The Sophists

Dr William Large

If we remember from the first lecture in this series, one of the most important distinctions in Greek philosophy is between nomos and phusis; human conventions and laws, on the one hand, nature on the other. So far we have only spoken about phusis and not at all about nomos. For the next two lectures we shall redress this balance. This shall be a relief for most of us, since this means we can, for a brief period, leave behind the incredible difficulty of speculative cosmology and metaphysics, for the more apparently tangible topic of ethics and politics. This split between the question of the laws of nature and the laws of man, or what we would call today, the difference between nature and culture, is very important to our way of understanding the relation between the world and ourselves. It is still a pressing question for us (just think, for example, about the current debate in genetics; how much does our behaviour owe to genetic codes and how much to cultural influences?[1]) and it marks a great difference both from the religious and mythical viewpoints, where there is no split between the natural world and the human world (the human world is just seen as one aspect of the natural world) and even the work of Heraclitus, where the cosmological and the political orders mirror one another.

What is nomos? Literally it can be translated as ‘law’ or ‘custom’. Here we are speaking not about the laws of nature, which were the obsession of the Presocratics, but the customs through which men live. Why does custom become a philosophical problem when thinkers before were obsessed by the meaning of nature or being? I think there are convincing sociological reasons why there is a shift in the philosophical interest from metaphysical questions to political ones. It has to do with the rise of the Greek city-state and the political organisation of one in particular, namely Athens. The political organisation of this city was democracy, and democracy of a special kind. There is an intimate connection between the practice of philosophy itself, a practice that we might define as self-reflective discourse (the Delphic inscription ‘know thyself’ as Socrates reminds us in the Phaedrus is a good definition of philosophical practice) and democracy. For this reason, I want to offer a brief description of the structure of Athenian democracy.

Before we think about this relation between philosophy and democracy, let us look, in more detail, about the form of Greek democracy and how is it similar and different from our own democracy. The most important difference between Greek democracy and our own is that between direct and representational democracy. We live in a representational democracy; that is, we elect representatives who then vote in an assembly on our behalf. This is not at how Greek democracy worked. Government for the people by the people was carried out directly by the citizens. Of course, it is important to realise that who was defined as a citizen was limited; women and slaves, for example, were not counted as citizens. Additionally, there is much evidence to support the idea the direct democracy of Athens was only feasible because of slaves and women, whose labour, whether domestic or public, allowed the male population enough leisure time to be able to participate in politics and other non-productive activities. Those who do not work only have this luxury because of those who do.

Greek democracy was organised into three distinct institutions: The ekklesia, the boule and the prytanes. At the heart of the democratic constitution is the ekklesia, the ‘Assembly’. All male citizens over the age of 18 had the right to attend this assembly.  The assembly was called at specific times in the year, and also at times of emergency. All decisions were made in this assembly by the vote of the citizens who attended. At a later stage, all those attended were paid, so that poverty would not be a hindrance to their ability to participate. There was no executive or government in Athens in the way we might conceive it: the people directly decided everything. Their commitment to total democracy by the Athenian population can be seen even more so in the other parts of the constitution, such as the boule and the prutaneis. Of course the running of the assembly required an organisation to determine who was to speak and what was to be voted on, but again the fear of the Athenians was that this organisation would itself become undemocratic. It was for this reason that the boule (which is related to the Greek verb boulomai, which means to wish to decide) organised the running of the assembly. It was made up 500 citizens over the age of the 30 years. These citizens were chosen by lot by their demos, hence the word ‘democracy’. There were ten demoi, each which chose by lot a certain number of bouleutai, who served only for one year and could never serve more than twice. Thus it was highly likely that every Athenian citizen would serve in the boule. Again these members were paid, so that poverty would not prevent participation. It was the boule which also chose by lot from their own number the fifty prytanes whose responsibility was to call and set the agenda for the assembly (the modern analogy would be the civil service, though again one that was elected by lot). The prytanes were not the government, since remember all decisions were made by the people. The prutaneis also chose by lot a president, an Epistates, and again we can see how radical Athenian democracy was, since this president was elected every day and could only serve once, which means that there was a great chance that every citizen could be president. We know for example that Socrates was an epistates.

What needs to be emphasised above all in this is that these officials were not elected, but chosen by lot. One did not have to be an expert to run the affairs of the city. The only person who were elected were the generals (strategoi), since it was clear that in this case some kind of talent or skill was required. The purpose of Greek democracy was precisely to set institutions and procedures to prevent the domination and influence of experts, which is quite different from our own time that appears to be bursting at the seams with experts. There is a famous speech by Socrates in the Protagoras that seems to confirm this Athenian view:

I hold that the Athenians, like the rest of the Hellenes, are sensible people. Now when we meet in the Assembly, then if the State is faced with some building project, I observe that the architects are sent for and consulted about the proposed structures, and when it comes to a matter of shipbuilding, the naval designers and so on with everything which the Assembly regards as the subject for learning and teaching…. But when it is something to with the government of the country that is to be debated, the man who gets up to advise them may be a builder or equally well a blacksmith or a shoemaker, merchant or ship owner, rich or poor, of good family or none [Protagoras 319b-e].

