The God of Strangers: Plato’s Appropriation of Homer’s Odyssey in the Sophist

  Burger, Ronna. 2022. “The God of Strangers: Plato’s Appropriation of Homer’s Odyssey in the Sophist.” In “Poetic (Mis)quotations in Plato,” ed. Gwenda-lin Grewal. Special issue, Classics@ 22.

Socrates: Have you really then failed to observe, Theodorus, that in accordance with Homer’s speech it’s no stranger you lead but a kind of god? He asserts that not only do different gods accompany all those human beings who share in a just shame, but that also, in particular, the god of strangers proves not least to be their companion and looks down on the acts of outrage and of law-abidingness of human beings? So perhaps your stranger who attends you might also be one of the Mightier, come to look over and refute us who are poor in speeches, and is a kind of refutative god.
Theodorus: No, Socrates, this is not the stranger’s way. He’s more measured than those whose zeal is devoted to contentiousness. And the man, in my opinion, is in no way a god; he is, however, divine, for I address all the philosophers as of this sort.
Socrates: And beautifully, my friend. This genus, however, is in all probability scarcely much easier to discern than that of the god. For on account of the ignorance of everyone else, these men—those who not in a fabricated way but in their being are philosophers—certainly show up in all sorts of apparitions and “haunt the cities,” looking down from on high on the life of those below. And in the opinion of some they are worth nothing and of some everything, and at times they take on the apparitions of statesmen, and at times of sophists, and there are times when they give some the impression that they are altogether crazy.
Sophist 216a–b
So [the Cyclops] spoke, and the inward heart in us was broken
in terror of the deep voice and for seeing him so monstrous;
but even so I had words for an answer, and I said to him:
“We are Achaians coming from Troy, beaten off our true course. . .
but now in turn we come to you and are suppliants at your knees. . .
Stand in awe of the gods, O best of men. We are your suppliants,
and Zeus the god of strangers, who accompanies strangers with a sense of shame,
avenges any wrong toward strangers and suppliants.”
Odyssey 9.256–271
And this is the way one of these haughty young men would speak to him:
“Antinous, you did badly to hit the unhappy vagabond:
a curse on you if he turns out to be some god from heaven.
For the gods do take on all sorts of transformations, appearing
as strangers from elsewhere, and thus they haunt the cities,
looking down on outrage and law-abidingness of humans.”
Odyssey 17. 483–487 [1]
Plato’s Sophist opens with a double reference to the Odyssey, the first Socrates’ paraphrase with an explicit appeal to Homer, the second a partial quotation without ascription to the poet. The first comes from Book 9, in the tale Odysseus recounts of his terrifying encounter with the cannibal Cyclops. The second comes from Book 17, where we find Odysseus back in his own palace, disguised as a beggar, humiliated by Antinous, the worst of the suitors. In the first reference, Socrates evokes Odysseus exhorting the Cyclops to fear Zeus Xenios, the guest god who requites wrong done to strangers and suppliants. In the second, Socrates alludes to the speech of an anonymous suitor warning Antinous that the beggar he has mistreated may be one of the gods who appear among us in the guise of strangers. Actually, Socrates remixes the two separate passages: he inserts into Odysseus’ speech about the punitive god of strangers the claim by the anonymous suitor about the gods’ watching over human acts of outrage and law-abidingness. Once that function is removed, what is left from the young suitor’s speech for Socrates’ second reference is the idea of the gods’ shifting shapes as they roam through the cities.
The Homeric passages revised this way set the stage for Plato’s Sophist and Statesman—the last two conversations before Socrates’ trial and death, in which his usual role is taken over by a Stranger. Both episodes in the Odyssey involve three figures: one individual who warns another to be wary of his criminal behavior in the eyes of a hidden god. Odysseus’ speech to the Cyclops about that god as an avenger is adopted by Plato, this essay will suggest, as a template for the roles of three characters—Socrates, Theodorus, and the Stranger—thus setting up the “action” of his paired dialogues. Their underlying argument is indicated by Socrates’ use of the young suitor’s speech, comparing the gods in their transformations to the being of the philosopher behind his apparitions, in particular, sophist and statesman.
While Plato frames the action and the argument of these dialogues through Socrates’ double reference to Homer, he brings to light at the same time an understanding of the Odyssey and its fundamental structure: Odysseus’ narrative of his fantasy adventures in the first half, we are led to see, is mirrored by the reality of the domestic and political situation he faces back home, in the second half. The Odysseus of Book 9 is the “man of many ways, who was driven far journeys,” telling the story of many “whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of” and many “pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea” (1.1–4). His reflections on everything he encountered and learned colors Homer’s dramatization of events once Odysseus returns to take back his wife and his estate. Plato alerts us to that relation encapsulated in the wicked suitor Antinous replacing the cannibalistic giant, and the young man who rebukes him taking the part of Odysseus threatening the Cyclops.

