The 5th-Century Sophists
The Sophists taught men how to speak and what arguments to use in public debate. A Sophistic education was increasingly sought after both by members of the oldest families and by aspiring newcomers without family backing. The changing pattern of Athenian society made merely traditional attitudes in many cases no longer adequate. Criticizing such attitudes and replacing them by rational arguments held special attraction for the young, and it explains the violent distaste which they aroused in traditionalists. Plato thought that much of the Sophistic attack upon traditional values was unfair and unjustified. But even he learned at least one thing from the Sophists—if the older values were to be defended, it must be by reasoned argument, not by appeals to tradition and unreflecting faith.
Seen from this point of view, the Sophistic movement performed a valuable function within Athenian democracy in the 5th century BCE. It offered an education designed to facilitate and promote success in public life. All of the Sophists appear to have provided a training in rhetoric and in the art of speaking, and the Sophistic movement, responsible for large advances in rhetorical theory, contributed greatly to the development of style in oratory. In modern times the view occasionally has been advanced that this was the Sophists’ only concern. But the range of topics dealt with by the major Sophists makes this unlikely, and even if success in this direction was their ultimate aim, the means they used were surely as much indirect as direct, for the pupils were instructed not merely in the art of speaking, but in grammar; in the nature of virtue (aretē) and the bases of morality; in the history of society and the arts; in poetry, music, and mathematics; and also in astronomy and the physical sciences. Naturally the balance and emphasis differed from Sophist to Sophist, and some offered wider curricula than others. But this was an individual matter, and attempts by earlier historians of philosophy to divide the Sophistic movement into periods in which the nature of the instruction was altered are now seen to fail for lack of evidence. The 5th-century Sophists inaugurated a method of higher education that in range and method anticipated the modern humanistic approach inaugurated or revived during the European Renaissance.
Nature of Sophistic Thought
A question still discussed is whether the Sophists in general had any real regard for truth or whether they taught their pupils that truth was unimportant compared with success in argument. Plato’s hostile judgment on both counts is still frequently repeated without question. The Platonic writings make frequent reference to what Plato calls “eristic” (eristikos, “fond of wrangling”) and “antilogic”; the two often have been incorrectly treated as identical. Eristic, for Plato, consists in arguments aimed at victory rather than at truth. Antilogic involves the assignment to any argument of a counterargument that negates it, with the implication that both argument and counterargument are equally true. Antilogic in this sense was especially associated with Protagoras; but Plato, no doubt correctly, attributes its use to other Sophists as well. He regards the use of antilogic as essentially eristic, whether it be used to silence an opponent by making his position seem self-contradictory, or whether it be used mechanically to negate any proposition put forward in debate. He concludes that the widespread use of antilogic is evidence that Sophists had no real regard for the truth, which must itself be free from antilogic.
But Plato himself believed, for much or possibly all of his life, that the phenomenal world was essentially antilogical inasmuch as no statement about it could be made possessing a greater degree of truth than the contradictory of that statement. For example, if a person is tall in relation to one object, he will be short in relation to another object. In so characterizing the phenomenal world, Plato certainly did not wish to be called eristic—he regarded the application of antilogic to the description of the phenomenal world as an essential preliminary to the search for the truth residing in the Platonic forms, which are themselves free from antilogic.
Seen in this perspective, the Sophistic use of antilogic must be judged less harshly. To the extent that it was used irresponsibly to secure success in debate it was eristic, and the temptation so to use it must often have arisen. But where it was invoked in the sincere belief that antilogic elements were indeed involved, or where it was used for analyzing a complex situation in order to reveal its complexity, then antilogic was in no way inconsistent with devotion to truth. This raises the question to what extent the Sophists possessed any general view of the world or gave expression to any genuine philosophical views, whether original or derived. Ancient writers, influenced by Plato and Aristotle, seem to have excluded the Sophists, apart from Protagoras, from their schematized accounts of early Greek thinkers. Modern writers have frequently maintained that, whatever else they were, the Sophists were in no sense philosophers. Even those who acknowledge the philosophical interest of certain particular doctrines attributed to individual Sophists often tend to regard these as exceptions and claim that, inasmuch as the Sophists were not a school but only independent teachers and writers, as a class they were not philosophers. Two questions are involved: whether the Sophists held common intellectual doctrines and whether some or all of these could actually be termed philosophical.
