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.