Plato and Platonism, the Works of Walter Pater, Vol. 6

Author: Walter H. Pater


[99] "SOPHIST," professional enemy of Socrates:—it became, chiefly through the influence of Plato, inheriting, expanding, the preferences and antipathies of his master, a bad name. Yet it had but indicated, by a quite natural verbal formation, the class of persons through whom, in the most effectual manner, supply met demand, the demand for education, asserted by that marvellously ready Greek people, when the youthful mind in them became suddenly aware of the coming of virile capacity, and they desired to be made by rules of art better speakers, better writers and accountants, than any merely natural, unassisted gifts, however fortunate, could make them. While the peculiar religiousness of Socrates had induced in him the conviction that he was something less than a wise man, a philosopher only, a mere seeker after such wisdom as he might after all never attain, here were the sophistai,+ the experts—wise men, who proposed to make other people as wise as themselves, wise in that sort of wisdom [100] regarding which we can really test others, and let them test us, not with the merely approximate results of the Socratic method, but with the exactness we may apply to processes understood to be mechanical, or to the proficiency of quite young students (such as in fact the Sophists were dealing with) by those examinations which are so sufficient in their proper place. It had been as delightful as learning a new game, that instruction, in which you could measure your daily progress by brilliant feats of skill. Not only did the parents of those young students pay readily large sums for their instruction in what it was found so useful to know, above all in the art of public speaking, of self-defence, that is to say, in democratic Athens where one’s personal status was become so insecure; but the young students themselves felt grateful for their institution in what told so immediately on their fellows; for help in the comprehension of the difficult sentences of another, or the improvement of one’s own; for the accomplishments which enabled them in that busy competitive world to push their fortunes each one for himself a little further, and quite innocently. Of course they listened.

"Love not the world!"—that, on the other hand, was what Socrates had said, or seemed to say; though in truth he too meant only to teach them how by a more circuitous but surer way to [101] possess themselves of it. And youth, naturally curious and for the most part generous, willing to undergo much for the mere promise of some good thing it can scarcely even imagine, had been ready to listen to him too; the sons of rich men most often, by no means to the dissatisfaction of Socrates himself, though he never touched their money; young men who had amplest leisure for the task of perfecting their souls, in a condition of religious luxury, as we should perhaps say. As was evident in the court-house at the trial of the great teacher, to the eyes of older citizens who had not come under his personal influence, there had been little to distinguish between Socrates and his professional rivals. Socrates in truth was a Sophist; but more than a Sophist. Both alike handled freely matters that to the fathers had seemed beyond question; encouraged what seemed impious questioning in the sons; had set "the hearts of the sons against the fathers"; and some instances there were in which the teaching of Socrates had been more conspicuously ruinous than theirs. "If you ask people at Athens," says Socrates in the Meno, "how virtue is to be attained, they will laugh in your face and say they don’t so much as know what virtue is." And who was responsible for that? Certainly that Dialogue, proposing to discover the essential nature of virtue, by no means re-establishes one’s old prepossessions about it in the vein of [102] Simonides, or Pindar, or one’s elders. Sophist, and philosopher; Protagoras, and Socrates; so far, their effect was the same:—to the horror of fathers, to put the minds of the sons in motion regarding matters it were surely best to take as settled once and for ever. What then after all was the insuperable difference between Socrates and those rival teachers, with whom he had nevertheless so much in common, bent like him so effectively, so zealously, on that new study of man, of human nature and the moral world, to the exclusion of all useless "meteoric or subterranean enquiries" into things. As attractive as himself to ingenuous youth, uncorrupt surely in its early intentions, why did the Sophists seem to Socrates to be so manifestly an instrument of its corruption?

"The citizen of Athens," observed that great Athenian statesman of the preceding age, in whom, as a German philosopher might say, the mobile soul of Athens became conscious,—"The citizen of Athens seems to me to present himself in his single person to the greatest possible variety (pleista eidê)+ of thought and action, with the utmost degree of versatility." As we saw, the example of that mobility, that daring mobility, of character has seemed to many the special contribution of the Greek people to advancing humanity. It was not however of the Greek people in general that Pericles was speaking at the beginning of the Peloponnesian [103] war, but of Athens in particular; of Athens, that perfect flower of Ionian genius, in direct contrast to, and now in bitter rivalry with, Sparta, the perfect flower of the Dorian genius. All through Greek history, as we also saw, in connexion with Plato’s opposition to the philosophy of motion, there may be traced, in every sphere of the activity of the Greek mind, the influence of those two opposing tendencies:—the centrifugal and the centripetal tendencies, as we may perhaps not too fancifully call them.

