ANCIENT PHILOSOPHERS: THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE ANCIENT WORLD
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
The Sophists: Ethics and Right
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.
The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).
The Moral Liberal recommends: Great Books of the Western World.