It’s a well-known fact that Plato hated Sophists, and in our latest episode we’ve been examining his reasons. But were the Sophists really nothing more than immoral truth-benders, with no merits of their own? Sophists were trained in making the weaker case appear the stronger, and many took this to mean deceit and intellectual sleaziness. But in a world where the Greeks thought they were superior to non-Greeks, slavery was deemed natural, and women had no political power, couldn’t it be that the weaker case was often the more just? Is it possible that Sophists were really "the good guys," and through a perverse twist of history à la Borges, we’ve idealized Socrates and Plato instead?
Although such an extreme reversal is probably not the case, the Sophists did have numerous qualities that have mostly gone unnoticed, despite the efforts of some esteemed classical scholars. Bernard Knox (1994) wrote that Plato undeservedly gave Sophists a bad name, as they were the first professors of humanities and teachers of rhetoric—an art much needed in the budding democracy of ancient Greece. In his efforts to do away with what he perceived as the flaws of Athenian democracy—political corruption, unstable policies, sycophancy—Plato was also determined to eliminate the humanities, and their key representatives, the Sophists (p. 98). In a passage that does slightly bring to mind the Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, Knox writes:
It is often said that the importance of Socrates in the history of Western thought is that he brought theory down from the skies, from cosmological speculation, to the human world, to the moral and political problems of mankind. But this was in fact the achievement of the Sophists, who created an education designed for the first great democracy…. It was Plato, of course, who made the word 'Sophists' into a term of abuse and also, though this aspect of his work is seldom mentioned, tried to suppress the new humanities. (pp. 96–97)
Knox thinks the humanities were under siege then for the same reasons as they are now: their unsettling effect on the mind and society, their potential for subversion, and their lack of definitive answers. The humanities professors of the time fulfilled a crucial role in Athenian society, and history proved they were right in challenging at least some of the ideas that seemed to be the stronger case at that time. As Gary Wills points out in a review of Knox’s book:
The old schema 'Plato moral, Sophists immoral' can be reversed in certain matters, where Plato now stands for values we cannot honor… the Sophists were unique in their time for questioning the superiority of Greeks to barbarians, men to women, free-born to slaves. No doubt that was 'relativistic' to many Athenians….
Renowned scholar W. K. C. Guthrie is more balanced in his views, but he too supports some of Knox’s points. He also acknowledges the Sophists’ many qualities, but he doesn’t believe Plato is solely responsible for their bad name. In his third volume of the History of Greek Philosophy (1969), dedicated exclusively to the Sophists, Guthrie sheds light on the hostile climate that had settled against them, not only because of specific individuals such as playwright Aristophanes or philosopher Socrates but also because of the pure zeitgeist of the fifth century B.C.E.
At that time Ancient Greece was going through increasing agnosticism and atheism, and Sophists were seriously questioning the physis-nomos relationship (roughly translated as nature vs. law, convention). Protagoras famously said he couldn’t tell whether gods existed or not, and Critias thought the gods were an ingenious invention so that their subjects wouldn’t break the law (nomos) when they weren’t supervised. Highly influenced by Parmenides’s monism, the Sophists abandoned the idea of a permanent, immutable reality behind appearances, in favor of empiricism and relativism. Truth was contingent, not universal and everlasting, and their persuasiveness only strengthened this conviction, as they would routinely demonstrate that anyone could be persuaded of nearly anything. For the Sophist, there could be belief, but never knowledge (Guthrie, 1977, p. 47).
The skill of changing people’s beliefs was of course rhetoric, and Sophists were happy to impart it in exchange for a fee. As a consequence they made a lot of money, and this increased people’s distrust of them—Socrates went so far as calling them "prostitutes of wisdom" (Memorabilia, I.6.13)—but perhaps more important than the lucrative aspect was the idea that rhetoric could be passed on to anyone.
Sophists promised to teach anyone who was ambitious enough to learn the much-coveted virtue of politiké areté. “Areté … denoted those qualities of human excellence which made a man a natural leader in his community” (Guthrie, p. 25). So far, so good, but up until the Sophists it had been believed that Areté was a matter of physis, not nomos—that it was a gift, a calling, a divine privilege of the class that was "born" to rule - and so, like with any privilege, those who had it were not willing to give it away. One such reluctant conservative was playwright Aristophanes, who, according to Guthrie, used the word sophistes to imply charlatanry and deceit and transformed it into a term of abuse (although the term was still not restricted to the professional class of the Sophists, but rather referred to what we would largely call "experts" today).