There is the centrifugal, the irresponsible, the Ionian or Asiatic, tendency; flying from the centre, working with little forethought straight before it in the development of every thought and fancy; throwing itself forth in endless play of undirected imagination; delighting in colour and brightness, moral or physical; in beautiful material, in changeful form everywhere, in poetry, in music, in architecture and its subordinate crafts, in philosophy itself. In the social and political order it rejoices in the freest action of local and personal influences: its restless versatility drives it towards the assertion of the principles of individualism, of separatism—the separation of state from state, the maintenance of local religions, the development of the individual in that which is most peculiar and individual in him. Shut off land-wards from the primitive sources of those many elements it was to compose anew, shut off from all the rest of the world, to [104] which it presented but one narrow entrance pierced through that rock of Tempe, so narrow that "in the opinion of the ancients it might be defended by a dozen men against all comers," it did recompose or fuse those many diverse elements into one absolutely original type. But what variety within! Its very claim was in its grace of movement, its freedom and easy happiness, its lively interests, the variety of its gifts to civilisation; but its weakness is self-evident, and was what had made the political unity of Greece impossible. The Greek spirit!—it might have become a hydra, to use Plato’s own figure, a monster; the hand developing hideously into a hundred hands, or heads.

This inorganic, this centrifugal, tendency, Plato was desirous to cure by maintaining over against it the Dorian influence of a severe simplification everywhere, in society, in culture, in the very physical nature of man. An enemy everywhere, though through acquired principle indeed rather than by instinct, to variegation, to what is cunning, or "myriad-minded" (as we say of Shakespeare, as Plato thinks of Homer) he sets himself in mythology, in literature, in every kind of art, in the art of life, as if with conscious metaphysical opposition to the metaphysic of Heraclitus, to enforce the ideal of a sort of Parmenidean abstractness, and monotony or calm.

This, perhaps exaggerated, ideal of Plato is [105] however only the exaggeration of that salutary, strictly European tendency, which, finding human mind, the human reason cool and sane, to be the most absolutely real and precious thing in the world, enforces everywhere the impress of its reasonable sanity; its candid reflexions upon things as they really are; its sense of logical proportion. It is that centripetal tendency, again, which links the individual units together, states to states, one period of organic growth to another, under the reign of a strictly composed, self-conscious order, in the universal light of the understanding.

Whether or not this temper, so clearly traceable as a distinct rival influence in the course of Greek development, was indeed the peculiar gift of the Dorian race, certainly that race, as made known to us especially in Lacedaemon, is the best illustration of it, in its love of order, of that severe composition everywhere, of which the Dorian style of architecture is as it were a material symbol, in its constant aspiration after what is dignified and earnest, as exemplified most evidently in the religion of its preference, the religion of Apollo.

Now the key to Plato’s view of the Sophists, Gorgias, Protagoras, Hippias, Prodicus, with their less brilliant followers—chosen educators of the public—is that they do but fan and add fuel to the fire in which Greece, as they wander [106] like ardent missionaries about it, is flaming itself away. Teaching in their large, fashionable, expensive schools, so triumphantly well, the arts one needed most in so busy an age, they were really developing further and reinforcing the ruinous fluidity of the Greek, and especially of the Athenian people, by turning it very adroitly into a conscious method, a practical philosophy, an art of life itself, in which all those specific arts would be but subsidiary—an all-supplementing ars artium, a master-art, or, in depreciatory Platonic mood one might say, an artifice, or, cynically, a trick. The great sophist was indeed the Athenian public itself, Athens, as the willing victim of its own gifts, its own flamboyancy, well-nigh worn out now by the mutual friction of its own parts, given over completely to hazardous political experiment with the irresponsibility which is ever the great vice of democracy, ever ready to float away anywhither, to misunderstand, or forget, or discredit, its own past.—

Or do you too hold like the many (asks Socrates in the sixth
book of The Republic) that a certain number are corrupted
by sophists in their youth; and that certain sophists,
irresponsible persons, corrupt them to any extent worth noting;
and not rather that those who say these things are the greatest
sophists; that they train to perfection, and turn out both old
and young, men and women, just as they choose them to be?—When,
pray? He asked.—When seated together in their thousands at the
great assemblies, or in the law-courts, or the theatres, or the
camp, or any other common gathering of the public, with much
noise the majority praise this and blame [107] that in what is
said and done, both alike in excess, shouting and clapping; and
the very rocks too and the place in which they are, echoing
around, send back redoubled that clamour of praise and blame.
In such case, what heart as they say, what heart, think you,
can the young man keep? or what private education he may have
had hold out for him that it be not over-flooded by praise or
blame like that, and depart away, borne down the stream,
whithersoever that may carry it, and that he pronounce not
the same thing as they fair or foul; and follow the same ways
as they; and become like them? Republic, 492.+

The veritable sophist then, the dynamic sophist, was the Athenian public of the day; those ostensible or professional Sophists being not so much its intellectual directors as the pupils or followers of it. They did but make it, as the French say, abound the more in its own sense, like the keeper (it is Plato’s own image) of some wild beast, which he knows how to command by a well-considered obedience to all its varying humours. If the Sophists are partly the cause they are still more the effect of the social environment. They had discovered, had ascertained with much acuteness, the actual momentum of the society which maintained them, and they meant only, by regulating, to maintain it. Protagoras, the chief of Sophists, had avowedly applied to ethics the physics or metaphysics of Heraclitus. And now it was as if the disintegrating Heraclitean fire had taken hold on actual life, on men’s very thoughts, on the emotions and the will.

That so faulty natural tendency, as Plato holds [108] it to be, in the world around them, they formulate carefully as its proper conscious theory: a theory how things must, nay, ought, to be. "Just that," they seem to say—"Just that versatility, that mutable spirit, shall become by adoption the child of knowledge, shall be carefully nurtured, brought to great fortune. We’ll make you, and your thoughts, as fluid, as shifty, as things themselves: will bring you, like some perfectly accomplished implement, to this carrière ouverte, this open quarry, for the furtherance of your personal interests in the world." And if old- fashioned principle or prejudice be found in the way, who better than they could instruct one, not how to minimise, or violate it—that was not needed, nor perhaps desirable, regarding what was so useful for the control of others—not that; but, to apply the intellectual solvent to it, in regard to one’s self? "It will break up,—this or that ethical deposit in your mind, Ah! very neatly, very prettily, and disappear, when exposed to the action of our perfected method. Of credit with the vulgar as such, in the solitary chamber of the aristocratic mind such presuppositions, prejudices or principles, may be made very soon to know their place."

Yes! says Plato (for a moment we may anticipate what is at least the spirit of his answer) but there are some presuppositions after all, which it will make us very vulgar to have dismissed from us. "There are moreover," [109] those others proceed to say, "teachers of persuasion (peithous didaskaloi)+ who impart skill in popular and forensic oratory; and so by fair means or by unfair we shall gain our ends." It is with the dêmos,+ with the vulgar, insubordinate, tag-rag of one’s own nature—how to rule that, by obeying it—that these professors of rhetoric begin. They are still notwithstanding the only teachers of morals ingenuous Greece is aware of; and wisdom, as seems likely, "must die with them!"—

