‘It is true for Protagoras that every appearance is true for the person to whom it appears’ and ‘It is true for someone else that not every appearance is true for the person to whom it appears.’ There isn’t even an inconsistency between ‘It is true for Protagoras that every appearance is true for the person to whom it appears’ and ‘It is true for someone else that not every appearance is true period or simpliciter (absolutely true).’ Sextus’ argument works against the claim that every appearance is non-relatively true; but Protagoras’ claim is only that every appearance is relatively true. So if Sextus’ argument is understood in the most obvious way, as aiming to refute Protagoras by showing that he contradicts himself, it misses its target” (p. 110).
(Burnyeat 1976a, p. 48). Burnyeat expands on his explanation when he goes on to write, “Add to this evidence the frequency of phrases like peritrepein heauton, to refute oneself (PH 1.122, 2.188; M 8.331a, 360, 463, 10.18), and the interpretation of peritrope as self-refutation becomes compelling. For precisely what self-refutation consists in is a reversal whereby advancing a proposal commits one to its contradictory” (p. 49).
See (Passmore 1961): “So if Protagoras is correct, it will follow that man is the measure of all things (since this is how it appears to Protagoras) and that man is not the measure of all things (since this is how it appears to his opponents). Hence his theory is in a precise sense self-contradictory” (p. 67). Burnyeat (1990) concludes in a similar fashion to Passmore (1961): “Isn’t there something inherently paradoxical about someone asserting (or believing) that all truth is relative? That proposition sums up the message of a completely general relativism, but when asserted it is propounded as itself a truth. The reason for this is simple but fundamental: to assert anything is to assert it as a truth, as something which is the case … Relativism is self-refuting, and for reasons that go deep into the nature of assertion and belief” (p. 30), here citing a parallel argument in Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations, 2nd edition (Husserl 1970), 139. Again, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, book Gamma, articulates this point: “Moreover it follows that all statements would be true and all false [πρὸς δὲ τούτῳ ὅτι πάντες ἂν ἀληθεύοιεν καὶ πάντες ἂν ψεύδοιντο]; and that our opponent himself admits that what he says is false [καὶ αὐτὸς αὑτὸν ὁμολογεῖ ψεύδεσθαι]. Besides, it is obvious that discussion with him is pointless [ἅμα δὲ φανερὸν ὅτι περὶ οὐθενός ἐστι πρὸς τοῦτον ἡ σκέψις], because he makes no real statement [οὐθὲν γὰρ λέγει]. For he says neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no,’ but ‘yes and no’; and again he denies both of these and says ‘neither yes nor no’; otherwise there would be already some definite statement” (1008a28–32). On the relations between Aristotle’s Metaphysics, book Gamma, and Protagorean relativism, and Plato’s Theaetetus, see the discussion in (Long 2006), pp. 49–60.
Passmore (1961) uses the example of speaking the words, “I cannot speak”, to illustrate a pragmatic self-refutation (p. 80). Mackie (1964) writes: “In pragmatic self-refutation the way in which an item happens to be presented conflicts with the item itself. But where we find operational self-refutation there is no other way in which this precise item can be presented” (p. 197). For example, Mackie argues that “I am not thinking right now” is operationally self-refuting, not a case of merely pragmatic self-refutation (p. 198). Following Mackie (1964), Burnyeat (1976a) uses the example of writing that I am not writing: “If I whisper that I am not writing, what I say may well be true, but if I write it, it must be false” (p. 52). Implicit in this example is the sense, expressed by numerous commentators, that pragmatic self-refutations are not as decisive, philosophically, as the “operational” or “absolute” self-refutation captured in the peritrope, since the one who has been pragmatically self-refuted may change the manner by which they put forward the thesis, thereby evading self-refutation.