Not only did Sophists have the audacity to teach anyone the virtues of political leadership, but they were also foreigners! As Guthrie writes, Sophists were "provincials whose genius had outgrown the confines of their own minor cities" (p. 40). They had come to Athens, "the centre of Hellenic culture," as a lot of migrants would, to flourish and develop their skills, but they wouldn’t have a chance of being political leaders themselves, as they weren’t even citizens. So they taught others, and excelled at it, giving conservative Athenians another reason to dislike them.
Perhaps as a consequence of their social status, Sophists played a central role in the development of humanism. As Guthrie shows, a few Sophists took the first steps toward “cosmopolitanism and the idea of the unity of mankind” (p. 24). Hippias sees the distinction between people coming from different Greek states as something by no means natural, but purely a question of nomos. Antiphon went as far as saying there was no difference in nature between barbarians and Greeks, and Alcidamas wrote that God set all men free and nature has made no man a slave.
These were all brave and forward-thinking statements, but that’s not to say that Sophists were all intellectual heroes, sacrificed on the altar of Platonic philosophy. It would be wrong, out of principle, to paint such a polarized view, and also difficult to speak of the Sophists in such generalized terms, given that they didn’t have a single unified view (and were known to argue cogently for both sides of any question).
But it is worth acknowledging that classic scholars have painted Sophists in much more nuanced colors than Plato has, and unearthed many of their merits. As Protagoras himself famously stated,“there are two arguments to every subject,” and it’s not only fair but also intellectually honest to acquaint ourselves with both.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.
Joshua Synon says
Excellent article. It seems no wonder that so little of their work has survived history.
Ana Sandoiu says
Really glad you enjoyed it, Joshua 🙂 Yes, although it seems the very nature of their profession was also a reason why so little of their work survived — they aimed to influence their own age rather than writing treatises for posterity, and they were also primarily oral communicators, lecturers and public speakers, so not very interested in writing stuff down. But overall, as another scholar was saying, it’s worth noting that the history of Greek political theory & Greek politics was written in modern times exactly as Plato & Aristotle would’ve wanted it to be written (https://archive.org/details/liberaltempering00have)
Evan Hadkins says
Philosophy isn’t part of the humanities?
Humanities unsettling the status quo? All those prof’s of literature supporting the Occupy Movement? I don’t see it.
I guess the modern equivalent debate is about the professionalising of politics and the companies that will run political campaign for either side.
Ana Sandoiu says
Hi Evan, do you think you can expand on your viewpoint a little bit 🙂 ?
Evan Hadkins says
It seems to me that Plato’s worry about the sophists is the same we have about professional political marketing and advertising. The same company, if paid, will put the case for any party. Many people have the same problems with lawyers – which is a bit different (with lawyers it can be clear that the client pleads guilty – political parties don’t often admit fault). I think this is a valid concern.
More generally is the ‘professionalisation’ of politics – that it is a game, or a practise defined by procedures (this isn’t professionalisation in the old sense of having the client’s or society’s needs prevail over the interest of the practitioner; it means something like technical facility). Politics becomes a career, rather than the dedication to contributing to a better community.
A modern sophist would be Robert Cialdini (who wrote Influence) or George Lakoff’s stuff about working with metaphor. All the stuff concerned with the framing of the message.
My way of putting this debate to myself is: What does it mean to tell the truth well?
Ana Sandoiu says
I think “What does it mean to tell the truth *well*?” with that added adverb there 🙂 is a wonderful way of asking an awful question – a question that unravels the dreadful but fundamental contradiction between telling the truth and, as you say, all the stuff concerned with framing the message. Admitting there is such a thing as objective truth, there is the component of respecting that truth and the evidence for it, but there is also the component of persuasion, which doesn’t even have to be manipulative or overbearing to pose a problem, it can just be clarity of expression or anything that influences the way the content of the message travels from the sender to the receiver. In a way, any form of communication is a slight form of persuasion – putting the truth in as clear terms as possible for the receiver to understand might be considered a way of influencing that truth, couldn’t it? So I think this contradiction is in a way inescapable, and a bit analogous to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — the second we start telling the truth we distort it a little bit.
