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History of Philosophy|
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)
|Sophistic philosophy, which constitutes so important a crisis in the
history of Greek thought and civilization, was germinally contained in
the preceding systems. Atomistic materialism culminated in the Sophism
of Protagoras; the doctrines of Heraclitus paved the way to Scepticism,
as was demonstrated by Cratylus, the teacher of Plato; and Gorgias the
Sophist merely carried to excess the dialectic method introduced by
Zeno the Eleatic. All these schools -- Atomistic, Heraclitean, Eleatic
-- had, as has been said, attacked by the aid of specious fallacies the
trustworthiness of common consciousness, so that until Socrates
appeared on the scene to determine the conditions of scientific
knowledge no positive development of philosophy was possible. Meantime
there was nothing left but to deny the possibility of attaining
knowledge. And that is what the Sophists did: they are the first
Sceptics of Greece.|
There was, then, an inevitable tendency on the part of the prevalent
philosophy to culminate in Scepticism. Besides, the
social and political conditions of the time contributed to the same
result by unsettling the moral and religious ideals which the Athenian
had hitherto held as matters of tradition. The Persian wars and the
military achievements of subsequent years brought about an upheaval in
the social and political condition of Athens. Old ideas were being
adjusted to new circumstances, the scope of education was being
widened; in a word, "the whole epoch was penetrated with a spirit of
revolution and progress," and none of the existing forces could hold
that spirit in checks We must take into account also the development of
poetry and especially of the drama. "The whole action of the drama,"
says Zeller, "comic as well as tragic, is based (at this time) on the
collision of duties and rights -- on a dialectic of moral relations
and duties."  The period was one of revolution and readjustment.
 Op. cit., II, 403.
History of the Sophists. The word Sophist, etymologically
considered, denotes a wise man. In the earlier pre-Socratic period it
meant one who made wisdom or the teaching of wisdom his profession.
Later on, the abuse of dialectic disputation of which the Sophists were
guilty caused the name sophism to become synonymous with
The Sophists flourished from about 450 B.C. to 400 B.C.; not that
Sophism as a profession disappeared altogether at the latter date, but,
after the appearance of Socrates as a teacher, the importance of the
Sophist dwindled into insignificance.
The first Sophists are represented as going about from city to city,
gathering around them the young men and imparting to them in
consideration of certain fees the instruction requisite for the conduct
of public affairs. In the instruction which they gave they set no value
upon objective truth; indeed, the ideal at which they aimed was the art
of making the worse seem the better cause, and vice versa. Readiness of
exposition and presentation of arguments in a specious manner were all
that they pretended to teach.
Such is the history of the school in general. The chief Sophists are
Protagoras of Abdera, the individualist; Gorgias of Leontini, the
nihilist; Hippias of Elis, the polymathist; and Prodicus of Ceos, the
Sources. It is difficult, as Plato  points out, to define
accurately the nature of the Sophist. The Sophists left no fixed
theorems equally acknowledged by all the school. They were
characterized more by their mode of thought than by any fixed content
of thought. Besides, Plato, Aristotle, and all our other authorities
are so avowedly hostile to the Sophists, and raise so unreasonable
objections to Sophism (as when they accuse the Sophists of bartering
the mere semblance of knowledge for gold), that we must weigh and
examine their every statement before we can admit it as evidence.
 Sophis., 218 C.
Protagoras of Abdera (born about 480 B.C.) Composed many works,
of which, however, only a few fragments have survived. Plato  traces
the opinions of Protagoras to the influence of Heraclitus. Nothing is,
all is Becoming; but, even this Becoming is relative. As the eye does
not see, except while it is being acted upon, so the object is not
colored except while it acts upon the eye.  Nothing, therefore,
becomes in and for itself but only for the percipient subject.
 Theaet., 160 B.
Hence, as the object presents itself differently to different subjects,
there is no objective truth: Man is the measure of all things. Plato
apparently reports these as the very words of Protagoras :
phêsi gar pou pantôn chrêmatôn metron
anthrôpon einai tôn men ontôn hôs esti,
tôn de mê ontôn hôs ouk estin.
 Arist., Met., IX, 3, 1047 a,
 Theaet., 152 A.
Grote  and others doubt whether the above is really the line of
thought followed out by Protagoras himself. In both Plato and Aristotle
we find allusions to the employment by Protagoras of the dialectic
introduced by Zeno. Moreover, if we are to make the argument valid, we
must, before we conclude that all knowledge is relative,
introduce the atomistic principle that all knowledge is conditioned by
 Plato, II, 322.
The relativity of knowledge, as it was professed by Protagoras,
is a denial of all objective truth and a reduction of
knowledge to individual opinion. It follows from this that a
proposition and its opposite are equally true if they appear to
different persons to be true. In this way did Protagoras lay the
foundation of the eristic method, -- the method of dispute, --
which is associated with the name Sophist, and which was carried
to such extremes by the Sophists of later times.
