Return to Philo 260 Home Page
2. The Sophists
- "Sophist" is from sophos, skilled or having special expertise, hence "wise" (cf. sophia, wisdom). Many people were "sophists" in particular areas" e.g., carpenters, charioteers, poets. What distinguished the Sophists was that they were not practitioners of a trade, but itinerant tutors who claimed to teach all that was necessary for success in public life. In practice they mainly taught rhetoric and related fields such as grammar, history, and literary criticism.
- The Sophists were at first widely admired. Eventually they came into disrepute because of their high fees and the radical nature of what many of them taught. People were particularly suspicious of their claim to be able to teach a student how "to make the weaker argument stronger" (Protagoras ). Coupled with the Sophistsí exaggerated rhetorical displays, this claim created the impression that the Sophists were more concerned with rhetorical effectiveness than with truth. Hence the meanings of "sophist" and "sophistry" today.
- The first great Sophist was Protagoras, c. 490-420 BC. He was from Abdera but settled in Athens. He was more modest than some of the later Sophists, and is treated respectfully by Plato in the Protagoras and Theaetetus. Note his skepticism about the gods . Contrary to BK 50, this did not lead to his conviction for atheism; cf. Meno 91e.
- Protagoras is most famous for the doctrine that "man is the measure of all things" . Probably a generalization from the fact that success in public speaking depends on the reaction of others, but otherwise its meaning is unclear. In the Theaetetus, Plato takes Protagoras to be claiming that all sensory appearances and beliefs are true for the person whose appearance or belief they are. This doctrine is known as "Protagorean relativism." Plato criticizes it as follows (Theaetetus 165e-171d [BK 291-95]):
--It would mean that no one, including Protagoras, is more an expert than anyone else.
--It would make real disagreement impossible.
--Suppose that there is at least one person who does not agree with Protagorean relativism. The relativist would have to admit that this person is correct, for if all beliefs are true, then the belief that relativism is false is itself true.
The last argument isnít quite right; the relativist would only have to admit that relativism is false for the opponent. Query: can he admit that and still have a coherent position?
- Another famous Sophist was Gorgias, c. 485-380 BC. Like Protagoras, he is treated respectfully by Plato (see the Gorgias). Much of what he says can be read as a response to Parmenides. In particular:
--Fragments  and  call into question Parmenidesí rigid separation between reality (or being) and appearance (or non-being).
--The Praise of Helen (not in BK) presents language, not as a means of grasping reality (as with Parmenides), but as a tool for persuading and manipulating others. "The power of speech has the same relation to the order of the soul as drugs have to the nature of bodies. For as different drugs expel different humors from the body, and some put an end to sickness and others to life, so some words cause grief, others joy, some fear, others render their hearers bold, and still others drug and bewitch the soul through an evil persuasion . . ."
--The argument that "nothing exists" is a spoof on Parmenides and Melissus. Its evident fallacies are probably intended to make one suspicious of the Parmenidean style of reasoning.
- A third important Sophist was Antiphon c. 480-411 BC. Fragment  opposes nomos (human law or custom) to phusis (nature). Claims that many laws and unwritten customs, such as honoring those of noble birth, are "contrary to nature." Also argues that it is more beneficial for oneself (though not necessarily for others!) to obey nature rather than human law provided one knows how to defend oneself well in the law-courts!
- Both Plato and Aristotle responded to this teaching by trying to show the compatibility of nomos and phusis.
-- Plato argues in the Apology, Crito, and Gorgias that it is most beneficial to oneself to act justly, even when one will suffer because of it, and that this normally means obeying human law. He also argues in the Republic that the true nature of justice does not depend on human convention.
--Aristotle makes the harmony between human nature and conventional morality a major theme of the Nicomachean Ethics. He also argues in the Politics that nomos is itself a product of phusis, since "man is by nature a political animal."
This page © Copyright 1998, Dr. David Bradshaw.
Return to Philo 260 Home Page