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.

Lucretius and becoming happy

 

Titus Lucretius Carus was born in 99BC, and died in 55BC. He was a Roman philosopher and poet, who influenced the likes of Virgil and Cicero.

Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is most famous for his work de rerum natura (On the nature of things). In this poetic work, Lucretius defends the Epicurean philosophy, and argues in favour of many topics such as atomism, no life-after-death, why the gods (or God) do not care for us, and the concept of ataraxia (freedom from fear, or serenity). It is on this last point, ataraxia, that I will focus on.

The term ataraxia (ἀταραξία) was defined by Sextus Empiricus as ‘an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.’ For Epicurus, and consequentially Lucretius, this state was a state of happiness. How, then, could one reach such a state? Firstly, the satisfaction of basic desires, such as hunger and thirst must be fulfilled. Lucretius was adamant, though, that one must not overeat or overdrink, since this will lead to addiction and a dissatisfaction. We must, Lucretius maintains, only eat what we need. As Cicero said, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat.’ Two other crucial things that Lucretius says that we should avoid are religion and romantic love. Religion involves fear of the gods, and we may be constantly irritated by the fact that the gods are watching carefully and judging our every move. Moreover, by thinking that the gods can influence our lives, we may spend unnecessary time exerting ourselves in order to gain help from the gods. This just isn’t the case, Lucretius says, and it’s nonsense. Once we realise that the gods do not care for us, we can get on with our lives. Secondly, romantic love should be avoided. This is not all love, just the specific kind of love which again, like religion, may irritate us and bug us constantly. We become attached to someone in such a way that a glance to another person may make us jealous, or we may think that our lover doesn’t really like us so we buy them unnecessary gifts and try to impress them with all kinds of effort. This again prevents us from attaining ataraxia.

Fear of death is perhaps the main reason ataraxia is so hard to attain, but Lucretius is adamant that fear of death is unreasonable and should be avoided. Once we accept death can we be free of the fear that comes from it, and from this can we become calm. Ataraxia is the absence of pain, and though this sounds so simple, it is in fact most difficult to reach, especially in today’s frantic world.

So how, then, in today’s society, could one attain ataraxia?

Perhaps you would have to move, with a group of friends, to the country, like Epicurus himself did, and detach yourself from the worldly life, living virtually off your own back and surrounding yourself with friendship, goodwill, and virtue. But this isn’t really at all possible for the majority. Maybe we will never be able to reach ataraxia in its fullest, if such a thing is even possible, but we may be able to at least have glimpses of it. Late at night, we ponder on the world and our life, and think about how sub specie aeternatis, we are quite insignificant, and that the majority of our troubles of our everyday life are in fact quite comical. We may, at times, find ourselves accepting death, and thinking that even though we will die at one point, we still have time now, which we can use to build the relationships with the people around us, and to seize the day. We may come to believe that the gods (or God) do not care about us, and that we are left to our own devices. We don’t have to despair about this. Rather, we can recognise the immense responsibility that we have, and that we can only rely on ourselves to influence the change we wish to see.  

If Epicurus and Lucretius were right, and that ataraxia is indeed happiness, then although we may never be able to fully attain such a state, perhaps due to the way society has developed over the centuries, we may, at least, achieve glimpses of such a state, and, after some time, come to realise that a glimpse is all we really need.