The concept of truth in the Greeks requires mentioning first of all the immense figure of Plato. Plato occupies the position - by definition unique in the history of Western philosophy - of being its founder. There are many fragments, sometimes important, of "pre-Socratic" thinkers. Other philosophers, prior to or contemporary with Plato, are entitled to claim infra-paginals under the Policy or the Banquet. But the founding gesture of Western philosophy is indeed Plato's.
A brilliant, fertile, combative and authoritative mind, Plato bequeathed to Western thought his alphabet, his structure - and some persistent misunderstandings.
Philosophers versus Sophists
Let us recall the traditional opposition between philosophers, serving the truth, and vulgar sophists, teaching the art of convincing people of anything and everything, for money (horror! thinks the academic, even though he is paid by the taxpayer ;)).
This opposition, in its purity and its clash, is of course due to Plato, the demiurge of thought. In his "dialogues", Plato never ceased to fight against sophists, embodied in the characters of Protagoras, Gorgias or Callicles.
Plato-the pure and disinterested truth versus the sophists, the mercenaries of knowledge: this is the inaugural scene of Western thought, and of the concept of truth among the Greeks.
Three critiques of Plato
There are three reasons for questioning the relevance of this opposition.
Plato's dialogues are offered as a series of dialoguesThis is in contrast to the sophomoric mode of argumentation, which is that of the plea, the oration, the declamation. In short, the tirade, aimed at convincing the interlocutor through a kind of rhetorical dazzle.
1/ Caricatures of sophists
However, Plato's dialogues are never just with himself. Plato does not pretend to give an account of real dialogues, held in the peristyle of his school or in the public square. They are indeed, exclusively, Plato's 'dialogues' with Plato - that is, as many monologues.
In the absence of real dialogues, does Plato not try to reproduce the thoughts of his 'contradicts'?
The archetypal figure of the Sophist in the Platonic dialogues is Callicles, the synthesis of Sophistic thought. Callicles never existed; he is a pure product of Plato's imagination. Above all, Callicles supports a definition of truth so cartoonish - as the reason of the strongest, physically! - that no real sophist has ever been found to defend this borborygma. This reduction of truth to pure arbitrary. That a 12-year-old child would refute it without having to go through hundreds of pages of "dialogue" (Gorgias).
Formally amiable, open, pleasant and tolerant, the structure of the Platonic 'dialogues' appears as a simple stylistic choice. This does not inform the substance of the Platonic approach.
2/ An absolutist conception of truth
The second reason for questioning the Platonic dialogues is the concept of truth from which they proceed. There is hardly any truth, according to Plato, only Truth. Which enlightened minds - usually his own - must abstract from the mire of opinion, superstition and 'sophistry'.
Plato expressly opposes his concept of Truth to the 'relativism' with which he charges the Sophists. Thus Protagoras, already quoted, according to whom man is the measure of all things.
However, the Platonic concept seems not only objectivist - there is an objective truth beyond emotions and superstitions - but maximalist. Even 'imperialist', in that Plato identifies truth with beauty and goodness. What is true is beautiful; what is false cannot be beautiful. What is beautiful must be true and right, and it cannot be otherwise.
Thus Plato claims to enshrine in his monologues so many eternal and universal gems. These are the Ideas - and not vulgar subjective ideas - of the True, the Beautiful and the Good. An ambitious project!
No one would venture, nowadays, to support such a maximalist thesis; above all, so easily refutable.
Not only are the Beautiful and the True in no way "co-extensive" - identifiable - but the two notions are also alien, heterogeneous to each other. Who would dare to describe the beauty of a sculpture, a painting, a face or a landscape as true? Certainly, one can find "beautiful" the strength of a demonstration. The sets Beautiful and True share an intersection; but their essences are as foreign to each other as a blazing sunset is to accounting or judicial truth.
3/ Very localized truths
Finally, what are these truths that Plato claims to reveal? The concept of truth in the Greeks deserves some clarification! How many of these truths would be considered true today? Are the Greek gods truths? Is the identification of the true and the beautiful - and the just - a truth? The intrinsic superiority of an oligarchic regime over democracy, truth or opinion? Is the necessity of taking children away from their parents and placing them in the care of the government a truth? Is slavery true, beautiful, good and just?
Platonic truth seems as naive in concept as it is false and terribly 'situated' in its concrete derivations.
The whole of the Platonic work and approach thus appears to be an enterprise of persuasion in the service of an idiosyncratic worldview. A Weltanschauung using a thousand rhetorical tricks to adorn himself with the trappings of universal Truth in order to better convince his interlocutors.
Plato the sophist?
That is, the Platonic definition of Sophistics.
Let us beware, however, of reversing the terms of the opposition, by establishing the Sophists as the holders of the "true truth", against the most skilful rhetorical artificer of all times: Plato.
This inversion, which Friedrich Nietzsche constantly practised on all subjects, would be too easy - childish, in fact. For which sophists are we talking about? Do "sophists" deserve to be categorised as such?
For the time being, let us remember that the truth we are trying to persuade our interlocutor of deserves a richer and more nuanced definition than the kind of mathematical caricature offered by Plato and, with him, by most of the Western tradition.
What if the sophists were right?
From the observation of nature sophistry - In view of the fact that, in the sense of Plato's definition of truth, the Platonic dialogues and the manifest falsity of the 'ideal' concept of truth, it is tempting to consider a 'Nietzschean' inversion of the terms in question: what if the Sophists were right? What if the Sophistic concept of truth was indeed more truthful than the Platonic one?
The contribution of the post-modernists
Post-modern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault have carried out this project in a methodical, coherent and rational manner.
With brilliance, these authors have shown that the claim to universal truth, intangible in time and space, is an imposture, and to demand consequently the "deconstruction" of traditions, philosophies, practices, thoughts and institutions that claim to proceed from an objectifying vision of truth, beauty or goodness.
There is consistency in this approach. One is tempted to read in it the rebirth of a sophist approach in the best critical and sceptical sense of the term.
However, what is the concept of sophistry from which the post-moderns proceed? Is it the critical, rich and colourful concept of a Protagoras and a Prodicus?
Some thinkers argue that the category of 'sophists' does not exist. That the idea that there is a family of Sophistic thought is a Platonic sham. This polemic against Plato is excessive. The category of sophists is legitimate, rational and well-founded, in two ways. First, the sophists are indeed opposed to Plato, who claims to refute and surpass everything that precedes him. From this point of view, the category of sophists is simply convenient, and consistent with the acceptance of tradition. Above all, if the sophists diverge in substance - if only by their objects of study: language for one, the government of the city for another, truth for a third - they are united in the same critical, pragmatic, empirical vision of reality, marked by epistemological humility. The concept of truth among the Greeks, and the sophists in particular, certainly deserves better than the caricature offered by Plato!
Reinvention of the Platonic caricature of the sophists
Is this the sophistic concept from which the post-moderns proceed? Not at all, whatever they may have of it. In fact, when post-modernists rely on the sophistic view of reality, it is the caricature Platonic of the sophists that arises, again and again, that of a purely relativistic vision of reality.
Post-modernists are reinventors of relativism, according to which there is no truth, only opinions. In this conception, the very idea of 'reality' - as a reality independent of discourse - is rejected, mocked and ridiculed.
In conclusion, Plato's claim to embody the truth against the self-serving relativism of the sophists seems to be unfounded. And the sophists deserve better than the caricature that Plato and the post-modernists make of them!
Cogito Library, 2023. The concept of truth among the Greeks and the resources labelled 'Cogito Library' may be freely reproduced, quoted and copied, even in their entirety, on the sole condition that a hyperlink to the page of the borrowed resource is included.