Notebook, 1993-


Ancient Greek Philosophy
The Sophistic School

The Sophistic school is the contradictory phase in ancient philosophy. It is heavily weighted by Platonic criticism which is both the most ancient source for his work and its significance. Subsequent and modern philosophers saw the Sophistic with a different eye in each instance, depending upon their personal vantage point in the large philosophical questions. At all events, despite its supporters who appear from time to time, the general public associates its name with negative argument.

It is a fact that the Sophistic appeared as a sweeping attitude of abnegation, of doubting every thing. And it emerged with the intention of demolishing whatever structure the logic of the pre-Socratics had methodically built up. But what was the motive behind this activity? As far as we know, this attitude of the Sophists was the result of disillusionment with the answers given by pre-Socratic philosophy. The great thinkers of Sophistic realized the vanity of a theoretical investigation which never arrived at positive conclusions that were acceptable to all. This at least was the lesson they learned from the schools of [p. 183] pre-Socratic philosophy which accepted as the ultimate principle of the universe some times water, other times fire, some times speaking of 'becoming' and other times of 'being'. This theoretical disillusionment led to Scepticism [Protagoras] and to Nihilism [Gorgias] of knowledge and as a consequence the correlation of all the 'truths' and 'values'. Thus the Sophists doubted all things. To them all things were relative, the logical concepts, the ethical values, religion, justice, the state, and so on. And because they were all relative, they could support two different arguments for the same thing. Thus emerged contradiction which stood alongside reason, and counter-logic which paired with logic. It is perhaps conceivable that the democratic government of Athens in the 5th Century B.C. which accepted reason and contradiction, had encouraged the growth of Sophistic counter-logic. On the other hand, the opposite could have happened, that is, Sophistic counter-logic could have influenced the theoretic presupposition and basis of the democratic dialogue.

The Sophists were primarily teachers, and in fact very highly paid teachers. They taught general education and they taught rhetoric. They exploited the needs of their age and specially the demand of the Athenian parents for the education of their young to prepare them for an active part in public life and in the democratic administration of the city. Thus the Sophists became the founders of pedagogical science. But also of many other sciences such as psychology which is the basis of pedagogy, and the art of 'persuasion' generally--an especially Sophistic art--of linguistics and grammar which was essential training for thorough mastery of rhetoric, and other similar and associated sciences.

Much argument has been spent on the differences between the Sophists and Socrates. Yet, they had more in common than they had differences. Plato was responsible for emphasizing the differences and toning down the similarities. But both the Sophists and Socrates ceased to preoccupy themselves with the natural being or becoming of the pre-Socratics, and directed their interest to man and his works. Also common was the belief that the former way of life, of tradition, could not survive, for it had already been corroded in their day. The answers given to this last problem by the Sophists and Socrates differed. The Sophists replied negatively by striving to demolish tradition and the traditional values, whereas Socrates in a positive manner, strove to build these up from the beginning on logical foundations.

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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