Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. I / by Ralph McInerny

Part I: Presocratic Philosophy

Chapter VII

The Sophists

If we think of a progression from Homer to Hesiod in terms of a passage from concern with human action, its sanctions and consequences, to concern with the role of the gods, not only relative to man but also with respect to the constitution of our world, the emergence of the Ionian natural philosophers can be seen as a new concern with the world itself and with man as a part of that world rather than as moral agent. To be sure, Ionian natural philosophy retains its links with the myths which form the background of the epics as well, but the beginnings of philosophy appear as a deliberate movement away from an anthropomorphic interpretation of the universe and a consequent decrease in interest in man as moral agent. There is no complete break, of course. Xenophanes and Heraclitus exhibit a deep concern with conduct; the Pythagoreans express best of all the twofold concern with a scientific explanation of the world and with man's achievement of his moral possibilities. This is present as well in Empedocles and in Democritus. We cannot say, therefore, that concern with man begins with the Sophists. It is rather the quality and causes of this concern that make the Sophists a breed apart and allow them to play an important if transitional role in the development of Greek thought.

It is not a negligible fact that the Sophists do not figure in the sketch of previous philosophy Aristotle gives at the outset of his Metaphysics. In that sketch Aristotle is intent on pointing out previous efforts to arrive at the various principles of explanation of the things that are. The absence of the Sophists from this historical summary would lead to the conclusion that their interests were quite different from those of others Aristotle finds important for his purposes. Now if philosophers we have considered previously were concerned with man -- with human existence, with man's place in the universe -- this was not their only concern. Is it perhaps because the Sophist was interested only in the human that he differs from his predecessors? The truth is that the Sophists can best be assessed in terms of the context which favored their flourishing.

The best analogue for the Sophists is Xenophanes. We recall that Xenophanes was a wanderer, that he recited his own verse; thus setting himself up in opposition to the declaimers of Homer, particularly in the content of his verse. He opposes the Homeric view of the gods, he ridicules the emphasis on sports, he visits city after city, seeking to make an impact -- to direct and educate his fellows. In this he differs from the Milesians, who can be related as master and pupil only by reading back into the past later forms of philosophical education. There are, of course, many legends about the political prowess of the Milesians, but the fact of the matter is that their concern was with knowledge, with research, and not primarily with teaching, and certainly not with the changing of men's lives. Xenophanes is primarily concerned with education, with persuading his fellows; he is aware of the research of the Milesians, and makes use of its results for his own purposes, but he is not himself directly engaged in the same endeavor. If Homer and Hesiod had become the teachers of Greek youth, Xenophanes aspires to supplant them in that very role. It is in this light that we can best appreciate his criticisms of the immorality apparently set up for emulation by the epic poets. With the Pythagoreans, the blending of the efforts of the Milesians and Xenophanes results in the formation of a philosophical school, but it is restricted to members of the order -- to the initiates, who must by ascesis and purgation free themselves from the cycle of birth. The Pythagoreans were said to have been politically active in southern Italy, but their efforts ended in disaster, and their cult seems never to have achieved any political success, so as to have general educative significance. It was efficacious rather as a rule of conduct for a select few living in a community, which cut them off from the general run of mankind. The Sophists, it seems, must be looked upon primarily in terms of the educative role they strive to play with respect to the multitude; like Xenophanes, they are wanderers. They go from town to town and offer to teach what is necessary for the citizen of the city state. They do this for a fee; some of them become quite wealthy in the process. In the words of Jaeger, they literally live by their wits. This historical milieu which favored the flourishing of the Sophists was the Greek polis, the city state.

The Greek polis, from which our word "politics" comes, is an entity difficult for us to imagine. It was an autonomous unit, composed of citizens who were primarily farmers. Their houses were in town, surrounding the acropolis -- the upper city, a citadel indispensable because of the many wars -- beneath which would be the market place. The members of the polis were connected by the land from which they all came, by the gods they worshipped in common, by economic and geographic boundaries, by the political life they shared. These groupings of people were small. Plato says the ideal city should have 5,000 citizens, i.e., free males of a given age; and Aristotle feels that the citizens of a polis should all know one another by sight. In such a city it was possible for each citizen to have his say about common affairs, and it became a problem to prevent one or a few citizens from acquiring power over the others. The compactness and community of purpose of such a group fostered a type of government in which everyone participated -- in which each man could speak up and be heard, in which matters of polis policy were objects of street corner discussion by men whose opinions could matter in a direct and efficacious way. There would be leaders, of course, and leadership in such a community required a number of skills -- those of rhetoric and jurisprudence which do not always come naturally. It was to meet this felt need for political skills, for arete or excellence, that the Sophists arose. They offered to teach those who came to them everything necessary for human excellence, for leadership in the polis.{19} Their activity was most pronounced at the end of the fifth and the beginning of the fourth centuries B.C., that is, just before and during the life of Socrates.

