The Sophists: Meaning, Nature and Political Ideas!
Meaning of the Word Sophist:
According to Encyclopedia Britannica—”Sophists, name given by the Greeks about the middle of the 5th century B.C. to certain teachers of superior grade who distinguishing themselves from philosophers on the one hand and from artists and craftsmen on the other, claimed to prepare their pupils not for any particular study or profession but for civic life.”
In other words, the term Sophists implies a group of highly qualified teachers specialized not in any particular field of knowledge. Sophists in ancient Greece were different from philosophers and craftsmen.
From etymological point of view the word “sophist” is derived from Greek word “sophos” this means wise. Subsequently the word stood for “man of wisdom”. Naturally the Sophists came to be regarded as men of knowledge.
Because of the disliking of common people for the phrase man of knowledge the Sophists of early periods refrained from using the particular phrase. In popular parlance the word carried derogatory meaning. Ordinary people of ancient Greece were not interested in hair-splitting and subtle analysis of everything which the Sophists did.
The Sophists were regarded by them as cunning people. A large number of Sophists were fond of jugglery of words and by this method they wanted to defeat the opponents. They also applied logical fallacies. All these were not approved by the general public.
Nature of Sophists:
“The Sophists were the brave and profound innovators in philosophy, logic, epistemology, ethics, politics, rhetoric and many other fields of knowledge.” In a word the Sophists had a free movement in all branches of knowledge.
Barker says— The Sophists are versatile. Because of this versatility the age of enlightenment dawned in Greece. It is said that the teaching of the Sophists did not go in vain. Greeks were able to rationalize their behaviour coming under the influence of Sophists. They completely changed the traditional relationship between polis and individual.
The philosophers of ancient Greece looked at everything in term of cosmos and as a result of it the role and importance of the individual were plunged into utter negligence and disrespect. On the contrary, the Sophists awarded due regard and importance to the individual.
This changed the very nature of society, politics, ethics and many other things. Protagoras, a famous Sophist, said “Man is the measure of all things.”
The special emphasis given by the Sophists to the individual radically changed the nature of society. The people were placed at the centre of society and they took leading part in social change.
The Sophists were professional teachers. The purpose of their teaching was to give practical training to fellow countrymen in politics. Barker observes that the Sophists represented the university. That is, they performed the function of university.
The function of the university was to prepare the after-life and the after-life was politics. To put it in other words, the Sophists prepared the life of Greeks suitable for politics. In this connection it is to be pointed out that the purpose of education portrayed in The Republic was to prepare the guardians.
Although the Sophists were teachers, at the same time they were journalists and disseminators of things new and strange (Barker, p. 66). Critics are of opinion the Sohpists were in a sense all-rounder.
Another feature of the Sophists is that they never formed any clear-cut school. They did not profess a single set of ideologies or tenets. Different Sophists adhered to different philosophical, political and legal theories.
Even on political conceptions they differed among themselves. Such as, earlier Sophists advocated democracy and they were really democratic—minded. But the Sophists of the later ages were supporters of aristocracy and oligarchy.
As regards the taking of payment there was no uniformity among all the Sophists. It is said that the Sophists of the 5th century B.C. received payment. But they did not take it directly. Their pupils took it on their behalf and the amount was also fixed by them.
Although it is true that the Sophists were encyclopedic thinkers they were not radical thinkers. “Like all Greek thinkers they aimed at communicating something of practical aid to right living.
They offered instruction in goodness or practical wisdom” In fact, the Sophists were practical thinkers and they disseminated the knowledge of how to manage affairs of the state and the family properly.
Another characteristic feature of the Sophists was that by origin they were not Athenians. Most of the famous Sophists came to Athens from different city-states and resided in Athens. But their pupils were Athenians and very rich. The Sophists taught these rich students.
They learnt practical art of politics and other techniques to control election and manipulate politics in their favour. Since the students of the Sophists were rich people they had no feelings and sympathy for democracy and they were extremely eager to set up or restore oligarchic form of government.
We can, therefore, say that the teaching of Sophists were considerably responsible for establishing oligarchy in Athens. It is really an unfortunate aspect of the Sophists’ teachings. Some critics say that because of the faulty teachings of Sophists the class rivalry in ancient Greece arose.
Political Ideas of Few Sophists:
We have already noted that the Sophists of ancient Greece did not form any school of thought. Not only this, there was no coordination among the Sophists. Different Sophists held different views and they lacked coherence or uniformity.
For a clear understanding of their views on politics it is necessary to discuss the political views of some leading Sophists. Protagoras of Addera (500 to 430 B.C.) was a prominent Sophist.