Some very small number then (says the Platonic Socrates) is
left, of those who in worthy fashion hold converse with
philosophy: either, it may be, some soul of in-born worth and
well brought up, to which it has happened to be exiled in a
foreign land, holding to philosophy by a tie of nature, and
through lack of those who will corrupt it; or when it may
chance that a great soul comes to birth in an insignificant
state, to the politics of which it gives no heed, because it
thinks them despicable: perhaps a certain fraction also, of
good parts, may come to philosophy from some other craft,
through a just contempt of that. The bridle too of our
companion Theages has a restraining power. For in the case
of Theages also, all the other conditions were in readiness
to his falling away from philosophy; but the nursing of his
sickly body, excluding him from politics, keeps him back. Our
own peculiarity is not worth speaking of—the sign from heaven!
for I suppose it has occurred to scarce anyone before. And so,
those who have been of this number, and have tasted how sweet
and blessed the possession is; and again, having a full view
of the folly of the many, and that no one, I might say, effects
any sound result in what concerns the state, or is an ally in
whose company one might proceed safe and sound to the help of
the just, but that, like a man falling among wild beasts,
neither willing to share their evil deeds, nor sufficient by
himself to resist the whole fierce band, flung away before he
shall have done any service [110] to the city or to his own
friends, he would become useless both to himself and to others:
taking all this into consideration, keeping silence and doing
his own business, as one standing aside under a hedge in some
storm of dust and spray beneath a driven wind, seeing those
about him replete with lawlessness, he is content if by any
means, pure from injustice and unholy deeds, himself shall
live through his life here, and in turn make his escape with
good hope, in cheerful and kindly mood. (What long sentences
Plato writes!) Yet in truth, he said, he would make his escape
after not the least of achievements.—Nor yet the greatest, I
observed, because he did not light upon the polity fitted for
him: for, in that fitting polity, himself will grow to
completer stature, and, together with what belongs to him, he
will be the saviour also of the commonwealth. Republic, 496.+

Over against the Sophists, and the age which has sophisticated them, of which they are the natural product, Plato, being himself of a genius naturally rich, florid, complex, excitable, but adding to the utmost degree of Ionian sensibility an effectual desire towards the Dorian order and askêsis, asserts everywhere the principle of outline, in political and moral life; in the education which is to fit men for it; in the music which is one half of that education, in the philosophy which is its other half—the "philosophy of the ideas," of those eternally fixed outlines of our thought, which correspond to, nay, are actually identical with, the eternally fixed outlines of things themselves. What the difference (difference in regard to continuity and clearness) really is between the conditions of mind, in which respectively the sophistic process, and the genuinely philosophical or dialectic process, as [111] conceived by Plato, leave us, is well illustrated by the peculiar treatment of Justice, its proper definition or idea, in The Republic. Justice (or Righteousness, as we say, more largely) under the light of a comprehensive experience of it, carefully, diligently, adjusted to the nature of man on the one hand, of society on the other, becomes in the fourth book of The Republic, to ta hautou prattein+—to ta hautou prattein.+ There, then, is the eternal outline of Righteousness or Justice as it really is, equally clear and indefectible at every point; a definition of it which can by no supposition become a definition of anything else; impenetrable, not to be traversed, by any possible definition of Injustice; securing an essential value to its possessor, independently of all falsities of appearance; and leaving justice, as it really is in itself, unaffected even by phenomena so misrepresentative of it as to deceive the very gods, or many good men, as happened pre-eminently in the case of Socrates.

[112] Here then is the reply of the Platonic Socrates to the challenge that he should prove himself master of a more certain philosophy than that of the people, as represented by the old gnomic poet Simonides, "whom it is hard to disbelieve," (sophos gar kai theios anêr)+ on the one hand; than that of the Sophists on the other, as represented by Thrasymachus. "Show us not only that justice is a better thing than Injustice; but, by doing what (alla ti poiousa)+ to the soul of its possessor, each of them respectively, in and by itself (hautê di’ hautên)+ even if men and gods alike mistake it for its contrary, is still the one a good thing, the other a bad one."

But note for a few moments the precise treatment of the idea of Justice in the first book of The Republic. Sophistry and common sense are trying their best to apprehend, to cover or occupy, a certain space, as the exact area of Justice. And what happens with each proposed definition in turn is, that it becomes, under conceivable circumstances, a definition of Injustice: not that, in practice, a confusion between the two is therefore likely; but that the intellect remains unsatisfied of the theoretic validity of the distinction.

