The Republic by Plato follows a series of philosophical debates between Socrates and several of his colleagues. These debates attempt to decipher the meaning of justice and determine its role in Athenian society. The Republic reiterates a lot of the same themes as Plato’s earlier works, Protagoras in particular. One of such themes is Plato’s blatant aversion to sophism. In both The Republic and Protagoras, Socrates primarily serves as a conduit to express Plato’s grievances with sophists, which is why his characterization by Plato often depicts him as being antithetical to his sophist colleagues.
Through Plato’s retelling of the events depicted in The Republic and Protagoras, he suggests that sophists were self-serving philosophists who corrupted the less educated with their persuasive rhetorical prowess and distorted Athenians’ sense of morality.
In both texts, sophists are commonly characterized as being ill-tempered, arrogant, and dubiously qualified. For instance, following Thrasymachus’ interruption of the group’s discussion in The Republic, Socrates states that “he [Thrasymachus] couldn’t be contained any longer; gathering himself together like some wild animal, he launched himself at us as if to tear us to pieces” (Plato 16).
This description of Thrasymachus as animalistic and unhinged is emblematic of Plato’s general disliking of sophists, indicating that he believed sophists to be ill-tempered. Further, Plato frequently emphasizes the egotism of the sophists featured in his dialogues. Rather than choosing to collaborate in discussion with his colleagues, Thrasymachus calls Socrates’ opinions “rubbish” (Plato 16) and boasts he can “show [Socrates] an answer to the question about justice, over and above all these others, and better than them” (Plato 17).
Thrasymachus’ overconfidence is not symptomatic of a true philosopher by Plato’s standards. This dissonance is especially apparent when Thrasymachus’ conduct is compared to that of Socrates’, who humbles himself in light of Thrasymachus’ attacks and openly admits to his colleagues that “he does not have the answers and [has] never claimed to” (Plato 18). This distinction is important as it communicates Plato’s belief that the role of the philosopher is not to be authoritative, as doing so limits the potential of a discussion and, thus, hinders a person from discovering absolute truth. Although Socrates occasionally praises Protagoras and other sophists, he is evidently unconvinced that sophists contribute good to society. This disapproval is displayed when, following Protagoras’ claim that, as a sophist, he “makes] men into good citizens” (Plato 15), Socrates replies “It’s a splendid thing to have discovered… if you have in fact discovered how to do it… I didn’t think that that was something that could be taught’” (Plato 15). Socrates’ doubtfulness about the sophists’ competency as philosophers echoes Plato’s own skepticism, as Plato believed sophists practiced counterfeit philosophy.
Through his retelling of these various dialogues, Plato indicates that sophists were scammers who used their masterful rhetoric and persuasiveness to sell inauthentic philosophy to those not educated enough to distinguish it from legitimate philosophy. Plato’s grievances with the sophist trend are largely due to their differences in approach. Whereas he and Socrates believed in an absolute truth and taught their followers how to pursue such a truth to maximize fulfillment in their lives, sophists were content with moral stagnancy and encouraged their followers to resort to rhetorical gimmicks to manipulate life in their favor. Socrates’ expresses his doubt that such a way of teaching is productive in Protagoras. Protagoras replies, stating he is ‘uniquely qualified to assist others in becoming fine and good’ (Plato 24). He explains that he uses rhetorical persuasion to manipulate others’ sense of right and wrong. Sophists utilized the power of persuasion to redirect resources, expending them in ways that satisfy their own desires. To Socrates, the rhetorical persuasion these sophists taught was devoid of philosophical value as they neglected to recognize the complexities of desire. Socrates believed it necessary, and crucial to achieving one’s fulfillment, to know precisely what is desirable. However, sophists are represented in Platonic dialogues as being unconcerned with contemplating the nature of desire, and, instead, circumvent around its complexities. For this reason, Socrates, considers the sophists as dangerous. In Socrates’ opinion, sophistic education encouraged students to live recklessly, without any direction from knowledge of what is good and bad. This sentiment is echoed as well in the beginning of Protagoras, after Hippocrates’ begs Socrates to convince Protagoras to teach him. Socrates does not share Hippocrates’ enthusiasm for sophistic education, stating, ‘the sophist happens to be a sort of merchant or pedlar of goods for the nourishment of the soul.’ (Plato 8) He cautions Hippocrates that the Sophists are primarily concerned with what’s profitable, that they sell ‘doctrines’ for the soul without any comprehension of whether these doctrines are good or bad for the individual. Socrates analogizes sophists to merchants to discredit sophistic philosophy as just another cheap money scheme.