The Odyssey

On the island of the Phaiakians in Book 9, Odysseus recounts to King Alcinous and Queen Arete his adventures returning from Troy. Among these, his encounter with the monstrous Cyclops proves to be an extraordinary test of the relation between Odysseus’ reason and his anger. He indicates, in the course of his report, not only his terror and fury, but also the cunning and control he exercised, while only hinting at his responsibility for the terrible situation: although he anticipated in his “proud heart” that they would confront a savage of tremendous strength, with no acknowledgement of laws or good customs (213–15), Odysseus brings twelve of his best men along with him into the cave of the Cyclops, then once inside, still driven by curiosity, resists their pleading to leave. Their “inward heart” was broken, Odysseus admits, at the sight of the one-eyed giant and the sound of his deep voice, but he managed to explain that they were on their way home from the Trojan War, led astray time and again by the will of Zeus. And now, he entreats the Cyclops, we are “suppliants at your knees,” seeking the hospitality that is the right of strangers. Show awe (aideio) for the gods, Odysseus threatens, for Zeus the guest-god, attending strangers who share a sense of shame, takes vengeance on wrong done to strangers and suppliants. “In pitiless spirit,” the giant tells Odysseus he’s a simple fool if he thinks any of the Cyclopes would care a whit about Zeus or other gods, being themselves far better. He only wants to know where their ship is docked—they will never leave his island! Not deceived, Odysseus makes up a story about Poseidon shattering the ship. But the giant has no more words. Grabbing two of the men, he “slapped them, like killing puppies, against the ground, and the brains ran all over the floor, soaking the ground.” Cutting them up limb by limb, he ate them, “like a lion reared in the hillside,” devouring “entrails, flesh, and the marrowy bones alike” (289–293). Though they cried out and held up their hands to Zeus, Odysseus and his men were helpless.
After filling his belly with flesh and drinking his pure milk, the cannibal falls into a deep sleep. Then, forming a plan “in his great-hearted spirit,” Odysseus draws his sword to slay the monster, but he was held back, he relates, by a “second thought,” realizing they would never be able to move the rock at the opening of the cave and get away. Later in Ithaca, lying at night in his own palace unknown, infuriated by the sight of the slave women going to sleep with the suitors, Odysseus suddenly realizes that any precipitous action would ruin his primary purpose. He succeeds in holding himself back from acting out of passionate anger by recollecting his experience with the Cyclops, when self-control made it possible for him to carry out an effective act of punishment (20.18–21). (Socrates cites this passage in his analysis of the soul, Republic 441b–c, to illustrate the possibility of calculation [logismos] mastering spiritedness [thumos].) Odysseus exercises his clever mind when he answers the Cyclops’ demand to learn his “famous name”: “Nobody is my name” (outis, punning on mētis, wisdom). The Cyclops responds in “pitiless spirit” with the promise of his guest gift: “Then I will eat Nobody after his friends, and the others I will eat first” (364–370). But when he bellows in agony after Odysseus has put out his eye, and his neighbors wonder what mortal could possibly be killing him by force or treachery, he can only call out from inside his cave: “Nobody is killing me by force or treachery” (406–408). Odysseus’ cunning self-control, however, which made it possible to escape, is defeated at the last moment, as he sails off in his ship with his remaining men and shouts “in the anger of his heart” to the Cyclops on shore: “If any mortal man ever asks. . . tell him that you were blinded by Odysseus, sacker of cities” (502–504). The Cyclops suddenly remembers a prophecy about his fate at the hands of some “Odysseus” and he calls upon Poseidon, “if truly I am your son,” to prevent this man from returning to Ithaca, or at least only after many disasters, losing all his companions, and finding troubles in the household (528–535).
Odysseus’ mission once he does arrive back home is set in motion in Book 16 when, in the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus, he reveals himself to his initially skeptical son. They devise a plan to meet on the next day in the palace, where they will encounter the “insolent suitors” (16.270–273). In the morning, disguised as a wandering beggar, Odysseus is led there by the loyal swineherd, who does not know his true identity. Once they enter the palace, where the suitors have gathered for a feast, Telemachus hands the swineherd a basket with bread and meat, which he is to give the stranger, bidding him to go about begging among the suitors, urging “Shame is no good comrade for a man in need” (17.342–347, trans. Murray; cf. Charmides 161a). Eumaeus repeats the message to Odysseus, with a slight variation—“Shame is no good thing for a beggar man” (352, trans. Murray)—which captures in a word his own perception of the stranger in contrast with that of Telemachus, who sees behind the beggar’s veneer the true need his father is facing. Athena adds another dimension when she comes in secret to the side of Odysseus with her own counsel to beg from the suitors and learn which are righteous and which lawless, although, we are told, she has no intention to save any from ruin (360–364).
As Odysseus circulates among them, the suitors are moved by pity and give him food, all except one—Antinous who, according to Penelope, “beyond the rest is like black death” (500). When Antinous rebukes the swineherd for bringing a dirty vagabond to the palace, Telemachus urges Eumaeus to pay no attention, but then levels his own accusation against the wicked suitor, who responds by kicking his footstool away. Finally, the wandering stranger speaks for himself, constructing yet another story, this time of the misfortunes in Egypt that brought him to his present condition. Antinous is not impressed. Growing ever more furious, “looking at him from under his brows,” he throws his footstool at the beggar, hitting him in the shoulder. Odysseus stands up to it steady as a rock, while shaking “his head in silence, deeply devising evils” (462–465). “If there are any gods or any furies for beggars,” he declares, “Antinous may find his death before he is married” (475–476). The presumptuous beggar must leave, Antinous threatens him, or “the young men might take you and drag you by hand or foot through the house, and tear the skin on your body” (479–480). All the rest of the suitors are alarmed by Antinous’ violent temper: we are being prepared for the situation Odysseus is about to face, when the necessity of slaying all the suitors will not allow him to discriminate the guilty from the innocent. In the end an unnamed suitor—representative of all—expresses his unease: if the “the unhappy vagabond” turns out to be some god from heaven, Antinous is cursed, for the gods appear in all sorts of shapes, in the likeness of strangers, roaming through the cities, watching over human outrage or law-abidingness (483–487).
Both episodes in the Odyssey turn on the theme of guest-friendship and treatment of the stranger, but in different forms, which reflect the distinct perspectives of the two halves of the poem. Odysseus’ narration of his fantasy adventures exhibits an interest—which the poet must share—in understanding the nature of things, of human beings in all their diversity. Back home in Ithaca Odysseus must accomplish a mission he sees either as just punishment of the suitors or as a political necessity or both. Given this difference between the two halves of the Odyssey, it is striking to find in each a “theology” that seems to display a contrary character: the idea of a punitive god makes its appearance in the theoretical context of the first half and contemplative gods in the practical-political context of the second. Of course, Odysseus’ appeal to the avenging Zeus belongs to a rhetorical address meant to intimidate the Cyclops. And the young suitor, invoking a curse on Antinous, highlights the human acts of violence or lawfulness that the gods survey. But Socrates’ allusion to that speech in the beginning of the Sophist, with its moral content removed, opens up a different viewpoint—the theoretical problem of recognizing a disguised god. And the analogy Socrates proposes to the philosopher, as the paradigm case of hidden being behind appearances, introduces the issue that lies at the core of the Sophist.

