|The Ancient Debate Over Non Being|
|Plato vs Gorgias the Sophist|
Michael Bakaoukas M.Sc., Ph.D.
University of Piraeus, Greece
Gorgias vs Plato : an ancient debate over the non-existent
As has already been said, the origin of the philosophical debate over the non-being is the first treatise on non-being written by Gorgias the Sophist in the 5th c. BC. As Guthrie (1975: 708) and Newiger (1973: 177-8, 181-188) point out, Gorgias was the target of Plato's Sophist. As regards the relation between Plato and Gorgias it has been argued by Newiger (1973: 177-188) and Hays (1990: 336-7) that there are some important parallels between Gorgias' On What is not and Plato's dialogues Parmenides, Meno, Theaetetus and Sophist. These parallels have not yet been investigated in detail. In Hay's words (1990: 336-7) "it would seem prudent for scholars of Plato to re-acquaint themselves with the treatise and to keep in mind that Plato had to respond to these Gorgianic arguments." This has been done to a certain extent by Crivelli who holds that the target of Plato's Sophist is Gorgias himself (Crivelli, 1996). This also has been done to a certain extent by Stumpo (1931), Rensi (1933 and 1938: 70 ff), Rezzani (1959), Sciacca (1967), Wesoly (1983), Leszl (1985), Gigon (1985), Kraus (1990). But, as Calogero and Mansfeld point out, "there is not a systematic comparison of concrete parallels between Gorgias and Plato" (Calogero, 1972: 269 ff, 311ff; Mansfeld, 1985: 258, n. 48). In this respect, the philosophical implications of Gorgias' views at issue are very important for future studies, for in order to compare Plato's and Gorgias' arguments we should first examine Gorgias' own views. This approach is corroborated by many parallels between Plato's Sophist and Gorgias' works. That is, Gorgias' example of "thinking of a non-existent entity" is "a flying man" (DK B3 79) which is reminiscent of Platos' example of "flying men" (Theaetetus 158b3-4; Sophist 263a8). Also Gorgias' treatment of the contradictory and contrary properties (DK B3 67, 80) is reminiscent of the sophistic argument in the Sophist (240b5, 240d6-8, 257b3-4, 258e6). Furthemore, Gorgias' arguments "had posed formidable challenges to Eleatic philosophy, and (...) [Plato's] quest for forms was particularly vulnerable to the same arguments, because its ontological assumptions were similar to those of the Eleatics" (Hays, 1990: 336).
The Sophistic Theory Of Non Being : Image As Non Being
Gorgias' theory of non-being is criticized by Plato in the Sophist. In order to prepare for this difficult task, Plato is searching for a definition of the sophist, i.e. for Gorgias himself, who is called by Plato "stranger" (xenos) [216A-221C]. In the first place, the sophist is an angler-like hunter of rich kids, a sham virtue salesman, and a professional athlete in contests of words. (221C-226A). Secondly, he is shown to be a philosopher-like cleanser of souls, who refutes others with a view to removing opinions that impede learning (226A-231B). Also, the sophist is a debater. Debating turns out to be a kind of making: the art of making spoken images of all things. This art of imitation has two forms: likeness-making and apparition-making, the making of true and of distorted images (illusions) (231B-236D). The existence of distorted images presupposes that Non-being is. But, as Parmenides says, Non-being appears to be unutterable, indeed, unthinkable. If distorted images (illusions) are possible, then they represent Non-being and thus Non-Being is (236D-242B). In this way, the search for non-being becomes the search of distorted images (eikones) [Benardete, 1984].
Then Plato makes the stranger begin his inquiry into Non-Being with a critical examination of claims men have made about Being. The sophist as a debater is dealing with a presocratic debate over Being. The stranger then turns his dialectical powers against the giants who claim that Being is body, many and in motion and the gods who support the Parmenidean claim that Being is one, invisible and in rest (242B-252C). The fact that Plato makes the sophist examine this presocratic debate affirms the assumption that Plato criticizes Gorgias' treatise On What is Not, since, as we shall see in ch. 3, Gorgias in his treatise On What is Not examines this very debate as follows:
he (sc Gorgias) collects the statements of others, who in speaking about what is seem to assert contrary opinions (some trying to prove that what is is one and not many, others that it is many and not one; and some that existents are ungenerated, others that they have come to be), and he argues against both sides.
