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Introductory Paragraph

Early Ionic Natural Philosophers

The Pythagoreans

The Eleatics


Later Natural Philosophers

General Character of the First Period in the History of Greek Philosophy

The Sophist


The Followers of Socrates

The Lesser Socratics

Plato. Life. Works

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The Disciples of Plato

The Old Academy

Aristotle: Life and works

Aristotle: Theory of Knowledge

Aristotle: Metaphysics

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Philosophy in Rome: Eclecticism

The Later Peripatetics

The Later Academics

The Later Stoics

General Character of the Second Period

Standpoint and Schools of the Third and Latest Period of Greek Philosophy

Jewish-Alexandrian School


The Eclectic Platonist

Neo-Platonism. Plotinus

Neo-Platonism. Porphyry. Jamblichus

Neo-Platonism. Proclus




B. C. BURT (1852-1915) - Table of contents                        




§ 7 - The Sophists

There arose in Greece in the fifth century B.C. a class of persons to whom, on account of their peculiar pretensions to wisdom, was especially applied (and generally with opprobrium) the term "Sophist," this term having been previously applied to any who were preeminent among men in the knowledge of human affairs. For certain reasons, somewhat peculiar (as we shall see), these men must be included among philosophers. The leading Sophists were Protagoras of Abdera, Gorgias of Leontini, Hippias of Elis, and Prodicus of Ceos. Others among the most eminent Sophists are those named Polus, Thrasymachus, and Euthydemus.

Life of Protagoras

Protagoras of Abdera in Thrace (circa 490-415 B.C.) was first in Athens about the middle of the fifth century B.C. He was the first of the Sophists to take a fee for instruction given by him, —a practice that was condemned by Socrates and Plato. Protagoras, however, as it would appear, charged only a moderate fee and deserved not the contempt with which the money-getting Sophists after him were richly rewarded.


  He was a man of learning, character, and intelligence —whom even Plato did not always sneer at —and was much sought after. He had the "courage of his convictions" and held and taught doctrines, religious and political, which caused him to be condemned as an atheist, and his works (one of which was on Truth) to be publicly burned. He is said to have prepared laws for one of the Athenian colonies. He was an embryo etymologist and a rhetorician; he affirmed, however, that rhetorical art consists in "making the worse appear the better reason".

Theory of Protagoras

"The measure of all things," says Protagoras, "is man": "of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not". To this dictum, which is in itself equivocal and may mean that the human mind is adequate to the attainment of absolute objective truth or that what is true to one individual is true for him only, Protagoras gave the latter meaning, and thus human knowledge was reduced by him to a "knowledge" of subjective appearances. This doctrine, it will be perceived, is simply the Heraclitean doctrine (superficially interpreted) of the eternal flux of things in general transferred from nature to man. Strictly applied, it would signify not only that no two persons think or perceive the same thing, but that no person thinks or feels twice alike; it would mean also that there is and can be no real fixed object of knowledge. Contradictory opinions are equally true; right and wrong are merely matters of subjective opinion; the state is a compact based on force. The existence of the gods is uncertain, —the subject being too difficult and life being too short to admit of our learning anything certain about the matter (1).

Life of Gorgias

Gorgias of Leontini in Sicily (circa 480-395 B.C.) began teaching in Athens about the year 427 B.C., and acquired as a teacher of rhetoric "greater celebrity than any man of his time". His reputation as a rhetorician —he was an orator as well as a teacher of rhetoric— seems to have overshadowed his character as an acute thinker.

Theory of Gorgias

In a work entitled On Nature or the Non-Existent Gorgias denied objective reality. He argued: —Nothing is; if anything were, it would be unknowable; and if knowable, not explicable in words. One branch of his argument to prove that nothing is is substantially as follows: —If anything were, it must be derivative or eternal. It cannot be derivative, for, as the Eleatics maintained, there is no becoming. It cannot be eternal, for it would then be infinite; but the infinite is nowhere, for it can neither be in itself nor in any other, and what is nowhere is not. To prove that if anything were it would be unknowable, Gorgias argues that thought and being are incommensurable, since if they be not, whatever is thought must be, as, for example, a contest with chariots, on the sea. Finally, knowledge, even if possible, could not be communicated because the sign of an idea and the idea itself have no natural necessary connection (2).