The Sophist

Plato’s Sophist is the central dialogue in a trilogy, Theaetetus—Sophist—Statesman. (Actually, according to the task Socrates assigns to the Stranger at the opening of the Sophist, it should be the second dialogue in a promised quartet, to be followed by the Statesman and completed by The Philosopher—the plan Theodorus confirms at the opening of the Statesman [257a–b].) The trilogy, with its missing fourth, belongs in turn to the series of seven dialogues set in the context of Socrates’ trial and death. That series is initiated by the conversation Socrates conducts with the young mathematician Theaetetus and his teacher Theodorus, devoted to the question, What is knowledge? All those who were present for that conversation reconvene the following day at the opening of the Sophist, only this time Theodorus has brought along an unnamed Stranger from Elea, a Parmenidean, whom he considers “a very philosophic man.” It is his worry about the identity of this guest that incites Socrates to appeal to Homer’s gods concealed in human shape, who accompany those partaking in “just shame” (aidous dikaias, Sophist 216b). Zeus Xenios, in particular, attends strangers with a sense of shame (xeinoisin aidoioisin; Odyssey 9.271), looking down on human acts of outrage and law-abidingness, Socrates adds, borrowing the last words of the young suitor’s speech to Antinous in Book 17. So Theodorus’ Stranger may be “one of the Mightier,” Socrates fears, come to punish them for being “poor in speeches.” With this self-recrimination, Socrates expresses his worry about the Stranger as “some kind of refutative god.”
Theodorus rejects Socrates’ concern along with his poetic language: it is no god he has brought with him, though he calls the Stranger, like all philosophers, “divine.” Socrates pounces on the mathematician’s literal-minded correction to introduce another problem, now turning to the rest of the young suitor’s claim about the gods who take on all sorts of transformations as they roam through the cities. The Stranger may not be a god in disguise, but it is just as hard, Socrates asserts, to recognize the philosophers in their being—more precisely, behind their appearing at times as sophists and at times as statesmen, while sometimes giving the impression of being crazy. At the center of the dialogue the Stranger will realize he must attack his intellectual father Parmenides and he worries that, if the compulsion of the argument is not understood, he will appear crazy in doing so (242a–b). Like the impression of being crazy, the shifting shape of the philosopher as sophist or statesman is a mistaken appearance in the eyes of the ignorant. The actual sophist, we will learn, intentionally clothes himself in a deceptive semblance; that seems especially true of the greatest enchanters, “the sophists of sophists,” who turn out to be, as the Stranger discovers in the next conversation, the political rulers in all actual cities, in their imitation of the true statesman or king (Statesman 303b–d). The sophistic appearance of the philosopher, in contrast, is not a deliberate deception, but a phantom image as he comes to sight for those who do not know who or what he is.
Socrates’ truncated citation of the young suitor’s speech about the transformations of the gods opens up the question, What or Who is the philosopher? With that, the task of the inquiry can be assigned to the Stranger (216d–217a): if it is pleasing to him, Socrates would like to know “what those in that place” (the Eleatics? the philosophers looking down from on high?) “believe and name these” (as Socrates has to explain to Theodorus: sophist, statesman, philosopher). To Theodorus’ further query, What about them?, Socrates clarifies his question as a quantitative one: Did they consider them one, two, or, like their names, three? Without consulting him at all, Theodorus offers the Stranger’s willingness to take on the assignment. But while the Stranger can immediately answer “three,” he fears that explaining “whatever each is” would be no small task. The simple answer reveals the affinity of Parmenidean thought with mathematics: units that can be simply counted up pose no problem of a structure like the one Socrates found, on a Homeric basis, of a single being with a manifold appearance. The Socratic “What is it?” question, on the other hand, as the Stranger admits, poses a real challenge.
The Stranger is making excuses now, Theodorus complains to Socrates, as he had earlier when they were engaged, it so happens, in a similar discussion on their way to the present gathering. Socrates presses their guest not to refuse this first favor the group is asking of him; the only issue is how the inquiry will be conducted. The free choice Socrates seems to offer actually puts the Stranger on the spot: Are you usually more pleased to deliver a long speech yourself, or to proceed through questions?—as on the occasion, Socrates recollects, in his youth when he heard the aged Parmenides conduct “all-beautiful speeches” through questioning. In the logical “gymnastic” of that conversation (Parmenides 135c, 136c), the venerable philosopher hardly seemed to take seriously the views of his youthful interlocutor, and the Stranger now reveals his Parmenidean heritage: questioning through dialogue is easier as long as the other participates painlessly and in good will, but if not—if he doubts or resists—it’s easier by oneself. Socrates assures him everyone present would respond gently, but he especially recommends Theaetetus.
