Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Sophists

Protagoras of Abdera, the greatest of the sophists
This post is particularly indebted to J. V. Muir, ‘Religion and the New Education’, in P. E. Easterling and J. V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society, (Cambridge University Press, 1985) and to Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Jonathan Cape, 2010).

What is the meaning of the mutilation of the herms and Alcibiades’ alleged parody of the Eleusinian mysteries on the eve of the Sicilian expedition? Is it the sign of a fundamental crisis in late 5th century Athens or of a moral panic?

A generation gap?

Did all the Athenians believe in the gods? The mutilation of the herms provides evidence that respect for religion in its traditional forms was not universal - but this on its own was not really startling. But the apparent impiety was interpreted as a threat to the nomoi, the written and unwritten laws of the constitution. lt seemed as if something had gone badly wrong and that the standards which had fortified the troops at Marathon were no longer upheld. Well-to-do young men appeared to be embracing dangerous ideas that set them apart from their parents and led them to disregard the beliefs and practices of traditional religion.  There was a notorious club of the kakodaimonistai - aristocratic young men who met together on the unlucky days of the month to cock a snook at popular superstition. By definition this was interpreted as a fundamental undermining of the state.

The Sophists

In the second half of the fifth century, itinerant professional teachers and intellectuals descended on Athens from other Greek communities.  In return for a fee they taught a variety of subjects, from astronomy and law to mathematics and rhetoric. Above all they offered to give the sons of wealthy men, not necessarily aristocrats, education in aretē (virtue or excellence). The word at this time was changing its meaning. In the Homeric epic it was associated with the warrior virtues, in particular with courage, but in democratic Athens it was increasingly associated with the ability to influence others through the art of persuasion. It was through persuasion that an ambitious Athenian could win power in the Assembly and the law courts. The word for this was peithō, and she was personified as a goddess. Her task was to persuade Athenians to think collectively for the common good and her priestesses were given special seats in the Theatre of Dionysus. But she was also a dangerous goddess – through persuasion men could be lured into wrong actions.

The term sophistēs is derived from the Greek words for wisdom (sophia) and wise (sophos). It therefore originally meant simply a sage or wise man, but already in the fifth century it had acquired the pejorative sense of false reasoning and tricksiness (‘sophistry’). On this interpretation a sophist was a charlatan, who could argue black was white. This was the accusation Plato and Aristotle levied at the itinerant teachers: far from being teachers of truth, they were dangerous men subverting truth through fallacious reasoning. 

Their stress on moral excellence, combined with their brilliant powers of persuasion, led many to think that they were overturning the traditional respect for the gods. The sophists were such clever arguers that they showed that by the mastery of certain techniques that anyone could prove anything and persuade others. This was seen as dangerous, and in 404, during the brief rule of the Thirty Tyrants, the teaching of rhetoric was banned for a short time. But with the restoration of the democracy, rhetoric was once more allowed.

Our evidence for the sophists is very one-sided, as it comes almost entirely from their opponents. Only a handful of their own writings has survived. They were attacked most famously in The Clouds, a play by the twenty-two year old Aristophanes, produced in 423 BC. Strepsiades sends his son, Pheidippides, to The Thinkery (alternatively translated as The Thinking Foundation), an institution of higher education set up by Socrates. (This opens up a debate about whether Socrates was a sophist or one of their opponents.)  Socrates dismisses the idea of Zeus: it’s not he who makes the clouds move, but a celestial vortex. For a while Strepsiades is convinced that 
‘Zeus no longer exists but in his place Vortex is now king.’ 
When he graduates, Pheidippides beats up his father and offers a persuasive justification for his act. He then prepares to beat up his mother until restrained by the mob. 


Almost all the sophists who taught in Athens were foreigners. The first and greatest was Protagoras of Abdera in Thrace (c. 485-415).  Very few of his own words survive, and much of what we know of him comes through the hostile writings of Plato.  The opening sentence of one of his books has become almost a slogan of the sophistic movement. 
‘man is the measure of all things, of those being that they are, of those not being that they are not’.  
This was a position of subjectivism. It is also a position of relativism. Values may depend on tribal or other customs, on the laws of the state or on personal conscience.  

Protagoras is said to have written a book On the Gods, and according to one source, he gave a celebrated reading at the house of the playwright, Euripides' house:
‘As to the gods, I have no possibility of knowing that they are, nor that they are not, nor what they are like in appearance.  Many are the obstacles to such knowledge, their invisibility no less than the shortness of human life.’


The second great sophist was the Sicilian orator Gorgias of Leontini (c. 485-c.380), one of the first teachers of rhetoric.  He brought to Greece the Sicilian art and technique of words, something long established there. In 427 BC he headed an embassy to Athens to ask for help against Syracuse.  The brilliance of his speech made a great impression and soon many pupils gathered around him.  It is said that thousand paid to hear him lecture in the Agora. His book On Non-Being culminated in a three-fold paradox: 

  1. Nothing exists. 
  2. Even it does, it cannot be known to human beings. 
  3. Even it is and can be known, it cannot be explained to another man.

He also mounted an ingenious (possibly tongue in cheek?) defence of Helen of Troy, the ‘Eulogy of Helen’, which 'showed' that she was not to blame for her actions. 
Either she was charmed by Paris's beauty Or she was forced Or she was won over by his persuasive speech, Or it was the will of a god. 
This raised the issues of free will and human responsibility and showed the power of persuasive speech (peithō).

Gorgias influenced literature more than philosophy. He made art and rhetoric a dangerous weapon of possible misuse. 

Nomos and phusis

The sophists opened up a distinction between nomos and phusis
 Nomos: law, custom, convention
Phusis: nature: things as they are in the natural world without human interference.

Under sophistic influence many pointed out that different peoples had different nomoi. This led some to argue that nomos was a mere human convention, either or no value or else a tyrant to be destroyed. Its opposite was phusis, which was either an expression of the natural equality of man and thus a justification of democracy, or the opposite, an expression of the uniqueness of the individual, in particular the great individual, and thus a support for monarchy or tyranny.  

The widening geographical contacts of the Greeks had brought them into contact with societies with very different laws and customs. This led to an increasing realisation that all human institutions were man­ made.  In some writers (not all of them sophist) this undermined the fundamental distinction between the Greeks and the barbarians - the distinction which provided part of the rationale for slavery. Euripides apparently questioned slavery in fragments of his plays: slavery was a matter of nomos rather than phusis.

The prosecutions

One of the results of this unease was a series of prosecutions in the courts, beginning in the 430s, for asebeia (impiety). A decree dating from that time allowed for the public prosecution of two categories of offender: first those who did not admit the practice of religion: second those who taught rational theories about the heavens. Anyone associated with the ‘new thinking’ was thought to be vulnerable.   Protagoras was the most prominent victim, condemned on a charge of asebeia soon after 421 and drowned at sea while escaping from Athens to Sicily.


In the last decades of the fifth century as Athens experienced the humiliations of oligarchic coups, military defeat and a Spartan occupation, any questioning of the old values came to seem especially dangerous. Safety lay in acknowledging the gods of the city and taking especial care that the young were not corrupted by impious questioning. This is the context for the trial and execution of Socrates.