Greek Discovery of Mind, the Sophists, notes

Philosophies of Man

The Sophists were the next group of philosophers although they were not really philosophers as such since they are better described as rhetoricians who became known as sophists (a sophist is defined as “a wise and informed person”).1 They originally worked as itinerant teachers, traveling about the Greek city states and giving lessons to whoever would pay them,2 charging fees for admission to their lectures that dealt with the nature of power and persuasion (not reality or truth). The sophist name does not predate the 5th Century.3 The need to impart a series of skills that make for success in the world explains the many different subjects which the sophists taught. The arts of public address, or rhetoric, formed the staple of the sophist curriculum. As traveling teachers, they appeared in the milieu that first surrounded Pericles since, in the background of Athenian democracy, they found an environment which favored their teaching for the following three reasons: (1) there existed a need for intellectual training for political life since, in rule by the people, only more educated and clever men could get power through the new democratic institutions such as the assembly of the people (eloquence and the power of the word were needed in order to acquire skill in the arts of persuasion and dialectical power or the power of forming arguments was necessary in the need for skill in being able to defend a thesis as required); (2) there existed a tendency in Athens toward relativism in moral and religious beliefs since, in contrast to the little prior questioning which had existed in the practice of traditional Greek religion and morality, with the rise and practice of democracy, people could talk and apply their critical reason to the questions and concerns of the day; and (3) a greater cosmopolitan spirit grew out of expanded commercial ties. Three traits characterize the sophists:4 (1) like the physical philosophers, they criticized the traditional mythology which had existed as ways of speaking about world (possibly in some way explaining it by telling stories of one kind or another); (2) they evinced skepticism and even cynicism by rejecting the value of any philosophical speculation that were seen to be fruitless5 i.e., man cannot know the truth about the riddles of nature and the universe since no absolute norms exist for determining right from wrong, truth from falsehood, although, here, Socrates tried to show that some norms are absolute and universally valid; and (3) they had a practical interest and a concern for the art of living within society despite the kind of form or organization which existed within a given society.

As transition figures, they made a number of positive contributions. First, they directed attention in philosophy to man, the subject, as men became interested in understanding themselves. This represented a shift in an interest in ethics away from a focus on the cosmos since the sophists focused on problems that differed from man to man to encourage a kind of subjectivism against which Socrates reacted. How can man do things for himself? Second, they founded the first pedagogical system of training in the west which consisted of two parts. The first consisted of formal training in grammatics, rhetoric, and dialectic (all having a democratic origin). One learns how to argue both sides of any given argument. The second consisted of a certain amount of intellectual baggage about what needed to be known: mathematics, largely pertaining to formal numbers borrowed from Pythagoras, which later was much used by Plato who regarded it as central for the training of philosophers since mathematics involved a degree of abstraction; geometry; astronomy; and music. In conclusion, this training tried to train human minds in how to think and not what to think. Third, they connected culture with politics for the first time since, for them, education had a practical function in a tradition that long remained with the Greeks. Many of the sophists were skilled politicians who contributed to the history of democracy.

Protagoras (c.480-410 BC), a native of Thrace in northern Greece,6 the most famous and least cynical of the Sophists, was an essentially practical man and a friend of Pericles who made successive visits to Athens (coming there in middle age) and who, according to Diogenes Laertius, was eventually forced to flee Athens on a charge of blasphemy. Apparently, his book on the gods was publicly burned in Athens. He was known as a lawyer who could win cases in any trial.

He taught that the way to success was through a careful and prudent acceptance of traditional customs not because they are true but because an understanding and manipulation of them is expedient if we are to get on with life and function in society.7 He is famous for the phrase: Homo mensura or “Man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, of those that are not that they are not.” Controversy exists over the meaning and application of this phrase in two questions. Does man refer to the individual or the society as in a state? Do the “things” refer to the objects of sense perception or to other fields such as ethical values? According to Copleston, Plato’s testimony in the Theaetetus depicts Protagoras as referring in the first case to the individual man and secondly only to the objects of our sense experience. In a speech by Socrates, it is noted that when the same wind blows one may feel chilly and the other not, or one may feel slightly chilly and the other quite cold. Protagoras supplies the basis of relativism by noting that neither are mistaken since both are right. Truth exists as a private, individual possession.8 However, since Plato’s Protagoras does not depict Protagoras as applying the above dictum in an individualistic sense to ethical values, the question of application arises although Copleston notes that sense perception and the intuition of values do not necessarily stand or fall together in relation to certain knowledge and truth for all.

Protagoras’s teaching in regard to ethical judgments and values can be summarized in the following terms. First, according to the Theaetetus, sense perception in each individual is equally true: the opinion of an object of sense is equally worthy. Since the human subject and objects of perception continually change, knowledge of the senses is historical or, in other words, relative. Second, things are in so far as they are perceived by man since man is the only standard. Real knowledge of really existing things is not possible given the reasonableness of a skeptical attitude about the value and possibility of appealing to truth as the means of settling any disagreements.9 In this context, the rationalism of the early Greek historians reflects the rationalism, the attitude, of the early Greek physicians. According to Alcmaeon of Croton (c.480-440 BC), the first great doctor in Greek medicine and author of a book on Natural Science, questions involving certainty in knowledge best belong to the gods:

Of things invisible, as of mortal things, only the gods have certain knowledge; but men can only follow the signs [traces] given to them in the visible world and by interpreting them feel their way towards the unseen.10

Third, Protagoras distinguished between that which is natural in law and that which is conventional in law (laws which are socially induced given the influence of “custom, climate, and self-interest”).11 Law in general is necessary since it is founded on certain ethical tendencies that are implanted in man as human beings although individual varieties in law, as one finds them in particular states, point to a relativity that exists with respect to specific determinations. For instance, modesty is first and foremost a matter of social convention. No law of one state is truer than that of another state although certain laws can be sounder and wiser. Though particular laws may be conventional, in general men are obliged to obey the laws of their respective communities since human existence is not possible without laws and the obedience which should be given to laws. Since man cannot live without laws, however, and since some laws can be better than other laws, this distinction hints or points to possibilities which later lead to the development of a theory of natural law which seems to come to us from the observations and beliefs of Hippias of Elis (b.c.460 BC), a younger contemporary of Socrates and Protagoras, who had believed in the reality of an existing universal brotherhood, to the effect that “all men are by nature relatives and fellow citizens, even if they are not such in the eyes of the [conventional] law.”12 In other words, citing words that come to us from Alcidamas (fl. 4th Century BC), “God made all men free; nature has made no man a slave.”13 Hence, with respect to mankind in general and the existence of human rights that all human beings share in, within the context of our moral lives as human beings, we can conclude that certain things are only right or good because they are right or good by nature in terms of how they exist in themselves and not because they are legally prescribed, legally right or legally good.14 In other words that allegedly come to us from Hippias of Elis: unconventional “unwritten laws” exist in an “eternal and unalterable” way. They “spring from a higher source than the decrees of men.”15 In conclusion then we can believe that, in the foundations of sophist philosophy as this comes to us from the teachings of Protagoras, the relativism which we find in Protagoras is not to be regarded as a species of absolute. The relativism that is present is not radical or total.

Fourth, Protagoras manifests an agnostic attitude toward belief in God: “With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure: for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.” Yet, as with law, despite deficiencies, we cannot get along without religion.

In conclusion, Protagoras’s emphasis on subjectivity, relativism, and expediency can be regarded as the backbone of sophism in general as a school of thought although, the claim that objective truth is something which does not exist is “itself a claim to know an objective truth.” Hence, “all relativism is self-destructive.”16 Among prominent sophists, we find as follows:

Thrasymachus argued that “justice is the advantage of the stronger”17 or “justice is in the interest of the stronger.”18 He drew “might is right” conclusions as a result of his utter relativism. All discussion about morality is useless except as it is about struggle for power.

Gorgias (c.483-375) seems to have wanted to de-throne philosophy in order to replace it with rhetoric and so focus on the importance of training persons on how they should debate and argue.19 In his lectures and in a book or three books, he “proved” the following three theses: (1) there is nothing; there is no truth; (2) if there were anything, even if there were truth, no one could know it; and lastly (3) if anyone did know it, if truth were known, no one can communicate it to anyone.20 The point, of course, is that, if you can “prove” these absurdities, you can “prove” anything.21

Callicles, again “might makes right,”22 who has been viewed as one of the most cynical of the sophists, claimed that the traditional morality is just a clever way for the weak masses to shackle the strong individual.23 The strong should throw off these shackles since doing so is somehow “naturally right” given that what matters is power, not justice. Power is good because it conduces to survival which is itself good because it allows us to seek pleasure in food, drink, and sex (the goal of the enlightened man which he seeks qualitatively and quantitatively). The traditional Greek virtue of moderation is for the simply and the feeble.

Critias, who was to become the cruelest of the Thirty Tyrants, overturning democracy and temporarily establishing an oligarchical dictatorship, taught that the clever ruler controls his subjects by encouraging their fear of non-existent gods.24

In the criticisms of the sophists which were later offered in the history of Greek philosophy, Socrates did not like their uncertainties in his search for certainties nor did he like their subjectivism, their skepticism, and their nihilism and their emphasis on the values of manipulation and expediency. Plato mentions them critically and once called them “shopkeepers with spiritual wares” since he and others were angered by their habit of destroying ethical values for payment. To meet the demands of an energetic and ambitious clientele, the sophists developed a method of interpretation that, for problems encountered when reading texts or reciting verse, encouraged a dexterous use of one’s reasoning for the purpose of then articulating solutions which could win another’s attention because of the ingenuousness that attended a proffered explanation.25 A Sophist interpretation was to be clever but it need not be right or correct. The object was not truth but a meaning whose expression would attract notice and win a measure of worldly acclaim. The reasoning of interpretation serves purposes beyond itself and for ends that often serve base motives even if it is true, at times, that a sophist interpretation can serve a pedagogical purpose in helping to train the mind. For these reasons, Plato strongly criticized the sophist approach; the method merits rejection. In one section of dialogue taken from the Protagoras, Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias, and Socrates discuss an apparent contradiction in lines of verse that are taken from Simonides of Ceos (c.556-468 BC), a famous poet of lyrics and elegies.26 Protagoras alleges a contradiction but Socrates appeals to Prodicus for a way to prove that the contradiction is only apparent. Prodicus responds by affirming that a real distinction exists between “being” and “becoming.” Socrates then gives a lengthy interpretation of his own: Simonides’s poem should be read as an attack on a saying of Pittacus of Mytilene (c.650-570 BC) who had said that “Hard is it to be noble.” Should he succeed in making this saying look ridiculous, he would establish a reputation for himself and “become the favorite of his own day.” Socrates then supplies an ingenious explanation which is not necessarily true, and his explanation bluntly illustrates the case that no interpretation of poetry, however ingenious, can necessarily effect an agreement on what could be the meaning of a poem. He closes by stating the following principle:

No one can interrogate the poets about what they say, and most often when they are introduced into the discussion some say the poet’s meaning is one thing and some another, for the topic is one on which nobody can produce a conclusive argument. The best people avoid such discussions…27

In conclusion, at best, the sophist approach produces no meaningful results even if, when used, it does not seek to mislead or to deceive another person. A third criticism notes that their skepticism encouraged bad habits and degrees of cynicism.

1Gaarder, p. 62.

2Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “Sophists,” by Guy Cromwell Field.

3According to Kathleen Freeman in Ancilla to The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A complete translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 125, sophistes originally meant “skilled craftsman” or “wise man” but, by the end of the 5th Century, it had come to have the special meaning of “professional teacher.”

4Gaarder, p. 62.

5Palmer, p. 42.

6Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 26.

7Palmer, p. 43.

8Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 26.

9Osborne, p. 11.

10Diogenes VIII, 83; Chester Starr, The Awakening of the Greek Historical Spirit (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1968), p. 113.

11Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 27.

12Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, trans. Thomas R. Hanley (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), p. 8.

13Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 8.

14Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 8.

15Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 8.

16Andrew Beards, Philosophy The Quest for Truth and Meaning (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), p. 53.

17Osborne, p. 11.

18Palmer, p. 46.

19Palmer, p. 45.

20Maluf, Philosophia Perennis, p. 97.

21Palmer, p. 45.

22Rommen, Natural Law, p. 8.

23Palmer, p. 47.

24Palmer, p. 47.

25Atkins, pp. 41-42; Pfeiffer, pp. 32-35.

26Plato Protagoras 339-347.

27Plato Protagoras 337.