The purpose of the Sophist was -- in the words Plato attributes to Protagoras in his dialogue of that name -- to educate men. This, we will see, is one thing the Sophists had in common. Theirs is a practical, a pedagogical, activity, and this they share even though we would be hard put to enumerate characterstically sophist teachings. It does not seem profitable to think of them as a philosophical school, complete with common points of doctrine; this is one reason why Aristotle would not have included them in his discussions of his predecessors. The Sophist is a professional teacher and proud of it, often overly proud; he will teach, for a fee and over a space of perhaps four years, everything a man must know in order to achieve political success. What he will teach is summed up in the word arete, which is often translated virtue; and this led to the socratic criticism, in the form of a question: can one man teach virtue to another? The socratic critique, presented immortally in the dialogues of Plato, has done more than anything else to make the term "sophist" one of abuse, of denigration. It was not always so.

As used by earlier writers, the term "sophistes" meant an expert, one well-versed in a particular craft; poets used it to describe the poet and the musician; Herodotus to describe seers. Plato will use it to describe the creator of the world. Notice how Cornford translates the passage. "Tell me, do you think there could be no such craftsman at all, or that there might be someone who could create all these things In one sense, though not in another?" (Republic, 596D) The Sophist or wise man was one who knew the principles of an art or craft; later we will see Aristotle begin from this humble notion when he wants to depict the wisdom which is First Philosophy. Moreover, Aristotle will follow early usage and speak of the seven sages as Sophists. The word early has the connotation of clever or shrewd and, we might surmise, through sarcasm comes to be a word of abuse in certain contexts. The use of the term to designate the teachers we are about to consider would not in itself involve the censure which we rather easily associate with it; that association -- the idea that there is something reprehensible in the idea of going from town to town offering to teach wisdom for a price -- is made once and for all by Socrates and his followers. From then on, the word becomes largely unsalvageable except for purposes of criticism. By turning now to individual Sophists, we will be able to learn to what degree the judgment of Socrates was well-founded and to what degree it may have been exaggerated.

A. Protagoras of Abdera

We have it from Plato that Protagoras was a native of Abdera. He lived in the latter half of the fifth century B.C. although his precise dates are difficult to determine. Protagoras was said to have been taught by Persian Magi, though this is considered doubtful. He is also said to have studied under Democritus, an allegation which may be jointly based on their being natives of the same place and of probable influences of Democritus on the thought of Protagoras, rather than because the Sophist was actually a pupil of the great atomist. Protagoras is said to have begun his own traveling-teaching career when he was thirty and, in Plato's Protagoras, he is made to say that he was the first openly to declare that he taught for money. While his fees were high, it is said that Protagoras demanded payment only at the completion of the course and the disappointed student could pay only what he thought the instruction had been worth. Tradition has it that Protagoras amassed a huge fortune in his teaching career.

Protagoras visited Athens a number of times, perhaps three, and it is one of these visits that forms the setting of the Platonic dialogue, Protagoras. In Athens he became friends with Pericles, Gallias and Euripides; on a journey to Sicily he met Hippias. On his last visit to Athens, Protagoras was accused of impiety and all his books were burned.

It is no easy matter to determine what exactly Protagoras or any other Sophist wrote, although tradition attributes a great many titles to the Sophist from Abdera. Jaeger feels that their works did not survive because of their purpose, namely to influence the men of a given time; they were not interested in posterity or in a timeless wisdom, but wanted to persuade the hearers of the moment. The famous sentence of Protagoras, "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," (Fr. 1; Freeman) was said, by Plato, to be the opening of a book entitled On Truth; but Sextus says it was the opening of a bok entitled Refutatory Arguments. Untersteiner{20} feels that Antilogiae is the title of one book of which the other titles indicate subdivisions. This book, he feels, (p. 10) dealt with four fundamental problems: the gods; being; laws; and arts. The work itself was divided into two books containing several sections, such as the ones entitled On the Gods, and On Being. Porphyry will claim that the latter is used extensively by Plato, who borrows its arguments. In this way, Untersteiner is able to accomodate most of the titles attributed to Protagoras, taking them to be parts of the four major sections of the Antilogiae. This, together with a work On Truth. would be the literary production of Protagoras. His oral teaching was the elaboration of themes discussed in these writing.

The work, or section, devoted to the gods is said to have begun with the following sentence. "About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form, for the factors preventing knowledge are many, the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life." (Fr. 4; Freeman) Is this simply a reiteration of earlier criticism, notably that of Xenophanes or Heraclitus, or is it more involved? Of Protagoras, Diogenes Laertius writes, "He was the first to maintain that in every experience there are two logoi in opposition to each other." (IX, 51) It is thought that the story to the effect that Protagoras had been instructed by the Persian Magi, considered agnostics, would have led him to see the difficulty of reconciling Greek and Oriental statements about the divine and to the further conclusion that only opinion is possible in this matter. This sentiment would seem to underlie the sentence quoted earlier, to the effect that man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, of those that are not, that they are not.

What does Protagoras mean by this statement? It could mean that whatever seems to me to be at any given moment is and what to me seems not to be, is not. That it may seem otherwise to me later, or to another now, indicates that no truth is possible, and that every judgment is opinion at best. The subjectivity implied may seem to apply only to sensible objects, so that a breeze will seem warm or cool to me depending on my condition, and may seem different to different individuals at the same time. There is no point in arguing whether it is really one or the other; we can only know how it appears to us. There is no need, however, to restrict the scope of the remark to sensible objects. The word Protagoras uses for things can mean moral judgments as well and, indeed, statements about the gods. As applied to physical things, the proposition can be taken to mean that things are when we perceive them and cease to be when we cease to perceive them. Man, then, need not be the individual man, but rather mankind. Plato apparently takes the statement to mean this, since he asks why Protagoras did not say a pig or a baboon is the measure of all things, since they too have perception. The statement of Protagoras, then, comes to mean that things exist when they are perceived and that the perceptions of individuals are equally true.

To say that conflicting statements on the same thing are equally and simultaneously true is an assault on the principle of contradiction, and Aristotle, when he discusses that principle in the Fourth Book of his Metaphysics, refers to Protagoras several times. "We observe, next, that if all contradictories were true at the same time of the same thing, it is clear that all things would be one. For if anything may be affirmed or denied of everything (as those must maintain who say what Protagoras says), then the same thing would be a trireme, a wall, and a man. For, if someone should hold that a man is not a trireme, clearly he is not a trireme; then, if the contradictory be also true, he also is a trireme." (1007b18ff) If contradictory statements about the world are true, all things are one, all statements are both true and false including the statement about statements. The application of Protagoras' doctrine of equal truth to his own statement is first said to have been done by Democritus. Plato, too, made use of this device to dismiss Protagoras.

The net effect of the teaching of Protagoras would seem to be the calling into question of the possibility of fixed knowledge, and, consequently, the disparaging of the efforts of earlier philosophers. Protagoras cannot offer to give what he holds to be impossible and if he teaches at all it cannot be that he thinks some statements are more true than others but only more desirable -- in his opinion. What he can teach is the art of getting along in a society where conflicting opinions are inevitably maintained; he can teach the art of persuasion, the technique of leading others to accept one's own views. Somewhat less practically, he can teach how contradictory propositions can be shown to be equally true and equally false. Such argumentation relied heavily on word study and grammar, and on the analysis of ancient poets who were taken to be saying things of contemporary significance. In Plato's Protagoras there is a parody of such poetical exegesis. Protagoras wrote out rhetorical exercises which, in the opinion of Aristotle, involved not reasoning but plays on words and other eristic tricks to achieve their end.

