Sophia and Philosophia


The following addendum to Plato’s Sophist was fabricated as a kind of experimental answer to a specific contextual question: What is the relation of Plato’s conception of philosophy to the practice of the agōn in Ancient Greece? For the “contest-system,”[1] to adopt Gouldner's phrase, has long been recognized as one of the salient features of Greek culture in the centuries leading up to Plato’s time.[2] Yet in the dialogues Plato never gives an explicit critique of the agōn the way he does other cultural phenomena, such as politics, poetry, rhetoric, education, etc. Many scholars have therefore concluded that Plato is more or less ambivalent toward the agōn as such, or, if anything, he “objects to the conventional Greek contest-system and usual economic virtues” in favor of a more rarefied account of the human good.[3] This conclusion seems to be derived in part from the fact that where Plato does mention agonistic activity and values, he seems to distance them from those of philosophy. One notable example is found in the Theaetetus, where Socrates warns his interlocutor that they would do well not to be like those sophistic “contestants” (ἀγωνισταί), who seem to care only about winning the argument, and says that they should rather pursue the truth in their inquiry as more prudent “lovers of wisdom” (φιλόσοφοι).[4] The distinction between true philosophers and mere sophistic contestants is here somewhat offhanded, but it anticipates a more in-depth and formal discussion in the Sophist—the dramatic action of which takes place the day after that of the Theaetetus. Interestingly, while Plato further confirms and elaborates upon the sophist as a contestant, he also provides an opportunity for the stark opposition between philosophy and agōn to be challenged. As it turns out, the sophist is only a particular kind of contestant, that is, one who engages in “fighting” (μαχητικόν), as opposed to “competition” (ἁμιλλητικόν).[5] But what distinguishes these two types of agōn? What are the characteristics of competition such that sophistry is not one of its kinds? Can it be that, just as sophistry is identified as a kind of fighting, philosophy can be characterized in terms of competition? Had Plato allowed his characters to survey these avenues of inquiry, the question of the relation between philosophy and the agōn would have a more definite answer. These questions, however, are left unexplored in the Sophist, and so they are taken up in the present addendum.