Now that intellectual situation illustrates the sense in which sophistry is a reproduction of the Heraclitean flux. The old Heraclitean physical theory presents itself as a natural basis for the moral, the social, dissolution, which the sophistical [113] movement promotes. But what a contrast to it, in the treatment of Justice, of the question, What Justice is? in that introductory book of The Republic. The first book forms in truth an eristic, a destructive or negative, Dialogue (such as we have other examples of) in which the whole business might have concluded, prematurely, with an exposure of the inadequacy, alike of common-sense as represented by Simonides, and of a sophisticated philosophy as represented by Thrasymachus, to define Justice. Note, however, in what way, precisely. That it is Just, for instance, to restore what one owes (to ta opheilomena apodidonai)+ might pass well enough for a general guide to right conduct; and the sophistical judgment that Justice is "The interest of the stronger" is not more untrue than the contrary paradox that "Justice is a plot of the weak against the strong."

It is, then, in regard to the claims of Justice, not so much on practice, as on the intellect, in its demand for a clear theory of practice, that those definitions fail. They are failures because they fail to distinguish absolutely, ideally, as towards the intellect, what is, from what is not. To Plato, for whom, constitutionally, and ex hypothesi, what can be clearly thought is the precise measure of what really is, if such a thought about Justice—absolutely inclusive and exclusive—is, after all our efforts, not to be ascertained, this can only be, because Justice is not [114] a real thing, but only an empty or confused name.

Now the Sophist and the popular moralist, in that preliminary attempt to define the nature of Justice—what is right, are both alike trying, first in this formula, then in that, to occupy, by a thought, and by a definition which may convey that thought into the mind of another—to occupy, or cover, a certain area of the phenomena of experience, as the Just. And what happens thereupon is this, that by means of a certain kind of casuistry, by the allegation of certain possible cases of conduct, the whole of that supposed area of the Just is occupied by definitions of Injustice, from this centre or that. Justice therefore- -its area, the space of experience which it covers, dissolves away, literally, as the eye is fixed upon it, like Heraclitean water: it is and is not. And if this, and the like of this, is to the last all that can be known or said of it, Justice will be no current coin, at least to the acute philosophic mind. But has some larger philosophy perhaps something more to say of it? and the power of defining an area, upon which no definition of Injustice, in any conceivable case of act or feeling, can infringe? That is the question upon which the essential argument of The Republic starts—upon a voyage of discovery. It is Plato’s own figure.

There, clearly enough, may be seen what the difference, the difference of aim, between Socrates [115] and the Sophists really was, amid much that they had in common, as being both alike distinguished from that older world of opinion of which Simonides is the mouthpiece.

The quarrel of Socrates with the Sophists was in part one of those antagonisms which are involved necessarily in the very conditions of an age that has not yet made up its mind; was in part also a mere rivalry of individuals; and it might have remained in memory only as a matter of historical interest. It has been otherwise. That innocent word "Sophist" has survived in common language, to indicate some constantly recurring viciousness, in the treatment of one’s own and of other minds, which is always at variance with such habits of thought as are really worth while. There is an every-day "sophistry," of course, against which we have all of us to be on our guard—that insincerity of reasoning on behalf of sincere convictions, true or false in themselves as the case may be, to which, if we are unwise enough to argue at all with each other, we must all be tempted at times. Such insincerity however is for the most part apt to expose itself. But there is a more insidious sophistry of which Plato is aware; and against which he contends in the Protagoras, and again still more effectively in the Phaedrus; the closing pages of which discover the essential point of that famous quarrel between the Sophists and Socrates or Plato, in regard to a matter which is [116] of permanent interest in itself, and as being not directly connected with practical morals is unaffected by the peculiar prejudices of that age. Art, the art of oratory, in particular, and of literary composition,—in this case, how one should write or speak really inflammatory discourses about love, write love- letters, so to speak, that shall really get at the heart they’re meant for—that was a matter on which the Sophists had thought much professionally. And the debate introduced in the Phaedrus regarding the secret of success in proposals of love or friendship turns properly on this: whether it is necessary, or even advantageous, for one who would be a good orator, or writer, a poet, a good artist generally, to know, and consciously to keep himself in contact with, the truth of his subject as he knows or feels it; or only with what other people, perhaps quite indolently, think, or suppose others to think, about it. And here the charge of Socrates against those professional teachers of the art of rhetoric comes to be, that, with much superficial aptitude in the conduct of the matter, they neither reach, nor put others in the way of reaching, that intellectual ground of things (of the consciousness of love for instance, when they are to open their lips, and presumably their souls, about that) in true contact with which alone can there be a real mastery in dealing with them. That you yourself must have an inward, carefully ascertained, measured, instituted hold [117] over anything you are to convey with any real power to others, is the truth which the Platonic Socrates, in strongly convinced words, always reasonable about it, formulates, in opposition to the Sophists’ impudently avowed theory and practice of the superficial, as such. Well! we all always need to be set on our guard against theories which flatter the natural indolence of our minds.