We will close our discussion of Protagoras by posing a riddle to which we will have to return after having looked at a number of other Sophists. The doctrine of Protagoras, since Plato, has been taken to be a sceptical one, or nearly so; nonetheless, in the Platonic dialogue named for him, Protagoras is allowed to tell a story which will justify his function and it is difficult not to feel the idealism in what he says. The story or myth speaks of how man, unlike the animals, was created naked and defenseless, and that Prometheus stole the arts of Athene and Hephaestus together with fire to compensate for man's natural lacks. These arts are not made known to all men but only to a few, and after their appearance there was still a lack of political wisdom which left men open to the attacks of animals for they had not yet grouped into cities. It was then that Zeus granted justice and reverence to men, not just to a few -- as with the arts -- but to all. The sign of this is that all men are held to profess them and are punished when they do not. Now surely, this would not be the case if men were incapable of acquiring virtue and political excellence. And, Protagoras argues, as a matter of fact, men do try to teach their sons excellence. This is what he himself can teach, and to do so is a very noble function, since it brings men to the perfection expected of them. (Protag. 320-328) The riddle of course is this: how can this high ideal of sophistic instruction be reconciled with such destructive doctrines as that of Protagoras which we have just examined. Surely it would be quite impossible if, in the polis, one statement were as true as another, one mode of conduct as justifiable as another. Moreover, if my opinion is no better than another's, for me to persuade him to see things my way is unwarranted despotism. This difficulty becomes more pronounced in Sophists other than Protagoras.

B. Gorgias of Leontini

Gorgias was a native of Leontini, in Sicily, and flourished in the latter part of the fifth century B.C. Gorgias came to Athens in 427 B.C. at the head of an embassy from his native city and won the Athenians to its cause over the pleas of the respresentative of Syracuse, Teisias, who is said to have been the author of the first textbook of rhetoric. His success was overwhelming, and he seems to have repeated it on a number of occasions, at Olympia, at Delphi about 420 B.C. where his reception was such that a statue of him in pure gold was erected, although he also is said to have paid for it himself -- an indication of his financial status. The Athenians once asked him to deliver the funeral oration for those who had died in battle, a rare honor for a non-Athenian. With these successes it is not surprising to learn that he was much in demand as a teacher of rhetoric. He knew Socrates, and Isocrates was his most notable Athenian pupil. As for his own background, Gorgias is said to have studied under Empedocles, his fellow Sicilian. Gorgias enjoyed a long life, and it is said that he lived over a hundred years.

Gorgias is said to have written a textbook of rhetoric but, if we can believe what Aristotle says in his own Rhetoric, these earlier efforts did not so much teach the rules of rhetoric as they gave sample speeches to be memorized. Most of the other writings of Gorgias, except that on nature, were speeches he had given -- an encomium on Helen, the funeral oration, the Olympian oration and a few others. Fragments from the orations mentioned have come down to us. It would seem that the work on nature, On Not-being or on Nature, is Gorgias' main claim to being numbered among the philosophers.

We want to set down in some detail the arguments of a significant section from that work which has been preserved for us in Sextus. The passage in question sets out to prove three propositions. (1) Nothing exists. (2) If anything exists, it is incomprehensible. (3) If it is comprehensible, it is incommunicable. (1) Nothing exists. The first proposition is proved by showing that neither being nor not-being can exist. Not-being cannot exist since if it existed it would have to be being, and that is clearly impossible. In showing that being cannot exist, Gorgias will show that it is not everlasting, nor created, nor both, nor is it one or many. Here is the argument which purports to show that being is not everlasting. "It cannot be everlasting; if it were, it would have no beginning, and therefore would be boundless; if it is boundless, then it has no position, for if it had position, it would be contained in something, and so it would no longer be boundless; for that which contains is greater than that which is contained, and nothing is greater than the boundless. It cannot be contained by itself, for then the thing containing and the thing contained would be the same, and Being would become two things -- both position and body -- which is absurd. Hence if Being is everlasting, it is boundless; if boundless it has not position ('is nowhere'); if without position, it does not exist." (Fr. 3; Freeman) One notes the identification of extension in time and space which gives the argument its specious cogency. Gorgias argues that being cannot be created either, since it must come either from Being or not-being, both of which are impossible. If being can be neither everlasting nor created, it cannot be both and being does not exist. In showing that being cannot be one, Gorgias points up the major flaw in the Parmenidean sphere of being. "Being cannot be One, because, if it exists, it has size, and is therefore infinitely divisible; at least it is threefold, having length, breadth and depth." (Fr. 3; Freeman) If being cannot be one, it cannot be many either, Gorgias argues, for the many is a plurality of ones and it is impossible for being to be one. Being cannot exist; not-being does not exist; a mixture of being and not-being cannot exist. Nothing exists. Q.E.D.

(2) If anything exists, it is incomprehensible.