Among moderns, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was one of the first to reinsert the Sophists into the history of Greek philosophy. He did so within the framework of his own dialectic, in which every thesis invokes its own opposite, or antithesis; thus, he treated the Sophists as representing the antithesis to the thesis of the group of philosophers known collectively as the pre-Socratics. Pre-Socratics such as Thales, Heracleitus, and Parmenides sought the truth about the external world with a bold enthusiasm that produced a series of explanations, each claiming to be correct. None of these explanations of the physical world paid attention to the observer and each was driven to reject more and more of the phenomenal world itself as unreal. Finally, with the Eleatics, a 5th-century school at Elea in Italy that held that reality is a static one, of which Parmenides and Zeno are representatives, little or nothing of the phenomenal world was left as real. This trend in turn produced a growing distrust of the power of human beings to attain knowledge of the ultimate basis of natural phenomena. Philosophy had reached an impasse, and there was a danger of complete skepticism. Such an extreme position, according to Hegel’s view, provoked the “antithesis” of the Sophistic movement, which rejected the “thesis” of the objectivists and concentrated attention upon humankind rather than upon nature. To Hegel, the Sophists were subjective idealists, holding that reality is only minds and their contents, and so philosophy could move forward by turning its attention to the subjective element in knowing. Reflection upon the contrast between the thought of the Sophists and that of their predecessors produced the “syntheses” of Plato and Aristotle.
Whether any of the Sophists actually were subjective idealists may be doubted. The conclusion depends in part on whether Protagoras held that phenomena had subjective existence only, or whether he thought that all things perceived had objective existence but were perceived differently according to the nature of the percipient and their relation to him—i.e., whether he interpreted phenomena subjectively or relativistically. It is fairly clear, however, that the Sophists did concentrate very largely upon human beings and human society, upon questions of words in their relations to things, upon issues in the theory of knowledge, and upon the importance of the observer and the subjective element in reality and in the correct understanding of reality.
This emphasis helps to explain the philosophical hostility of Plato and Aristotle. Particularly in the eyes of Plato, anyone who looks for the truth in phenomena alone, whether he interprets it subjectively or relativistically, cannot hope to find it there; and his persistence in turning away from the right direction virtually amounts to a rejection of philosophy and of the search for truth. Many a subsequent thinker for whom metaphysics, or the investigation of the deepest nature of reality, was the crowning achievement of philosophy has felt with Plato that the Sophists were so antimetaphysical that they have no claim to rank as philosophers. But since the mid-19th century there has been growing appreciation of a number of problems and doctrines recurring in the discussions of the Sophists in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the Sophists were considered charlatans. Their intellectual honesty was impugned, and their doctrines were blamed for weakening the moral fibre of Greece. The charge was based on two contentions, both correct: first, that many of the Sophists attacked the traditionally accepted moral code; and second, that they explored and even commended alternative approaches to morality that would condone or allow behaviour of a kind inadmissible under the stricter traditional code.
Much less weight is now attached to these charges. First, many of the attacks on the traditional morality were in the name of a new morality that claimed to be of greater validity. Attacks upon particular doctrines often claimed that accepted views should be abandoned as morally defective. Furthermore, even when socially disfavoured action seemed to be commended, this was frequently done to introduce a principle necessary in any satisfactory moral theory. Thus, when Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato’s Republic argues that justice is unwarranted when it merely contributes to another’s good and not to the good of the doer, Plato agrees. Finally, there is no evidence that any of the Sophists were personally immoral or that any of their pupils were induced to immoral actions by Sophistic teaching. The serious discussion of moral problems and the theory of morality tends to improve behaviour, not to corrupt it.
Relativism and skepticism have often been regarded as common features of the Sophistic movement as a whole. But it was early pointed out that only in Protagoras and Gorgias is there any suggestion of a radical skepticism about the possibility of knowledge; and even in their case Sextus Empiricus, in his discussion of skepticism, is probably right when he declares that neither was really a skeptic. Protagoras does seem to have restricted knowledge to sense experience, but he believed emphatically that whatever was perceived by the senses was certainly true. This led him to assert that the tangent does not touch the circle at a point only but along a definite length of the circumference; clearly he was referring to human perception of drawn tangents and circles. Gorgias, who claimed that nothing exists, or if it does exist it cannot be known, or if it exists and is knowable it cannot be communicated to another, has often been accused of denying all reality and all knowledge. Yet he also seems to have appealed in his very discussion of these themes to the certainty of perceived facts about the physical world; e.g., that chariots do not race across the sea. Others dismiss his whole thesis as a satire or joke against philosophers.
Probably neither view is correct. What Gorgias seems to have been attacking was not perceived reality nor one’s power to perceive it but the attempt to assign existence or nonexistence (with the metaphysical implications of such an operation) to what one perceives. There is evidence that other Sophists (e.g., Hippias) were interested in questions of this kind, and it is likely that they were all concerned to some degree with rejecting claims of any nonsensible existence, such as those of the Eleatics. The Sophists, in fact, were attempting to explain the phenomenal world without appealing to any principles outside phenomena. They believed that this could be done by including the observer within the phenomenal world. Their refusal to go beyond phenomena was, for Plato, the great weakness in their thinking.
