Ancient History & Civilisation


It is a reproof to those who think of Greece as synonymous with Athens, that none of the great Hellenic thinkers before Socrates belonged to that city, and only Plato after him. The fate of Anaxagoras and Socrates indicates that religious conservatism was stronger in Athens than in the colonies, where geographical separation had broken some of the bonds of tradition. Perhaps Athens would have remained obscurantist and intolerant to the point of stupidity had it not been for the growth of a cosmopolitan trading class, and the coming of the Sophists to Athens.

The debates in the Assembly, the trials before the heliaea, and the rising need for the ability to think with the appearance of logic and to speak with clarity and persuasion, conspired with the wealth and curiosity of an imperial society to create a demand for something unknown in Athens before Pericles—formal higher education in letters, oratory, science, philosophy, and statesmanship. The demand was met at first not by the organization of universities but by wandering scholars who engaged lecture halls, gave there their courses of instruction, and then passed on to other cities to repeat them. Some of these men, like Protagoras, called themselves sophistai—i.e., teachers of wisdom.81 The word was accepted as equivalent to our “university professor,” and bore no derogatory connotation until the conflict between religion and philosophy led to conservative attacks upon the Sophists, and the commercialism of certain of them provoked Plato to darken their name with the imputations of venal sophistry that now cling to it. Perhaps the general public entertained a vague dislike for these teachers from their first appearance, since their costly instruction in logic and rhetoric could be bought only by the well to do, and gave these an advantage in trying their cases before the courts.82 It is true that the more famous Sophists, like most skilled practitioners in any field, charged all that their patrons could be persuaded to pay; this is the final law of prices everywhere. Protagoras and Gorgias, we are told, demanded ten thousand drachmas ($10,000) for the education of a single pupil. But lesser Sophists were content with reasonably moderate fees; Prodicus, famous throughout Greece, asked from one to fifty drachmas for admission to his courses.83

Protagoras, the most renowned of the Sophists, was born in Abdera a generation before Democritus. In his lifetime he was the better known of the two, and the more influential; we surmise his repute from the furore created by his visits to Athens.*84 Even Plato, who was not often intentionally fair to the Sophists, respected him, and described him as a man of high character. In the Platonic dialogue that is named after him Protagoras makes a much better showing than the argumentative young Socrates; here it is Socrates who talks like a Sophist, and Protagoras who behaves like a gentleman and a philosopher, never losing his temper, never jealous of another’s brilliance, never taking the argument too seriously, and never anxious to speak. He admits that he undertakes to teach his pupils prudence in private and public matters, the orderly management of home and family, the art of rhetoric or persuasive speaking, and the ability to understand and direct affairs of state.86 He defends his high fees by saying that it is his custom, when a pupil objects to the sum asked, to agree to receive as adequate whatever amount the pupil may name as just in a solemn statement before some sacred shrine87—a rash procedure for a teacher who doubted the existence of the gods. Diogenes Laertius accuses him of being the first to “arm disputants with the weapon of sophism,” a charge that would have pleased Socrates; but Diogenes adds that Protagoras “was also the first to invent that sort of argument which is called Socratic”88—which might not have pleased Socrates.

It was but one of his many distinctions that he founded European grammar and philology. He treated of the right use of words, says Plato,89 and was the first to distinguish the three genders of nouns, and certain tenses and moods of verbs.90 But his chief significance lay in this, that with him, rather than with Socrates, began the subjective standpoint in philosophy. Unlike the Ionians he was less interested in things than in thought—i.e., in the whole process of sensation, perception, understanding, and expression. Whereas Parmenides rejected sensation as a guide to truth, Protagoras, like Locke, accepted it as the only means of knowledge, and refused to admit any transcendental—suprasensual—reality. No absolute truth can be found, said Protagoras, but only such truths as hold for given men under given conditions; contradictory assertions can be equally true for different persons or at different times.91 All truth, goodness, and beauty are relative and subjective; “man is the measure of all things—of those that are, that they are, and of those that are not, that they are not.”92 To the historical eye a whole world begins to tremble when Protagoras announces this simple principle of humanism and relativity; all established truths and sacred principles crack; individualism has found a voice and a philosophy; and the supernatural bases of social order threaten to melt away.