The stranger's critique of this debate serves as the introduction to the Platonic solution to the problem of non-being. Plato does not agree with the sophist's view that non-being is an image. For Plato the Other is Non-being by another name, and it turns out to be the case, not only that the Other is, but that Being and beings participate in it and hence in some sense are not. (252C-259D). What remains to be shown is that these conditions obtain in the case of speech, the medium of sophistry. Plato examines the structure of sentences as well as the relation of speech to opinion, thought and appearance in order to determine how Non-being makes its appearance within the realm of human speech and thinking (259D-264B). Then he reduces sophistry to the class of apparition-mak-ing, i.e., the making of images that do not preserve the true proportions of their originals. The sophist is shown, among other things, to be a knowing-imitator of what he does not know (264C-268D). He is among those who mime things or paint them, or who make images in words (Cobb, 1990; Brann, 1995, 2-3).
But according to Parmenides, images have no place in the world. For they are curious hybrids. Being and Non-being are intertwined in an image because in its very being an image is genuinely a likeness. It certainly is an image, but precisely as an image it is not the original. But there are images and images. Some preserve the proportions of the original and are truthful likenesses; others are distortions-phantasms and apparitions of the original. The sophist is naturally identified as a producer of such apparitions. He gives "phantastic" accounts and induces, for profit, deceptions and false opinions in the soul. To hold a false opinion is to think that what is not, is and what is, is not; to speak falsely is to say that what is not the case is the case and the reverse. The Sophist is a maker of false verbal images. He cunningly appeals to the great Parmenides himself, who had denied that exactly this was possible: to think and to say what is not (Brann, 1995, 2-3; White, 1993).
The platonic theory of non being : Non Being as Otherness
Plato, in the Sophist, attempts to explain how falsehood is possible. As Denyer says, we need not rely on Plato alone to prove that ancient Greeks felt inclined to bizarre views that ruled out all possibility of falsehood. For example Parmenides identifies "the thing which is not" as the content of falsehood and error, with nothing or non-entity [frag. 8.10; cf. 6. 2] (Kahn, 1982, 13). Gorgias' disciple, Isocrates, Helen 1, says that: "some people have grown old maintaining that it is impossible to speak falsehoods, to speak in contradiction of someone, and to entertain two contradicting views about the same subject matters" (Denyer, 24). Not to mention Gorgias himself who claims that "a person who upholds one and the same thesis about the same things before the same audience does not deserve our trust if thereby he contradicts himself" (Palamedes 25). This is another clue in favour of the assumption that Plato's target in the Sophist was Gorgias the Sophist. As we shall see in ch. 3 in detail, in Gorgias' view, stating contradictory views and a falsehood is connected with stating non-being.
Plato admits that if stating a falsehood requires there to exist something which does not exist, then false statements could not be made. But Plato does not agree that we cannot state falsehood. Instead he proceeds to show that stating a falsehood requires no such thing (Denyer, 148). The sophist as a kind can be grasped only if falsity is possible. But the False in things and in words, that which makes them pseudo-things and pseudo-accounts (pseudos being the Greek word for "falsehood"), is shot through with Non-being. Just as imitations are not what they seem to be, so false sentences say what is not the case. Now if Non-being is unthinkable and unutterable, as Parmenides asserted, then we may conclude that all speech must be granted to be true for those who utter it. Perfect relativity reigns. This is exactly what Gorgias purports to be the case as follows: "All subjects of thought must exist and Not-being, since it does not exist, could not be thought of. But if this is so, no one, he says, could say anything false, not even if he said that chariots compete in the sea. For everything would be in the same category" (On non-being MXG 980a9-12).