The method of Gorgias is the dialectic of Zeno, and his sceptical conclusions seem to flow from the fact that he treats conceptions that are valid only in relation to certain others that are correlative with them, as if they were themselves absolute, and excluded those others, e.g., the conceptions of being and not-being, one and many, thought and being, infinite and finite, word and idea. One has no meaning absolutely out of relation to many; we cannot assume that only the one is. The same holds true of being and not-being, infinite and finite, word and idea. The argumentation of Gorgias points, by the absurdity of its result, to the conclusion that what is is a union of opposites, and we are, just on this account, indebted to him; holding to the principle of identity (not of opposites but of each thing in and by itself) he forces us to acknowledge the dualistic character of consciousness. Gorgias, however, seems to have had no higher than a purely sceptical aim in so doing. The real lesson of his argumentation is that the truth is not simple and but complex and concrete.

Hippias and Prodicus

Hippias of Elis and Prodicus of Ceos were younger contemporaries of Protagoras and Gorgias. Because of the extent and variety of his learning, Hippias was styled "the polymathist". He declared that law is a tyrant compelling men to do many things contrary to nature, a saying that reflects a tendency then existing in Athens towards social and political disintegration. Prodicus was a moralist, and seems to have been considered by Socrates as a sage adviser of youth, but no dialectician, or scientific thinker. In the Second Book of Xenophon's Memorabilia there is to be found an allegory that Socrates is represented as borrowing from the "Wise Prodicus". In this the hero Hercules is pictured as exposed to the respective charms of two female personages of opposite character, — Pleasure and Virtue. The allegory was greatly admired among the ancients. Prodicus is said to have investigated the subject of synonyms.

The Sophists as a Class; Result

Strictly speaking, the Sophists should, perhaps, be regarded as philosophers only in a negative way: for they were interested primarily not in universal science but in individualistic culture; they were moulders of men rather than investigators and expounders of ideas. They were shrewd enough to see, however, that the pretension to the possession of wisdom which the professional educator necessarily puts forward must be supported by at least a modicum of philosophy as such. Very much of the real thing would doubtless have hindered, instead of promoting, the realization of their main purpose, which seems to have been to fashion what Plato calls the "narrow, keen, little legal mind" (3). Their principal business was the fitting of ambitious youths for political careers in a democracy. The young Athenian who must distinguish himself before a body of dicasts, or judges, was supposed to need all possible skill in rhetoric and dialectic, and the appearance of being wise on all subjects, particularly those relating directly to social and political matters; the young Athenian required, and the Sophist prepared himself to teach, not the philosophy of the schools, which he considered merely as a juvenile discipline, but a "practical" philosophy. But the Sophist, though not a genuine philosopher, did something to prepare the way for philosophy. He was, as Grote says, the "professor" or public teacher; by him "higher education" was offered to Grecian youth; to him the young man who in the schools had been trained in gymnastics, had gotten the cream of the poets and moralists, had learned to recite fittingly from their works and to take part in dramatic choruses, went for instruction, in "philosophy," including mathematics, astronomy, dialectics, oratory, and criticism. And the Sophist not only gave instruction; he stimulated his pupils, if not to profound inquiry, at least to the practice of analysis and criticism before which merely superficial traditional views and customs were not always strong enough to stand, —in other words to something like free and independent, if not sober, thinking. In saying this, we do not forget that the practices of the later Sophists were not above mere verbal trifling and charlatanry (4). The philosophical findings of the Sophists, though slender from a positive point of view, were yet, in certain respects, marked and important. They were certainly peculiar. If we compare them as regards subject of speculation, method, or point of view with those we have already considered, we shall discover what proves to be the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Greek speculation. Not Nature but Man is the principal theme of the Sophists; they profess and practise everywhere a certain method (the dialectical or quasi-dialectical); and their mental attitude, instead of being that of confidence or scientific circumspectness, is, wholly and on principle, sceptical, as is well illustrated even in the very title of Gorgias s work, On Nature, or the non-Existent. And it will appear as we proceed that their successors are very largely occupied in developing and transcending their point of view, correcting and further perfecting their method, and investigating their theme. In its psychological aspect the philosophy of the Sophists was pure sensationalism; in its ethical, pure individualism, the philosophy of mere "private judgment," "private right" As Hegel puts it, —the Sophists introduced the principle of subjectivity into philosophy.


(1)The doctrine of the "relativity of knowledge," it is thus to be seen, is quite ancient. Plato's criticism of it, which will be cited later on, is as good now as it was when first made.

(2) See Zeller's Pre-Socratic Philosophy, Vol. II. pp. 452-455.

(3) Theætetus, p. 175 (Jowett's trans.).

(4) For the most extended and authoritative accounts of the Sophists see Grote's Hist. of Greece, Chap. LXVII.; The Journal of Sacred and Classical Philology, Vols. I., II., and III., arts, by E. M. Cope; Zeller's Pre-Socratic Philosophy, Vol. II. pp. 462-469.



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