Now why is it important to know about Greek democracy?  Because the activity that we call philosophy, I believe, has its origin in this social context. Not philosophy as speculative cosmology, but philosophy as conversation and debate, which eventually becomes dialectics in Plato.  This idea of the social context of doing philosophy brings us to the Sophists. For what is democracy but the social overcoming of religion and tradition and specifically religion in the form of superstition and ancient rights and obligations? If we look at the democratic constitution of Athens we can see how the only way it could function is speech. And what would the end of this speaking? To convince others of one's point of view; not through force or superstition or prestige, but through power of argument. The power of argument is at the heart of Athens social structure, and must be there, because of the radical nature of its democracy. How could philosophy not be born in such a society?

I want to say that the philosophy, which by tradition has been called the origin or birthplace of philosophy, is in fact is a mixed beast. The Presocratics are a mixture of religious and scientific thought. This is why we can see that there is for example in Heraclitus a comparison with mythical systems of thought; not totally of course, for he wants to a give a rational explanation. It is, if you like, half way between mysticism and philosophy.  With the Sophists we are beginning to discover a philosophy, which is critical and sceptical, and increasing purified of any dogmatism or fundamentalism

Again, we have the same problem that we have faced before. We have hardly any of the writings of the Sophists in our possession, and so must rely on the testimony of others. Unfortunately these ‘others’, like Plato, for example, were antagonistic to the Sophists, because they were in conflict as to who really represented philosophy. For along time, their views were taken as the correct view of the Sophists, but in recent times, perhaps because of the reinvention of democracy since the late 19th century, many thinkers have tried to give the positive view to the Sophists and see Plato as holding indefensible views. Thus, precisely what Plato thinks is wrong about the Sophists; we might think are what makes them attractive.

With these difficulties in mind, what can we say about the Sophists? Let us first just think about the word. Where does it come from? It comes from the Greek word sophos, meaning wise or clever person. But like the word ‘clever’ in English it can have a pejorative meaning. It can be an insult to be called clever, and no doubt the position of the intellectual in any society is ambiguous, and this is the same in Greek society. The Sophist, however, did not just fall out of the sky; there must have been a space in Greek society for him to fit into. The place the Sophist’s filled was that previously occupied by poets. The Greeks saw poetry as essential educational, as for example, Hesiod’s Work and Days. Thus, the Sophists were essentially moral and political teachers.

There was, however, one important difference between the Sophists and the poets which was that they were paid. This is not an irrelevant fact for the critics of the Sophists. For according to them, it shows that the goal for them cannot be truth in itself (truth with a capital ‘T’) but earning a living. In other words, they would say anything, whether they thought it true or not, for the sake of money, the end being business and not knowledge. However, even in Plato’s portrait of Protagoras (a very important Sophist), we see that this lack of principles is exaggerated. He is as much committed to virtue as Socrates. There is, however, a much more important difference, as we shall see when we look at Plato himself, between the Sophist and the philosopher for Plato, than the matter of money.

This is the role of the Sophists in Greek society as professional educators, but what exactly characterises the thought of the Sophists? I think we can summarise their thought as a radical scepticism both in terms knowledge and human morality. At the level of ontology, they believed that reality was constantly changing. At the level of epistemology, they believed that one could not know anything absolutely, since the only knowledge available was through the senses, which themselves could not be trusted. At the level of morality, they were relativists. Moral codes were valid for one particular society and not for another. What we must realise is that all these different levels are interconnected. It is the Sophists moral scepticism that led to their ontological and epistemological scepticism. For imagine that you were a Greek citizen. You would go to the Assembly and be constantly faced with moral questions that you must answer, and moreover because of this necessity to making moral decisions, you would be faced with the abstract questions like what is justice. And yet there would appear to be as many views about justice as there are people. Would it not be natural in these circumstances to think that human knowledge was limited and indeed that reality itself was chaotic?

What then could the Sophist teach, if he was so sceptical about truth?  He could teach a specific skill or art (techne in Greek from where the English word ‘technology’ comes from) that would enable the student to succeed. In Athens, this skill would be the art of public speaking. In terms of their scepticism, the content of this speech would not be significant, since what be right for one city, or one situation, would not be in another. All that would matter would be the form of the speech such that it would convince others, rather than whether it was valid.

We must understand Socrates’ and Plato’s philosophy as a reaction against this radical scepticism.  First of all, Socrates argues whether it is possible to be truly moral and at the same time believe that all moral codes are relative. Philosophy, for him, was not a matter of learning a skill that would make you successful, but of being uncertain about oneself in the feeling that one was not what one ought to be. The definition of philosophy is the love of wisdom, and one cannot begin this path until one has felt this lack. Secondly, Plato, in a kind of return to Parmenides, will argue that ontological and epistemological scepticism is both a misunderstanding of human nature and reality itself. We shall not turn to these thinkers until later.  But in the meanwhile, ask yourself this question. Is the rejection of scepticism also the rejection of democracy?