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Sophists’ Philosophical Contributions Essay

It is often a debate in philosophy which was the truth or the sham or if there exists such as natural or divine but nowadays many seem to not care for life can get along even without knowing the philosophy behind these. Philosophers by then are very concerned and intrigued on the searching for and on classifying things whether it is a knowledge or an opinion or a truth or mere interpretations. Some could find this debate unnecessary but for epistemological sakes it is important to tackle this one fundamental of philosophy.

The glory that was Greece” is accompanied by a picture of a flourishing civilization: in education, economy, social and political aspects. There were paradigm shifts that are deeply rooted from the historical bloom of democracy in Athens. In this form of government, Athenians have Council of aristocrats who will suggest laws and measures but the Assembly of free men has the power to veto them. There are many city-states by then but Athens managed to be the center of power or the capital of Greece because they lead to the abandonment of the Persians in Greek lands.

It was by the cleverness of Themistocles to not follow what the Oracle of Delphi suggested on which strategy to do to defeat the Persians. After they, together with the Spartans, have won the war, Athens became a sea power which gave their citizens a chance later on to do trade and merchandising. Then the Athenian life commenced to flourish in all the aspects of being the prime and respected city-state of Greece (Melchert 17). The rise of intellectuals enticed many Athenians to pursue education so the demand for teachers also rose.

Sophists are teacher travelers who move from a place to the other according to where the education demand is. They charge money for their service thus most of their pupils are of middle-class or of the rich and they claim to teach excellence by training them how to master their own affairs, to manage their household, and to be a leader. In short, Sophistical education aims in molding a pupil into a better man and a great leader of society who will be an expert in public relations and politics.

Though Sophists have no one doctrine, all of them teach ‘rhetoric which is the principle and practice of persuasive speaking which is seen by the Sophists essential to a man who wishes to be a better man and a public icon or leader. It teaches the students that if there are two sides on the issue, a skilled rhetorician should be able to explore and present both sides of the argument, from which, one can choose which side to defend. In modern debate this mechanics would work for a debater to foresee what his or her opponent will say and with this, the chance of winning an argument is large.

It is therefore, winning an argumentative debate depends heavily on the rhetorical skills of a person, whether or not he is saying the truth or whether or not he is after the truth. Sophists do not believe into what philosophers like Heraclitus is asserting for they say that there is no one logos (what could be said) or nothing is ‘common to all. ’ That all things, as they agree with Democritus, depend on what man considers to be true, real, and essential, thus all a man could have is opinion – not knowledge, not truth.

They suggest that human beings are confined on our senses and truth is beyond us, beyond the capability of the senses. Man can only infer from what he senses and the information can only ‘represent some probabilities’ of what is real and true so the best man can only attain are inexact certainties, all beyond are not to be talked about (Melchert 42-44). From here it is proven that Sophists are somehow like Democritus: empiricists. Sophists’ relativism point of view is best summarized in the famous line of Protagoras:

Of all the measure is man: of all existing things, that they exist, of non-existing things, that they do not exist (DK S0 B 1, IEGP, 245). Since it is impossible for human to go beyond what we sense, man is the measure or the ‘final judge’ of how things are. This means that man is the standard of all things so what may be true to me can be false to you and then we stop arguing for neither of us is true nor false. With this, knowledge could not be distinguished from opinion so the ‘majority’ chooses the best opinion to which they are going to agree or convene with.

Sophists’ relativism put a stress on the difference of physis (nature of things in general) and nomos (things that are according to how human beings decided what they should be so). Nomos in short is the relativist view which again tells us that whichever is which does not give us a hint of it is right or wrong. Of course the world would be in chaos if people are to go on to whichever way they would want thus laws are made to have a social arrangement. But who will provide or say what the best settlement is?

What Sophists are trying to inject in Athenians’ minds in this point is that if you are an excellent rhetorician, you can win the hearts of the many and thus convince the majority. It is not of concern whether the laws made are just or not because whatever the majority says so (as what is appealing or seeming to be just for them) wins. Example, death penalty can be just to the Arabian countries but not in some Christian countries. This is supported as well by the persistent amendments and additional ratifications in the constitutions of countries; laws change according to the changing need of present society.