The Stranger confesses feeling shame, coming together with this group for the first time, if he were simply to deliver a long speech by himself or in reply to another, as if making a display (epideixis, 217d)—apparently even in relation to another this would be a display. As he introduces it here, the Stranger’s way of proceeding—in contrast with Socrates’—seems to involve no interest in the soul of the interlocutor. That impression will be put into question in the course of the two conversations ahead; in fact, it is possible that the Stranger’s way may prove more effective than Socrates’ did in his conversation with Theaetetus. At the moment, though, the Stranger stresses that the issue before them really requires a monologue. On the other hand, refusing to gratify Socrates and the others would appear unfriendly, “unbecoming a stranger (axenon) and savage.” So in the end, apparently in some conflict with his harsh and unsocial inclination, he accepts Theaetetus as an interlocutor.
This opening exchange about the conduct of the inquiry already hints at the interaction of Socrates, Theodorus, and the Stranger modeled on Odysseus’ speech to the Cyclops. While Socrates in his own voice indicates the primary application of that model, the ambiguous roles of Plato’s three characters point to multiple possibilities (see the Appendix at the end of this essay). Those potential applications, even as counterfactuals, furnish clues to the motives and intentions of the mathematics teacher who struggled with Socrates in the conversation of the previous day and the Parmenidean philosopher he has brought with him on this occasion. The issue goes beyond their individual character to their significance as representatives of alternatives over against which Socratic political philosophy must establish itself. Can mathematics defend its implicit claim to be the single, or the best paradigm of knowledge? Is the Eleatic “method” indeed a refutation of the Socratic practice of examination of opinion, based on knowledge of soul? The implications of the Homeric passage should be traced at they unfold together with those questions in the course of the Sophist and the trilogy as a whole; but a few suggestions may provide a glimpse of how Plato refashions the poet’s insights for his own purposes.
Socrates’ explicit paraphrase of Homer ought to imply his self-identification as Odysseus, addressing Theodorus as the Cyclops, about the Stranger as a disguised god with punitive intentions (Appendix 1a). The suitability of this role for Theodorus is first suggested by the way he introduces Socrates to his star student in the conversation of the day before. Worried that his high praise could be construed as a sign of his desire, the blunt mathematician makes sure to note that Theaetetus is not beautiful—in fact, he begs Socrates’ indulgence, with his snub nose and bulging eyes, the young man bears a close resemblance to you (Theaetetus 143e)! As the discussion proceeds Theodorus pushes Theaetetus forward with little concern for his consent, while repeatedly struggling himself to escape from Socrates’ examination of his opinions—bound to be disastrous for a teacher of geometry who is attracted to Protagoras’ sophistic relativism (see especially 170d–171c).
Socrates speaks to Theodorus then, perhaps understandably, as Odysseus addresses the Cyclops. Yet the philosopher’s worry about the impending punishment of “those of us poor in speeches” must mean above all himself (1b). Socrates is alluding to the apparent self-critique he shared with Theaetetus the day before, when he noted how shameless it must seem to have been using words like “to know” or “knowledge” in their attempt to answer the question, What is knowledge?, when they don’t even know what those words mean. Theaetetus does not question Socrates’ claim that their dialogue has been tainted with impurity, but he wonders how it would be possible to proceed without that. A contradictor (antilogikos), Socrates admits, would never allow them to go forward, but being so “poor,” he is ready in their inferior condition to dare to say what it is to know. “Dare, by Zeus!, Theaetetus urges (197a). It is that state of being so “poor in speeches,” Socrates now fears, that has brought the Stranger to refute him.
Socrates’ judgment of his conversation with Theaetetus—the last theoretical investigation he leads before his trial and death—appears to be a very dark assessment. After all, he was unable, not only to define knowledge, but even to give an account of how false opinion is possible—a more devastating problem for his lifelong practice of philosophy. It looks as if Socrates is obsessed with this apparent failure: even after listening to the two inquiries led by the Stranger, after his trial and during his days in prison awaiting death, he is occupied retelling his conversation with Theaetetus to its future narrator (Theaetetus 142c–143a).
