The Art of Persuasion: Understanding the Sophists

Imagine living in a world where myths and legends were the only explanation for everything around you. The sun, the stars, the seasons, and even human behaviour were all attributed to the will of the gods.

But then, a group of thinkers emerge. They dare to challenge this way of thinking and seek to understand the world through reason and logic. They’re not happy accepting the myths handed down by the ancient poets and priests, but instead wanted to make sense of the world in their own way.

These early thinkers were the first ones to take a step back and think critically about the world around them. They studied the stars, the earth, and the sea. They contemplated the nature of the universe, and they pondered the meaning of life. They were the first ones to try and answer big questions this way, and in doing so, they laid the foundation for philosophy as we know it today.

Some of the first philosophers were Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes from ancient Greece, but also Confucius and Laozi from ancient China. They were all different, but they all had one thing in common: a burning curiosity about the world and a desire to understand it. They were the trailblazers of philosophy, the first ones to take the road less travelled, and we are still learning from their ideas.

In this journey through the ages, we will explore some of the great Western minds that have shaped the way we think today. We will begin our journey with the Sophists, a group of ancient Greek philosophers who were known for the ability to argue both sides of any issue. They continued the tradition of philosophical inquiry, but also challenged the traditional notions of truth and knowledge. As we delve deeper into their teachings, you will see how their ideas laid the foundation for future philosophers like Socrates, who would challenge the Sophists and refine the concept of truth and knowledge. Then, we’ll move on to Aristotle, who would be heavily influenced by the Sophists’ approach and further develop the concept of logic and reasoning.

We will explore the teachings of Epicurus, who would introduce the idea of pleasure as the ultimate goal in life, and Immanuel Kant, who would argue in favour of moral duty and universal morality. We will delve into the principles of Utilitarianism, which propose that the moral value of an action is determined by its usefulness in promoting the overall happiness of society. We will also explore the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who would question traditional morality and introduce the concept of the “Superman”, and finally Jean-Paul Sartre, who would propose that individuals are responsible for creating their own meaning and purpose in life.

Join as we embark on this voyage through the vast history of philosophy, and discover how some of the greatest minds have shaped the way we think and reason.

i. Enter the Sophists

The first Western philosophers were a group of ancient Greek thinkers who lived around the 6th century BCE. These philosophers, usually identified as the “Presocratics,” were interested in understanding the nature of the universe, the principles of reality and the origin of the cosmos. Starting with Thales, they believed that everything in the world could be explained by natural causes. They contributed to the development of various fields such as cosmology, metaphysics, and ethics, and their ideas would later be developed by later philosophers.

The Sophists were different from these first philosophers in that they were more interested in understanding the human experience. They were teachers and educators, who travelled from city to city, teaching young and wealthy people how to argue persuasively in the law courts and the assembly. They were known for their ability to argue both sides of any issue, and they believed that truth was relative and could change depending on the context. Some of the important Sophist philosophers were Protagoras, who’s considered the first human philosopher, and Gorgias, who is considered the father of rhetoric.

ii. Protagoras

Our first character is Protagoras. Born in Abdera, Thrace, a city on the coast of northeastern Greece in the 5th century BCE, he was active as a teacher and intellectual in Athens, which was a major center of intellectual and cultural activity in ancient Greece. Known for his public speeches and debates, he was said to have charged high fees for his teachings which led to him being criticised by some for being more interested in money than in the pursuit of knowledge.

Protagoras is understood to have been a friend and associate of other important figures of his time, such as Pericles, the powerful statesman and general who led Athens during its golden age. He was also well-travelled and had visited many cities in Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean.

Moral Relativism

Protagoras is  known for saying “I can make the weaker case the stronger.” This quote reflects his belief in the power of rhetoric, and his ability to argue both sides of a case with equal skill and persuasiveness. Protagoras believed that through the use of persuasive language and logical argumentation, he could make any case appear stronger, regardless of its underlying truth.

This is a testimony to his belief that the power of language was not just to communicate information, but also to shape reality. He was also a proponent of the idea that there is no objective truth and that all our knowledge is based on perception. He believed that truth was not something fixed and unchanging, but rather something that shifted and flowed, like the ocean with which the Greek islands are surrounded.

His philosophy of moral relativism, which holds that morality is relative to the individual or society, can be compared to a kaleidoscope. Just as a kaleidoscope is a constantly changing pattern of colours and shapes, so too is morality. Each person sees the world through their own unique lens and what is right or wrong for one person may not be for another.

