Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Sextus Empiricus’s ‘Against the Mathematicians’, vii 65-87, provided by Margaret D. Zulick as material for her course on Rhetoric. Sextus Empiricus discusses Gorgias’ view about the ‘nonexistent’, placing him at the opposite of Parmenides affirmation that ‘everything exists’. The Greek original follows. We conclude by proposing a contemporary philosophical insight with an excerpt from a commentary by John Poulakos.
Roger Sworder demonstrated, in a great article, that Theognis was a great candidate for being Parmenides’ teacher; We learn that during his travels, Empedocles was linked with Parmenides and that finally Gorgias may have been Empedocles’ student. A very interesting lineage!
We will come back soon on this very subject with a major contribution by a great modern philosopher who is exactly tackling these fascinating relationships that profoundly impacted the way we see reality and life.
Gorgias of Leontini began from the same position as those who have abolished the criterion, but did not follow the same line of attack as the school of Protagoras. In what is entitled On the Nonexistent or On Nature he proposes three successive headings: first and foremost, that nothing exists; second, that even if it exists it is inapprehensible to man; third, that even if it is apprehensible; still it is without a doubt incapable of being expressed or explained to the next man.
Now he concludes in the following way that nothing exists: If exists, either the existent exists or the nonexistent or both the existent exists and the nonexistent. But, as he will establish, neither does the existent exist nor the nonexistent, as he will make clear, nor the existent and nonexistent, as he will also teach. It is not the case then that anything exists.
More specifically, the nonexistent does not exist; for if the nonexistent exists, it will both exist and not exist at the same time, for insofar as it is understood as nonexistent, it will not exist, but insofar as it is nonexistent it will, on the other hand, exist. It would, however, be entirely absurd for something to exist and at the same time not to exist. The nonexistent, therefore, does not exist. And to state another argument, if the nonexistent exists, the existent will not exist, for these are opposites to each other, and if existence is an attribute of the nonexistent, nonexistence will be an attribute of the existent. But it is not, in fact, true that the existent does not exist. , neither will the nonexistent exist.
Moreover, the existent does not exist either. For if the existent exists, it is either eternal or generated, or at the same time eternal and generated. But it is neither eternal nor generated nor both, as we shall show. The existent therefore does not exist. For if the existent is eternal (one must begin with this point) it does not have any beginning.
For everything which is generated has some beginning, but the eternal, being ungenerated, did not have a beginning. And not having a beginning it is without limit. And if it is without limit it is nowhere. For if it is somewhere, that in which it is, is something other than it, and thus if the existent is contained in something it will no longer be without limit. For the container is greater than the contained, but nothing is greater than the unlimited, so that the unlimited cannot exist anywhere.
Moreover, it is not contained in itself. For in that case container and contained will be the same, and the existent will become two things, place and body (place is the container, body the contained). But this is absurd. Accordingly, existence is not contained in itself. So that if the existent is eternal it is unlimited, and if it is unlimited it is nowhere, and if it is nowhere it does not exist. Accordingly, if the existent is eternal, it is not existent at all.
Moreover, neither can the existent be generated. For if it has come into being, it has come either from the existent or the nonexistent. But it has not come from the existent. For if it is existent, it has not come to be, but already exists. Nor from the nonexistent. For the nonexistent cannot generate anything, because what is generative of something of necessity ought to partake of positive existence. It is not true either, therefore, that the existent is generated.
In the same way it is not jointly at the same time eternal and generated. For these qualities are mutually exclusive of each other, and if the existent is eternal it has not been generated, and if it has been generated it is not eternal. Accordingly, if the existent is neither eternal nor generated nor both at once, the existent should not exist.
And to use another argument, if it exists, it is either one or many. But it is neither one nor many, as will be set forth. Therefore, the existent does not exist. For if it is one, it is an existent or a continuum or a magnitude or a body. But whatever of these it is, it is not one, since whatever has extent will be divided, and what is a continuum will be cut. And similarly, what is conceived as a magnitude will not be indivisible. And if it is by chance a body it will be three?dimensional, for it will have length, and breadth and depth. But it is absurd to say that the existent is none of these things. Therefore, the existent is not one.
And moreover it is not many. For if it is not one, it is not many either, since the many is a composite of separate entities and thus, when the possibility that it is one was refuted, the possibility that it is many was refuted as well. Now it is clear from this that neither does the existent exist nor does the nonexistent exist.