(Burnyeat 1976a, p. 59). See also (Burnyeat 1976b, p. 172): “It is this dialectical setting which provides the key to Protagoras’ self-refutation” (p. 172). Aristotle seems to have this in mind in his account of the self-refuting character of denying the principle of non-contradiction, in Metaphysics (book Gamma), for he remarks that the “the person responsible” for this elenctic demonstration of the principle is “not he who demonstrates but he who acquiesces [ἀλλ᾽ αἴτιος οὐχ ὁ ἀποδεικνὺς ἀλλ᾽ ὁ ὑπομένων]; for though he disowns reason he acquiesces to reason [ἀναιρῶν γὰρ λόγον ὑπομένει λόγον]” (1006b13ff.). Similarly, Chappell (2005) writes: “The deepest difficulty with a Protagorean relativist is not to refute his argument [but] to see what he says as an argument at all” (p. 114).
For the connection between the dramatic framing/narrative of the Theaetetus and Protagorean relativism, see (Schultz 2020, pp. 21–23).
Compare Socrates’ remarks at the end of the dialogue: “Well now, dear lad, are we still pregnant, still in labor with any thoughts about knowledge? Or have we been delivered of them all? … And so, Theaetetus, if ever in the future you should attempt to conceive or should succeed in conceiving other theories, they will be better ones as a result of this enquiry [διὰ τὴν νῦν ἐξέτασιν]. And if you remain barren, your companions will find you gentler and less tiresome; you will be sound-minded [σωφρόνως] and not think you know what you don’t know [οὐκ οἰόμενος εἰδέναι ἃ μὴ οἶσθα]. This is all my art can achieve—nothing more. I do not know any of the things that other men know [οὐδέ τι οἶδα ὧν οἱ ἄλλοι]—the great and inspired men of today and yesterday [ὅσοι μεγάλοι καὶ θαυμάσιοι ἄνδρες εἰσί τε καὶ γεγόνασιν]. But this art of midwifery my mother and I had allotted to us by God; she to deliver women, I to deliver men that are young and generous of spirit, all that have any beauty [τῶν νέων τε καὶ γενναίων καὶ ὅσοι καλοί]” (Theaetetus 210b–d).
But see (Versenyi 1962; De Romilly 2002) on the essentially human character of Protagorean relativism. De Romilly (2002) writes: “[The Sophists] were the first to try to think of the world and life purely in terms of human beings. They were the first to consider the relativity of knowledge as a fundamental principle, and to open up the way not only for free-thinking but also for absolute doubt regarding all metaphysical, religious, and moral matters … In this world of theirs, the necessities of communal life created a new place and a new meaning for justice, concord, and the human virtues in general. All humanist systems of thought which create values within an existentialist framework sprang from the seeds sown by the Sophists’ new ideas” (p. 238).
Notice that Plato’s Euthydemus also addresses the performative contradiction at issue in the homo mensura doctrine when Euthydemus and Dionysodorus posit the impossibility of speaking falsely—and Socrates remarks on how this doctrine is self-overturning (286c)—for the very same reasons that we see in Theaetetus. Most relevant is the fact that, according to Socrates, it would rule out the very possibility of elenchos since it precludes ever having false beliefs or ‘being wrong’ (286d-e). On this point, see Long (2004): “Relativism leaves refutation both pointless and invalid. If we are all infallible Measures, what could be gained from comparing opinions or testing one another’s views? How, furthermore, could we ever find weaknesses in other people’s set of convictions? … I suggest that Plato’s intention here is to see refutation as posing a particular dilemma for the relativist” (p. 25).
Here, I am bringing together the pragmateia in light of which the homo mensura doctrine is performatively contradicted with the use of pragmata echein at 174b. LSJ cites examples of pragmata or pragmata echein used in the sense of “going to the trouble” or “exerting oneself” in Plato’s texts at Apology 41d, Phaedo 115a, and Republic 406e.