If the concepts of the mind are not realities, reality cannot be thought; if the thing thought is white, then white is thought about; if the thing thought is non-existence, then non-existence is thought about; this is equivalent to saying that 'existence, reality, is not thought about, cannot be thought.' Many things thought about are not realities: we can conceive of a chariot running on the sea, or a winged man. Also, since things seen are the objects of sight, and things heard are the objects of hearing, and we accept as real things seen without their being heard, and vice versa; so we would have to accept things thought without their being seen or heard; but this would mean believing in things like the chariot racing on the sea. Therefore reality is not the object of thought, and cannot be comprehended by it. Pure mind, as opposed to sense perception, or even as an equally valid criterion, is a myth. (Fr. 3; Freeman)

Gorgias here embraces a radical empiricism; we accept as real what is seen but not heard and vice versa, but thought cannot be set up over against perception nor as an equal criterion of reality. Why? Because many thoughts are of non-existent things, imagined entities, which cannot be corroborated by perception. If what does not exist can be thought about, reality or existence cannot be thought, according to Gorgias. If we should point out that thought is often of existents, Gorgias would doubtless reply that we know this is the case because we perceive the thing to be. He begins by saying that if the thing thought is white, then white is thought about. But white is grasped by sight, not thought. Thought as something above perception is a myth; it has no object: being cannot be thought.

(3) If anything is comprehensible, it is incommunicable.

The things which exist are perceptibles; the objects of sight are apprehended by sight, the objects of hearing by hearing, and there is no interchange; so that these sense perceptions cannot communicate with one another. Further, that with which we communicate is speech, and speech is not the same thing as the things that exist, the perceptibles; so that we communicate not the things which exist, but only speech; just as that which is seen cannot become that which is heard, so our speech cannot be equated with that which exists, since it is outside us. Further, speech is composed from the percepts which we receive from without, that is, from perceptibles; so that it is not speech which communicates perceptibles, but perceptibles which create speech. Further, speech can never exactly represent perceptibles, since it is different from them, and perceptibles are apprehended each by the one kind of organ, speech by another. Hence, since the objects of sight cannot be presented to any other organ but sight, and the different sense-organs cannot give their information to one another, similarly speech cannot give any information about perceptibles. (Fr. 3; Freeman)

The argument of Gorgias, then, is that nothing exists; if it did it couldn't be known; and if it could be known it couldn't be communicated. Are we to take this as a serious position? When one considers such Gorgian efforts as the defense of Helen, it seems plausible that the tripartitite argument of Gorgias is but a tour de force, one more exhibition of his willingness to defend any position, however impossible it may seem. Strangely enough, the argument was seldom treated as a joke in antiquity. Isocrates, the pupil of Gorias, seems to believe that his master seriously maintained that nothing exists. If taken seriously, the argument refers us to Parmenides and we would then see Gorgias as a bifurcated Zeno arguing, in effect, a pox on both your houses. Lycophron, a pupil of Gorgias, is referred to by Aristotle in the Physics.

Even the more recent of the ancient thinkers were in a pother lest the same thing should turn out in their hands both one and many. So many, like Lycophron, were led to omit 'is', others to change the mode of expression and say 'the man has been whitened' instead of 'is white', and 'walks' instead of 'is walking', for fear that if they added the word 'is' they should be making the one to be many -- as if 'one' and 'being' were always used in one and the same sense. (1,2, 185b25)

Indeed, Aristotle is said to have written a study of Gorgias himself. That Gorgias should have been taken seriously is of course no argument that he took himself seriously; the lengthy passage we have just seen may very well have been, in the intention of the Sophist, a display of his prowess and his willingness to discourse on any subject whatsoever. An Aristotle could turn such a display to serious purpose by an analysis of the mode of, argumentation, showing how the eristic attained his objective of dazzling his audience. Once more, we shall have to ask ourselves what useful purpose someone like Gorgias thought himself to be serving. Untersteiner has an elaborate and unconvincing argument that Gorgias was bent on showing the tragic character of human thought. The reader is rather struck by a cocky ebullience and finds it difficult to see the Platonic depictions of the Sophist as unjust caricature.

