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Index by Period

The Sophists

Logicians and Professors of Logic, and of the Analysis of Ideas, and of Discussion.
DOCTRINES OF THE SOPHISTS.--The Sophists descend from Parmenides and Zeno of Elea; Gorgias was the disciple of the latter. By dint of thinking that all is semblance save the Supreme Being, who alone is real, it is very easy to arrive at belief in all being semblance, including that Being; or at least what is almost tantamount, that all is semblance, inclusive of any idea we can possibly conceive of the Supreme Being. To believe nothing, and to demonstrate that there is no reason to believe in anything, is the cardinal principle of all the Sophists. Then, it may be suggested, there is nothing for it but to be silent. No, there is the cultivation of one's mind (the only thing of the existence of which we are sure), so as to give it ability, readiness, and strength. With what object? To become a dexterous thinker, which in itself is a fine thing; to be also a man of consideration, listened to in one's city, and to arrive at its government.

The Sophists accordingly gave lessons, especially in psychology, dialectics, and eloquence. They further taught philosophy, but in order to demonstrate that all philosophy is false; and, as Pascal observed later, that to ridicule philosophy is truly philosophical. They seem to have been extremely intellectual, very learned, and most serious despite their scepticism, and to have rendered Greece the very great service of making a penetrating analysis--the first recorded--of our faculty of knowledge and of the limitations, real, possible, or probable, of that faculty.

PROTAGORAS; GORGIAS; PRODICUS.--They were very numerous, the taste for their art, which might be called philosophical criticism, being widespread in Attica. It may be believed, as Plato maintains, that some were of very mediocre capacity, and this is natural; but there were also some who clearly were eminent authorities. The most illustrious were Protagoras, Gorgias, and Prodicus of Ceos. Protagoras seems to have been the most philosophical of them all, Gorgias the best orator and the chief professor of rhetoric, Prodicus the most eminent moralist and poet. Protagoras rejected all metaphysics--that is, all investigation of first causes and of the universe--and reduced all philosophy to the science of self-control with a view to happiness, and control of others with a view to their happiness. Like Anaxagoras, he was banished from the city under the charge of impiety, and his books were publicly burnt.

Gorgias appears to have maintained the same ideas with more moderation and also with less profundity. He claimed, above all, to be able to make a good orator. According to Plato, it was he whom Socrates most persistently made the butt of his sarcasms.

Prodicus, whom Plato himself esteemed, appears to have been principally preoccupied with the moral problem. He was the author of the famous apologue which represented Hercules having to choose between two paths, the one being that of virtue, the other of pleasure. Like Socrates later on, he too was subject to the terrible accusation of impiety, and underwent capital punishment. The Sophists furnish the most important epoch in the history of ancient philosophy; until their advent the philosophic systems were great poems on the total of all things, known and unknown. The Sophists opposed these ambitious and precipitate generalizations, in which imagination had the larger share, and their discovery was to bring philosophy back to its true starting point by affirming that the first thing to do, and that before all else, was to know our own mind and its mechanism. Their error possibly was, while saying that it was the first thing to do, too often to affirm that it was the only thing to do; still the fact remains that they were perfectly accurate in their assurance that it was primary.

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