Therefore, as Sophists claim, it is the nomos or customs which dictates all (Melchert 44-47). Plato, on the other hand is concerned on the nature and clarification of concepts such as right and justice however he always left his argumentation open (Hummel 3). He designed a utopian Republic for Plato; the world of ideas is permanent and more ‘real’ than the world of facts because facts are in constant flux. The object therefore of Platonic education is not a know-how but a moral and political discipline for the real aim of education is not personal growth but for the service of state.

Plato despised the Sophistical education by accusing them of being magicians who ‘shadow play on words’ (Hummel 8). Plato, like his Socrates, believes that truth and reality is already there when we were born, it is just that we need to ‘recollect’ them. It is reflected on his Republic that the power of the state should not be on the masses but rather to one philosopher-king, who is almost perfect and god-like to save Athens from degeneration that Sophists started. This leader is capable of distinguishing the truth; what is ethical and just (Kreis Greek Thought). But how would the people know who is the wisest among the citizens?

This suggestion seems to have a loophole because if not all citizens are educated, then masses could still fall on the hands of the best speaker, the best in the art of controlling the masses. Plato, in his talk to Gorgias, said that majority system is lame for the rules they agree upon is according to the personal interests of the strongest. He suggested that like Xerxes, people should always act according to the natural law even though it is different with the man-made laws. Plato also insisted that we must first look at nature to find evidences on classifying right or wrong and eventually only after this, we could say what justice is.

It seems that Plato is undeniably ideal for he is convinced that truth and reality (which lies on nature) are hard to recollect but he suggest never to stop and to settle on the foolish agreements of man-made laws. If this is the case, then it seems that he is suggesting that before we make laws, know nature first, but this is hard (as he admitted) or almost impossible (like Sophists said). It could be summed up here that man-made laws are temporarily there and it they should undergo certain revisions and amendments according to how far human race conceive what is nature.

Again, who will say that man-made laws should be amended? Plato will say that it must be the wisest and Sophists say it must be the people (whoever leader they believe and follow in). Overall, it is the strongest and wisest that will control and reign thus people must consider, as Plato suggests, the one with ‘true’ morality. Aristotle continued the defiance of Plato against the Sophists but has a different method of approach. He did not believe that man is already pre-imposed with knowledge for man acquires knowledge solely on experience.

From here, we can see the essence and continuing influence of those two famous Western philosophical knowledge traditions – rationalism and empiricism. The earlier tradition states that knowledge is a priori (exists before experience) and the latter states that it is a posteriori (exists after experience) (Kreis Greek Thought). Being a scientist rather than a mathematician, Aristotle is an empiricist but his line of philosophy does not follow that of the Sophists. He explained that there is nothing beyond time and space thus all knowledge and truth is confined here, only within the universe.

It is not man who naturally has the knowledge as Plato insists but it is the universe which has, and that experience is needed by man to collect them. In empirical or existing things, we can derive abstract thoughts i. e. different skin colors could make man think that there could be inequality. In Aristotle’s Law of Non-Contradiction, he states that X can not be both Y and non-Y can not also be X (Plato cont. ). This gives us a hint on his refutations on the reasoning of Sophists because Sophists claim that it is acceptable to choose either ways (relativism).

It can be seen here that Aristotle’s logic was not observed by the Sophists for X is absolute and Y as well so there must be no blurred or mixed distinctions. It seems that Aristotle is saying that what is right is right, a wrong cold never be right. It came down that all the accusations of Aristotle and Plato on Sophists deteriorating the education and the morals of the citizens (thus affecting the justice views) are true but their wide and long acceptance means that Sophists say something that Plato and Aristotle failed to refute fully.

It is still a continuous search whether what we believe to be just today is really just or we may stay not to care for nature at all and go for the majority. Plato and Aristotle give us their ‘ideal’ holistic view on the true nature of abstract thoughts such as justice. Though different in approaches, with Aristotle appearing like integrating the empiricist and rational disposition, both still help in giving us exercises or hints on how to think and re-examine life for us to be a more ‘human’ as all philosophers want human to be.


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