Chapter 2 :The GREEKS
The Sophists were orators, public speakers,
mouths for hire in an oral culture. They
were gifted with speech. They
were skilled in what becomes known as Rhetoric.
They were respected, feared and hated.
They had a gift and used it in a manner that aroused the ire of
many. They challenged,
questioned and did not care to arrive at the very best answers.
They cared about winning public speaking contests, debates, and
lawsuits and in charging fees to teach others how to do as they did.
To be able to speak well meant a great deal at that time. As there was no real paper available, there were no written
contracts or deeds and disputes that would be settled today with a set of
documents as evidence back then they would need to be settled through a
contest of words: one person's words against another's. Whoever presented the best oral case would often prevail.
To speak well was very important.
The Sophists were very good speakers.
Indeed, they had reputations for being able to convince a crowd
that up was down, that day was night, that the wrong answer could be the
right answer, that good was bad and bad is good, even that injustice is
justice and justice would be made to appear as injustice!
To support one's position in any matter,
nothing better could be offered than a quotation from one of the works,
which told of the gods and their actions.
If an action of the gods could be found that was similar top that
being taken by a party to a debate then that was evidence of the
correctness of that action. Therefore,
those who were the fastest and most accurate at being able to locate
quotations and take them and apply them to a given situation would often
win the debate, the contest, the lawsuit or discussion.
The Sophists were very well versed in the epic tales and poems.
They were able to find the most appropriate quotation to support
any position. They regularly
entered contests and those who won were given prizes, but no prize was
greater than being the victor and able to charge the highest rates of
tuition to instruct the sons of the wealthy in how to speak in public. This skill was needed to defend oneself against lawsuits even
against the most frivolous of lawsuits brought by one who thought himself
to be the better speaker.
The Sophists taught courses that might have
been labeled with such current phrasings as:
How to win no matter how bad your case is.
How to win friends and influence people
How to succeed in business without really trying
How to fall into a pigsty and come out smelling like a rose.
How to succeed in life.
How to play to win
The Sophists held no values other than winning and succeeding. They were not true believers in the myths of the Greeks but would use references and quotations from the tales for their own purposes. They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions. They believed and taught that "might makes right". They were pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost. They made a business of their own form of education as developing skills in rhetoric and profited from it.
Their concerns were not with truth but with
practical knowledge. They
practiced rhetoric in order to persuade and not to discover truth.
Their art was to persuade the crowd and not to convince people of
the truth. They moved thought
from cosmology and cosmogony and theogony, stories of the gods and the
universe, to a concern for humanity.
Their focus was human civilization and human customs.
Their theater was the ethical and political problems of immediate
concern for humans. They put
the individual human being at the center of all thought and value.
They did not hold for any universals; not universal truths nor
universal values. They sought
and took payment for their lessons at speaking (and writing).
Here are some excerpts:
Man is the measure of all things
There is relative truth only
Everyone has his won truth
1. nothing exists
2. If something does exist we can not know it
3. even if we can know it we can not communicate it
Callicles: Might is right and accident and not fate nor the gods ror destiny makes might
Thrasymachus :Might makes right
The Sophists challenged and criticized and destroyed the foundations of traditions and the moral and social order and they put nothing in its place nor did they care to. While Socrates looked for objective and eternal truths the Sophists were promoting ideas of relativism and subjectivism, wherein each person decides for him or herself what the true and the good and the beautiful are. This appealed to the mob, the crowds, the unthinking horde but it is not an approach that serves as the foundation for a common life. Conflicts are resolved through the use of power. The Sophist held that might makes right. Society's demand for wisdom required more than what the Sophists offered. Socrates attempted another approach and in part due to the Sophists lost his life in his quest. Plato would be inspired by Socrates to take up the challenge and find answers to the questions that were most basic and most in need of answering in the quest after wisdom and the GOOD.
Socrates could debate with Sophists and do quite well. Socrates was skilled in the art of reasoning. In his exchanges with the Sophists Socrates developed his ability to think using a dialectical process. This methodology would be not only an important part of his legacy to Plato but to Western thought as well. There were other influences on both Socrates and Plato.
Plato's Critique of the Sophists and The Art of Memory
Plato's Critique of the Sophists and The Art of Memory by Twyla Gibson, Ph.D. Senior McLuhan Fellow at
Both Socrates and Plato would find much of value in the speculative
thought processes of those who took up another set of questions entirely.
There were those who wondered at the universe itself.
They questioned its composition and origins.
It is to these naturalists or physicalists, these metaphysicians
that we next turn. In the
next section we shall learn about the group of thinkers who are
collectively known as, the Pre-Socratics.
More material can be found here on Modern Sophists
Proceed to the next section.
© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2000. All Rights reserved. Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.
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