The far-reaching skepticism implicit in this famous pronouncement might have remained theoretical and safe had not Protagoras applied it for a moment to theology. Among a group of distinguished men in the home of the unpopular freethinker, Euripides, Protagoras read a treatise whose first sentence made a stir in Athens. “With regard to the gods I know not whether they exist or not, or what they are like. Many things prevent our knowing: the subject is obscure, and brief is the span of our mortal life.”93 The Athenian Assembly, frightened by that ominous prelude, banished Protagoras, ordered all Athenians to surrender any copies they might have of his writings, and burned the books in the market place. Protagoras fled to Sicily, and, story tells us, was drowned on the way.94

Gorgias of Leontini carried on this skeptical revolution, but had the good sense to spend most of his life outside of Athens. His career was typical of the union between philosophy and statesmanship in Greece. Born about 483, he studied philosophy and rhetoric with Empedocles, and became so famous in Sicily as an orator and a teacher of oratory that in 427 he was sent by Leontini as an ambassador to Athens. At the Olympic games of 408 he captivated a great crowd by an address in which he appealed to the warring Greeks to make peace among themselves in order to face with unity and confidence the resurrected power of Persia. Traveling from city to city, he expounded his views in a style of oratory so euphuistically ornate, so symmetrically antithetical in idea and phrase, so delicately poised between poetry and prose, that he had no difficulty in attracting students who offered him a hundred minas for a course of instruction. His book On Nature sought to prove three startling propositions: (1) Nothing exists; (2) if anything existed it would be unknowable; and (3) if anything were knowable the knowledge of it could not be communicated from one person to another.*95 Nothing else remains of Gorgias’ writings. After enjoying the hospitality and fees of many states he settled down in Thessaly, and had the wisdom to consume most of his great fortune before his death.96 He lived, as all authorities assure us, to at least one hundred and five; and an ancient writer tells us that “though Gorgias attained to the age of one hundred and eight, his body was not weakened by old age, but to the end of his life he was in sound condition, and his senses were those of a youth.”97

If the Sophists together constituted a scattered university, Hippias of Elis was a university in himself, and typified the polymath in a world where knowledge was not yet so vast as to be clearly beyond the grasp of one mind. He taught astronomy and mathematics, and made original contributions to geometry; he was a poet, a musician, and an orator; he lectured on literature, morals, and politics; he was an historian, and laid the foundations of Greek chronology by compiling a list of victors at the Olympic games; he was employed by Elis as an envoy to other states; and he knew so many arts and trades that he made with his own hands all his clothing and ornaments.98 His work in philosophy was slight but important: he protested against the degenerative artificiality of city life, contrasted nature with law, and called law a tyrant over mankind.99 Prodicus of Ceos carried on the grammatical work of Protagoras, fixed the parts of speech, and pleased the elders with a fable in which he represented Heracles choosing laborious Virtue instead of easy Vice.100 Other Sophists were not so pious: Antiphon of Athens followed Democritus into materialism and atheism, and defined justice in terms of expediency; Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (if we may take Plato’s word for it) identified right with might, and remarked that the success of villains cast doubt upon the existence of the gods.”101

All in all, the Sophists must be ranked among the most vital factors in the history of Greece. They invented grammar and logic for Europe; they developed dialectic, analyzed the forms of argument, and taught men how to detect and practice fallacies. Through their stimulus and example reasoning became a ruling passion with the Greeks. By applying logic to language they promoted clarity and precision of thought, and facilitated the accurate transmission of knowledge. Through them prose became a form of literature, and poetry became a vehicle of philosophy. They applied analysis to everything; they refused to respect traditions that could not be supported by the evidence of the senses or the logic of reason; and they shared decisively in a rationalist movement that finally broke down, among the intellectual classes, the ancient faith of Hellas. “The common opinion” of his time, says Plato, derived “the world and all animals and plants . . . and inanimate substances from . . . some spontaneous and unintelligent cause.”102Lysias tells of an atheistic society that called itself the kakodaimoniotai, or Devils’ Club, and deliberately met and dined on holydays set apart for fasting.103 Pindar, at the opening of the fifth century, accepted the oracle of Delphi piously; Aeschylus defended it politically; Herodotus, about 450, criticized it timidly; Thucydides, at the end of the century, openly rejected it. Euthyphro complained that when in the Assembly he spoke of oracles, the people laughed at him as an antiquated fool.104

