The relevance of sophistry

Maria Bonomi, Girl with a Trombuda, woodcut, 50 x 25 cm, 1964.


Commentary on the book “Sophistic Essays”, by Barbara Cassin

“True philosophy laughs at philosophy” (Pascal).

under the title of Sophistic Essays, Barbara Cassin offers us four essays that do not limit themselves to restoring, with the finest instruments of philology, the style and vocation of sophistic in the Greek classical age or towards the end of Antiquity. Her essays do, it is certain, also, a work of history, returning sophistry to its native horizon. They also do so by suggesting a different reading from the one we are led to, without reflecting, by the inertia of an ancient tradition: the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition, which expels the sophist beyond the limits of sense and humanity.

But it is not just a question of doing justice to the sophists, or of generously adding one more dossier to the long process of “recovery”, now doubly secular, triggered by lawyers such as Hegel, Burkhardt, Grote, Gomperz, Dupréel and Untersteiner. It is, rather, the most perverse and subtle way, of showing the permanence of the old mechanisms of exclusion, between the lines of more or less recent texts, which promote the restoration of the dignity of the sophist and sophistic.

Let us reflect on the title of this beautiful book. The adjective “sophistic” does not only qualify the most visible object of the essays. Suggestion that could anger the reader: “But, how! So the author confesses, already on the cover of his book, that he is the work of a sophist? Yes and no, dear reader. Let's understand each other: more than a philological work, this book is the work of a philosophy that operates within the limits of philosophy itself, there where she communicates with her other or with non-philosophy (politics, literature, psychoanalysis and, at the limit, the real world).

The object of the essays is not just “historical sophistics”, so far removed from us in time, but above all sophistics understood as the “structural effect” of philosophy itself. If the Platonic-Aristotelian definition of philosophy, in the Parmenidian wake, as the “logical” capture of being, was able to keep itself alive through the centuries, it is not surprising that it has kept its other or your enemy (defined, from the outset, as nicknames, that is, lie, falsehood, simulacrum, ghost), something like a central “blind spot”, without which the philosopher’s clear gaze loses its lucidity or the limits of its field of vision.

In reality, the aim of this book is the division or separation between the rational and the irrational, coextensive with the entire history of philosophy. Everything happens as if classical Greek philosophy had forever imposed a conception decisive of reason, which transforms it into a cutting instrument. Let us remember that Plato already defined dialectics or philosophy (as opposed to sophistics) in comparison with the good butcher: one cuts the ox according to its “natural articulations”, the other divides ideas (or the real world) according to a mute syntax, older than our all-too-human language.

But, to cut things honestly with the use of logical-linguistic scissors, it is necessary to assume a clear and absolute cut, prior to any question, between words and things. For words to adequately describe things, without ambiguity or contradiction, they need to be placed as if at a distance from things, something like a logical-linguistic sky needs to provide the cohesion that our poor sublunary earth essentially lacks.

A requirement that somehow steals the thickness of our earthly speech. That same thickness that is revealed in the Nomos or in the political consensus that lacks any “natural” basis, in the productivity of the novel and poetry that freely constitute the world, or in the productivity of the pure signifier of the “logic of desire” (in Lacan, certainly, if not in Freud).

Recognizing the effectiveness of language, or the effectiveness of its materiality (beyond its semantic dimension) does not necessarily mean diving into the external darkness of unreason. It means placing oneself between philosophy and non-philosophy, between the philosopher and his shadow, in the transition between day and night, recognizing, with Plato himself, that there are similarities that endanger the identity of essences, “as that between the wolf and the dog, the wildest and the most domesticated”. A “family air” visible in the faces of the philosopher and the sophist.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth).

Published in the newspaper Folha S Paulo, on March 30, 1991.


Barbara Cassin. sophistic essays. Translation: Ana Lúcia de Oliveira and Lúcia Cláudia Leão. Sao Paulo, Sicilian, 1990.

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