On this point, see (Bell 2011): “‘The many,’ especially when they are gathered together—as in the assembly—are not many, but one; and this, paradoxically, is no less the case when—as in the assembly—dissent, difference and disagreement are expressed” (p. 385). In a footnote, Bell continues his analysis of the “remarkable proximity” between Plato’s analysis and Heidegger on Dasein’s everydayness: “To say that the many are a singularity is to say that everyone is (the same as) the other—one is the others and the others are one: one thinks what the many think, is pleased and pained by what pleases and pains the many, is moved and persuaded by what moves and persuades the many and speaks what the many speak … Dogma names that way of being in which one is the others with whom one exists. It names, therefore, the way of being in which one is distanced from and has forgotten oneself” (392f16).
Admittedly, this account of demagogic rhetoric in Plato’s Republic is not one that merely applies to democratic cultures. Konrad Heiden offers an account very much like that in the Republic when, in his book on the rise of Hitler in the 20th century, he says the following of the orator/propagandist: “Like a piece of wood floating on the waves, he follows the shifting currents of public opinion. This is his true strength … The speaker is in constant communication with the masses; he hears an echo and senses the inner vibration … When a resonance issues from the depths of the substance, the masses have given him the pitch; he knows in what terms he must finally address them … This mass, with its anonymous intellectual pressure, its unexpected moods and unconscious desires, mirrors and echoes the commanding force of prevailing conditions … It is the art of the great propagandist to detect this murmur and translate it into intelligible utterance and convincing action. If he can do this, his utterances and actions may be full of contradictions—because the contradictions lie in the things themselves” (Heiden 1968, pp. 140–41).
I believe that this parallel between Protagoras in the Theaetetus and Gorgias in the Gorgias is missed in Bett (1989), where it is argued that a focus on persuasion need not entail relativism, which is true enough. However, the relativism articulated by Socrates/Protagoras in the Theaetetus is a relativism relative-to-seeming/appearing, and “sophistry” as theorized by Protagoras signifies the essentially rhetorical power of using logoi to make appear or change the appearances.
In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias likens the way that the soul is affected by logos to the way that the body is affected by a pharmakon: “The power [δύναμις] of logos has the same relation to the order of the soul as the order of pharmaka has to the nature of bodies. For just as different pharmaka expel different humours from the body, and some end illness while others end life, so some logoi induce pain, some pleasure, some fear, some courage in those who hear, while others drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of bad persuasion [πειθοῖ τινι κακῇ]” (§14). See Drake (2021) on the significance of “bodies” in Gorgias’ text.
As to the comedic character of this refutation, Ewegen (2014) writes: “One could say that the Cratylus is the full and comic articulation of the second consequence of Protagoras’ doctrine that ‘the human being is the measure of all things’ as it is analyzed by Socrates in the Theaetetus. The Cratylus presents, in vivid and comic detail, the devastating dissolution of logos that follows upon the Protagorean position” (p. 69).
See a plausible hypothesis as to the battle in which Theaetetus was mortally wounded in (Nails 2002, pp. 276–77).
The Greek word epideixis, in both its substantive and verbal forms, is used five times in the first Stephanus page of the dialogue, underscoring its dramatic significance for what follows.
Nichols (1998) notes: “One can hardly doubt that Socrates already knew Gorgias to be a rhetorician. Furthermore, it becomes altogether clear early in Socrates’ discussion with Polus that Socrates has quite a fully developed conception of what something called rhetoric is …” (131). On Socrates’ use of rhetoric in the Gorgias more generally, see (Roochnik 1995).
To put it a bit differently, the elenchos of Gorgianic rhetoric dramatized in Plato’s Gorgias operates quite differently from Socrates’ own account of elenchos in the Apology, where he portrays his going from one person with a reputation for wisdom to another such person as though, in each case, he had an open mind as to whether such a person might actually have the wisdom they are reputed to have (Apology 21e–22a). Indeed, Socrates’ account in the Apology suggests that he goes into these elenctic examinations on the assumption that those with reputations for wisdom do have the wisdom that they are reputed to have, for he claims to have begun these examinations only to refute the oracular proclamation that “No one is wiser than Socrates” (21a–b). What is more, he portrays himself as having been surprised to discover, through elenctic examination, that the various reputations for wisdom within the polis are either entirely empty or else they mislead those who enjoy these reputations into thinking that they have wisdom other than the limited sort that they do have (see Apology 22d–e). On the question of whether Socrates goes into the encounter with an open mind as to whether Gorgias indeed has the power and technê that he is reputed to have, see (Ewegen 2020) for criticism of my interpretation of Socratic irony, and my response in (Metcalf 2022).