"Of the gods," said Protagoras, "I can know nothing, neither
that they are nor that they are not. There is much to prevent our
attaining this knowledge -- the obscurity of the subject and the
shortness of human life." These are the famous words with which,
according to Diogenes,  Protagoras began the treatise that was made
the basis of a charge of impiety, and led ultimately to his expulsion
from Athens. They contain a profession of agnosticism. Perhaps the
context, if we possessed it, would show whether Protagoras went further
and really professed atheism, the crime of which he was accused.
 IX, 51.
Gorgias of Leontini, a contemporary of Protagoras, composed a
treatise, On Nature, or the Non-Existing, which is preserved by
Sextus Empiricus. We possess, as secondary authority, a portion of the
pseudo-Aristotelian treatise Concerning Xenophanes, etc.
As it was the aim of Protagoras to show that everything is equally
true, it may be said that Gorgias strove to show that everything is
equally false. The latter proves by the use of dialectical reasoning
that (1) Nothing exists; (2) Even if it existed, it could not be known;
and (3) Even if knowledge were possible, it could not be
 Cf. Sext.,
Mathem., and the treatise Concerning Xenophanes, etc.,
apud Ritter and Preller, op. cit., pp. 189 ff.
Hippias of Elis, a younger contemporary of Protagoras, was
preeminent even among the Sophists for the vanity with which he paraded
his proficiency in rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, and archaeology. He
boasted that he could say something new on any topic, however often it
might have been discussed.
Plato  attributes to him the saying that law is a tyrant of men,
since it prescribes many things contrary to nature. This was probably
meant as a bold paradox, one of the many devices by which the Sophists
attracted the admiration of the Athenians.
 Protag., 337 C.
Prodicus of Ceos was also a contemporary of Protagoras. Such was
the esteem in which he was held by Socrates that the latter often
called himself his pupil, and did not hesitate to direct young men to
him for instruction.
Prodicus is best known by his moral discourses, in which he shows the
excellence of virtue and the misery of a life given over to pleasure.
The most celebrated of these discourses is entitled Hercules at the
Cross-Roads. The choice of a career, the employment of wealth, the
unreasonableness of the fear of death, are some of the subjects on
which he delivered exhortations.
In spite of all this, Prodicus, as a Sophist, could not consistently
avoid moral scepticism. If there is no truth, there is no law. If that
is true which seems to be true, then that is good which seems to be
good. He did not, accordingly, attempt to define virtue or moral good:
he merely drew pictures of the ethical ideals, exhorting rather than
teaching. The first to attempt a systematic treatment of ethical
problems was he who first strove to fix the conditions of scientific
knowledge through concepts, -- Socrates, with whom the second period
of Greek philosophy begins.
Historical Position. Sophistic philosbphy was the outcome of the
complex influences which shaped the social, political, philosophical,
and religious conditions of Athens during the latter half of the fifth
century before Christ. It was the philosophy which suited that age.
Pericles found pleasure in the society of Sophists, Euripides esteemed
them, Thucydides sought instruction from them, and Socrates sent
Yet Sophism did not constitute an advance in philosophic thought. It is
true that it directed attention to the subjective
element in human knowledge. In fact, it made the subjective element
everything in knowledge; it reduced truth to the level of opinion, and
made man the measure of all things. And herein lay the essential error
of Sophism, vitiating the whole system. Sophism was not the beginning
of an era in philosophy: it was more properly the ending of the era
which preceded Socrates. The onward movement of thought was not resumed
until Socrates showed that knowledge is as far from being wholly
subjective as it is from being wholly objective. It is Socrates,
therefore, who inaugurates the new era.
Retrospect. Greek philosophy exhibits in its historical
development a rhythm of movement which is perfect in the simplicity of
the formula by which it is expressed -- objective, subjective -
objective, subjective. Pre-Socratic philosophy was objective; the
philosophy of Socrates and the Socratic schools was partly objective,
partly subjective, while the philosophy of later times was almost
entirely subjective. By the objectivity of pre-Socratic philosophy is
1. It concerned itself almost exclusively with the problems of the
physical world, paying little attention to the study of man, his
origin, dignity, and destiny.
2. It did not busy itself with the problems of epistemology. At first
all sense-presentations were taken without question or criticism as
true presentations of reality, and even when the Eleatics distinguished
between reason and sense they did not go any farther towards
determining the conditions of rational knowledge.
3. Ethics was not studied scientifically; compared with cosmogony,
cosmology, and metaphysics, it did not receive proportionate attention.
Briefly, the philosophy of Greece before the time of Socrates possessed
all the naïveté that was to be expected in the first
speculative attempts of a people who never tired of nature and never
looked beyond nature for their ideals.