The Sophists - Ch. 2 "Philosophy: a Historical Survey" by James Fieser

The Sophists

Picking up from last week's post about the Pre-Socratics, the next group of philosophers in Ancient Greece that is encountered are the Sophists. The Sophists logically proceed from the many opinions of the Pre-Socratics about the ultimate nature of things. There were so many opinions and ideas that were contradictory that for some this led them to doubt that any truth could be known at all in regards this question. Hence, the Sophists represent a skeptical response to the Pre-Socratics. Rather, a focus was placed on the skill of rhetoric, or speaking, man's ability to know things at all, as well as to relativity (or not) of moral questions. 1

The three famous Sophists from Ancient Greece were Protagoras, Gorgias, and Thrasymachus (thra-sim-ahh-cuss). They had come to Athens as outsiders and began to ask questions regarding the nature of thought and custom of the Athenians, whether or not certain things were based out of the nature of things or just done because they were customs. "They forced thoughtful Athenians to consider whether Hellenic culture was based on artificial rules (nomos) or on nature (physis)." 2 

Another reason that the Sophists rose in popularity was that Athens had recently, at that time, become a democracy instead of an aristocracy (5th Century BC). This meant that many more people had the opportunity to engage in the public life and discourse, though did not necessarily have the educational background to back them up. The Sophists, being well educated in these arts of speaking, grammar, argumentation, religion could then offer their services for payment. 3 

This was one of the things, though, that led to a negative reputation for the Sophists. Not only were they using their rhetorical skills to help the process of democracy, but they were also using them in a negative way, being accused to training the young and others how to argue as such to make a bad argument good, or the false, true. This partly has to do with the relative nature of truth that the Sophists held. If there's no truth, then what does it matter which side one argues for; religiously, morally, or otherwise? 4 "... they were eventually accused of teaching young citizens how to make a bad case look good or to make the unjust case appear to be just." 5


Protagoras of Abdera lived from 490 - 420 BC. His core idea was that "man is the measure of all things..." meaning that truth is limited to the knowledge of the individual. This, of course, presents interesting problems with regards to sensations, because so often people experience something different, whether the depth of a color or the feeling of heat or cold. If its the case that both sensations are able to be felt from the experience of a thing, then the thing must contain a whole multitude of experiences. How would one ever know what the thing really is beyond what this individual experiences from it in their limited way? Protagoras was also a skeptic when it came to the gods, claiming that he is not able to know anything about them. 6

In the way of ethics, Protagoras held a relativist position as well, that no universal truths regarding what's good for human nature could be determined. Rather, all that we are left with is custom and customs are different from place to place. One should follow, then, the laws of the culture that one is in. Cultures are not better than one another, but they have determined what laws have worked for them. Likewise, with religion. Even though nothing can really be known about the existence and nature of the gods, he thought, the youth should still be taught about these traditions and practice them. This is important for keeping a stable society. 7


A late 5th Century figure, Gorgias took an even more skeptical position than Protagoras in that he held that there is nothing true at all. "... Gorgias propounded the extraordinary notions (1) that nothing exists, (2) that if anything exists it is incomprehensible, and (3) that even if it is comprehensible it cannot be communicated." 8 As evidence of this he cited the nature of words and their failure to totally represent the idea they symbolize, thus there is a breakdown in the transmission which make certainty impossible. Gorgias then represents more of someone focused on the art of rhetoric than on philosophy. He employed different tactics of manipulation of his audience through his skills. 9 "... he developed the technique of deception, making use of psychology and the powers of suggestion." 10 


Another late 5th Century figure who makes an appearance in Plato's Republic where he is drawn into a discussion on the nature of justice. Thrasymachus makes it clear that there is no such real thing, justice is something only the weak believe in. Rather, all that exists is power, and the law reflects the desires and benefits of those in power. Thus, that which is right is simply the will of the powerful. 11


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