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THE SOPHISTS

Who were the Sophists?

In the fifth and early fourth centuries b.c.e. in Greece the Sophists were the solution to increasing litigiousness and education. If you can imagine a professional who is a cross between a lawyer and a self-help coach, that would be a good description of a Sophist. The Sophists put on public exhibitions for pay to teach Greek citizens how to succeed in their public and civic lives. They were constantly "on tour," and some became very famous. Intellectually, the Sophists were a cross between pragmatists (in the common sense use of this term, not the philosophical one) and relativists. In our day, a pragmatist is someone practical who is motivated by results, rather than "highfalutin" principles or abstract theories. And a relativist is someone who believes that

Who were the principal Sophists?

There were many more Sophists in the changing Greek society of the fifth century b.c.e. than during other periods. Based on ancient secondary sources, the main ones, whose home base was in Athens, were: Gorgias of Leontini (c. 485—380 b.c.e.), Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490—420 b.c.e.), Hippias of Elis (c. 460—c. 400 b.c.e.), Prodicus of Ceos (c. 465—415 b.c.e.), and Thrasymachus (c. 459—400 b.c.e.).

there are no absolute truths or universal values, but simply what seems to be the case for individuals, and what they desire.

Why were the Sophists important philosophically?

The Sophists do not have an august reputation, and their successors in ancient times, particularly Plato, had little praise for their contributions to philosophy. However, that assessment may not be altogether fair. Unlike the Pre-Socratics, who concentrated on the natural, non-human world, the Sophists were interested in human nature and human affairs. The Sophists were the first humanists in Western philosophy. We should also keep in mind that much of their thought was opposed to the timeless wisdom prized by Plato, and much of how they were characterized comes from Plato.

The Sophists were public intellectuals who popularized existing knowledge and wisdom, with some original modification. The subjects they addressed included: grammar, theory of language, ethics, political philosophy and doctrines, religion, ideas about the gods, human nature and the origins of humankind, literary criticism, mathematics, and last but not least, speculations about the natural world that had been developed by the Pre-Socratics.

What were the important ideas of the Sophists?

First and foremost, the Sophists were in revolt against the Pre-Socratic idea that there is some ultimate reality that is unlike what we perceive and experience in the ordinary world, but in some sense causes what we do perceive and experience. The Sophists elevated the importance of the world that appeared to exist for human beings, or as the twentieth century philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929—) famously called it, "the lifeworld" (although Edmund Husserl [1859—1938] originated the term). They all thought that virtue can be taught, which meant that anyone could participate in government, regardless of their wealth or social class. In that sense, the Sophists enabled ancient Greek democracy.

The Sophists insisted that moral beliefs should have rational reasons and be capable of defense in rational argument. In Sophistic treatments of morality, human nature was often opposed to society or convention, and the Sophists were on the side of nature.

Finally, it should be noted that the Sophists practiced in an oral tradition, which Socrates was to bring to a level of elegant perfection that no single philosopher or school has equaled in the millennia since his death.

 
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