It is easy to conclude that both the existent and the nonexistent do not exist either. For if the nonexistent exists and the existent exists, the nonexistent will be the same thing as the existent as far as existence is concerned. And for this reason neither of them exists. For it is agreed that the nonexistent does not exist, and the existent has been shown to be the same as the nonexistent and it accordingly will not exist.
Of course, if the existent is the same as the nonexistent, it is not possible for both to exist. For if both exist, they are not the same, and if the same, both do not exist. To which the conclusion follows that nothing exists. For if neither the existent exists nor the nonexistent nor both, and if no additional possibility is conceivable, nothing exists.
Next it must be shown that even if anything exists, it is unknowable and incomprehensible to man. For, says Gorgias, if things considered in the mind are not existent, the existent is not considered. And that is logical. For if “white” were a possible attribute of what is considered, “being considered” would also have been a possible attribute of what is white; similarly, if “not to be existent” were a possible attribute of what is being considered, necessarily “not to be considered” will be a possible attribute of what is existent
As result, the statement “if things considered are not existent, the existent is not considered” is sound and logically follows. But things considered (for this must be our starting point) are not existent, as we shall show. The existent is not therefore considered. And more over, it is clear that things considered are not existent.
For if things considered are existent, all things considered exist, and in what] ever way anyone considers them. Which is absurd. For if one considers a man flying or chariots racing in the sea, a man does not straightway fly nor a chariot race in the sea. So that things considered are not existent.
In addition, if things considered in the mind are existent, nonexistent things will not be considered. For opposites are attributes of opposites, and the nonexistent is opposed to the existent. For this reason it is quite evident that if “being considered in the mind” is an attribute of the existent, “not being considered in the mind” will be an attribute of the nonexistent. But this is absurd. For Scylla and Chimaera and many other nonexistent things are considered in the mind. Therefore, the existent is not considered in the mind.
Just as objects of sight are said to be visible for the reason that they are seen, and objects of hearing are said to be audible for the reason that they are heard, and we do not reject visible things on the grounds that they are not heard, nor dismiss audible things because they are not seen (since each object ought to be judged by its own sense, but not by another), so, too, things considered in the mind will exist even if they should not be seen by the sight nor heard by the hearing, because they are perceived by their own criterion.
If, therefore, someone considered in the mind that chariots race in the sea, even if he does not see them, he should believe that there are chariots racing in the sea. But this is absurd. Therefore, the existent is not an object of consideration and is not apprehended.
But even if it should be apprehended, it would be incapable of being conveyed to another. For if existent things are visible and audible and generally perceptible, which means that they are external substances, and of these the things which are visible are perceived by the sight, those that are audible by the hearing, and not contrariwise, how can these things be revealed to another person?
For that by which we reveal is logos, but logos is not substances and existing things. Therefore we do not reveal existing things to our neighbors, but logos, which is something other than substances. Thus, just as the visible would not become audible, and vice versa, similarly, when external reality is involved, it would not become our logos,
and not being logos, it would not have been revealed to another. It is clear, he says, that logos arises from external things impinging upon us, that is, from perceptible things. From encounter with a flavor, logos is expressed by us about that quality, and from encounter with a color, an expression of color. But if this is the case, logos is not evocative of the external, but the external becomes the revealer of logos.
And surely it is not possible to say that logos has substance in the way visible and audible things have, so that substantial and existent things can be revealed from its substance and existence. For, he says, even if logos has substance, still it differs from all the other substances, and visible bodies are to the greatest degree different from words. What is visible is comprehended by one organ, logos by another. Logos does not, therefore, manifest the multiplicity of substances, just as they do not manifest the nature of each other.
Such being, in Gorgias’ view, the problems, insofar as they are valid, the criterion is destroyed. For there would be no criterion if nature neither exists nor can be understood nor conveyed to another.
