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Tension Between Intellectual and Political Forces in the 430s

The teachings of sophists like Protagoras and Anaxagoras made many Athenians nervous, especially because leading figures like Pericles flocked to hear them.1 Many people feared that the teachings of the sophists in particular and indeed of intellectuals in general could offend the gods and therefore erode the divine favor that they believed Athens to enjoy. Just like a murderer, a teacher spouting doctrines offensive to the gods could bring pollution and therefore divine punishment on the whole community. So deeply felt was this anxiety that Pericles' friendship with Protagoras, Anaxagoras, and other controversial intellectuals gave his rivals a weapon2 to use against him when political tensions came to a head in the 430s B.C. as a result of the threat of war with Sparta.3 Pericles' opponents criticized him as sympathetic to dangerous new ideas as well as autocratic in his leadership. The impact on ordinary people of the new developments in history and medicine is hard to assess, but their misgivings about the new trends in education and philosophy with which Pericles was associated definitely heightened the political tension in Athens in the 430s B.C. These intellectual developments had a wide-ranging effect because political, intellectual, and religious life in ancient Athens was so intricately connected. The same person could feel like talking about the city-state's foreign and domestic policies on one occasion, about novel theories of the nature of the universe on another, and on every day about whether the gods were angry or pleased with the community. By the late 430s B.C., the Athenians had new reasons to worry about each of these topics.

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