Socrates’ apparently harsh self-critique late in his conversation with Theaetetus is anticipated in the initial account he gives of his practice as a midwife of ideas. Socrates entreats Theaetetus not to get angry if he has to submit to the midwife’s judgment of any of his ideas as a mere image and not true—like a woman who would get angry losing her first child at birth. In fact, Socrates admits, many of those whose offspring he takes away are almost ready to bite him (Theaetetus 151c–d)! The Stranger recalls this image of the midwife when, in his search for the sophist, he arrives at an art of separating better from worse, in the particular form of a purification of soul. Far from confirming Socrates’ self-portrait, however, the Stranger presents a very different picture: those treated by this art, if they are found to be in a state of self-contradiction, grow angry with themselves and gentle towards the one who has released them from their rigid opinions, blessed, as the Stranger concludes, by this greatest and most sovereign of all purifications (Sophist 230b–e). Is the Stranger, with this account, questioning Socrates’ self-recrimination? Or is he suggesting a revised practice that would be more effective, less harmful both to Socrates and the one he treats?
Socrates’ confession, in any case, of being “poor in speeches” seems to place himself in the role of the Cyclops whom the Stranger has come to punish. Yet, as Socrates clarified for Theaetetus, it was precisely their inferior condition that enabled them to push forward with their inquiry, while they would have been stopped in their tracks by a “contradictor”—the most conspicuous form of the sophist, as it turns out (Sophist 232b, cf. 225b). If the Stranger has come to refute Socrates, he would be that contradictor, a Cyclopean sophist standing in the way of philosophic inquiry. The Stranger suggests that potential role right at the outset when he admits how much his willingness to engage in dialogue is motivated by shame at his natural inclination for monologue, which would appear unfriendly (axenos) and harsh. Then, at the center of the Sophist, we hear the Stranger condemning his own criminality, only the victim is not Socrates and the others; the target is his father Parmenides, whom the Stranger must “kill” when the hunt for the sophist makes it necessary for non-being to be (241d). If Socrates is an Odysseus issuing an admonition to the Stranger, he would be cautioning him to be on the lookout, either for Theodorus’ punitive motive in setting up this gathering (1c) or for his own part in assigning the task the Stranger must undertake, which involves an act of intellectual parricide (1d).
It is not only Socrates, however, who fits the role of an Odysseus warning the criminal against the presence of a punitive deity. Theodorus could be said to play that part when he levels his accusation against the Stranger for making excuses about not taking up the investigation, though he had not forgotten what he heard among the Eleatics about these matters (Sophist 217b): the mathematician speaks as though the answer to the Socratic question is something the Stranger should be able to recite from memory, and he blames him for not being more forthcoming. With an eye to this inhospitable behavior, Theodorus could be cautioning the Stranger that he has already set him up for punishment (2a), or more likely, advising him to be on guard for Socrates as the “refutative god” who exercises his indirect control by establishing the question the Stranger is to address in the forthcoming discussion (2b).
Indeed, Socrates himself indicated this identity in the conversation the day before, when he explained his distinctive practice of midwifery, which could assist Theaetetus with the “labor pains” of his perplexities. Socrates describes his art of helping young men give birth to ideas by analogy with female midwives, except he differentiates himself in one regard. Only women who are past childbearing, not barren women, become midwives, for while Artemis, the goddess of childbirth, is herself childless, human nature is too weak to acquire an art without prior experience. Socrates, in contrast, practices his art of midwifery though he is himself barren, with no progeny of his own soul (Theaetetus 150c): if Socrates possesses an art of refuting ideas, but no human can acquire an art without experience, Socrates must be a “refutative god”! Socrates confirms this suggestion when he expresses his hope that, if he has to take some foolish notion away, Theaetetus will not be indignant like so many others, who just don’t realize that no god is unkind to humans (Theaetetus 151c–d)!
Theodorus may have reasons for cautioning the Stranger to be wary of inciting Socratic punishment. But whatever distrust of the Stranger Theodorus may harbor, it pales in contrast with his view of Socrates as the guilty party. When Theodorus introduces his guest from Elea as “a very philosophic man,” he assures an apprehensive Socrates that the Stranger is more measured than those who are fanatically contentious—a characteristic sign of the sophist (Sophist 225e). It is a trait Theodorus must associate with Socrates, having compared him to the mythical giant Antaeus, who would not let anyone pass by freely and escape from wrestling with him (Theaetetus 169b). The teacher of mathematics has been shown so little of the respect he thinks he deserves from this Cyclopean zealot in contentiousness. Theodorus might be ready to warn Socrates, then, of the punishment he should expect from him (2c), or from the divine philosopher he has brought along with him for this purpose (2d).