See (Consigny 2001) for a reasoned objection to this very distinction as applied to Gorgianic rhetoric.
Here, Socrates introduces for the first time in the dialogue the word, “soul” (ψυχή) which is central to Gorgias’ portrait of the orator’s power in Encomium of Helen, and which will become increasingly important in Plato’s Gorgias. Segal (1962) makes the point this way: “The techne of Gorgias rests upon a ‘psychological’ foundation: it is at least assumed that the psyche has an independent life and area of activity of which the rhetor must learn and which to some extent he must be able to control” (pp. 105–6).
The parallel account of rhetoric’s unidirectional exercise of power in Gorgias’ texts is in the Encomium of Helen: “For the logos which persuades the soul constrains [ἠνάγκασε] the soul which it persuades, both to obey its utterances [πιθέσθαι τοῖς λεγομένοις] and to approve its doings [καὶ συναινέσαι τοῖς ποιουμένοις]” (§12, in part). It is also found, of course, in the famous lines in §8: “Logos is a great master [δυνάστης μέγας], which accomplishes divine deeds with the smallest and least apparent of bodies; for it is able [δύναται ] to stop fear, remove pain, implant joy and augment pity.”
On the ironic distinction between speaking pros to pragma and speaking pros tina, consider the passage in Plato’s Laches in which Nicias says to Lysimachus: “You seem to me not to know that whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and associates with him in conversation must necessarily, even if he began by conversing about something else at first, keep on being led around by the man’s logoi until he submits to giving an account of himself [τὸ διδόναι περὶ αὑτοῦ λόγον]—concerning both his present manner of life and the life he has lived hitherto [ὅντινα τρόπον νῦν τε ζῇ καὶ ὅντινα τὸν παρεληλυθότα βίον βεβίωκεν]. And when he does submit to this questioning, you don’t realize that Socrates will not let him go before he has well and truly tested every last detail [βασανίσῃ ταῦτα εὖ τε καὶ καλῶς ἅπαντα] … For me there is nothing unusual or unpleasant in being tested [βασανίζεσθαι] by Socrates, but I realized some time ago that, if Socrates were present, the logos would not be about the boys but about ourselves [ἀλλὰ περὶ ἡμῶν αὐτῶν]” (187e–188c).
Notice that this exclamation follows Gorgias’ remark, “Well, I will try, Socrates, to reveal to you clearly the whole power of rhetoric [σαφῶς ἀποκαλύψαι τὴν τῆς ῥητορικῆς δύναμιν ἅπασαν]” (455d). Later Socrates riffs on Gorgias’ remark when he says: “I beg you in the name of Zeus, reveal [ἀποκαλύψας] what the power of rhetoric is, as you promised” (459e–460a).
Here, Gorgias articulates the character of rhetoric as an agônia when he tells Socrates that “the orator is able to speak against everyone and on every question in such a way as to win over the votes of the multitude, practically in any matter he may choose to take up” (457a–b)—a remark that echoes distinctly his standing claim to be able to answer any question posed to him. Benardete (1991) identifies the “inconsistency” for which Gorgias will suffer elenchos as follows: if the rhetorician has the power Gorgias says he has, it is impossible that the unjust rhetorician could ever be found to be unjust (p. 24). Put differently, if the rhetor gets caught, either the city must know what the rhetor does not, or the rhetor does not have an art (p. 28).
As Dodds 1959 notes, the fundamental significance of doxa for peithein is made vividly clear in Plato’s Theaetetus, in which Socrates has Theaetetus agree that to persuade (τὸ πεῖσαι) is to make opine (δοξάσαι ποιῆσαι) (201b).