SEXT. adv. math. VII, 65-87
Γοργίας δὲ ὁ Λεοντῖνος ἐκ τοῦ αὐτοῦ μὲν τάγματος ὑπῆρχε τοῖς ἀνηιρηκόσι τὸ κριτήριον, οὐ κατὰ τὴν ὁμοίαν δὲ ἐπιβολὴν τοῖς περὶ τὸν Πρωταγόραν. Ἐν γὰρ τῶι ἐπιγραφομένωι Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως τρία κατὰ τὸ ἑξῆς κεφάλαια κατασκευάζει, ἓν μὲν καὶ πρῶτον ὅτι οὐδὲν ἔστιν, δεύτερον ὅτι εἰ καὶ ἔστιν, ἀκατάληπτον ἀνθρώπωι, τρίτον ὅτι εἰ καὶ καταληπτόν, ἀλλὰ τοί γε ἀνέξοιστον καὶ ἀνερμήνευτον τῶι πέλας. (66) Ὅτι μὲν οὖν οὐδὲν ἔστιν, ἐπιλογίζεται τὸν τρόπον τοῦτον· εἰ γὰρ ἔστι <τι>, ἤτοι τὸ ὂν ἔστιν ἢ τὸ μὴ ὄν, ἢ καὶ τὸ ὂν ἔστι καὶ τὸ μὴ ὄν. Οὔτε δὲ τὸ ὂν ἔστιν, ὡς παραστήσει, οὔτε τὸ μὴ ὄν, ὡς παραμυθήσεται, οὔτε τὸ ὂν καὶ <τὸ> μὴ ὄν, ὡς καὶ τοῦτο διδάξει· οὐκ ἄρα ἔστι τι. (67) Καὶ δὴ τὸ μὲν μὴ ὂν οὐκ ἔστιν. Εἰ γὰρ τὸ μὴ ὂν ἔστιν, ἔσται τε ἅμα καὶ οὐκ ἔσται· ἧι μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ὂν νοεῖται, οὐκ ἔσται, ἧι δὲ ἔστι μὴ ὂν, πάλιν ἔσται. Παντελῶς δὲ ἄτοπον τὸ εἶναί τι ἅμα καὶ μὴ εἶναι· οὐκ ἄρα ἔστι τὸ μὴ ὄν. Καὶ ἄλλως, εἰ τὸ μὴ ὂν ἔστι, τὸ ὂν οὐκ ἔσται· ἐναντία γάρ ἐστι ταῦτα ἀλλήλοις, καὶ εἰ τῶι μὴ ὄντι συμβέβηκε τὸ εἶναι, τῶι ὄντι συμβήσεται τὸ μὴ εἶναι. Οὐχὶ δέ γε τὸ ὂν οὐκ ἔστιν· <τοίνυν> οὐδὲ τὸ μὴ ὂν ἔσται. (68) Καὶ μὴν οὐδὲ τὸ ὂν ἔστιν. Εἰ γὰρ τὸ ὂν ἔστιν, ἤτοι ἀίδιόν ἐστιν ἢ γενητὸν ἢ ἀίδιον ἅμα καὶ γενητόν· οὔτε δὲ ἀίδιόν ἐστιν οὔτε γενητὸν οὔτε ἀμφότερα, ὡς δείξομεν· οὐκ ἄρα ἔστι τὸ ὄν. Εἰ γὰρ ἀίδιόν ἐστι τὸ ὄν (ἀρκτέον γὰρ ἐντεῦθεν), οὐκ ἔχει τινὰ ἀρχήν. (69) Τὸ γὰρ γινόμενον πᾶν ἔχει τιν᾿ ἀρχήν, τὸ δὲ ἀίδιον ἀγένητον καθεστὼς οὐκ εἶχεν ἀρχήν. Μὴ ἔχον δὲ ἀρχὴν ἄπειρόν ἐστιν. Εἰ δὲ ἄπειρόν ἐστιν, οὐδαμοῦ ἐστιν. Εἰ γάρ πού ἐστιν, ἕτερον αὐτοῦ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνο τὸ ἐν ὧι ἐστιν, καὶ οὕτως οὐκέτ᾿ ἄπειρον ἔσται τὸ ὂν ἐμπεριεχόμενόν τινι· μεῖζον γάρ ἐστι τοῦ ἐμπεριεχομένου τὸ ἐμπεριέχον, τοῦ δὲ ἀπείρου οὐδέν ἐστι μεῖζον, ὥστε οὐκ ἔστι που τὸ ἄπειρον. (70) Καὶ μὴν οὐδ᾿ ἐν αὑτῶι περιέχεται. Ταὐτὸν γὰρ ἔσται τὸ ἐν ὧι καὶ τὸ ἐν αὐτῶι, καὶ δύο γενήσεται τὸ ὄν, τόπος τε καὶ σῶμα (τὸ μὲν γὰρ ἐν ὧι τόπος ἐστίν, τὸ δ᾿ ἐν αὐτῶι σῶμα). Τοῦτο δέ γε ἄτοπον. Τοίνυν οὐδὲ ἐν αὑτῶι ἐστι τὸ ὄν. Ὥστ᾿ εἰ ἀίδιόν ἐστι τὸ ὄν, ἄπειρόν ἐστιν, εἰ δὲ ἄπειρόν ἐστιν, οὐδαμοῦ ἐστιν, εἰ δὲ μηδαμοῦ ἐστιν, οὐκ ἔστιν. Τοίνυν εἰ ἀίδιόν ἐστι τὸ ὄν, οὐδὲ τὴν ἀρχὴν ὄν ἐστιν. (71) Καὶ μὴν οὐδὲ γενητὸν εἶναι δύναται τὸ ὄν. Εἰ γὰρ γέγονεν, ἤτοι ἐξ ὄντος ἢ ἐκ μὴ ὄντος γέγονεν. Ἀλλ᾿ οὔτε ἐκ τοῦ ὄντος γέγονεν· εἰ γὰρ ὄν ἐστιν, οὐ γέγονεν ἀλλ᾿ ἔστιν ἤδη· οὔτε ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος· τὸ γὰρ μὴ ὂν οὐδὲ γεννῆσαί τι δύναται διὰ τὸ ἐξ ἀνάγκης ὀφείλειν ὑπάρξεως μετέχειν τὸ γεννητικόν τινος. Οὐκ ἄρα οὐδὲ γενητόν ἐστι τὸ ὄν. (72) Κατὰ τὰ αὐτὰ δὲ οὐδὲ τὸ συναμφότερον, ἀίδιον ἅμα καὶ γενητόν· ταῦτα γὰρ ἀναιρετικά ἐστιν ἀλλήλων, καὶ εἰ ἀίδιόν ἐστι τὸ ὄν, οὐ γέγονεν, καὶ εἰ γέγονεν, οὐκ ἔστιν ἀίδιον. Τοίνυν εἰ μήτε ἀίδιόν ἐστι τὸ ὂν μήτε γενητὸν μήτε τὸ συναμφότερον, οὐκ ἂν εἴη τὸ ὄν. (73) Καὶ ἄλλως, εἰ ἔστιν, ἤτοι ἕν ἐστιν ἢ πολλά· οὔτε δὲ ἕν ἐστιν οὔτε πολλά, ὡς παρασταθήσεται· οὐκ ἄρα ἔστι τὸ ὄν. Εἰ γὰρ ἕν ἐστιν, ἤτοι ποσόν ἐστιν ἢ συνεχές ἐστιν ἢ μέγεθός ἐστιν ἢ σῶμά ἐστιν. Ὅ τι δὲ ἂν ἦι τούτων, οὐχ ἕν ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ ποσὸν μὲν καθεστὼς διαιρεθήσεται, συνεχὲς δὲ ὂν τμηθήσεται. Ὁμοίως δὲ μέγεθος νοούμενον οὐκ ἔσται ἀδιαίρετον. Σῶμα δὲ τυγχάνον τριπλοῦν ἔσται· καὶ γὰρ μῆκος καὶ πλάτος καὶ βάθος ἕξει. Ἄτοπον δέ γε τὸ μηδὲν τούτων εἶναι λέγειν τὸ ὄν· οὐκ ἄρα ἐστὶν ἓν τὸ ὄν. (74) Καὶ μὴν οὐδὲ πολλά ἐστιν. Εἰ γὰρ μή ἐστιν ἕν, οὐδὲ πολλά ἐστιν· σύνθεσις γὰρ τῶν καθ᾿ ἕν ἐστι τὰ πολλά, διόπερ τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀναιρουμένου συναναιρεῖται καὶ τὰ πολλά. Ἀλλὰ γὰρ ὅτι μὲν οὔτε τὸ ὂν ἔστιν οὔτε τὸ μὴ ὂν ἔστιν, ἐκ τούτων συμφανές. (75) Ὅτι δὲ οὐδὲ ἀμφότερα ἔστιν, τό τε ὂν καὶ τὸ μὴ ὄν, εὐεπιλόγιστον. Εἴπερ γὰρ τὸ μὴ ὂν ἔστι καὶ τὸ ὂν ἔστι, ταὐτὸν ἔσται τῶι ὄντι τὸ μὴ ὂν ὅσον ἐπὶ τῶι εἶναι· καὶ διὰ τοῦτο οὐδέτερον αὐτῶν ἔστιν. Ὅτι γὰρ τὸ μὴ ὂν οὐκ ἔστιν, ὁμόλογον· δέδεικται δὲ ταὐτὸ τούτωι καθεστὼς τὸ ὄν· καὶ αὐτὸ τοίνυν οὐκ ἔσται. (76) Οὐ μὴν ἀλλ᾿ εἴπερ ταὐτόν ἐστι τῶι μὴ ὄντι τὸ ὄν, οὐ δύναται ἀμφότερα εἶναι· εἰ γὰρ ἀμφότερα, οὐ ταὐτόν, καὶ εἰ ταὐτόν, οὐκ ἀμφότερα. Οἷς ἕπεται τὸ μηδὲν εἶναι. Εἰ γὰρ μήτε τὸ ὂν ἔστι μήτε τὸ μὴ ὂν μήτε ἀμφότερα, παρὰ δὲ ταῦτα οὐδὲν νοεῖται, οὐδὲν ἔστιν.
(77) Ὅτι δὲ κἂν ἦι τι, τοῦτο ἄγνωστόν τε καὶ ἀνεπινόητόν ἐστιν ἀνθρώπωι, παρακειμένως ὑποδεικτέον. Εἰ γὰρ τὰ φρονούμενα, φησὶν ὁ Γοργίας, οὐκ ἔστιν ὄντα, τὸ ὂν οὐ φρονεῖται. Καὶ κατὰ λόγον· ὥσπερ γὰρ εἰ τοῖς φρονουμένοις συμβέβηκεν εἶναι λευκοῖς, κἂν συμβεβήκει τοῖς λευκοῖς φρονεῖσθαι, οὕτως εἰ τοῖς φρονουμένοις συμβέβηκεν μὴ εἶναι οὖσι, κατ᾿ ἀνάγκην συμβήσεται τοῖς οὖσι μὴ φρονεῖσθαι. (78) Διόπερ ὑγιὲς καὶ σῶιζον ἀκολουθίαν ἐστὶ τὸ ᾿εἰ τὰ φρονούμενα οὐκ ἔστιν ὄντα, τὸ ὂν οὐ φρονεῖται᾿. Τὰ δέ γε φρονούμενα (προληπτέον γάρ) οὐκ ἔστιν ὄντα, ὡς παραστήσομεν· οὐκ ἄρα τὸ ὂν φρονεῖται. Καὶ <μὴν> ὅτι τὰ φρονούμενα οὐκ ἔστιν ὄντα, συμφανές· (79) εἰ γὰρ τὰ φρονούμενά ἐστιν ὄντα, πάντα τὰ φρονούμενα ἔστιν, καὶ ὅπη ἄν τις αὐτὰ φρονήσηι. Ὅπερ ἐστὶν ἀπεμφαῖνον· (εἰ δέ ἐστι, φαῦλον.) Οὐδὲ γὰρ ἂν φρονῆι τις ἄνθρωπον ἱπτάμενον ἢ ἅρματα ἐν πελάγει τρέχοντα, εὐθέως ἄνθρωπος ἵπταται ἢ ἅρματα ἐν πελάγει τρέχει. Ὥστε οὐ τὰ φρονούμενά ἐστιν ὄντα. (80) Πρὸς τούτοις εἰ τὰ φρονούμενά ἐστιν ὄντα, τὰ μὴ ὄντα οὐ φρονηθήσεται. Τοῖς γὰρ ἐναντίοις τὰ ἐναντία συμβέβηκεν, ἐναντίον δέ ἐστι τῶι ὄντι τὸ μὴ ὄν. Καὶ διὰ τοῦτο πάντως, εἰ τῶι ὄντι συμβέβηκε τὸ φρονεῖσθαι, τῶι μὴ ὄντι συμβήσεται τὸ μὴ φρονεῖσθαι. Ἄτοπον δ᾿ ἐστὶ τοῦτο· καὶ γὰρ Σκύλλα καὶ Χίμαιρα καὶ πολλὰ τῶν μὴ ὄντων φρονεῖται. Οὐκ ἄρα τὸ ὂν φρονεῖται. (81) Ὥσπερ τε τὰ ὁρώμενα διὰ τοῦτο ὁρατὰ λέγεται ὅτι ὁρᾶται, καὶ τὰ ἀκουστὰ διὰ τοῦτο ἀκουστὰ ὅτι ἀκούεται, καὶ οὐ τὰ μὲν ὁρατὰ ἐκβάλλομεν ὅτι οὐκ ἀκούεται, τὰ δὲ ἀκουστὰ παραπέμπομεν ὅτι οὐχ ὁρᾶται (ἕκαστον γὰρ ὑπὸ τῆς ἰδίας αἰσθήσεως ἀλλ᾿ οὐχ ὑπ᾿ ἄλλης ὀφείλει κρίνεσθαι), οὕτω καὶ τὰ φρονούμενα καὶ εἰ μὴ βλέποιτο τῆι ὄψει μηδὲ ἀκούοιτο τῆι ἀκοῆι ἔσται, ὅτι πρὸς τοῦ οἰκείου λαμβάνεται κριτηρίου. (82) Εἰ οὖν φρονεῖ τις ἐν πελάγει ἅρματα τρέχειν, καὶ εἰ μὴ βλέπει ταῦτα, ὀφείλει πιστεύειν ὅτι ἅρματα ἔστιν ἐν πελάγει τρέχοντα. Ἄτοπον δὲ τοῦτο· οὐκ ἄρα τὸ ὂν φρονεῖται καὶ καταλαμβάνεται.
