The Ancient Greek Philosophers: The Sophists

The Sophists were a group of ‘wise’ men, teachers and intellectuals, who taught people for money in the second half of the fifth century B.C. The Sophists are widely known for their ability to make ‘the weaker speech the stronger’, and their philosophy was ‘speculative rather than practical.’ Moreover, the Sophists supported scepticism, and as time passed, the Greeks began to dislike the Sophists and the label of a Sophist was a degrading one. The Sophists were associated with the wealthy and powerful, since they demanded money for their services, and their focus was to teach people skills which would enable them to gain success in matters of the state, focusing their teaching on rhetoric, literature and grammar.

Protagoras, perhaps the most notorious Sophist, said that ‘man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not’. This is a matter of subjectivity. For one man something may be true, while for another it is false-to me something may look blue, to you it may look yellow. Protagoras is stating that whatever I experience is right, and so is what everybody else experiences-everyone is right and nobody is wrong. This also reveals his idea of scepticism-the only reality we can be sure of is our own, and objective reality seems to be, according to the Sophists, something which, if it exists, cannot be proven or found. The question of morality then arises from this idea of subjectivity-is nothing absolutely right or wrong? The Sophists taught that morality is indeed subjective and that what is viewed as right or wrong is culturally influenced and decided, as well as being based on one’s own opinions and feelings. According to Thucydides, this cynicism, and perhaps moral nihilism, meant that Greek civilization began to fall into disarray. Despite this, the Sophists had a huge influence on Roman rhetoric, especially on the likes of the great orator Cicero.

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The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Zeno’s Paradoxes

Zeno of Elea was a pupil of Parmenides, and undertook his teacher’s belief that change is an illusion by proposing arguments known as paradoxes, his most famous being Achilles and the Tortoise. In this paradox, it is said that Achilles and the tortoise are racing, but the tortoise has a head start of say, 50 metres. Even though Achilles is running much faster than the tortoise, once Achilles reaches the 50 metre mark, the tortoise would have covered another say, 10 metres, and so will be ahead. Once Achilles reaches this point, the tortoise would have covered more ground, ad infinitum, and Zeno argued that this proves that Achilles could never actually overtake the tortoise because Achilles must always reach where the tortoise has already been, at which point the tortoise will have moved ahead. Another paradox is the Dichotomy paradox, a paradox which says that if you want to walk to a certain point, you must first get halfway there, and before this a quarter of the way, and before this an eighth of the way, ad infinitum, and so one cannot actually reach any point whatsoever-change is an illusion. Many philosophers have attempted to solve these paradoxes. Hans Reichenbach argued that the paradox arises from believing time and space to be separate entities. Diogenes the Cynic simply got up and walked to a certain point instead of trying to refute the paradoxes through words. Herman Weyll proposed that there are only a finite number of distances between two points, rather than an infinite number, and so the paradox is resolved.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Parmenides

Parmenides of Elea was born in around 515BC, and he proposed that change is an illusion. He said that everything which exists is a being and that the one common thing between all things that exist is that they are-they are all being. So if something is not being, it does not exist, and therefore is nothing. So you have being and nothing. Parmenides held that for change to come about, being has to come together with something other than being (which is nothing), and therefore change is impossible and an illusion. Parmenides also held the view that fundamentally reality is one, unchanging being. This is because, he argued, everything is being, whether it is a chair or a cat or a person, it is all being and so reality is one. Change is merely an appearance, then, and Parmenides thought that it is our senses that deceive and trick us into thinking that things change. He wrote about this idea in his poem, On Nature, and wrote about what is real in the part called the ‘way of truth’ and appearances in the ‘way of opinion’. Parmenides influenced many, including the atomist Democritus and Plato.