In F. M. Cornford’s translation, Plato’s Eleatic stranger suggests in the Sophist at 246e-47e something to the effect that things are real inasmuch as they have any sort of power either to affect things or to be affected. Therefore, he suggests, we should regard it a distinguishing mark of real things that they are nothing but power.
The stranger’s suggestion follows from a discussion that seems to treat souls as real because they affect and are affected by things they know. Thus for example, the soul, knowing justice, in a sense possesses justice and so may become just. So the stranger seems to be construing this as a case where the soul is affected by and also affects the justice that it knows.
I am told that “dynamis” is the Greek word for power that Plato employs in this passage (though either I or my source may in ignorance have transliterated this term incorrectly).
1. How, exactly, does Plato use “dynamis” in this Sophist passage?
2. Do we know whether Plato also uses “dynamis” in others of his dialogues, in the same sense, or in differing senses?
3. Do we know whether there was a colloquial use of “dynamis” understood by Plato’s Greek contemporaries? Does Plato’s use in the Sophist reflect this colloquial use, or does he in effect coin a technical term? (Compare. Newton in the Principia uses terms like “mass” and “momentum” in technical ways that his own theory defines, and which only partially reflect colloquial meanings in English or Latin that his educated contemporaries understood.)
4. Do subsequent thinkers use “dynamis”? For example, does Aristotle use the term? Or does it feature in Lucretius’ atomistic physics?
PHILOSOPHICAL BACKGROUND. I believe Plato is, in this passage, hinting consideration of a bid to turn his previous metaphysical view upside down. Previously, as reflected for example in the Phaedo and the Republic, Plato maintained that “forms” or “ideas” were intelligible and therefore preeminently real and that sensible things were less real than their forms. In this Sophist passage, Plato seems to me to be groping toward a view whereby it may be souls or perhaps sensible things (with their powers to affect and be affected) that are preeminently real. (Aristotle’s subsequent metaphysical position seems to be one way that a Platonist might eventually come to maintain that sensible things are preeminently real; but Plato here in the Sophist might just as well have been groping instead toward a different view.) My questions above ask in effect whether Plato’s use in this Sophist passage of the term “dynamis” sheds any light on this interpretive (and philosophical) issue.
For the word dynamis: it means power, potentiality, ability. In this Sophist passage the word is used in all the above meanings. In Guthrie I read about a “colloquial” use of this word in medical writers, where dynameis are also the effects produced by various substances. I don’t think that Plato made out of this word a particularly Platonic ‘technical’ term.
You open a subject that remains open in the relevant scholarship, a difficult subject that seems not to have a definite answer. On my part, I understand such references together with the forms theory, that is not contradictory, in the light of what is said in Timaeus: "the good can never have any jealousy of anything; and being free from jealousy, He desired that all things should be as like Himself as they could be". As I understand it, forms are not the only real realities, but divine forces perfecting created things, which are real to the degree of their likeness with the creator.
Working with your response, searching the internet, and then dragging some moldy books from my shelves, I learned that Plato’s word features in Aristotle’s doctrine of potency (dunamis) and act (energeia), whereby he analyses motion (kinesis). (Basically, Aristotle claims that we can talk of things’ potencies and of their acts, that their acts are realized potencies, and that their potencies have being equivocally, in reference to the acts in which they could be realized.) Moreover, Aristotle’s extended discussion of energeia in Book IX of the Metaphysics at 1045b27-52a11 includes an obvious reference, only implicit however, to Plato’s Sophist passage, discussing at some length “the potency (dunamis) of acting and of being acted upon”. (No doubt millions already know this, but the discovery was exciting to me.)
You cite the 30a pronouncement from the Timaeus (“. . . He desired that all things should be as like Himself as they could be.”), suggesting we can perhaps solve whatever problem there may be by recognizing that “forms are not the only real realities, but divine forces perfecting created things, which are real to the degree of their likeness with the creator.” This is evidently enough what Plato would like to say. And it would work if he had Aristotle’s conceptual equipment. The problem is that he doesn’t.
We can see this by considering Plato’s more detailed analysis of change, presented subsequently in the Timaeus at 48e-52a. There, he distinguishes three things – (1) the intelligible and unchanging pattern (form), (2) the imitation of the pattern, and (3) the “receptacle” – which we also can regard as “in a manner the nurse” – of all generation. And he seems to treat this “receptacle” as sheerly irrational, only a “this” or a “that” (50a), “apprehended by a kind of spurious reason” (52b). Plato would, it seems to me, be able to maintain your interpretation (“. . . real to the degree of their likeness . . .) if he, like Aristotle, ordered his things’ dunamis to something like energeia. But he is at best only groping toward this Aristotelian position and has not yet gotten there. So in particular, it seems to me that - absent an Aristotelian doctrine of potency and act - Plato’s “likenesses” in the 30a passage cannot be real at all insofar as they differ from the creator; and this seems in turn to imply that they cannot really differ from the creator.
You’re right that this is an extremely difficult issue and that there may well not be any definite answer. I am, above, only sketching out my own view, not trying to convince you.
Let me end by asking a favor. I cannot, from my studies, figure out what Greek word Plato uses in the Timaeus at 49a for “the receptacle”. Could you please tell me what it is? Could you please supply it in a Greek font (which I tried but failed to use in this post of mine)? I would also appreciate any etymological linkages you could come up with. (This might be a big help: Plato’s Timaeus “receptacle” is regarded by some scholars as a precursor to Aristotle’s “matter”, which Aristotle closely links in the Metaphysics with his dunamis.)
Many thanks, again, for your extremely helpful post.
The word 'receptacle' translates the Greek "ὑποδοχή", a composite word coming from the preposition ὑπὸ (under,below) and the verb δέχεσθαι (receiving). Ὑποδέχομαι means the act of receiving something in my own terms, while I keep having these terms (the 'receptacle' does not change as a result of receiving), with the additional nuance of welcoming.
That's very good. (Nothin' quite like working with somebody who knows what he's talking about!)
What do you make of Plato's pronouncement that ὑποδοχή can be regarded as the "nurse" of generation? Am I right in guessing that a "nurse" would be a female servant who cares for children in a household but is not their mother? Are there any linguistic or poetic linkages between nursing and either ὑποδοχή or generation? Or is this just a colorful way of speaking that Plato has slung into this passage for no particular purpose?
By using two almost synonyms (τροφὸς καὶ τιθήνη) Plato emphasizes a nursing that goes very close to a mother's care. At 51a he actually uses the word mother (μητέρα καὶ ὑποδοχήν). Recall Hesiod for the genealogy of the world. I think that to have an understanding of how close a union between creator and creature (the world) exists in Plato we have to resort to our own concept of such a closeness in the incarnation of God.