"We proposed then just now," says Socrates in the Phaedrus, "to consider the theory of the way in which one would or would not write or speak well."—"Certainly!"—"Well then, must there not be in those who are to speak meritoriously, an understanding well acquainted with the truth of the things they are to speak about?"—"Nay!" answers Phaedrus, in that age of sophistry, "It is in this way I have heard about it:— that it is not necessary for one who would be a master of rhetoric to learn what really is just, for instance; but rather what seems just to the multitude who are to give judgment: nor again what is good or beautiful; but only what seems so to them. For persuasion comes of the latter; by no means of a hold upon the truth of things."

Whether or not the Sophists were quite fairly chargeable with that sort of "inward lie," just this, at all events, was in the judgment of Plato the essence of sophistic vice. With them [118] art began too precipitately, as mere form without matter; a thing of disconnected empiric rules, caught from the mere surface of other people’s productions, in congruity with a general method which everywhere ruthlessly severed branch and flower from its natural root—art from one’s own vivid sensation or belief. The Lacedaemonian (ho Lakôn)+ Plato’s favourite scholar always, as having that infinite patience which is the note of a sincere, a really impassioned lover of anything, says, in his convinced Lacedaemonian way, that a genuine art of speech (tou legein etumos technê)+ unless one be in contact with truth, there neither is nor can be. We are reminded of that difference between genuine memory, and mere haphazard recollection, noted by Plato in the story he tells so well of the invention of writing in ancient Egypt.— It might be doubted, he thinks, whether genuine memory was encouraged by that invention. The note on the margin by the inattentive reader to "remind himself," is, as we know, often his final good-bye to what it should remind him of. Now this is true of all art: Logôn ara technên, ho tên alêtheian mê eidôs, doxas te tethêreukôs, geloion tina kai atexnon parexetai.+ —It is but a kind of bastard art of mere words (texnê atexnos)+ that he will have who does not know the truth of things, but has tried to hunt out what other people think about it. "Conception," observed an intensely personal, deeply stirred, poet and artist of our own generation: [119] "Conception, fundamental brainwork,- -that is what makes the difference, in all art."

Against all pretended, mechanically communicable rules of art then, against any rule of literary composition, for instance, unsanctioned by the facts, by a clear apprehension of the facts, of that experience, which to each one of us severally is the beginning, if it be not also the end, of all knowledge, against every merely formal dictate (their name is legion with practising Sophists of all ages) Peri brachylogias, kai eleeinologias, kai deinôseôs,+ concerning freedom or precision, figure, emphasis, proportion of parts and the like, exordium and conclusion:—against all such the Platonic Socrates still protests, "You know what must be known before harmony can be attained, but not yet the laws of harmony itself,"—ta pro tragôdias,+ Sophocles would object in like case, ta pro tragôdias, all’ ou tragika.+ Given the dynamic Sophoclean intention or conviction, and the irresistible law of right utterance, (anankê logographikê)+ how one must write or speak, will make itself felt; will assuredly also renew many an old precept, as to how one shall write or speak, learned at school. To speak pros doxan+ only, as towards mere unreasoned opinion, might do well enough in the law-courts with people, who (as is understood in that case) do not really care very much about justice itself, desire only that a friend should be acquitted, or an enemy convicted, irrespectively of it; but [120]

