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.