What is the truth of the historical claims about Greek philosophy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

Question on Quora,  summary by Greg Price : The last fifty pages or so of the book are dedicated to advancing a certain interpretation of the debates between Socrates, his student Plato, and the Sophists. In this interpretation, for the Sophists the Good was prior to the True; the Good was aretê, was there to be perceived, and was connected to rhetoric (for they were, after all, teachers of rhetoric); the True was just a particular kind of Good. For Plato, reason and the True are primary, and under Plato’s student Aristotle, the Good becomes one small branch of the True called ethics. The protagonist identifies with the Sophists and sees his own idea of Quality in their aretê.

(Then he goes insane contemplating the magnitude of the « evil » that Aristotle did by handing down his version to the whole Western civilization that became his heirs, but never mind that.)

It’s a nice story, but I don’t want to trust that this book has it accurately. Is this a fair summary of the conflict between the Sophists on the one hand and Socrates and Plato on the other? What’s a better summary?

Adrien Gévaudan’s answer : It is, indeed, a fair summary of the opposition between Plato and the sophists. But you have to remove Socrates from this conflict. Here are the two remarks I’d like to add :


  • Nobody knows what Socrates said about this matter. The great, and awful, success of Plato was to make people think that the Socrates of his books was like the real one. Very little is known about Socrates, and there is a consensus that Plato’s Socrates is very different from the real one. Socrates might be, in reality, very close to the sophists ; most of his friends were sophists, and his way to demonstrate that all knowledge is relative closely resembles Protagoras’ famous sentence : « man is the measure of all things. » Moreover, his legendary irony (a good example of which is the judgment he applied for during his trial!) makes him philosophically close to the cynics and/or the cyrenaics. He is likely to be a bridge, or a synthesis, between the sophists, the cynics, and the idealists.


  • The sophists said that Good was subjective, when Plato stated that it was transcendental, primary. But the first opinion subsumes the second! Who was Plato to think that his sentences was a way to achieve the Truth? If the Good is subjective, then it is a subjective point of view to state that it is not..! I guess it is a little cynical to say so, but that is also a judgment, after all.
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