The following interview with Emma Cohen de Lara — editor of the new collection of Dutch language essays titled Plato en den sofisten — was conducted by Alvino-Mario Fantini.

Fantini: Plato offers a definition of sophists in his dialogue, the Sophist. How do you define what a ‘sophist’ is?

Cohen de Lara: Plato’s definition in the Sophist is complex. The definition focuses on sophistry as an art or technique that aims at producing appearances, with ulterior motives such as making money or acquiring power. So, there is something fundamentally insincere and ingenuine about the sophist.

Plato argues that, despite appearances, the sophist is actually uninformed about the nature of being. Whereas the sophist seeks to create and manipulate a shadow-world with the clever use of words, the philosopher seeks to understand the world. Specifically, the philosopher seeks to comprehend the way things really are — that is, the essences of things, which are sometimes hidden by their appearances.

I think it is part of the human condition to be entangled in the world of appearances. As embodied beings, it is natural that we rely on our senses for understanding the world, and that our emotions and desires can cloud our judgment. Today, perhaps more than ever, we are exposed to the media and a culture of consumerism, both of which seek to manipulate the world as we perceive it.

It is Plato’s conviction that living ‘the good life’ means pushing one’s self beyond the world of appearances as observed with our senses and developing good judgment without being swayed by our emotions and desires. We are called to live a life of introspection, reflection, and dialogue in order to ground our observations in truth. And we are called to do so even though the media, public opinion, or even teachers try to make us think otherwise.

We are primarily dependent on Plato’s admittedly hostile treatment of sophists. But were the sophists serious thinkers? Were they philosophically rigorous? And, perhaps more importantly, were their teachings fundamentally immoral?

The word sophist originally had a positive connotation. It stems from sophos or wise. A sophist was thus a wise poet, statesman, or expert. However, already before Plato’s time, the word ‘sophist’ began acquiring a negative connotation. Since they were often itinerant teachers — such as Gorgias of Leontini and Protagoras of Abdera — who travelled from abroad to Athens, where they would teach rhetoric, logic, and ethics, this made the Athenians distrust them. How could they teach the young about Athenian mores and conventions?

At the same time, because the sophists were often very charismatic figures with a real talent for discourse, the Athenians were quite intrigued by them. But the sophists also came under suspicion because they asked for significant amounts of money in exchange for their teaching. According to Plato, education is the slow and sturdy development of character. Such education finds its own reward in good friendships and a more virtuous citizenry. But the sophists, since they were earning money from their teachings, might have been more inclined to flatter rather than correct their students.

Interestingly enough, however, we could say that Plato portrays the sophists in his dialogues with a certain level of respect. Gorgias, for example, a famous teacher of rhetoric at the time, is shown as someone with whom Socrates is eager to be in conversation. In our collection of essays, Jordi Wiersma even argues that Plato recognizes a certain validity in the teaching methods used by Protagoras, another sophist. Still, Plato ultimately and fundamentally disagrees with the sophists portrayed in his dialogues. The sophists separated the technique of being clever with words from questions about the Good. Plato rejected this separation because the art of rhetoric is an instrument of persuasion that should never be exercised for the bad but always for the good. Furthermore, the sophists generally rejected any notion of objective truth. Protagoras had written that Man — not the gods, not nature, not mathematics, not beauty, not the divine — is the measure of all things. For Protagoras, there is no truth apart from how a human being sees reality; everything is perception. But since perception is different for each human being and can change, this then means that everything is subjective and relative. It thus becomes impossible to say that something is objectively true. Every statement — even those made about justice — is thus only an opinion or a sentiment, according to the sophist.

So, were the sophists serious thinkers and rigorous philosophers? Based on Plato’s testimony, I would answer in the negative. The sophists thought it was possible to construct their own truth and perception of the world. They were not erotically — as Plato would put it — attracted to understanding the world. They did not aim at real knowledge, which for Plato meant the comprehension of reality illuminated by the Good.

