The sophists were intellectuals who traveled throughout Ancient Greece as professional educators. While their teachings touched on a variety of subjects, their emphasis was on public speaking and ethical conduct in life.
“Sophist” (σοφιστής) derives from the word sophia, meaning “wisdom” or “learning.” The word sophist originally meant “sage” or “expert” since the time of Plato (c. 428-348 BC).
Earlier, during the time of Homer (c. 9th-8th century BC), the word sophist was used to describe an expert in his profession or art.
However, in the 5th century BC, the word sophist took on a new meaning. It began being used in reference to general wisdom, especially that involving human affairs, such as politics and ethics.
The 5th century was the Golden Age of Athens with the latter part being the Age of Pericles, a period of time when Athens flourished in political hegemony, economic growth, and intellectual achievements.
This was a time of greater demand for higher education going beyond the traditional basics of literacy, arithmetic, music, and physical training.
Athenians began questioning nature, traditional values, morals, lifestyles, and politics. The sophists became adamant on contributing to that questioning, often challenging traditional ways of thinking.
The profession of the sophist was individualistic. It was not a school of philosophy with members possessing common beliefs. Rather, each sophist had his own set of beliefs and manner of doing things.
Protagoras: The Most Prominent Sophist in ancient Greece
Protagoras of Abdera, Socrates’ older contemporary, is regarded as one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called sophistic movement.
He was the first philosopher in the West to promote subjectivism, arguing that interpretation of any given experience, or any event whatsoever, was relative to the individual.
Protagoras is best known for the phrase often translated as: “Man is the measure of all things.” This means that everything is relative to individual interpretation.
He was the first to teach relativistic philosophy in Greece through his position as a sophist and was among the most popular and highly-paid teachers of upper class youth.
To better understand relativistic philosophy, let’s imagine a man coming in from the outside cold enters what to him feels like a warm room while another individual already in the same room personally feels it is rather cold in that same space.
According to Protagoras, both people’s interpretations of the air temperature in the room would, in such a situation, be equally correct and acceptable.
Hence, according to Protagoras, the terms “right” and “wrong” are labels used by people according to their own experience and interpretation. Let’s further consider that a particular society believes in the existence of gods, while another society does not. In such a case, both beliefs are valid in their own right.
Plato argued against Protagoras and subjectivism, however. He maintained that there had to be an ultimate Truth. If the meaning of “right” and “wrong” was simply a matter of opinion, then laws and social customs were rendered meaningless.
As a sophist, Protagoras taught people, particularly young men, the finer points of culture and how to properly articulate their ideas and behave accordingly. The latter English word “sophisticated” in fact derives from the sophists.
At the time of Protagoras, Greece, particularly Athens, was so litigious that a knowledge of the art of public speaking was greatly valued as a means of defending oneself in court or providing testimony against someone else.
Since there were in fact no professional lawyers in Ancient Greece, people involved in court cases were forced to hire professional speech writers to deliver eloquent and convincing speeches in the courtroom.
According to ancient writers, Protagoras chiefly made his living by coaching wealthy youth in the art of rhetoric for use in the courtroom.
Protagoras argued that if two opposing claims were presented to him with one being weaker, he had the ability to produce adequately convincing arguments to make it appear to be the stronger of the two.
Sophists as Law School Professors
Sophists placed great importance on rhetoric and the ability to persuade and win arguments. This was so even if particular arguments and causes contradicted both facts and moral codes.
Regardless of the case, a good public speaker had better chances of winning his case, and sophists were the best teachers of rhetoric. They were also in high demand.
During Socrates and Plato’s time, a well-known sophist named Gorgias taught Athenians how to win arguments by relying on good rhetoric and the manipulation of the law to one’s advantage.
Plato, in one of his Socratic dialogues named Gorgias, even got Gorgias to admit that he was only interested in teaching students to win arguments and that his purpose was not to attain truth but rather victory.
In the dialogue, Socrates reveals that Gorgias teaches his students to deliver speeches on politics. The philosopher argues that in order to give such speeches, one must also understand the subject of politics.
For Socrates, politics is the art of producing justice. If Gorgias teaches people to give political speeches, he himself must initially understand politics and justice.
If the student delivers a brilliant speech and wins an argument without delivering justice, then his action would be considered unjust, as the student would have used his oratory skills as a means to immoral ends.
Nomos and Physis
Sophists were the first to introduce the distinction between Nomos (Law of Society) and Physis (Natural Order).
For example, Justice and Shame are natural principles but manifest differently in various societies. What is shameful in one society might actually be acceptable in another. Furthermore, what might be just in one society, could be deemed unjust in another.
Therefore, the Law of Society is relevant despite having its source in universal principles natural to all humans.
On the other hand, the students of Gorgias rejected the idea that law arises from nature, as Protagoras thought. They argued that Nomos is antagonistic to Physis.
Protagoras’ students claimed that the true natural law is based on power or the idea that might makes right. On the other hand, Callicles went even further. He wrote that the Law of Society is false because it forces the stronger to tolerate the weaker.
Yet, a student of Gorgias, Lycophron, claimed the exact opposite to be true, namely that all humans are indeed equal in nature, and it is the law that ultimately establishes hierarchies and divisions.