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The Sophists

In the second half of the fifth century B.C., a new kind of teacher became available to young men who sought to polish their skills for politics. They were called sophists1 (“wise men”), a label that acquired a pejorative sense preserved in the English word “sophistry,” because they were so clever at public speaking and philosophic debates and were feared by traditionally-minded men whose political opinions they threatened. The earliest sophists arose in parts of the Greek world other than Athens, but from about 450 B.C. on they began to travel to Athens, which was then at the height of its material prosperity, in search of pupils who could pay the hefty prices the sophists charged2 for their instruction. Wealthy young men flocked to the dazzling demonstrations of these itinerant teachers3' ability to speak persuasively, an ability that they claimed to be able to impart to students. The sophists were offering just what every ambitious young man wanted to learn because the greatest single skill that a man in democratic Athens could possess was to be able to persuade his fellow male citizens in the debates of the assembly and the council or in lawsuits before large juries. For those unwilling or unable to master the new rhetorical skills of sophistry, the sophists for hefty fees would compose speeches to be delivered by the purchaser as his own composition. The overwhelming importance of persuasive speech in an oral culture like that of ancient Greece made the sophists frightening figures to many, for the new teachers offered an escalation of the power of speech that seemed potentially destabilizing to political and social traditions.


The most famous sophist was Protagoras4, a contemporary of Pericles5 from Abdera in northern Greece.6 Protagoras emigrated to Athens about 450 B.C. when he was about forty and spent most of his career there. His oratorical ability and his upright character so impressed the men of Athens that they soon chose him to devise a code of laws for a new colony to be founded in Thurii in southern Italy in 444 B.C. Some of Protagoras' ideas eventually aroused considerable controversy, such as his agnostic position concerning the gods: “Whether the gods exist I cannot discover, nor what their form is like, for there are many impediments to knowledge, [such as] the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.”

The Subjectivism of Protagoras

Equally controversial was Protagoras' view that there was no absolute standard of truth, that there were two sides to every question. For example, if one person feeling a breeze thinks it warm, while a different person judges the same wind to be cool, there is no decision to be made concerning which judgment is correct; the wind simply is warm to one and cool to the other. Protagoras summed up his subjectivism (the belief that there is no absolute reality behind and independent of appearances) in the much-quoted opening of his work7 entitled Truth 8 (most of which is now lost): “Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are, and of the things that are not that they are not.” “Man” in this passage (anthropos in Greek, hence our word anthropology) seems to refer to the individual human being (whether male or female), whom Protagoras makes the sole judge of his or her own impressions.9

The Perceived Dangers of Relativism

Two related views taught by sophists aroused special controversy: the idea that human institutions and values were only matters of convention, custom, or law (nomos) and not products of nature (physis), and the idea that, since truth was relative, speakers should be able to argue either side of a question with equal persuasiveness10. Since the first idea implied that traditional human institutions were arbitrary rather than grounded in immutable nature and the second made rhetoric into an amoral skill, the combination of the two seemed very dangerous to a society so devoted to the spoken word because it threatened the shared public values of the polis with unpredictable changes. Protagoras himself insisted that his doctrines were not hostile to democracy, especially because he argued that every person had an innate capability for “excellence” and that human survival depended on the rule of law based on a sense of justice. Members of the community, he argued, should be persuaded to obey the laws not because they were based on absolute truth, which did not exist, but because it was expedient for people to live by them. A thief who claimed, for instance, that in his opinion a law against stealing was not appropriate, would have to be persuaded that the law forbidding theft was to his advantage, both to protect his own property and to allow the community to function in which he, like all human beings, had to live in order to survive.

Unsettling Cosmologies

Protagoras' relativistic approach to such fundamental issues as the moral basis of the rule of law in society was not the only source of disquietude for many Athenian men concerning the new intellectual developments. Philosophers such as Anaxagoras of Clazomenae11 in Ionia and Leucippus12 of Miletus13 propounded unsettling new theories about the nature of the cosmos in response to the provocative physics of the Ionian thinkers of the sixth century B.C. Anaxagoras' general theory postulating an abstract force he called “mind14” as the organizing principle of the universe probably impressed most people as too obscure to worry about, but the details of his thought seemed to offend those who held the assumptions of traditional religion. For example, he argued that the sun was in truth nothing more than a lump of flaming rock, not a divine entity. Leucippus, whose doctrines were made famous by his pupil Democritus15 of Abdera, invented an atomic theory of matter to explain how change was possible and indeed constant. Everything, he argued, consisted of tiny, invisible particles in eternal motion. Their random collisions caused them to combine and recombine in an infinite variety of forms. This physical explanation of the source of change, like Anaxagoras' analysis of the nature of the sun, seemed to deny the validity of the entire superstructure of traditional religion, which explained events as the outcome of divine forces.

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