It is said that Protagoras was a conservative thinker. He said, “Man is the measure of all things, of the existence of things that are, and of the non-existence of things that are not.”
Its implication is the existence or non-existence of anything is determined by the common sense of the individual. In other words, individual is the determiner of everything. This comment of Protagoras is the expression of extreme individualism. He had a good deal of faith on the common sense of man.
If a man possesses sufficient amount of good common sense he will be able to understand the nature of things. Barker says that this outlook of Protagoras is the indicator of the fact that he was both a great individualist and empiricist.
The man- measure doctrine of Protagoras has glorified man and has placed him in the centre of universe. This notion of Protagoras is quite different from that of his predecessors who thought that man was the part of cosmos and devoid of self-reasoning and consciousness.
Barker says that Protagoras’s writings throw some light on the origin of human society. He pointed out few stages of the evolution of society. The first stage according to Protagoras was the state of nature.
People of state of nature were to some extent acquainted with the arts of industry and agriculture, but they could not build up political organization. That is, they were far away from civic-life.
The second stage of evolution consisted of founding cities and their preservation or maintenance. People of the second stage did not have the political art which they acquired in the final stage. Although Protagoras spoke of state of nature, he was not a believer of social contract theory of origin of state.
One critic says—.The progress of human society described by Protagoras in the myth shows that he regards the state and the laws as artificial institutions resulting from the spread of political virtues and man’s increasing skill in the art of government.”
It has been observed that Protagoras has great love for democracy and he wholeheartedly desired its progress. He thought that if justice were fully under the authority of only few persons there could be no state.
Every man has certain amount of skill. Naturally, none is negligible. Each individual of the state must be allowed to have a say in the affairs of the state. But he thought that every man could not have an equal measure of skill and intelligence.
To make them competent the state must take initiative in propagating and spreading education among the citizens. Proper education also helps the citizens to understand law. He thought that the state was the perfect educator.
Prodicus was another important Sophist. He devoted a good deal of labour to the study of the origin of state and emergence of commonwealth. Prodicus never thought that the state was created by God or by any other supernatural element. Men built up human society or state being driven by sheer necessity and for this purpose they had to do hard labour and invest a lot of ingenuity.
Although Prodicus did not clearly say anything about the state of nature in which people lived before laying the foundation of state or political organization, his analysis shows that men had to fight against the nature.
Therefore, it was human labour which banished conflict and brought peace in society and it became possible when an organized polis emerged.
Prodicus also thought that progress of human society and development of consciousness implanted language in the mind of men which helped them to exchange ideas among themselves.
Religion, in Prodicus’s view, was also the result of the progress of society. People created religion to meet their demands. We can say Prodicus looked at religion simply from utilitarian point of view.
They defined only those natural objects such as sun and other natural phenomena. Religion had no connection with elements or phenomena having no utility. It is true that according to Prodicus human Endeavour was solely responsible for the creation of society, but he never made individual the central figure. He was not an individualist. However, we can call him the precursor to 19th century utilitarianism.
Thrasymachus was a renowned Sophist of later 5th century B.C. It is observed that he held unambiguous political views cloaked with realism. He drew a distinction between religion and politics. He did not believe that the gods were the creator of civil society and all other things coming to the benefit of human being.
The human society, in his opinion, is full of injustice and malpractices. If God were the creator of society, injustice would not get any scope to flourish to its fullest form. Men’s behaviour, function attitude etc. are the root causes of injustice. He firmly believed that in actual society there was no justice.
What was going on in the name of justice was nothing but the self-interests of powerful and wealthy persons holding power over the rest of the society. They declared law to suit their own personal interests and justice was interpreted in their own favour. In a nutshell, in every sphere of society there was flagrant violation of law and justice.
Thrasymachus held that the nature of law differed according to the nature of government. In democracy, there were democratic laws and, in tyranny, tyrannical laws.
In a tyrannical form of government common people were forced to show unconditional obligation to law. They were not in possession of any opportunity to judge law or justice. He had no fascination for any particular type of government.
He treated all forms of government with equal view. The sole purpose of every type of government, Thrasymachus thought, was to enhance and simultaneously to protect its own interests.
He had no doubt that force was the basis of state. The authority ruled the state and demanded unconditional obligation simply with the help of force.
The use of force ultimately created a congenial atmosphere for the development of authoritarianism. As regards Thrasymachus’s concept of right, Barker makes the following observation: “In view of Thrasymachus there is no such thing at all as natural right. Right is simply whatever is enforced by the strongest power in the state in accordance with its own view of its own interests”.
The authority never considers people’s problems. If we view Thrasymachus’s concept of politics deeply we shall find that he considered politics in terms of power. There was no place of ethics or religion in his political ideas.