A second common generalization about the Sophists has been that they represent a revolt against science and the study of the physical world. The evidence is against this, inasmuch as for Hippias, Prodicus, Gorgias, and Protagoras there are records of a definite interest in questions of this kind. The truth is rather that they were in revolt against attempts to explain the physical world by appeals to principles that could not be perceived by the senses; and instead of framing new “objective” explanations, they attempted to explain things, where explanation was required, by introducing the perceiver as one element in the perceptual situation.
One of the most famous doctrines associated with the Sophistic movement was the opposition between nature and custom or convention in morals. It is probable that the antithesis did not originate in Sophistic circles but was rather earlier; but it was clearly very popular and figured largely in Sophistic discussions. The commonest form of the doctrine involved an appeal from conventional laws to supposedly higher laws based on nature. Sometimes these higher laws were invoked to remedy defects in actual laws and to impose more stringent obligations; but usually it was in order to free the individual from restrictions unjustifiably imposed by human laws that the appeal to nature was made. In its extreme form the appeal involved the throwing off of all restraints upon self-interest and the desires of the individual (e.g., the doctrine of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias that might, if one possesses it, is actually right), and it was this, more than anything else, that gave support to charges against the Sophists of immoral teaching. On other occasions the terms of the antithesis were reversed and human laws were explicitly acclaimed as superior to the laws of nature and as representing progress achieved by human endeavour. In all cases the laws of nature were regarded not as generalized descriptions of what actually happens in the natural world (and so not like the laws of physics to which no exceptions are possible) but rather as norms that people ought to follow but are free to ignore. Thus, the appeal to nature tended to mean an appeal to human nature treated as a source for norms of conduct. (See also natural law.)
To Greeks this appeal was not very novel. It represented a conscious probing and exploration into an area wherein, according to their whole tradition of thought, lay the true source for norms of conduct. If Plato’s Callicles represents a position actually held by a living Sophist when he advocates free rein for the passions, then it was easy for Plato to argue in reply that human nature, if it is to be fulfilled, requires organization and restraint in the license given to the desires of particular aspects of it; otherwise the interests of the whole will be frustrated. Both Plato and Aristotle, in basing so much of their ethics on human nature, are only following up the approach begun by the Sophists.
The Sophists have sometimes been characterized by their attacks on the traditional religious beliefs of the Greeks (see Greek religion). It is true that more than one Sophist seems to have faced prosecution for impiety, as did Socrates also. Protagoras wrote “concerning the gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist nor what they are like in form,” and Prodicus offered a sociological account of the development of religion. Critias went further when he supposed that the gods were deliberately invented to inspire fear in the evildoer. It is thus probably correct to say that the tendency of much Sophistic thought was to reject the traditional doctrines about the gods. Indeed, this follows almost inevitably if the supposition is correct that all the Sophists were attempting to explain the phenomenal world from within itself, while excluding all principles or entities not discernible in phenomena. But in their agnostic attitudes toward the Olympian deities, the Sophists were probably at one with most of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries and also with most thinking people living toward the end of the 5th century. It is thus probably misleading to regard them as revolutionary in their religious beliefs.
The importance the Sophists attached to human beings meant that they were extremely interested in the history and organization of human societies. Here again most is known about Protagoras, and there is a danger of treating his particular doctrines as typical of the Sophistic movement as a whole. In the 5th century, human history was very commonly seen in terms of a decline from an earlier golden age. Another view supposed that there were recurring cycles in human affairs according to which a progression from good to bad would give way to one from bad to good. The typical Sophistic attitude toward society rejected both of these views in favour of one that saw human history in terms of progress from savagery to civilization. In a famous myth, Protagoras explained how humans achieved civilized society first with the aid of arts and crafts and then by gaining a sense of respect and justice in the ordering of their affairs. The general thinking of most of the Sophists seems to have been along similar lines.
One of the most distinctive Sophistic tenets was that virtue can be taught, a position springing naturally from the Sophists’ professional claim to be the teachers of young men. But the word virtue (aretē) implied both success in living and the qualities necessary for achieving such success, and the claim that aretē could be taught by the kind of teaching that the Sophists offered had far-ranging implications. It involved the rejection of the view that aretē came only by birth—for example, by being born a member of a noble family—and it involved also the rejection of the doctrine that aretē was a matter of the chance occurrence of specified qualities in particular individuals. Aretē, in the Sophists’ view, was the result of known and controllable procedures, a contention of profound importance for the organization of society. Moreover, what can be taught has some relation to what can be known and understood. The belief that teaching of a high intellectual calibre could produce success both for the individual and for governments has had a profound influence upon the subsequent history of education. Once again, it is through the acceptance of this doctrine by Plato and Aristotle that the Sophistic position came to be part of subsequent humanist tradition.