The Philosophy of the Sophists

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

I. Background Information

The second period of Greek philosophy occupies the entire fourth century before Christ. The problem which claims the interest of thinkers during this period is no longer the cosmological question, but man in his concreteness, namely, in his knowledge, his morality, his rights.

The causes which determined the above passage were many, and the most important of these were the following: (1) The Greek victory over the Persian army, which showed how much a small but cultured people can do against a numberless but disordered multitude of barbarians; (2) Contact with other populations living in different countries and practicing different customs, and the resultant investigation of the real value of morality and justice; (3) The democratic constitution of Athens, by virtue of which every citizen could aspire to some position in public administration and, with this end in view, the necessity of everyone’s developing his personality through culture and education.

These facts determined a crisis in Greek life at the end of the fifth century before Christ. The exponents of this crisis were the Sophists, molders of thought who, distrusting the results of the preceding thinkers, intended to educate youth according to the new exigencies of the times.

The Sophists centered their efforts on the problem of knowledge as well as on the problem of morality and justice. This is why Socrates rose against them and established once and for all the fact that true knowledge means knowing through concepts. Never, perhaps, had the human mind made a greater advance in the philosophical field than that which was achieved after Socrates had shown in what true knowledge consists.

First, Plato developed the Socratic concept, and finally Aristotle systematized the entire body of Greek thought. The results obtained in this period were to influence all subsequent ages.

The teaching of Socrates was to give rise to the Minor Socratic Schools, which in turn were to give origin to Stoicism and Epicureanism. The thought of Plato was revived in the later Academies, and in particular in the last important movement of Greek thought, Neo-Platonism. The philosophy of Aristotle was later enriched by Medieval thought, and is still accepted as the traditional philosophy or perennial philosophy even in this contemporary age.

II. General Notions

Those who impersonated this new state of mind were the Sophists, philosophers from all parts of the Grecian world in search of fortune. They were said to possess and encyclopedic knowledge, and they offered, at a price (for the first time requested for teaching the liberal arts), to instruct youth in the art of governing.

The means was oratory, in which some (such as Protagoras, and above all Gorgias) became most highly admired. In fine, it was the aim of the Sophists to create in youth the ability to argue over the proper use of words (Eristic Method), or their misuse (Sophistic Method). Plato, implacable enemy of these philosophers, was the first to call them by the name of Sophists, which has remained their title in history.

In the picture of history, Sophistic thought can be considered as a transition from the old cosmological concepts to the new ideas about man. Its importance is slight in so far as, both in the problem of knowledge and in that of morals and justice, it logically resulted in Skepticism, as we shall soon see. However, one cannot deny the Sophists the merit of having recalled philosophy to an analysis of the subject; and though Sophism remained incipient, it would in the immediate process of time culminate in the high speculations of Plato and Aristotle.

III. Theory of Knowledge

The Pre-Socratics had turned all their attention to the physical world (cosmology) and in a diversity of opinions they (with the exception of Democritus) had shown that the world has a divine origin. In this search, man, even if he had not been completely passed over, had been considered as one of the many phenomena of the physical world.

The disagreement among philosophers who had not succeeded in establishing what had been the germ element or elements of the world, and the changed conditions of the time combined to direct the attention of philosophers away from the object and toward the subject, from the world to man, from cosmology to psychology.

The Sophists were the first to show complete indifference to the problem of the world of matter and to center their efforts upon man. But man can be an object of study in his sense knowledge as well as in that more profound one of reason. The Sophists stopped at the first, at the immediacy of sense impressions. (The analysis of reason was reserved to Socrates and his disciples.)

The Sophists stopped at the data of experience, at empirical and not rational knowledge, and from this point of view they wished to judge the world of reality. With them was born relativism of knowledge and Skepticism: the man-measure of Protagoras, and the “nothing exists” of Gorgias.

In the fragment of Protagoras which Plato has preserved for us, it is stated:

“Man is the measure of all things, of those that are in so far as they are,
and those that are not in so far as they are not.”
From this he deduces that the subjective phenomena of our sensations become judges of reality. There is no reality of itself, but only reality as it appears to us:

“Man is the measure of what exists.”Thus to two different individuals the same reality can appear in opposite aspects; e.g., air is hot for one, cold for another; both sensations are true and both denote states of reality. Everything is relative. Reality being thus reduced to the subjectivism of experience, it was easy to make the transition of Gorgias to complete Skepticism.

“Nothing exists,” said Gorgias; “if something does exist, we cannot know it; if we come to know it, we cannot teach it to others.” This transition from the relativism of Protagoras to Skepticism seems logical. If reality is relative to the knowledge of empirical data, there is no reality of itself. Hence nothing exists. If it should exist, it would be impossible for it to be known by us as it is in itself, because we can be witnesses only of the impressions in their sensible immediacy, and no one assures us that this is representative of reality. Nor can we teach others what we know, since everyone has a different manner of feeling, and the manner of feeling of the master is not the same as that of his students.

Hence the only thing remaining is the use of the word, and Gorgias affirmed that all things can appear true and just, if oratorical power is capable of revealing things as true and just, beyond every pretension of reality of content.

IV. Ethics and Right

The traditional belief of the Greeks had been that their cities had received their laws from some divinity, protector of the city, and that good (happiness) consists in conforming one’s life to these laws, accepted as divine and eternal. The Sophists shook this faith to its very roots.

As in the case of the problem of knowledge, by defending relativism they ended in Skepticism; so also in the question of morals, by the same subjectivist prejudice they end in utilitarianism and hedonism. Thus, that is good which satisfies one’s instincts and passions.

The belief in immutable principles upon which ethics may be founded is a prejudice and often an impediment which it is necessary to remove. The good, as experience shows, consists in securing for oneself the greatest possible quantity of possessions, without regard for the means used to attain them; for these goods can satisfy the instincts and the passions in which happiness consists. To strive to strengthen one’s personality in order to surpass others in violence and in the contest or struggle for earthly goods — this is the moral ideal of the Sophist.

The Sophist also violently attack the traditional belief about right — that derivation from principles based on justice — and they substitute the concept of force for that of justice. From the moment changed political conditions and the participation of the people in democratic power began to bring about the change of many laws, the Sophists profited from the situation not only to discredit positive and political right, but by nature they did not mean the rational part of man, but his instincts and passions. Hence for them right is that which succeeds in imposing itself through force, or an imposition established by force and violence.

Men by nature are not equal; there are the strong and the weak, and the moment right consists in force it becomes the office of the strong to command and make laws; the weak must obey. The Sophist Thrasymachus, in the first book of Plato’s Republic, maintains that natural law “is the right of the stronger.” It is the strong man who, despising all laws advanced by the weak in the name of justice, imposes his will, which becomes right, as Callicles maintains in Plato’s Gorgias.

Here we are at the same extremism that we noted in the Sophists’ doctrine. Such extremism must have been pleasing to the youth of Athens in the time of Pericles. All young men were anxious to obtain offices which would assure them wealth and pleasure. Sophistic teaching, by battering all the orders of ethics and justice, opened up to men a way that made possible and justified the use of all deception and the most violent passions. Thus is explained the popular favor that surrounded certain Sophists, such as Protagoras, who was received with triumph and entertained as a guest in the homes of the most noted Athenians.

So also is explained the noble mission of Socrates who, to restore the values of a morality sacred and inviolable because based upon reason and not unruly passions, spent his entire existence, and not in vain. See: The Philosophy of Socrates.


Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty is the Founder of The Radical Academy, and an honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal.