The Sophists

Imagine Athens at this time as the major intellectual and artistic centre for Greece. The economic transformation of the city-state during the fifth century in fact amounted to a revolution, as the economy of the polis became an economy of empire after the destruction of the Persians and the development of trade agreements and a protection alliance, the so-called Delian League of poleis, with Athens in charge. As private affluence increased and public building programmes made Athens a city of great elegance (the Parthenon was particularly notable), individual teachers, known in general as Sophists (from Sophistes, meaning 'expert'), arrived from all over the Greek world to offer their career-orientated services to the rich (if not always well-born), especially during the 'age of Perikles'. Indeed, Perikles was one of their main patrons and if the later Plutarch is to be believed, the Sophists Anaxagoras and Protagoras were his closest associates.98 The Sophists were not merely precursors to the classical political theory to be developed by Plato and Aristotle. They were, instead, the culmination of a long tradition of political theorizing which had advanced to provide, not least, the foundations for the development of democracies and an understanding of procedural justice in communities.99 Plato's dialogues, too, are filled with men who were in real life either patrons or clients of Sophists, or Sophists themselves; they are Plato's main philosophical antagonists. It is largely their views which must be overcome.

In the actual life of the city Sophists do seem to have set the agenda of Athenian debate in almost all areas of intellectual enquiry. From a political perspective it was precisely the variety of Sophist positions that required assessment and, in Plato's view, counteraction. In this, Plato appears to have shared some of the views of many of his contemporaries but for reasons that were not necessarily theirs. Indeed, Sophist

97 Cited from Millett, 'Patronage', pp. 23—4, who uses this as an example of private patronage.

98 G. B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge, 1981), p. 18.

99 For texts in translation see M. Gagarin and P. WoodrufF, eds, Early Creek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists (Cambridge, 1995).

teachings were not often well-received in the cities they visited; at best they were mocked in comedies, and at worst, as during the second half of the fifth century in Athens itself, they were prosecuted - some believe — in astonishing numbers, sent into exile and, possibly, their books burnt. The full democracy of Athens, this rich and affluent city whose citizens were equally entitled to exercise the freedom of public speech and to engage in debate and the taking of collective decisions, found certain views intolerable, despite Perikles' claim that in private they were tolerant. The charge brought against various Sophists was usually that ofimpiety (asebeia): not believing in the city's divinities and/or teaching astronomy as a kind of scientific rationalism to 'explain' traditional superstitions. The charge ofimpiety would also be brought against Socrates.

But some scholars think the real objection to Sophists was that they were willing to teach anyone at all about 'matters of state' in order that he might then become a successful politician.100 To some Sophists, this might have meant that the character type required to lead the demos could be acquired by their private instruction, not least in the techniques of persuasive public speaking. But what, if anything, was implied or actually taught concerning such a man's moral principles and values prior to his entry into public debate over policy issues of the day? And if it was held that arete or the kind of excellence that merits public office can be taught, then was there any natural gift required by the pupil in order that he might benefit from the teaching? Or was money sufficient for anyone possessing it to come along to learn how to 'merit' high office and attain it? Were there personal qualities that a man, seeking to lead the polis, might be expected to possess or acquire? The appearance of certain Sophists in Athens raised questions not only about what a politician needed to know but also about what kind of man he needed to be.

From Plato's presentation of some of the Sophist positions in his dialogues, it appears they offered various answers to these questions, not all of which, by any means, implied a preference for democratic principles and equality of opportunity. If we look at some of the issues they treated we can see that whatever their final conclusions, Sophists were examining the beliefs and values of a previous generation and subjecting tradition to scrutiny, if not to outright attack. Plato presents some of their views as capable of becoming those of the majority if they had not already done so. And we are reliant on Plato's generally hostile analysis of a variety of Sophist positions because Sophists' works have survived only in fragments.101

It appears that the Sophist agenda overlapped with that of the pre-Socratic naturalists,102 especially where some of them discussed not only the important problems concerning human knowledge and its relation to human perception, but also the nature of truth and reality and their relation to appearances. Some of them were concerned with whether moral values are relative to experience and social circumstance or are fixed despite these contingencies. Some of them wondered whether a knowledge of the gods was possible for humans or whether the human conception of the gods was necessarily based on and limited by the human conception of heroic humans. Some proposed the

100 Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, p. 26.