Notice that Socrates’ words here about being committed to elenchos will be repeated in a more compressed form at the end of his exchange with Gorgias (461a).
Gorgias’ reputation is key to Socrates’ remarks, for Socrates says that the elenchos which he is ready to spring aims to deliver Gorgias from the greatest evil (δόξα ψευδὴς) about the topics under discussion. Doxa pseudês does mean “false opinion”, of course, but it also means “false reputation”, and this ambiguity is crucial, as noted by Benardete (1991, p. 25).
On this point (Stauffer 2006) writes: “Perhaps if [Gorgias’] art were indeed all-powerful, he would have no need to worry about its public reputation. But the power of rhetoric is not so great that it can overcome the need for concealment” (p. 33).
Consigny (2001) interprets Gorgias’ “anti-foundationalist” stance to be more transparent than the stealth “foundationalism” of Plato’s Socrates: “For Gorgias, the Socratic strategy of self-effacement is the clever pose of the person who wishes to conceal his foundationalist commitment; and in this way it betrays deception rather than objectivity. Socrates’ ironic profession of ignorance is of course a sham, for he does believe that he knows what is most basic to the foundationalist position, namely that there is an objective truth that antedates human inquiry” (pp. 193–94).
Indeed, in the very next sentence, Socrates casts a barb at Gorgias when he says, “Actually, I don’t really know whether what I call rhetoric is the rhetoric Gorgias practices [ἐπιτηδεύει], for the logos did not make clear to me what he believes it is [καὶ γὰρ ἄρτι ἐκ τοῦ λόγου οὐδὲν ἡμῖν καταφανὲς ἐγένετο τί ποτε οὗτος ἡγεῖται]” (462e–463a).
What is fascinating about this statement is that it is Socrates who has thus far demonstrated boldness by challenging Gorgias at a party of orators, Socrates who has been shrewd at guessing the meaning of his interlocutors and anticipating their responses, Socrates who has proven himself most clever (deinos). Compare Plato’s Apology 17b, in which Socrates explicitly denies being a “clever speaker.”
Tarnopolsky (2010) notes that shame is a key dramatic element in the Gorgias at 461b, 482d-e, 487b, 508b, 494c-499b, 522d. Further, she writes that the word elenchein means “to disgrace, put to shame, cross-examine, question, prove, refute, confute, get the better of. The Greek word blurs the distinction between the logical and the psychological, the cognitive and affective dimensions of the experience … [E]ach of the three refutations … involves shame at a crucial step in the argument” (p. 38).
Spitzer (1975) likewise argues that the account of rhetoric as “a branch of the knack of flattery and a sleazy imitation of the true techne … is a result of the encounter with Gorgias and a shrewd analysis of the man” (pp. 136–37). In this way, Spitzer argues, the dialogue is “self-referential, demonstrating in erga what it argues in discourse” (p. 143).
Long (1998, p. 128) draws parallels between the portrayals of elenchos in Gorgias and Theaetetus and writes that in these texts Plato anticipates the theory of elenchos in the Sophist: “The modesty that the elenchos, or the sophistry of golden lineage, engenders by purgation of persons’ ‘grand and obstinate opinions concerning themselves’ (Sophist 230b–d).”
Notice that Socrates uses this word in precisely this way in the passage on the elenchos tou biou in the Apology when he signals to the jury that, after his death, there will be many more who practice elenchos who will be harsher than Socrates, and that such a “being-set-free” (apallangê) from the reproach that is one’s due is neither possible nor honorable (39d). See my interpretation of this in Metcalf (2018).
An earlier version of this paper was read by Ryan Drake, Shane Ewegen, and Jill Gordon. Many thanks to them, to Michael MacDonald, and to the anonymous reviewers for Humanities, for their perceptive critiques of my argument.
