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.

Mill and education

In On Liberty, Mill writes about education, stating its importance, saying that the purpose of universities is not to produce good lawyers, teachers and politicians, but ‘cultivated and capable human beings.’ Mill was more concerned with person we become and who we are, rather than our status, power or wealth. Mill criticises the education system, saying that all education is for is so that we can learn what is easy and interesting, so that when we have to go out of our comfort zones and do something that is not easy or interesting and may not be enjoyable, which we all will inevitably have to do, we become disheartened and frustrated.

Mill would, I think, despise today’s education system, and it is not difficult to see why. Rather than focusing on what is right and wrong when being taught, the emphasis is on what will bring oneself the most pleasure and the least pain, a key utilitarian idea, which Peter Vardy calls the transactional-utilitarian model. Moreover, the education system is strongly individualistic, not really bothered about the concept of community, but only the success and enhancement of pleasure of individuals. This culture of immediate pleasure, and not really thinking about who we become appears to thrive in consumerist cultures, for consumerism advertises and encourages individual success so that one can, through consumption, achieve happiness. Mill would say, however, that we have lost any real concept of happiness, and that consumerism and individualist society does not make us happy.

Both Mill and Nietzsche had different ideas of what it meant to be happy and to be a ‘fulfilled’ human being. Mill concluded that, rather than seeking one’s own happiness, we should first seek the happiness of others, and this concept of a strong community may have been influenced by Aristotle. If we want to be happy, we must first want to make others happy. Nietzsche had a different view of fulfilment, and it was one where suffering and discomfort is prominent, things which the current education discourage and avoid. Nietzsche held the view that only through genuine sacrifice and effort will we achieve anything worthwhile, and that it is only through this that fulfilment can be achieved. Furthermore, the attitude we receive from our 18 years or so of education may influence the way in which we view our whole lives, and so our relationships may be deeply affected by the way we view them. Do we focus on what is right and wrong, or what brings us the most pleasure and the least pain? If we want to become fulfilled, which seems to becoming more and more difficult as consumerist culture takes a greater hold of us, Nietzsche and Mill would both agree that it is the education system that needs to change if we want our lives to change. Nevertheless, it is possible to detach ourselves from what society encourages, and to seek our own fulfilment and happiness, and, perhaps, this may start with community and sacrifice.