|Protagoras of Abdera, the greatest of the sophists|
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.’
GorgiasThe 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:
- Nothing exists.
- Even it does, it cannot be known to human beings.
- 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).
Nomos and phusisThe 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.