- Barney, Rachel. 2006. The Sophistic Movement. In A Companion to Ancient Philosophy. Edited by Mary Louise Gill and Pierre Pellegrin. Malden, Oxford and Carlton: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 77–97. [Google Scholar]
- Bell, Jeremy. 2011. Empeiria kai Tribê: Plato on the ‘Art’ of Flattery in Rhetoric and Sophistry. Epoché 15: 379–94. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Benardete, Seth. 1991. The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy: Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. [Google Scholar]
- Bett, Richard. 1989. The Sophists and Relativism. Phronesis 34: 139–69. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Beversluis, John. 2000. Cross-Examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Burnyeat, Myles. 1976a. Protagoras and Self-Refutation in Later Greek Philosophy. The Philosophical Review 85: 44–69. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Burnyeat, Myles. 1976b. Protagoras and Self-Refutation in Plato’s Theaetetus. The Philosophical Review 85: 172–95. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Burnyeat, Myles. 1990. The Theaetetus of Plato. Translated by M. J. Levett. Revised by Myles Burnyeat. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett. [Google Scholar]
- Chappell, Timothy D. J. 2005. Reading Plato’s Theaetetus: A Translation and Commentary. Indianapolis: Hackett. [Google Scholar]
- Chappell, Timothy D. J. 2006. Reading the περιτροπή: Theaetetus 170c-171c. Phronesis 51: 109–39. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef][Green Version]
- Consigny, Scott. 2001. Gorgias: Sophist and Artist. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. [Google Scholar]
- De Romilly, Jacqueline. 2002. The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Google Scholar]
- Dodds, Eric R. 1959. Plato, Gorgias, a Revised Text with Introduction and Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon. [Google Scholar]
- Drake, Ryan. 2021. The Compulsion of Bodies: Infection and Possession in Gorgias’ Helen. Epoché 25: 249–68. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Ewegen, S. Montgomery. 2014. Plato’s Cratylus: The Comedy of Language. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Ewegen, S. Montgomery. 2020. The Way of the Platonic Socrates. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Ewegen, S. Montgomery. 2022. The Comedy of Power in Plato’s Gorgias. In Gorgias/Gorgias: The Sicilian Orator and the Platonic Dialogue. Edited by S. Montgomery Ewegen and Coleen P. Zoller. Siracusa: Parnassos Press, pp. 271–88. [Google Scholar]
- Gordon, Jill. 1999. Turning toward Philosophy: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato’s Dialogues. University Park: Penn State University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Heiden, Konrad. 1968. Der Fuehrer: Hitler’s Rise to Power. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. [Google Scholar]
- Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. [Google Scholar]
- Hyland, Drew. 1995. Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues. Albany: SUNY Press. [Google Scholar]
- Hyland, Drew. 2008. Plato and the Question of Beauty. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Irwin, Terence H. 1986. Coercion and Objectivity in Plato’s Dialectic. Revue Internationale de Philosophie 40: 49–74. [Google Scholar]
- Long, A. A. 1998. Plato’s Apologies and Socrates in the Theaetetus. In Method in Ancient Philosophy. Edited by Jyl Gentzler. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 113–36. [Google Scholar]
- Long, Alex. 2004. Refutation and Relativism in Theaetetus 161–171. Phronesis 49: 24–40. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Long, A. A. 2006. From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Google Scholar]
- Mackie, John L. 1964. Self-Refutation—A Formal Analysis. The Philosophical Quarterly 14: 193–203. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- McDowell, John, ed. 1973. Plato’s Theaetetus. Translated and with Commentary by John McDowell. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Google Scholar]
- Metcalf, Robert. 2004. Socratic Silence and Argument: On Nehamas’ Reading of Plato. Internationales Jahrbuch für Hermeneutik 3: 175–202. [Google Scholar]