I should add that not all authors in this volume of essays agree with me. There are some who argue that Plato’s treatment of the sophists is, indeed, too hostile.

Your abstract for the book states that Plato “appeals to the essentially human desire to seek truth and understand the order of things.” What do you mean by the “order of things”? How can this “order” be understood by contemporary man?

Actually, the central question in many of the Platonic dialogues is a very practical one — namely, what kind of life is a good life for human beings? For Plato, the good life is one that develops the virtues — particularly courage, moderation, wisdom, and justice. A virtuous person has a healthy soul, meaning that all of the parts of the soul function in harmony with one another. Reason rules over the emotions and desires with the help of the assertive part. This notion of harmony connects the good life for the human being to the order of things. Plato argues that the virtue of all things is a matter of regular and orderly arrangement. This also applies to communities and the universe as a whole. Remember that the Greek word kosmos means both universe and order.

Temperance, in particular, is an important virtue for human beings. It means that one abides by a certain measure given by nature. It is the same with health. We might wish that eating lots of greasy food were good for us, but the fact is that health requires moderation in what we eat. How much is right to eat is particular to each person, but it is not subjective. Keeping measure is the result of rational deliberation and experience. Plato speaks to this. In the Gorgias, he explicitly rejects hedonism — the idea that happiness depends on fulfilling as many desires as possible. Again, the message is that keeping the right measure is essential—and in keeping the right measure, one thereby participates in the ‘order of things,’ the cosmological order.

Fr. James Schall has written: “Augustine called it ‘pride’ when we see no order in the universe except that which we construct for ourselves.” Are the sophists fundamentally guilty of pride?

This is an interesting question. ‘Guilt’ is not a term that Plato would use since it implies a debt, and a debt is to someone. In Christian thinking, guilt obviously implies a debt to the Creator, which is an understanding that seems absent from Plato’s thinking. And yet the Ancients were obsessed with the notion that human beings, especially those in power, would transgress the natural order of things. This kind of pride — what the Greeks called hubris — means that the soul is arrogant, shameless, and unable to feel awe in the face of things (or beings) higher than itself. In this way, Platonic thinking is actually not far off from the Christian understanding.

In the Platonic dialogues, Callicles is one of the characters that embodies shamelessness. Callicles explicitly rejects the notion of a natural order in favor of natural anarchy in which the strongest dictates what is right. For Callicles, living according to nature means living without (self-)restraint. Callicles has political ambitions, and his shamelessness predicts a tyrannical abuse of power. For Socrates, such a life is a horrible life, for one’s self and for the people around you.

In answer to your question, we should note that Callicles himself is not a sophist. Rather, we may regard him as a product of the teachings of the sophists. The sophists and rhetoricians (such as Gorgias) provided ambitious and talented young men such as Callicles with both the philosophy and the tools to accumulate power and to abuse it for their own interest. We see sophistic relativism at work here. If all statements are merely opinions, feelings, perceptions or perspectives, then no opinion is better compared to another. Rather, it is only power and the clever use of words that can make an opinion ‘true.’ This perverse philosophy came from the sophists, and Plato shows the morally corrosive effect it has on the young — especially the young who were expected to take up important positions in the city-state.

A 1st century mosaic of Plato’s Academy from the Villa of T. Siminius Stephanus in Pompeii.

Could you explain the metaphor of a ‘mirror for our times’ which is the sub-title of your new book? Are we really living in an age that reflects the same struggle, the same problems — that is, “moral and cultural uncertainty” — that Plato grappled with?

When talking about Plato and the sophists to others, I have noticed that many people are attracted to the sophists because they recognize in them their own way of thinking. In Plato’s time, as in ours, there are many who deny the existence of truth or a higher order of being. So, yes, I think that there are clear parallels, but I also think that sophistry is a problem of all times, with greater or lesser consequences. In Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (1970), which we briefly discuss in this volume, Josef Pieper observes that “Plato recognized, identified, and battled in the sophistry of his time a danger and a threat besetting the pursuits of the human mind and the life of a society in any era.” This makes sense.