This disparity in methodology between Socrates and the sophists is further demonstrated when Protagoras, in reference to Socrates’ request for him to shorten his responses, states he has had several “verbal contests” during his career as a sophist and would not have become successful had he let his opponents dictate the rules of the contest (Plato 34). This quote epitomizes the main distinction between Socrates and the sophists. While Plato and his teacher Socrates recognize the infinite value in philosophy as a means to achieve ultimate fulfillment, sophists reduce philosophy to a mere battle of wits. Sophists are too preoccupied with arguing for argument’s sake to comprehend the implications of their teachings.
Sophists pose a threat to society because they distort the knowledge accessible to its citizenry, and by doing so, harm the integrity of the institutions crucial to the functionality of a city. An accurate representation of this distortion is Socrates’ sea captain analogy in the Republic (Plato 208). Following Adeimantus’ claim that all philosophers are either vicious or useless, Socrates responds with a hypothetical scenario of a ship led by a crew of men ignorant to the art of navigation. Socrates explains that whoever is successful at persuading the ship owner to choose him is called a captain, and anyone else is called useless. These sailors are unaware that there is a craft to navigation, and that knowledge must be mastered to steer ships. In the analogy, Socrates claims the true captain, or the man who has mastered the craft of navigation, would be perceived as a useless stargazer by the rest of his crew. This analogy is intended to demonstrate that within a society where ignorance is normalized, one who finds knowledge and enlightenment will be condemned by the rest of society for not adhering to that norm. Socrates claims such is the case in modern Athens. Because sophists have popularized willful ignorance and masqueraded it as philosophy for so long, Athenians are no longer capable of distinguishing real philosophy from the fake. Thus, true knowledge has lost its value, and those who commit their lives to the pursuit of it are considered fools. Adeimantus is unconvinced, and expresses to Socrates that he has never known such a virtuous philosopher as the one he describes in the analogy. Socrates agrees with Adeimantus, but he argues that that is because the current generation of philosophers have not been trained the right way. The current situation in Athens, as told by Socrates, is evidence of the consequences that sophistic education have on a society and its members. Because of the growing popularity of sophists, Athenians have lost comprehension of what real knowledge is. Because they are ignorant, they resort to clever tricks to find fulfillment, but lack the knowledge to achieve true fulfillment.
Plato believed that the sophists’ devaluation of philosophy was to blame for the moral stagnancy of Athenians during his lifetime. This is shown in the allegory of the cave that Socrates shares in The Republic (Plato 233). In this allegory, Socrates depicts a row of people chained in a cave facing a wall. These prisoners have no conception of anything but the shadows that appear on the walls of the cave. However, one man escapes to the outside world and discovers that the shadows aren’t real like the chained men naturally assumed, but simply projections of living things that exist outside of the cave. The philosopher, who returns to the cave, speaks to them about the world of the sun and tries to lead them outside. However, the remaining prisoners have no desire to leave the cave. To the prisoners, the philosopher appears to have gone insane. The man who escapes in pursuit of the light is equivalent to the philosopher in pursuit of knowledge, and the cave is symbolic of the world of sophistry. The cave people are imprisoned by chains, suggesting that Plato believed the Athenians had been indoctrinated and controlled by the sophists against their will. Instead of fulfilling their intrinsic cravings for wisdom, they accept the sophists’ opinions as truth and never escape the confines of their prison to freedom. The allegory of the cave emphasizes how the sophists neglect so much of reality by refusing to look beyond themselves and their own interests. Sophists hindered their followers from achieving their full potential as individuals, and resulted in complacency and moral stagnancy.
Through his retelling of the events depicted in The Republic and Protagoras, Plato suggests that sophists’ sensationalism and commercialization of philosophy corrupted the integrity of its practice. Plato, through the perspective of Socrates, accuses sophists of being self-serving, manipulative scammers who masqueraded their pseudo-intellectualism as philosophy to the vulnerable for profit. The popularization of this counterfeit philosophy was ultimately detrimental to Athenian society because it distorted people’s understanding of what knowledge is and how best to utilize it to maximize one’s pleasures.