For the essence of all artistic beauty is expression, which cannot be where there’s really nothing to be expressed; the line, the colour, the word, following obediently, and with minute scruple, the conscious motions of a convinced intelligible soul. To make men interested in themselves, as being the very ground of all reality for them, la vraie vérité, as the French say:—that was the essential function of the Socratic method: to flash light into the house within, its many chambers, its memories and associations, upon its inscribed and pictured walls. Fully occupied there, as with his own essential business in his own home, the young man would become, of course, proportionately less interested, less meanly interested, in what was superficial, in the mere outsides, of other people and their occupations. With the true artist indeed, with almost every expert, all knowledge, of almost every kind, tells, is attracted into, and duly charged with, the force of what [121] may be his leading apprehension. And as the special function of all speech as a fine art is the control of minds (psychagôgia)+ it is in general with knowledge of the soul of man—with a veritable psychology, with as much as possible as we can get of that—that the writer, the speaker, must be chiefly concerned, if he is to handle minds not by mere empiric routine, tribê monon, kai empeiria alla technê,+ but by the power of veritable fine art. Now such art, such theory, is not "to be caught with the left hand," as the Greek phrase went; and again, chalepa ta kala.+ We have no time to hear in English Plato’s clever specimens of the way in which people would write about love without success. Let us rather hear himself on that subject, in his own characteristic mood of conviction.—

Try! she said (a certain Sibylline woman namely, from whose
lips Socrates in the Symposium is supposed to quote what follows)
Try to apply your mind as closely as possible to what I am going
to say. For he who has been led thus far in the discipline of
love, beholding beautiful objects in the right order, coming now
towards the end of the doctrine of love, will on a sudden behold
a beauty wonderful in its nature:—that, Socrates! towards which
indeed the former exercises were all designed; being first of all
ever existent; having neither beginning nor end; neither growing
or fading away; and then, not beautiful in one way, unbeautiful
in another; beautiful now, but not then; beautiful in this
relation, unlovely in that; to some, but not to others. Nor
again will that beauty appear to him to be beautiful as a face or
hands or anything else that belongs to the body; nor as any
kind of reasoning or science; nor as being resident in anything
else, as in a living creature or the earth or the sky or any
other [122] thing; but as being itself by itself, ever in a
single form with itself; all other beautiful things so
participating in it, that while they begin and cease to be, that
neither becomes more nor less nor suffers any other change.
Whenever, then, anyone, beginning from things here below, through
a right practice of love, ascending, begins to discern that other
beauty, he will almost have reached the end. For this in truth
is the right method of proceeding towards the doctrine of love,
or of being conducted therein by another,—beginning from these
beautiful objects here below ever to be going up higher, with
that other beauty in view; using them as steps of a ladder;
mounting from the love of one fair person to the love of two;
and from the love of two to the love of all; and from the love
of beautiful persons to the love of beautiful employments—kala
epitêdeumata+ (that means being a soldier, or a priest, or a
scholar) and from the love of beautiful employments to the love
of beautiful kinds of knowledge; till he passes from degrees of
knowledge to that knowledge which is the knowledge of nothing
else save the absolute Beauty itself, and knows it at length as
in itself it really is. At this moment of life, dear Socrates!
said the Mantinean Sibyl, if at any moment, man truly lives,
beholding the absolute beauty—the which, so you have once seen
it, will appear beyond the comparison of gold, or raiment, or
those beautiful young persons, seeing whom now, like many another,
you are so overcome that you are ready, beholding those beautiful
persons and associating ever with them, if it were possible,
neither to eat nor drink but only to look into their eyes and
sit beside them. What then, she asked, suppose we? if it were
given to any one to behold the absolute beauty, in its clearness,
its pureness, its unmixed essence; not replete with flesh and
blood and colours and other manifold vanity of this mortal life;
but if he were able to behold that divine beauty (monoeides)+
simply as it is. Do you think, she said, that life would be a
poor thing to one whose eyes were fixed on that; seeing that,
(hô dei)+ with the organ through which it must be seen, and
communing with that? Do you not think rather, she asked, that
here alone it will be his, seeing the beautiful with that through
which it may be seen (namely with the imaginative reason, ho
nous+) to beget no mere phantasms of virtue, as it is no phantom
he [123] apprehends, but the true virtue, as he embraces what is
true? And having begotten virtue (virtue is the child that will
be born of this mystic intellectual commerce, or connubium,
of the imaginative reason with ideal beauty) and reared it, he
will become dear to God, and if any man may be immortal he will
be. Symposium, 210.+

The essential vice of sophistry, as Plato conceived it, was that for it no real things existed. Real things did exist for Plato, things that were "an end in themselves"; and the Platonic Socrates was right:— Plato has written so well there, because he was no scholar of the Sophists as he understood them, but is writing of what he really knows.