(83) Καὶ εἰ καταλαμβάνοιτο δέ, ἀνέξοιστον ἑτέρωι. Εἰ γὰρ τὰ ὄντα ὁρατά ἐστι καὶ ἀκουστὰ καὶ κοινῶς αἰσθητά, ἅπερ ἐκτὸς ὑπόκειται, τούτων τε τὰ μὲν ὁρατὰ ὁράσει καταληπτά ἐστι τὰ δὲ ἀκουστὰ ἀκοῆι καὶ οὐκ ἐναλλάξ, πῶς οὖν δύναται ταῦτα ἑτέρωι μηνύεσθαι; (84) ὧι γὰρ μηνύομεν, ἔστι λόγος, λόγος δὲ οὐκ ἔστι τὰ ὑποκείμενα καὶ ὄντα· οὐκ ἄρα τὰ ὄντα μηνύομεν τοῖς πέλας ἀλλὰ λόγον, ὃς ἕτερός ἐστι τῶν ὑποκειμένων. Καθάπερ οὖν τὸ ὁρατὸν οὐκ ἂν γένοιτο ἀκουστὸν καὶ ἀνάπαλιν, οὕτως ἐπεὶ ὑπόκειται τὸ ὂν ἐκτός, οὐκ ἂν γένοιτο λόγος ὁ ἡμέτερος· (85) μὴ ὢν δὲ λόγος οὐκ ἂν δηλωθείη ἑτέρωι. Ὅ γε μὴν λόγος, φησίν, ἀπὸ τῶν ἔξωθεν προσπιπτόντων ἡμῖν πραγμάτων συνίσταται, τουτέστι τῶν αἰσθητῶν· ἐκ γὰρ τῆς τοῦ χυλοῦ ἐγκυρήσεως ἐγγίνεται ἡμῖν ὁ κατὰ ταύτης τῆς ποιότητος ἐκφερόμενος λόγος, καὶ ἐκ τῆς τοῦ χρώματος ὑποπτώσεως ὁ κατὰ τοῦ χρώματος. Εἰ δὲ τοῦτο, οὐχ ὁ λόγος τοῦ ἐκτὸς παραστατικός ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἐκτὸς τοῦ λόγου μηνυτικὸν γίνεται. (86) Καὶ μὴν οὐδὲ ἔνεστι λέγειν ὅτι ὃν τρόπον τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ ἀκουστὰ ὑπόκειται, οὕτως καὶ ὁ λόγος, ὥστε δύνασθαι ἐξ ὑποκειμένου αὐτοῦ καὶ ὄντος τὰ ὑποκείμενα καὶ ὄντα μηνύεσθαι. Εἰ γὰρ καὶ ὑπόκειται, φησίν, ὁ λόγος, ἀλλὰ διαφέρει τῶν λοιπῶν ὑποκειμένων, καὶ πλείστωι διενήνοχε τὰ ὁρατὰ σώματα τῶν λόγων· δι᾿ ἑτέρου γὰρ ὀργάνου ληπτόν ἐστι τὸ ὁρατὸν καὶ δι᾿ ἄλλου ὁ λόγος. Οὐκ ἄρα ἐνδείκνυται τὰ πολλὰ τῶν ὑποκειμένων ὁ λόγος, ὥσπερ οὐδὲ ἐκεῖνα τὴν ἀλλήλων διαδηλοῖ φύσιν. (87) Τοιούτων οὖν παρὰ τῶι Γοργίαι ἠπορημένων οἴχεται ὅσον ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῖς τὸ τῆς ἀληθείας κριτήριον· τοῦ γὰρ μήτε ὄντος μήτε γνωρίζεσθαι δυναμένου μήτε ἄλλωι παρασταθῆναι πεφυκότος οὐδὲν ἂν εἴη κριτήριον.