David Buchanan says
As I read it, Plato would like us to believe that the Sophists are comparable to politicians, salesmen, and other charlatans but what was actually going on was that Plato was engaged in a vicious slander campaign against his philosophical rivals. If the Sophists were actually empiricists and relativists who taught the humanities – instead of being mere hucksters – then they’d actually be comparable to today’s Critical Theory professors, philosophical Pragmatists, or some other such thinker who is willing to challenge the status quo. Notice how today’s demagogues love to demonize intellectualism in general and the “politically correct” culture of liberal college professors? Notice how the humanities dwindle while higher education is being turned into vocational training? That is the status quo fighting back and they too would like us to think academic professionals are a bunch of “sophists” in the derogatory sense.
Ana Sandoiu says
I couldn’t bring myself to tarnish Plato that bad 😀 but yes, I think there’s a lot of value in that interpretation and we shouldn’t exclude it as a possiblity :)) If you haven’t already, read Guthrie’s book, it’s very reliable as a source and an immensely pleasurable read 🙂
Very interesting to see how some have reconsidered the sophists… Thanks for writing this.
Ana Sandoiu says
You’re most welcome, really glad you enjoyed 🙂
David Buchanan says
Guthrie is certainly tempting. I took a little peek at Eric Havelock’s book too and was thrilled by it. Thanks for the article too. Bravo.
Ana Sandoiu says
Yes, Havelock is great too. Really glad you enjoyed, and thanks for the kind words 🙂
I like your article a lot. However, this part confused me:
>Highly influenced by Parmenides’s monism, the Sophists abandoned the idea of a permanent, immutable reality behind appearances, in favor of empiricism and relativism.
The classic interpretation of Parmenides is that he believed that reality was permanent and immutable and that the world we live in is merely apparent. So, what does Parmenides have to do with the Sophists’ abandonment of the idea of a permanent, immutable reality behind appearances?
Alan Cook says
I think the idea is that the sophists were reacting against the Parmenidean position.
Ana Sandoiu says
Yup, that’s an unfortunate phrasing on my part, thanks for pointing it out, Daniel! As Alan was saying, the idea was that they reacted *against* monism in the sense that they profoundly disagreed with Parmenides’ rejection of the senses as a trustworthy way of knowing the world– and instead replaced it with an almost extreme form of relativism. Word on the philosophical grapevine 🙂 has it that Protagoras even took some time off to write something against Parmenides, but I’m not sure if we’ve got access to that text or not… anyways, thanks for pointing it out & happy you liked it otherwise 🙂
Anthony Verbalis says
I think that my first exposure to the Sophist frame of mind was when I first read Orwell’s novel “1984” many years ago. One incident in that story sticks in my mind after all these years. Winston Smith is being interrogated by the Ministry of Truth, and is asked something like this: ‘If we desired to make people believe that the stars are just a few miles away, do you think we are incapable of this?’
I reeled (and still do) with the implication that truth in this case is what you can get people to believe, and is not a matter of fact which is independent of the human mind. Regardless of the epistemological problems of ascertaining facts, are we to accept the Sophist position that there are “two arguments to this subject”?
Well, perhaps the Sophists of ancient Greece were more humanistic than the power structure of the time. Also, perhaps the emphasis of belief over knowledge is more appropriate when dealing with values, rather than facts. But as the “1984” example illustrates, it seems that today Sophist methods are quite useful to authoritarian regimes and to those seeking to implement authoritarianism. Think of the “spin doctors” whose aim is often to deceive and deflect attention from quite evident factual events. Think also of the false equivalence in much news reporting which implicitly accepts that there must be ‘two equivalent arguments for every subject’. In this way, ignorance is often granted equal footing with knowledge. My opinion is that Plato was essentially correct about the dangers of Sophism.
Ana Sandoiu says
Or we could think of a certain presidential candidate and his blatant disregard for facts! (sorry, couldn’t help it 😀 ) Thanks for your comment Anthony, I agree that Protagoras’ dictum is more suitable for values rather than hard facts.
Wayne Schroeder says
Sophists really make you believe, truth is another matter.
A good foray into a subject that has had a lot written about it since the days of Guthrie! For a more robust examination of sophistry, check out:
Susan Jarrett, Rereading the Sophists
Poulakos, Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece
Scott Consigny, Gorgias: Sophist and Artist
Eric White, Kaironomia
Jeffrey Walker, Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity
Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens
Tinsdale, Reason’s Dark Champions
Tinsdale, Rhetorical Argumentation
There are more, but classicists and others agree with you that the Sophists were careful thinkers with philosophies of their own. Might be working too fast to accept Plato’s lumping of them into one category, at least.
Thanks for the post! If you are interested in more i can provide a bib of academic articles too.