One way in which I think that Plato’s intellectual struggle with the sophist is particularly relevant and functions as a ‘mirror’ for our times is that culturally we are beset by the same kind of moral uncertainty that comes from the democratic principles of equality and freedom. Plato famously painted a picture of democracy in the Republic. This is a condition where donkeys roam the street, where children consider their parents as their equals, and where no one has respect for anyone. We do not have donkeys roaming the streets, unfortunately. But the principle of equality — and the resulting inability to talk intelligently about morality since absolute equality prohibits the making of distinctions (particularly distinctions between good and bad) — is very much present today.

This, together with the postmodern denial of truth, definitely causes moral uncertainty in our societies. Furthermore, our modern culture of appearances (as part of the world of commerce, entertainment, and social media) makes it more difficult for people to do what is necessary — namely, to make time for contemplation, dialogue, and friendship.

The abstract for the book points out that we inhabit a world in which “traditional certainties are undermined by a pervasive culture of relativism and individualism.” Would you say we are living in an age of generalized sophistry? Do sophists rule the world?

In Plato’s time, sophists were philosophers—or, in Plato’s eyes, quasi-philosophers — and professional teachers who created the appearance of truth rather than helping students to seek truth. In our day, there is something sophistic not just about certain kinds of intellectuals and teachers but about the mass media, the entertainment industry, and the commercialization of our societies. It is not just words that are used to manipulate but also—and perhaps especially so — images. The speed with which these developments have accelerated over the last few decades is disconcerting. And we are only beginning to understand what this does to our societies and to our happiness.

The people behind these developments — the communication specialists, advertising agents, big data, and artificial intelligence experts — insofar as they fail to embed their technologies in an understanding of the good, could be considered as the new sophists (apart from the traditional sophists that we encounter in fields of journalism, literature, schools, and academia). As Hegel put it in Lectures on the History of Philosophy, “sophistry is not so far away as one thinks.”

What is wrong with education in the West today? Is the root of the problem the fact that the Academy (broadly speaking) is “no longer focused [on] the development of character, the transmission of tradition, and the search for wisdom”? And what, if anything, can be done to reverse this course?

The education system in the West today largely relies on the Enlightenment paradigm of science that has separated fact from value, is from ought. In response, from time to time there is a kind of romantic rebellion against this way of viewing the world. Such a romantic rebellion has been flaring up over the last two decades and is strongly influenced by a kind of ‘social justice activism.’ Unfortunately, from the Platonic perspective, both paradigms are inaccurate or, at the very least, incomplete. They are not sufficient — and perhaps even fail — to understand the world as a whole. Furthermore, these paradigms find it difficult to talk to one another. The result is a fundamentally divided academic community.

A drawing of Plato by L. Vorsterman after P. P. Ruben, used for the cover of Cohen de Lara’s book. Image (Photo No. V0004701) courtesy of Wellcome Images / Wellcome Trust (UK), under the CCA 4.0 International license.

The classical understanding of truth — and of the path towards truth (with philosophy as an integrating discipline) — offers a solution. But it is not one that is widely shared in academia. I suppose we have to keep in mind that education has always been a matter of concern, and that those seeking truth have often been despondent in the face of an education system being too focused on teaching appearances and imparting the skills of producing appearances. (One need only think of Augustine’s critique of the Roman system of education.)

At the same time, any good teacher knows that, as Aquinas put it, there is something in human nature that loves truth and shuns ignorance. This intuition can often be obscured but never completely eliminated from human nature. Plato’s project is to appeal to the “divine spark” (as he calls it) in the human soul. To a greater or lesser extent, today’s academic environment may either aid or obstruct this appeal — but I’d argue that it remains the responsibility of the individual teacher to follow in Plato’s footsteps.  ◼︎