Ontology & Epistemology
Nowhere is Gorgias’ sophistical love of paradox more evident than in the short treatise ‘On the Non existent‘ or ‘On Nature‘. The subject of this work is ontological (concerning nature of being), but it also deals with language and epistemology (the study of the nature and limitations of knowledge).In addition to this, it can be understood as an exercise in sophistical rhetoric; Gorgias tackles an argument that is seemingly impossible to refute, namely that, after considering our world, we must come to the conclusion that “things exist.” His powerful argument to the contrary proves his abilities as a master of oratory, and some believe the text was used as an advertisement of his credentials. Gorgias begins his argument by presenting a logical contradiction, “if the nonexistent exists, it will both exist and not exist at the same time” (B3.67) (a violation of the principle of non-contradiction).He then denies that existence (to on) itself exists, for if it exists, it is either eternal or generated. If it is eternal, it has no beginning, and is therefore without limit. If it is without limit, it is “nowhere”(B3.69), and hence does not exist. And if existence is generated, it must come from something, and that something is existence, which is another contradiction.
Likewise, nonexistence (to mê on) cannot produce anything (B3.71). The sophist then explains that existence can neither be “one”(hen) or “many” (polla), since if it were one, it would be divisible, and therefore not one. If it were many, it would be a “composite of separate entities” (B3.74) and no longer the thing known as existence. Gorgias then turns his attention to what is knowable and comprehensible. He remarks, “if things considered [imagined or thought] in the mind are not existent, the existent is not considered”(B3.77), that is to say, existence is incomprehensible. This supposition is backed up by the fact that one can imagine chariots racing in the sea, but that does not make such a thing happen. The operation of the mind (intellection) is fundamentally distinct from what happens in the real world; “the existent is not an object of consideration and is not apprehended” (B3.82). It is helpful to think of apprehension here in Aristotelian terms, as simple apprehension, the first operation of reasoning (logic) in which the intellect “grasps” or “apprehends” something. Simple apprehension happens when the mind first forms a concept of something in the world, and is anterior to judgment.
Finally, Gorgias proclaims that even if existence could be apprehended, “it would be incapable of being conveyed to another” (B3.83). This is because what we reveal to another is not an external substance, but is merely logos (from the Greek verb lego,“to say”–see below). Logos is not “substances and existing things” (B3.84). External reality becomes the revealer of logos (B3.85);while we can know logos, we cannot apprehend things directly. The color white, for instance, goes from a property of a thing, to a mental representation, and the representation is different than the thing itself. In its summation, this nihilistic argument becomes a “trilemma”:
i. Nothing exists
iii. Even if it could be known, it cannot be communicated. This argument has led some to label Gorgias as either an ontological skeptic or a nihilist (one who believes nothing exists, or that the world is incomprehensible, and that the concept of truth is fictitious). But it can also be interpreted as an assertion that it is logos and logos alone which is the proper object of our inquiries, since it is the only thing we can really know. On Nature is sometimes seen as a refutation of pre-Socratic essentialist philosophy (McComiskey 37).