Another set of possibilities opens up with the Stranger playing the part of Odysseus. Having become acquainted with Theodorus and Theaetetus in their earlier conversation, the Stranger might recognize the resentment the mathematics teacher feels about the way he was treated on the previous day by Socrates. He could feel obligated, in that case, to forewarn Socrates of his Cyclopean character in the eyes of Theodorus, who would be intending to take revenge (3a). Of course, the Stranger could certainly consider the possibility of there being good grounds for Socrates’ punitive treatment of Theodorus the previous day, which might lead him to alert the mathematician to its potential continuation (3b). But perhaps the most important application of the Homeric passage, if the Stranger is placed in the role of Odysseus, would be the anticipation of his own implicit evaluation of Socrates, or Socratic philosophy, in the forthcoming investigation (3c).
As he puts to work his method of division, the Stranger repeatedly uncovers Socrates in the same class as the sophist, at least until the final cut on each branch: the art of contradiction, for example, once focused on eristics, is split only at the last step between the money-making practitioner and the money-wasting “loquacious” one (adoleschikos, 225d)—a term Socrates applies to himself in his investigation of false opinion (Theaetetus 195b–c; cf. Statesman 299b). The first phase of the Sophist divisions ends with the Stranger distinguishing his own method, separating like from like, and the Socratic way, separating better from worse (Sophist 226d, cf. 227a–c). His account of this practice of purification concludes by designating the Socratic midwife a sophist, albeit a noble one (Sophist 231b). The identification of this figure as a sophist is due, admittedly, to Theaetetus’ judgment, while the Stranger does his best to vindicate Socrates by including the qualification “noble.” But in doing so, he violates his own method and must have recourse to the discrimination of better and worse that was the mark of the Socratic way. This step reverses the Homeric roles: the Stranger would be charging himself, anticipating the failure of his distinctive method, while identifying Socrates as the “refutative god” hovering on the horizon who brings that to light (3d).
The insinuations of the Homeric passage about relations among Theodorus, Socrates, and the Stranger—the individual characters and what they represent—remain alive in the third dialogue of Plato’s trilogy. The Statesman opens with Socrates expressing gratitude to the mathematics teacher for enabling his acquaintance with Theaetetus and the Stranger as an audience of their search for the sophist. But when Theodorus promises he will be three times more grateful once they have gone through the statesman and philosopher, Socrates mocks “the great calculator and geometer,” who thinks of the three having equal value. Theodorus accepts Socrates’ playful abuse, while threatening to get back at him some other time (257a–b).
The same critique could be leveled against the Stranger’s method of division, which only separates like from like, with no concern for better and worse. In assuming everything to be of equal value, it would be no more capable than Theodorus’ mathematics of discovering the statesman, whose architectonic knowledge is what entitles him to rule. His “pursuit of speeches,” the Stranger reminds Young Socrates, cares no more for the august than what is not: it leads him to find the king as a herdsman, distinguished only by presiding over a two-footed herd from the swineherd with his four-footed one (Statesman 266c–d). The Stranger’s way of proceeding looks as incapable of discovering the philosopher behind his phantom appearances as it is of bringing the royal art to light.
The Stranger himself puts his method into question at two crucial moments in the pair of conversations he conducts. At the center of the Sophist, the intellectual parricide he commits against his Parmenidean heritage allows him to recognize the being of non-being in the form of the other (241d–242b, cf. 258b–259b). That discovery not only enables him to offer an account of images and falsehood; it furnishes the assumption that seems to be necessary for the division of kinds he had been practicing all along, which should be precluded by a Parmenidean one. The division that sets off a determinate being by contrast with its “other” depends, rather, on an ontology entailed by the Socratic “What is it?” question. The Stranger recalls that central point of his search for the sophist at the center of the Statesman, where he introduces a new discovery: the measure of the mean, which must be separated as different in kind from mathematical measure (284b–d). Indeed, mathematical measure must be subordinated to the criterion of the fitting, the opportune, or the needful—the standard for producing anything good and beautiful. The measure of the mean, in establishing everything that counts as excess or deficiency, belongs in the sphere of the better and worse, which by the Stranger’s admission, lies outside the grasp of his way of proceeding. The Stranger’s discovery of “the other” enabled him to capture the sophist; his discovery of measure of the mean enables him to acknowledge the statesman as a “scientific knower of matters of action” (284b–c). At these pivotal moments he seems to recognize the limitations of his own way and the need for the Socratic practice of philosophy, which he displays, perhaps, for the benefit of Socrates himself.


