Societies evolve and change over time. Whether the causes are economic, driven by war, or merely fallout of an evolving political system, the results are the same. New generations have new outlooks and seldom embrace tradition.
So it was in Athens during the middle of the Golden Age, when the Sophists began their rise to prominence. Athens, during that time, had grown more man-centered, not unlike the Renaissance two thousand years later, when traditional views were called into question. The Greeks decided they wanted to rule themselves instead of being ruled by the unseen world of myth.
Wealthy men sought better academic training for their sons and began to look about for professional educators. In the Sophists they found a way to supplement traditional elementary education with the knowledge required to become an influential citizen. “Sophist” originally meant a person who makes it his business to be wise, but later the word was used to designate a class of men who sold wisdom for pay.
The Sophists helped create new currents in intellectual thought – some of which made a permanent mark on human society. What follows is a discussion of these ideas, all of which have had an impact on human history, the concept of political systems, and the relationship of man to his world.
Idea number 1 -- Those who sought teachers for their sons wanted them to develop the skill to gain the voluntary support of other men. What a profound step this was to overcome “might makes right” with logic in a way that would put man on a path to rational behavior. We owe the stable political systems of today to this concept, and, even though men fall back to the use of force from time to time, the world as a whole has accepted the legitimacy of a government based on wisdom instead of force.
The Sophists built a system of higher education in Athens around a concept of Greek culture different from the culture of non-Greeks. There was a sense of pride on the accomplishments of Athens and the power of the new Athenian Empire. Maybe this was overdone and more hubris than pride, but it was a natural result of the position Athens held at the time.
The first well known Sophist was Gorgias (c. 473-386 B.C.) of Sicily, who brought rhetoric to Athens. He traveled throughout Greece, giving speeches for pay, taking impromptu questions from audiences, and answering them. He was particularly fond of taking an absurd position and making it seem stronger than its rational opposite. Gorgias introduced the concept of paradoxical arguments.
Idea number 2 – The Sophists disconnected rhetoric from ethics to the horror of the traditionalists who saw rhetoric only as a technique to support proof of the ideal. This “disconnection” made rhetoric the most valuable tool for debate – fortifying a position with logic instead of arguing its innate rightness or wrongness.
Protagoras (c. 490-420 B.C.), another of the great Sophists, wrote an essay on the Gods where he questioned their very existence. He labeled man as “the measure of all things”. This idea was revolutionary because the traditional view had been that the universe was an objective entity external to man. Similarly, Antiphon (dates unknown), stressed the difference between the laws of men and the laws of nature. He instructed his pupils to “develop their own nature”.
Idea number 3 – These Sophist positions made relativism fashionable. If a man could create his own nature as an individual, then that nature would be different from someone else’s nature and relative to it. Relativism is the subject of much debate today, as a part of the post-modernist milieu. Post-modernists deny universals while their opponents, including the Christian Church, argue for a unity of the spirit.
These ideas are samples of the revolutionary thinking of the Sophists. Unfortunately, their tone became darker during the Peloponnesean War as they shared the starvation and suffering of the Athenian people. Ultimately, their questioning of traditional Athenian values helped undermine the strength of the Polis and push it into decline.