C. Prodicus of Ceos

Prodicus, a native of Ceos, an Aegean island, lived at the end of the fifth century, and came frequently to Athens on official business of his island. Socrates himself is said to have paid to listen to Prodicus on one such occasion, although there seems to be a note of irony in the admission that he could only afford the one drachma course. Euripides, Isocrates, Thrasymachus and Xenophon were also said to have heard Prodicus. Prodicus is often mentioned by Plato and the references, as in Aristotle, are to Prodicus' concern with correct terminology. He is said to have written on this subject and to have produced a book entitled either On Nature or On the Nature of Man. Like the other Sophists, he also composed exercises on various themes, to illustrate his own method and for the instruction of pupils. Prodicus said that the Sophist is "on the borderline between the philosopher and the statesman." (Fr. 6; Freeman) If his own reputation as one who made a great point of terminology, of distinctions in words, etymologies and so forth can be taken to indicate what he thought his own metier was, it can be said that the philosophers did not remain uninfluenced by his attempts. If Plato allows Socrates in the dialogues to treat Prodicus quite ironically, it is nevertheless true that there is an acceptance of Prodicus' method of determining the meanings of words. Aristotle, certainly, would not be insensitive to such attempts at determining the meanings of words and the relationships between various meanings, the establishment of synonyms, etc.

Prodicus' explanation of how the gods arose is of interest. Those things which are necessary and beneficial to man are transformed into divinities. Thus, bread becomes Demeter, wine Dionysius, water Poseidon, Hephaestus, and so on. This approach to the official gods was continued by later thinkers and led to charges of atheism. Prodicus is depicted as in rivalry with Gorgias, and it seems likely that their competition for students would lead to sharpness.

D. Some Other Sophists

Thrasymachus of Chalcedon, also prominent at the end of the fifth century, was often in Athens. He is said to have written much and among his works were a Great Text Book and Subjects for Oratory. He is known primarily as a rhetorician and the fashioner, according to Theophrastus, of the middle diction, a style between the austere and the plain. We are told that he devised methods of eliciting pity and anger in audiences. Plato thought little of this method, and in the Laws outlaws it; Aristotle is thought to have profited from the work of Thrasymachus in writing his own Rhetoric. Thrasymachus is most famous for the view of justice that he is made to propose and defend in Plato's Republic. According to that dialogue, Thrasymachus held that justice is nothing else than the advantage of the strong.

Hippias of Elis is mentioned in several Platonic dialogues, the Protagoras and the Apology; two are named for him and he figures in the seventh epistle of Plato. Although writings are attributed to Hippias, nothing has come down to us. Hippias appears to have been a man of universal ability as a craftsman, for there is a story that he once journeyed to Olympia entirely clothed in things he had made himself. Moreover, in mathematics, he was interested in squaring the circle. His views on the relationship between nature, virtue and law will be discussed in our summary statement on the Sophists.

Antiphon the Sophist, so called to distinguish him from others of the same name, is believed to have been a native of Athens. He wrote a book entitled Truth of which we possess sizeable portions; indeed, we have more of the writings of Antiphon than of any other Sophist. It seems that Antiphon accepted the Parmenidean view that all things are really one, although they appear many to the senses. He, too, was interested in squaring the circle, and is mentioned by Aristotle in this connection. The large fragments we possess of Antiphon deal with justice, indicating Antiphon's view that there is an opposition between the laws of the state and the laws of nature, a theme to which we shall come in a moment.

In conclusion, we may mention the Dissoi logoi, or Twofold Arguments, work which is thought to epitomize the method common to the Sophists. Thus, the first argument concerns the good and the bad: some say they are different, others that they are the same.

Arguments are adduced to prove now one side of the opposition, then the other. Next, arguments are given to show that the honorable and dishonorable are different; then that they are the same. The same thing is done with just and unjust, and true and false. Fifthly, some maintain that the mad and the sane, the wise and ignorant say and do the same things. This is argued pro and con. The sixth twofold argument has to do with whether knowledge and virtue can be taught; the seventh with whether offices should be awarded by lot; the eighth with whether it pertains to the same man to be politician, speaker and scientist. The manuscript concludes with a discussion of memory, its utility for knowledge and for life, with a number of rules for memorizing. This anonymous work is taken to indicate the effect of the Sophists. One should train himself to argue either side of conflicting views; it is the implication that, as Protagoras explicitly said, the one side is as defensible as the other, that they are equally true, that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle criticize and which led to making the term "sophist" an abusive one.

