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.