- Metcalf, Robert. 2006. The True Character of Elenchos. Internationales Jahrbuch für Hermeneutik 5: 201–23. [Google Scholar]
- Metcalf, Robert. 2015. The Situation of Epistemology in Plato’s Theaetetus. Epoché 19: 241–60. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Metcalf, Robert. 2017. Syngrammatology in Plato’s Statesman. In Plato’s Statesman: Dialectic, Myth and Politics. Edited by John Sallis. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 197–221. [Google Scholar]
- Metcalf, Robert. 2018. Philosophy as Agôn: A Study of Plato’s Gorgias and Related Texts. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Metcalf, Robert. 2022. Dunamis in Agôn: Gorgias of Leontini and Plato’s Gorgias. In Gorgias/Gorgias: The Sicilian Orator and the Platonic Dialogue. Edited by S. Montgomery Ewegen and Coleen P. Zoller. Siracusa: Parnassos Press, pp. 235–52. [Google Scholar]
- Nails, Debra. 2002. The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett. [Google Scholar]
- Nichols, James H. 1998. The Rhetoric of Justice in Plato’s Gorgias. In Plato, Gorgias. Translated by James H. Nichols Jr.. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Passmore, John. 1961. Philosophical Reasoning. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. [Google Scholar]
- Roochnik, David. 1995. Socrates’ Rhetorical Attack on Rhetoric. In The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Edited by Francisco Gonzales. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 81–94. [Google Scholar]
- Schiappa, Edward. 1999. The Beginning of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Schultz, Anne-Marie. 2020. Plato’s Socrates on Socrates: Socratic Self-Disclosure and the Public Practice of Philosophy. Lanham: Lexington Books. [Google Scholar]
- Segal, Charles. 1962. Gorgias and the Psychology of the Logos. Harvard Studies in Classical Philosophy 66: 99–155. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Sentesy, Mark. 2020. Community with Nothing in Common? Plato’s Subtler Response to Protagoras. Epoche 25: 279–97. [Google Scholar]
- Spitzer, Adele. 1975. The Self-Reference of the Gorgias. Philosophy and Rhetoric 8: 1–22. [Google Scholar]
- Stauffer, Devin. 2006. The Unity of Plato’s “Gorgias”: Rhetoric, Justice and the Philosophic Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Tanner, Sonja. 2022. Child’s Play: The Power of Comedy in Gorgias of Leontinoi and Plato’s Gorgias. In Gorgias/Gorgias: The Sicilian Orator and the Platonic Dialogue. Edited by S. Montgomery Ewegen and Coleen P. Zoller. Siracusa: Parnassos Press, pp. 253–69. [Google Scholar]
- Tarnopolsky, Christina H. 2010. Prudes, Perverts and Tyrants: Plato’s “Gorgias” and the Politics of Shame. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Taylor, Christopher C. W., and Mi-Kyoung Lee. 2020. The Sophists. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford: The Metaphysiscs Research Lab. Available online: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/sophists/ (accessed on 29 March 2023).
- Tusi, Jacqueline. 2020. Between Rhetoric and Sophistry: The Puzzling Case of Plato’s Gorgias. Apeiron 53: 59–80. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Versenyi, Laszlo. 1962. Protagoras’ Man-Measure Fragment. The American Journal of Philology 83: 178–84. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
Disclaimer/Publisher’s Note: The statements, opinions and data contained in all publications are solely those of the individual author(s) and contributor(s) and not of MDPI and/or the editor(s). MDPI and/or the editor(s) disclaim responsibility for any injury to people or property resulting from any ideas, methods, instructions or products referred to in the content.
© 2023 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Metcalf, R. What Performative Contradiction Reveals: Plato’s Theaetetus and Gorgias on Sophistry. Humanities 2023, 12, 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/h12020033
Metcalf R. What Performative Contradiction Reveals: Plato’s Theaetetus and Gorgias on Sophistry. Humanities. 2023; 12(2):33. https://doi.org/10.3390/h12020033Chicago/Turabian Style
Metcalf, Robert. 2023. "What Performative Contradiction Reveals: Plato’s Theaetetus and Gorgias on Sophistry" Humanities 12, no. 2: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/h12020033