E. Concluding Summary

The role of the Sophist was the practical one of training men for the life of the polis and if, beginning with Protagoras, there is the implication that one opinion is as good as another and that they could teach the method whereby one could make his own views most persuasive before the assembly, there is as well the view that underlying the opinions of men and the varying laws which express these opinions is a common nature which binds all men together whether they are Greek living in different city-states, or Greek and barbarian. True justice is to be had when men live in accord with their nature, not with the laws of the assemblies. This is expressed by the Athenian sophist, Antiphon.

Justice, then, is not to transgress that which is the law of the city in which one is a citizen. A man, therefore, can best conduct himself in harmony with justice if when in the company of witnesses he upholds the laws, and when alone without witnesses he upholds the edicts of nature. For the edicts of laws are imposed artfficially, but those of nature are compulsory. And the edicts of the laws are arrived at by consent, not by natural growth, whereas those of nature are not a matter of consent. So, if the man who transgresses the legal code evades those who have agreed to these edicts, he avoids both disgrace and penalty; otherwise not. But if a man violates against possibility any of the laws which are implanted in nature, even if he evades all men's detection, the ill is no less, and even if all see, it is no greater. For he is not hurt on account of an opinion, but because of truth. The examination of these things is in general for this reason, that the majority of just acts according to law are prescribed contrary to nature. (Fr. 44; Freeman)

Such a view is at once constructive and destructive. It is destructive, because it inculcates a cynical attitude towards the life of the polis; however, the view that there are edicts of nature, of man's nature, which bind everywhere and always whatever their relation to human laws, should have led to the enunciation of what these laws were and an attempt to bring the laws men make into accord with them. This does not seem to be the direction in which the influence of the Sophists went. Rather, as we have seen in Thrasymachus, nature's law was sometimes interpreted as meaning that the strong should rule, that men are not equal, as the structure of the polis implied; for in the polis each citizen had a voice in the government of the community even when military affairs were to be decided. Pericles, the great leader of Athens was subject, even during the trying days of the Peloponnesian war, to the judgment of his fellow citizens. The oligarchs made use of the teaching of the sophists about the law of nature to argue against Athenian democracy. As Cleon says in the debate about the fate of the citizens of Mitylene who had revolted against Athens, "This debate only confirms me in my belief that a democracy cannot rule an empire." Now Plato too will be of the opinion that men are not by nature equipped to make the decisions necessary to rule themselves or others, but he thinks the sophists' teaching is simply the formulation of the method by which the polis was in fact run. What the sophist did was teach a method whereby one could succeed in a popular democracy.

It is the Sophists' emphasis on method that gives them importance in the development of philosophy. Indeed, as Jaeger argues in his Paideia (Vol. I. pp. 313-4), they can be credited with the elaboration of what was to be called the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, since these had never been separate studies before their time. All later writers on these subjects, and particularly Plato and Aristotle, can be thought of as profiting from the attempts of the Sophists. The remnants of what can be called the doctrines of the Sophists strike us rather as exercises in a method than presentation of held beliefs. The Dissoi logoi, again, indicate that one can argue either side of a matter; in Protagoras we have the view stated that one opinion is as good as its opposite; but even if this be not accepted, the method involved in arguing either side is something which comes to the fore in these exercises. If the rhetoric of the Sophists tended to be sample speeches rather than principles, as Aristotle complained; if their dialectic was largely fallacious and led to the use of "sophistic" to describe an argument that was only apparently valid, they nonetheless paved the way for the fuller development of these instruments of reasoning in the hands of Plato, but principally in those of Aristotle, the founder of logic.

The paucity of fragments of the writings of the Sophists makes it difficult to give anything like an accurate assessment of their efforts; equally, nothing in the fragments we do possess gives us a reason for thinking that Plato and Aristotle were unjust in their assessment of the Sophists. If we accept their estimate there is an element of despair in the Sophists' activity, for they pride themselves on their ability to manipulate words, to sway their hearers; and yet this is done to no justifiable purpose. What is lacking in the Sophist, even if his logic were unimpeachable, is the moral dimension of the use of dialectic. Perhaps it is not too great a simplicification to say that Plato was primarily concerned with this moral lack while Aristotle was primarily interested in devising a valid logic to supplant the eristic of the Sophists.

{19} Of course, and ironically, only the wealthy could benefit from their instruction. See Burnet, p. 109.

{20} Mario Untersteiner, The Sophists (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954).

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