The Sophists were an ancient group of thinkers who lived and practiced their intellectual and philosophical views in Greece. They mostly travelled around in order to spread their teachings to the people of Athens and other cities in ancient Greece, and usually charged for their services. Although they were hugely popular among Athenian youth and Athenians in general, Sophists were non-Athenians. It is said that the reason so many of them trooped to Athens to teach and practice Sophism was due to the fact that Pericles had always had a positive attitude towards intellectuals, and he supported intellectuals of all kind in spite of their views. There were a lot of Sophists in ancient Greece and Athens in particular, but the most famous was Protagoras.
The Sophists came up with some intellectual views that attracted criticism from some quarters, most notably from other philosophers and intellectuals, the most vocal being Plato. They were popular among the youth and some of their intellectual innovations include the following:
This is the theory that there is no independent absolute existence when it comes to the truth. Sophists believed that during any argument, there should never be the imposition of one’s views or opinions on other people. They advocated for the expression of opinions by all people and the consideration of the views and perspectives presented by everyone. There was not to be a case where views and beliefs of someone or some people are wholly adopted and considered to be true without the consideration of other opionions. In summary, they claimed that the truth varies from person to person therefore it is not absolute.
In modern times this means the use of experiments and tests to develop and arrive at conclusions. In ancient Greece, this was the notion that we can only trust things that are based on our senses, and that true knowledge can only be gained through the use of our senses- eyesight, smell, hearing and touch. Sophists were strongly against “blind belief”; they strongly refuted the beliefs and opinions that were held by many Greeks during that period. They said that it was against philosophical principles and doctrines to accept things as true without ever puttin them to the test, and that is through seeing, hearing smelling or touching.
This is a form of skepticism that was upheld and widely supported by the Sophists. It primarily advocated for the use of the human mind as a tool for thinking and acting and strongly supported the notion that everything we do and say should be based on what we have on our minds. Phenomenalism and therefore Sophism claimed that it was impossible to believe or understand anything that did not have its origin in our minds. The mind was supposed to be the determinant of all our actions, feelings and beliefs; it is what governs our lives in general.
Human Law (Nomos)
Sophists heavily employed the use of arguments in their teachings. They used debates, forums and held discussions in which matters of intellectual importance were deleberated upon. Arguments and debates as we all know are the basis upon which human law is formed. In courts of law cases are won or lost depending not only on how they are presented but how they are argued and debated. Among the most popular arguments used by Sophists in their quest to develop and preserve human law was that of advantage. Apart from this there were also arguments based on the right of advantage and probability.
Why Sophists Were Considered A Threat To Athenian Society.
As discussed above, Sophists held views on empiricism, relativism and phenomenalism. These three were collectively branches of skepticism, and therefore supported and provide the perfect conditions for cultivating skepticism among ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek society was ruled by men, but there were many gods who were believed to be the supreme rulers of the land. They were not to be disobeyed or irked and everybody was subject to them.
Using these three branches of skepticism, Sophists argued that the rulers of Athens and Greece in general invented these gods in order to exercise complete controll over Athenians by using fear and intimidation. Through their teachings, Sophists managed to instill in Athenians the ability to question and doubt some of the things they had been made to believe. They began to question whether the gods really existed and if they did, where were they? Why was there impact or inflence not felt?
This new development did not please the rulers of Athens because they believed that the Sophists were out to destroy the basic fabric of the Greek and Athenian society, something which they had worked for ages to build, protect and preserve. For this reason, Sophists and Sophism were treated with a lot of suspicion and contempt since they were believed to be out to cause only unrest and instability by questioning the gods and therefore authority.