101 Texts in H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th edn (Berlin, 1952); M. Untersteiner, Sofisti, Testimoníame e frammenti (Florence, 1949-67); R. K. Sprague, The Older Sophists: a complete translation (Columbia, SC, 1972). Also see W. K. C. Guthne, The Sophists (Cambridge, 1971).

102 See introduction.

origin of politics as deriving from the social, but pre-political, expectation that all men are or ought to be considered equal in their relevant sensitivities to mutual social respect and to a concern for justice which can then be refined by education and good laws. Some queried society's attitude to punishment. If some people act against basic principles of mutual social respect and display little concern for justice, should they be subject to vindictive punishment and seen as social enemies who must be harmed, or should their punishment consist in rehabilitation and re-education so as to try to ensure that at some time in the future they can re-enter society as responsible citizens? Some asked whether the polis needs professional moral educators or whether it is the culture and institutions and laws of the polis, through its schools, family, military service, political participation, which educate young citizens so that professional teachers teach not moral education but a range of other skills. What then makes a good teacher and what makes a good pupil? And if a man seeks a political career, does he need some further education beyond the moral, which one might presume he has acquired from family and the social institutions, and beyond what he has learnt in studying language and literature, mathematics and athletics in school?103 What should those aspiring to be statesmen be taught? And what kind of characters should they display?

Two of the most well-known Sophists were Protagoras (c.485-415 bc), the close associate of Perikles, and Gorgias (from Sicily), who came to Athens in 427 bc and was much admired for his rhetoric. It appears that there was a difference between the more generalist teachers called Sophists who spoke on all subjects, and rhetoricians.104 Both men gave epideictic speeches, praising and blaming, and taught Athenian pupils privately for large sums of money. Along with Socrates, these were the major figures in that phase of Greek philosophy which most interests historians of political thought.

If the whole previous philosophical tradition, both cosmological and metaphysical, had assumed that rational argument and enquiry can arrive at the truth of how things are, Gorgias in particular appears to have argued that nothing can be proved one way or the other. Argument does not produce truth but, rather, persuasion and a man skilled in oratory is able to make an equally satisfying case for every position. Intellectual activity is therefore not concerned with the truth but with the persuasive, and similarly, the pre-Socratic naturalists' arguments about the kosmos must be thought of as neither right nor wrong but as more or less plausible, depending on the persuasive skill of the arguer.

A similar testing of some of the pre-Socratic arguments about the relation between reality and appearance, for instance, that how things are is different from how they appear, was taken up by Protagoras. For him, it was not possible to distinguish clearly between how things are and how they seem, so that all one can say is that what seems to be so to you, is so. Protagoras' most famous dictum was 'of all things, man is the measure - of what is, that it is and of what is not, that it is not' (frag. 1). Appearances are all that there are for us.105 But unlike Gorgias, Protagoras did not present a sceptical position

103 This list of topics is adapted from Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, introduction.

104 See Plato's Gorgias 465b-c, where Gorgias calls himself a rhetorician and defines rhetoric as 'the ability to use words to persuade jurors in a jury court and councillors ... and those in the Assembly and in any other meeting of a civic nature': Gorgias 452e 4; in the fourth century the word rhetor was synonymous with 'politician'.

105 Plato's dialogue Theaetetus is the main source for our knowledge of these views; see M. Burayeat, 'Protagoras and Self-refutation in Plato's Theaetetus', in S. Everson, ed., Companions to Ancient Thought, 1: F.pistemology (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 39-59.