The Odyssey episodes brought to mind at the outset of the Sophist reflect Homer’s understanding of civilized human life in its dependence on the practice of guest-friendship and reverence for the gods who protect it. The monstrous cannibal who scorns Odysseus’ urging to revere the gods represents the pre-civilized, bestial human. Antinous turns that mythical figure into a cruel man who abuses the stranger in his midst, not worried that he could be a concealed god. The practice of guest-friendship presupposes, and promotes, the recognition of the human being as human, an identity that transcends particular political allegiances. Yet that recognition requires, and is fostered by, the notion that the unfamiliar human present before us could be a god in disguise. Plato’s appropriation of these Odyssey passages for the framework of the Sophist builds on Homer’s foundation about what it means to be human in relation to the gods. But Socrates’ slight alteration of the two Homeric passages, which results in a sharp cut between punitive and contemplative gods, provides a sign of the way Plato translates the poet’s reflections into his own philosophic concerns.
The guilt Socrates claims to experience when introduced to the Stranger is not for barbaric crimes beneath the level of civilization, but for his inadequate conduct of the investigation the day before, which failed to answer the question, What is knowledge? or How is false opinion possible? And the punishment Socrates claims to fear is not divine retribution in Hades, but a refutation of his failure in that inquiry, while the agent who exacts it is not a punitive god but the Eleatic Stranger, about to introduce a new method of investigation. The gods who take on all sorts of apparitions as they roam through the cities become the philosophers, whose appearance in phantom images is blamed on the ignorance of the many. But the failure to recognize the truth of the philosopher, unlike a Homeric god, would not invite retribution—at least not from the philosopher. If punishment is involved, it is of the philosopher who is misunderstood: Socrates is about to go on trial for injustice and impiety, to be convicted by the city and put to death. That momentous event, in the background of Plato’s trilogy, comes into view most conspicuously during the Stranger’s complex examination of law in the Statesman. At the point of his most severe critique, the law as supreme authority is imagined to prohibit, not only action but even inquiry: in that case, anyone seeking knowledge “contrary to the writings,” could be labeled a garrulous sophist, hauled into court on the charge of corrupting the youth, and if convicted, punished with the most severe penalties (299a–e). As the fate of Socrates demonstrates, there is a fundamental tension between philosophic inquiry and the principles of the city, reflected in the authority of the law.
It is perplexing, then, that Socrates initiates the conversation of the Sophist by apparently putting himself on a philosophic trial corresponding to the political trial he would shortly face in Athens. Adopting the perspective of the city, he presents a distorting picture of his lifelong practice, in which the alleged shortcoming in his conduct of inquiry becomes, metaphorically, a crime and the Stranger’s potential correction a punishment. Despite, or because of his self-recrimination, Socrates apparently needs a stranger, the Eleatic Stranger, to carry out this philosophic trial. Why does Plato find this necessary? The philosophic trial the Stranger conducts, in any event, proves to be rich in ambiguity, suggested by its Homeric template; yet it looks in the end more like a vindication than a condemnation of Socrates. To confirm that possibility, we would need the fourth dialogue, which would have been a conversation of Socrates with Socrates (elder with younger) dedicated directly to the question, What is the philosopher?. Plato, as far as we know, chose not to write up this final piece of his puzzle. Instead, he invites his reader to reconstruct it from the trilogy he has given us.