99. +Transliteration: sophistai. Liddell and Scott definition: "at Athens, one who professed to make men wise."

102. +Transliteration: pleista eidê. Pater’s translation: "the greatest possible variety." Pater refers to the Funeral Oration given by Pericles to commemorate the Athenians who, to date, had died in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 2.41.1.

107. +Plato, Republic 492.

109. +Transliteration: peithous didaskaloi. Pater’s translation: "teachers of persuasion." Plato, Republic 365d.

109. +Transliteration: dêmos. Liddell and Scott definition: "the common people."

110. +Plato, Republic 496.

111. +Transliteration: to ta hautou prattein. Pater’s translation: "The doing, by every part . . . of its own proper business therein." The translation elaborates on the original, but captures its meaning accurately. Plato, Republic 433a-b.

111. +Transliteration: to ta hautou prattein. Pater’s translation: "The doing, by every part . . . of its own proper business therein." Plato, Republic 433a-b.

112. +Transliteration: alla ti poiousa. Pater’s translation: "but, by doing what. . ." Plato, Republic 367b.

112. +Transliteration: hautê di’ hautên. Pater’s translation: "in and by itself." Plato, Republic 367e.

113. +Transliteration: to ta opheilomena apodidonai. Pater’s translation: "to restore what one owes." Plato, Republic 331e and 332a.

118. +Transliteration: ho Lakôn. Liddell and Scott definition: "The Lacedaemonian [i.e., Spartan]."

118. +Transliteration: tou legein etumos technê. Pater’s translation: "a genuine art of speech." Plato, Phaedrus 260e.

118. +Transliteration: Logôn ara technên, ho tên alêtheian mê eidôs, doxas te tethêreukôs, geloion tina kai atexnon parexetai. E-text editor’s translation: "In the art of speaking, therefore, the person who does not know the truth, who has sought out only the opinions of others, will come by nothing better than a kind of unskilled jesting." Plato, Phaedrus 262c.

118. +Transliteration: texnê atexnos. Pater’s translation: "[a] bastard art of mere words." Plato, Phaedrus 260e.

119. +Transliteration: ta pro tragôdias, all’ ou tragika. E-text editor’s translation: "the things before tragedy, but not tragedy itself." Plato, Phaedrus 269a.

121. +Transliteration: psychagôgia. Pater’s translation: "the control of minds." The verb agô means "lead or drive." Plato, Phaedrus 261a and 271c.

121. +Transliteration: tribê monon, kai empeiria alla technê. Pater’s translation: "[not] by mere empiric routine, but by the power of veritable fine art." Plato, Phaedrus 270b.

122. +Transliteration: kala epitêdeumata. Pater’s translation: "beautiful employments." Plato, Symposium 211c.

122. +Transliteration: ho nous. Pater’s translation: "imaginative reason." The word nous or noos generally means "mind." Plato, Symposium 210-212.

123. +The passage Pater cites—Diotima’s speech about love—runs from 210-212a of the Symposium.


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Chicago: Walter H. Pater, "Chapter 5: Plato and the Sophists," Plato and Platonism, the Works of Walter Pater, Vol. 6 in Plato and Platonism, the Works of Walter Pater, Vol. 6 (London: Macmillan, 1900), Original Sources, accessed March 24, 2023,

MLA: Pater, Walter H. "Chapter 5: Plato and the Sophists." Plato and Platonism, the Works of Walter Pater, Vol. 6, in Plato and Platonism, the Works of Walter Pater, Vol. 6, London, Macmillan, 1900, Original Sources. 24 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Pater, WH, 'Chapter 5: Plato and the Sophists' in Plato and Platonism, the Works of Walter Pater, Vol. 6. cited in 1900, Plato and Platonism, the Works of Walter Pater, Vol. 6, Macmillan, London. Original Sources, retrieved 24 March 2023, from