which eliminates the truth; instead, he argued that the truth is what each of us takes it to be. If we are a member of a minority group in society which thinks it right to break the laws of the wider society, then our belief is true just as is the belief of the majority. There is no way in which we can be told with certainty which of the different true beliefs we should accept. For Protagoras, there is no way of determining whether one moral outlook is truly preferable to another, for each is true. But he believes that a statesman who is a skilled orator can substitute opinions that are better (not truer) than others and, for example, can persuade minorities to act in ways acceptable to the majority. Hence, he argues that those practices which seem right and praiseworthy to any particular state, that is, to any community which decides and judges its own laws and customs, are so for that state so long as it holds by them. Only where the practices or conventions are, in any particular case, unsound for them, does the wise man try to substitute others that are better and which appear to be sounder.106 It is evident that the wise man must be able to convince others by his rhetorical skill in argument. Each person is, of course, situated in a culture with conventions, and so, human convention, which is dependent on culture, is the measure of how things are. And 'how things are' is itself a measure of convention. Hence, for Protagoras, as Plato presents him in his dialogue of that name, arete, a man's virtue, excellence or efficiency, can be taught and it is taught by experience; it is 'picked up' as a pattern of behaviour, the way a child 'picks up' language. And all men, more or less, have a capacity to 'pick up' arete as it is transmitted by social conventions. Protagoras was an optimist and viewed human nature as capable of civilized progression: virtue could be taught, not by an intellectual discipline but by 'social control'.

However, what Protagoras takes arete to be is not what Socrates understands it to be. According to Socrates, a man's excellence or virtue is an intellectual discipline, a consistent attitude of mind that emerges from an unchanging intellectual insight into the true state of reality. For Socrates, arete is not simply habit or the ordinary man's intuitions and attachments but a branch of scientific knowledge, proceeding from within to guide external behaviour and perhaps, in some fundamental sense, it cannot be taught at all. We must note that he held this rational view while also taking both dreams and oracles very seriously.

As we shall see, there is an important contrast between the Socratic position and that of either of the two Sophists, Protagoras and Gorgias. For both Sophists, how things 'really' are is not discoverable by enquiry and argument. For them, philosophical activity simply does not get at the truth; for Gorgias it gets at no truth at all but at more or less good arguments and for Protagoras it gets at as many truths as there are men, culturally situated, who experience the world of appearances.

There were practical political consequences of these positions. If, according to some Sophists, all that men can attain is 'more or less good arguments' rather than the truth, then an examination of democratic principles might well raise questions about their justification. Better arguments might be put forward in favour of power to the 'better born'. In Athens, the Sophist Antiphon, in favour of the oligarchic revolution of 411 BC, criticized democratic conventional justice along just these lines and argued that democratic laws violated nature (physis). Arguments in favour of democratic justice, with their appeal to the interest of others, the weaker, the collectivity, were no more than bad

106 Alternative readings in D. Bostock, Plato's Theaetetus (Oxford, 1988); T. Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory (Oxford, 1977) and F. M. Cornford, Plato's Theory of Knowledge (London, 1935).

attempts at deceiving and preventing the 'naturally' stronger, more able men from pursuing their 'heroic', selfish, anti-social aims and their own more exclusive power. These arguments would surface in Plato's characterizations of Thrasymachus in the Republic and Callicles in the Gorgias. One of the major questions to be resolved was: were a society's laws (nomoi) necessarily in conflict with nature (pfoysis)?1"7

During Socrates' adult life and in the early years of his student, Plato, the attack on Athenian conventional morality (nomoi) reached a revolutionary pitch, in part dictated by Athens' defeat by Sparta. Socrates, insisting that he was no Sophist, took up a number of the issues raised by a range of Sophists and their clients. With the reinstatement of democratic rule (403/2 bc) he was brought to trial, condemned and put to death in 399 bc. What did he teach and why did Athenian democracy kill him?

107 See Dodds on the difficulties of interpreting the many meanings of this antithesis: The Greeks and the Irrational, pp. 182-3; and A. W. H. Adkins, Moral Values and Political Behaviour in Ancient Greece (New York, 1972) on Antiphon.

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Responses

  • jasmine
    What is the contribution of Antiphon as a sophists to political theory?
    11 months ago
  • Feorie
    Are there social consequences to the perception that politicians are sophists?
    7 months ago
  • Pirkko
    Are politicians sophist?
    7 months ago
  • paul
    What are the contributions of sophists?
    9 days ago

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