Sophist 216a–b

ἆρ᾽ οὖν, ὦ Θεόδωρε, οὐ ξένον ἀλλά τινα θεὸν ἄγων κατὰ τὸν Ὁμήρου λόγον λέληθας; ὅς φησιν ἄλλους τε θεοὺς τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ὁπόσοι μετέχουσιν αἰδοῦς δικαίας, καὶ δὴ καὶ τὸν ξένιον οὐχ ἥκιστα θεὸν συνοπαδὸν γιγνόμενον ὕβρεις τε καὶ εὐνομίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων καθορᾶν.
πάνυ γὰρ ἇνδρες οὗτοι παντοῖοι φανταζόμενοι διὰ τὴν τῶν ἄλλων ἄγνοιαν “ἐπιστρωφῶσι πόληας”

Odyssey 9. 266–271

…ἡμεῖς δ’ αὖτε κιχανόμενοι τὰ σὰ γοῦνα
ἀλλ’ αἰδεῖο, φέριστε, θεούς: ἱκέται δέ τοί εἰμεν,
Ζεὺς δ’ ἐπιτιμήτωρ ἱκετάων τε ξείνων τε,
ξείνιος, ὃς ξείνοισιν ἅμ’ αἰδοίσιν ὀπηδεῖ.
Odysseus warns the Cyclops about Zeus who accompanies reverend strangers, the avenger of suppliants and strangers
1a) Socrates warns Theodorus about the Stranger as a refutative god
1b) Socrates thinks of himself as the Cyclops and the Stranger as a refutative god
1c) Socrates warns the Stranger about Theodorus as a refutative god
1d) Socrates warns the Stranger about himself as a refutative god
2a) Theodorus warns the Stranger about himself as a refutative god
2b) Theodorus warns the Stranger about Socrates as a refutative god
2c) Theodorus warns Socrates about himself as a refutative god
2d) Theodorus warns Socrates about the Stranger as a refutative god
3a) the Stranger warns Socrates about Theodorus as a refutative god
3b) the Stranger warns Theodorus about Socrates as a refutative god
3c) the Stranger warns Socrates about the Stranger as a refutative god
3d) the Stranger thinks of himself as the Cyclops and Socrates as a refutative god

Odyssey 17. 483–487

Ἀντίνο’, οὐ μὲν κάλ’ ἔβαλες δύστηνον ἀλήτην,
οὐλόμεν’, εἰ δή πού τις ἐπουράνιος θεός ἐστιν.
και τε θεοὶ ξείνοισιν ἐοικότες ἀλλοδαποῖσι,
παντοῖοι τελέθοντες, ἐπιστρωφῶσι πόληας,
ἀνθρώπων ὕβριν τε καὶ εὐνομίην ἐφορῶντες.
anonymous suitor warns Antinous about the beggar (Odysseus), as one of the gods
disguised as a stranger, who roam through the cities
watching over the outrage and law-abidingness of human beings


Benardete, S. 1984. The Being of the Beautiful: Plato’s Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman. Chicago.
Benardete, S. 2008. The Bow and The Lyre: A Platonic Reading of the Odyssey. Lanham, MD.
Bordoy, F. C. 2013.“Why is it so Difficult to Catch a Sophist? Pl. Sph. 218d3 and 261a5.” In Plato’s “Sophist” Revisited, ed. B. Bossi and T. M. Robinson, 15–28. Berlin.
Howland, J. 1997. The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates’ Philosophic Trial. Lanham, MD.
Lattimore, R. 1965. The Odyssey of Homer. New York.
Murray, A. T. 1919. Homer. Odyssey. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA.
Rosen, S. 1983. Plato’s Sophist: The Drama of Original and Image. New Haven, CT.


[ back ] 1. These two Odyssey passages and others throughout the essay are, unless otherwise noted, from the translation of Lattimore 1965. (I have made slight changes of my own here, in 9.269–270 and 17.486–487. The Greek text can be found in the Appendix at the end of this essay.) The Sophist translation is from Benardete 1984. (The references to Homer are underlined, with quotations marks added; the Greek text is in the Appendix.) In his commentary on the Sophist, Benardete proposes the way he thinks the two passages from the Odyssey should be applied to the dialogue (2.69–71). The brief discussion of the Odyssey in this essay is indebted to Benardete 2008. Other scholars who comment on the Homeric passages in the Sophist include: Rosen 1983:62–66; Howland 1997:49–50, 170–171; Bordoy 2013:17–18. This essay is an initial attempt to spell out a set of possible applications of the Homeric model (see Appendix)—miniature thought experiments, one might say, in exploring the significance of the Odyssey allusions for Plato’s Sophist in particular and the trilogy more generally.