Non-being has to be given a meaning; it has to be placed among the articulable kinds. When Non-being is specified by Plato as otherness, it becomes a powerful prin-ciple for regulating the slippery relativity that is the sophist's refuge. Non-being interpreted as the Other thus ceases to be mere nothingness and becomes instead the source of articulated diversity in things and in thought. However, an image or an imitation, because it has a share in Non-being, is not merely other than its original but also less. It is less in genuineness and may even fall further into falsity. The sophist can no longer claim that there is no intelligibile discrimination between true and false (Brann, 1995, 10-12; Cornford, 1970).
To conclude, according to Plato, the stranger, viz.Gorgias treats non-being as image. But for Plato an image or an imitation, because it has a share in Non-being, may be a distorted image and therefore being less than the original may even fall further into falsity. In order to see if Plato is right about Gorgias theory of non-being we should read carefully and analyse Gorgias' treatise On What is Not on the basis of the most recent and authoritative interpretations.
How to interpret the ancient Greek concept of Non Being in context
However, in order o avoid any sort of interpretative anachronism, we should discriminate classical Greek philosophy from modern philosophy. Our guide shall be (a) the classical paper by C. H. Kahn "Why Existence Does Not Emerge as a Distinct Concept in Greek Philosophy" (1982), and (b) the most recent authoritative interpretations by Mourelatos (1976) and Curd (1998).
In the discussion of the concept of Being in Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle, the theme of existence does not figure as a distinct topic for philosophical reflection (Kahn, 1982, 7). According to Kahn:
"the (modern) notion of existence (is) articulated in Descartes' doubts about existence and in his proofs of his own existence, the existence of God, and the existence of the external world, and further developed after Descartes in the arguments about the existence of "other minds." The modern concept of existence took a new, contemporary turn as a result of the development of quantification theory in logic. And it was applied to a new set of problems as a consequence of Russell's puzzles about denoting in the case of non-existent subjects such as "the present king of France," as well as in the more directly puzzling case of negative existentials such as "Santa Claus does not exist (...) We might summarize the modern concept of existence as the notion for which one analysis is suggested by Quine's dictum "to be is to be the value of a variable" (Kahn, 1982, 8)
It might be supposed that the non-emergence could be explained quite simply by the fact that classical Greek has no distinct verb meaning "to exist." But this is not the case, since ancient Greeks did have a special verb "to exist." Greek philosophers occasionally discuss questions of existence. Nevertheless, the notion of existence never became a subject for philosophical reflection. The reason is that what is most important for ancient Greeks is the conception of truth. In Greek truth involves some kind of correlation or "fit" between what is said or thought, on one side, and what is or what is the case, on the other. "Reality" is the fact that it is so or what happens to be the case. This is the veridical use of "to be" which affirms a state of affairs (Kahn, 1982, 8-11; Mourelatos, 1970, 48-49; Curd, 1998, 27). This interpretation is followed by Mourelatos and Curd according to whom the Greek verb "to be" is "predicative" and "informative" in the sense that this verb "calls forth the characteristic essence of a thing" or "reveals the nature of a thing, saying what something is" (Mourelatos, 1976, Curd, 1998, 26-27, 39).
If we bear in mind the veridical (or "informative") use of the verb, we shall easily see why Greek philosophers' interest is in knowledge, truth and Being as reality. Greek philosophers did not care especially about be as verb of existence or as copula. They treated the notion of Being as truth and reality. That is why, according to Kahn, "if we begin to interpret the concept of Being by looking for existential or copula uses of the verb, not only shall we make unnecessary trouble for ourselves, but we may miss the real point, as well. We shall fail to grasp the essential features of the Greek concept of Being (Kahn, 1982, 12).
What Parmenides says about Being or what is and what is not can help us to understand in the real historical context what is non-being for ancient Greeks. Being is the object for knowledge and the ter-ritory of truth. Being, or what is, is what we can and should believe because it is identical with truth. Non-being (that it is not), on the other hand, is "unheard of" or "uninformative" which cannot be trusted, "for you can-not know what is not nor can you point it out." Non-being cannot be an object of knowledge, a path for understanding, or a topic of information discourse. Non-being normally designates the content of lies and false belief; it does not signify an object of knowledge or reliable information. Parmenides identifies "the thing which is not'' with falsehood and error, with nothing or non-entity (Parmenides, frag. 8.10; Kahn, 1982, 113).
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