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History of Philosophy
The Sophists
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." [1] The period was one of revolution and readjustment.
[1] 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 fallacy.

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 moralist.

Sources. It is difficult, as Plato [2] 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.
[2] Sophis., 218 C.
DOCTRINES

Protagoras of Abdera (born about 480 B.C.) Composed many works, of which, however, only a few fragments have survived. Plato [3] 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. [4] Nothing, therefore, becomes in and for itself but only for the percipient subject.
[3] Theaet., 160 B.

[4] Arist., Met., IX, 3, 1047 a,
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 [5]: phêsi gar pou pantôn chrêmatôn metron anthrôpon einai tôn men ontôn hôs esti, tôn de mê ontôn hôs ouk estin.
[5] Theaet., 152 A.
Grote [6] 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 physical alterations.
[6] 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, [7] 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.
[7] 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 communicated. [8]
[8] 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 [9] 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.
[9] 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 them pupils.

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 meant that:

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.

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