The Sophists must not be blamed or credited for all of this; much of it was in the air, and was a natural result of growing wealth, leisure, travel, research, and speculation. Their role in the deterioration of morals was likewise contributory rather than basic; wealth of itself, without the aid of philosophy, puts an end to puritanism and stoicism. But within these modest limits the Sophists unwittingly quickened disintegration. Most of them, barring a thoroughly human love of money, were men of high character and decent life; but they did not transmit to their pupils the traditions or the wisdom that had made or kept them reasonably virtuous despite their discovery of the secular origin and geographical mutability of morals. Their colonial derivation may have led them to underestimate the value of custom as a peaceful substitute for force or law in maintaining morality and order. To define morality or human worth in terms of knowledge, as Protagoras did a generation before Socrates,105 was a heady stimulus to thought, but an unsteadying blow to character; the emphasis on knowledge raised the educational level of the Greeks, but it did not develop intelligence as rapidly as it liberated intellect. The announcement of the relativity of knowledge did not make men modest, as it should, but disposed every man to consider himself the measure of all things; every clever youth could now feel himself fit to sit in judgment upon the moral code of his people, reject it if he could not understand and approve it, and then be free to rationalize his desires as the virtues of an emancipated soul. The distinction between “Nature” and convention, and the willingness of minor Sophists to argue that what “Nature” permitted was good regardless of custom or law, sapped the ancient supports of Greek morality, and encouraged many experiments in living. Old men mourned the passing of domestic simplicity and fidelity, and the pursuit of pleasure or wealth unchecked by religious restraints.106 Plato and Thucydides speak of thinkers and public men who rejected morals as superstitions, and acknowledged no right but strength. This unscrupulous individualism turned the logic and rhetoric of the Sophists into an instrument of legal chicanery and political demagogy, and degraded their broad cosmopolitanism into a cautious reluctance to defend their country, or an unprejudiced readiness to sell it to the highest bidder. The religious peasantry and the conservative aristocrats began to agree with the common citizen of the urban democracy that philosophy had become a danger to the state.

Some of the philosophers themselves joined in the attack upon the Sophists. Socrates condemned them (as Aristophanes was to condemn Socrates) for making error specious with logic and persuasive with rhetoric, and scorned them for taking fees.107 He excused his ignorance of grammar on the ground that he could not afford the fifty-drachma course of Prodicus, but only the one-drachma course, which gave merely the rudiments.108 In an ungenial moment he used a merciless and revealing comparison:

It is believed among us, Antiphon, that it is possible to dispose of beauty or of wisdom alike honorably or dishonorably; for if a person sells his beauty for money to anyone that wishes to purchase it, men call him a male prostitute; but if anyone makes a friend of a person whom he knows to be an honorable and worthy admirer, we regard him as prudent. In like manner those who sell their wisdom for money to any that will buy, men call sophists, or, as it were, prostitutes of wisdom; but whoever makes a friend of a person whom he knows to be deserving, and teaches him all the good that he knows, we consider him to act the part which becomes a good and honorable citizen.109

Plato could afford to agree with this view, being a rich man. Isocrates began his career with a speech Against the Sophists, became a successful professor of rhetoric, and charged a thousand drachmas ($1000) for a course.110 Aristotle continued the attack; he defined a Sophist as one who “is only eager to get rich off his apparent wisdom,”111 and accused Protagoras of “promising to make the worse appear the better reason.”112

The tragedy was deepened by the fact that both sides were right. The complaint about fees was unjust: short of a state subsidy no other way was then open to finance higher education. If the Sophists criticized traditions and morals it was, of course, with no evil intent; they thought that they were liberating slaves. They were the intellectual representatives of their time, sharing its passion for the free intellect; like the Encyclopedists of Enlightenment France they swept away the dying past with magnificent élan, and did not live long enough, or think far enough, to establish new institutions in place of those that loosened reason would destroy. In every civilization the time comes when old ways must be re-examined if the society is to readjust itself to irresistible economic change; the Sophists were the instrument of this re-examination, but failed to provide the statesmanship for the readjustment. It remains to their credit that they powerfully stimulated the pursuit of knowledge, and made it fashionable to think. From every corner of the Greek world they brought new ideas and challenges to Athens, and aroused her to philosophical consciousness and maturity. Without them Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would have been impossible.

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