Protagoras’ moral relativism is not only a creative way of understanding morality, but also a challenge to the traditional idea that there is a universal and objective morality. He opened the door for philosophers to question the nature of morality and explore the nuances of ethical decision-making.

Man is the Measure of All Things

Protagoras’ famous saying “Man is the measure of all things” is like a key that unlocks the door to a whole new world of thought. It is a reminder that our understanding of the world is not just shaped by what is out there, but also by the way we look at it.

The expression encapsulated his belief that human perception was the ultimate standard of truth. He believed that knowledge and understanding were subjective, and that the truth differed for each individual.

This idea is a direct challenge to the belief of previous philosophers that there was a single, objective reality that could be discovered through reason and observation. Protagoras believed that the truth was not something that could be found in the world, but rather something that was created by the human mind.

The notion of “Man is the measure of all things” has several implications in different domains. In epistemology, the study of knowledge, it implies that knowledge is subjective and that there is no single, objective truth that can be known.

In ethics, which is the study of morality, it implies that morality is relative to the individual or society, and that what is considered good or bad, right or wrong, changes depending on the culture, time, and place. This is known as moral relativism.

In politics, it implies that laws and customs are not based on universal morality, but rather on the beliefs and values of a specific society. This can lead to a lack of common ground for moral and ethical reasoning, and can make it difficult for individuals to agree on what is right or wrong.

More poetically, one could say that the idea that “Man is the measure of all things” is like a ship without a compass, adrift in a sea of subjective truths, with no direction, no destination, and no hope of reaching a common understanding.

White this idea has its critics, it also highlights the importance of individual perspectives and experiences in shaping our understanding of the world.

iii. Gorgias

Moving on, we come across another notable figure in the history of philosophy, Gorgias. Born in Leontini, Sicily, Gorgias was a contemporary of Protagoras and was considered one of the most important Sophists of his time. He was known for his skills in rhetoric, and his ability to persuade others through his speeches. 

Moral Nihilism

Gorgias introduced the idea of moral nihilism, a philosophy that suggests that morality and ethical standards do not exist in this world. He believed that there is no such thing as right and wrong, good and bad, and that these concepts are mere constructs of the human mind.

To Gorgias, the idea of morality was nothing more than a mirage, a trick of the light that deceives us into believing in something that doesn’t exist.

Gorgias’ nihilistic philosophy can be compared to a dark void, empty and void of any moral compass, where the only thing that exists is the individual’s subjective experience. No divine or natural law governs actions; we are free to act as we please, without moral constraints.

This is a significant departure from the traditional Greek belief in objective morality.

Moral Truth is Fiction

In his work “On Non-Existence”, Gorgias introduced the notion that moral truth is fiction. He argues that nothing truly exists, and that all claims to knowledge and understanding are ultimately false. He also argues that morality and ethics are merely human constructs, and therefore, cannot be considered true or false.

Since all ideas of good and bad are based on human perception, they are all relative and subjective. Therefore, there is no objective truth in morality. Moral claims are not based on any objective facts or reality, but rather on human conventions and subjective opinions. This means that morality is not a feature of the world that exists independently of human beings, but rather is a product of human invention.

This idea has significant implications for how we understand ethics and morality.

iv. Reaction

Other philosophers had mixed reactions to the sophists.

Some, like Plato, were highly critical and saw them as a negative influence on Greek society. Plato believed that the sophists’ emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion over truth and knowledge was detrimental to the moral and intellectual development of the youth. He also saw them as opportunistic and cynical, using their skill to gain power and wealth, rather than seek truth and wisdom.

In contrast, Aristotle held them in a more positive light. He acknowledged their contributions to the development of rhetoric and logic, and saw them as important figures in the history of philosophy. Aristotle also recognised that the sophists, unlike the traditional pre-socratic philosophers, were more engaged with the practical concerns of politics, law, and education.

v. Legacy

In general, however, in the subsequent centuries, most philosophers would not consider the Sophists as one of them, often viewing them more as teachers of rhetoric and persuasion.

However, their ideas and methods of thinking would continue to influence later philosophers like Nietzsche and Sartre, who would also question traditional morality and advocate for the subjectivity of truth.

In the 19th century, while criticising them for being too focused on the surface-level aspects of language and rhetoric, and not delving deep enough into the underlying truth and values that shape human existence, Nietzsche admired their emphasis on the individual.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the 20th-century French philosopher, had a similar view of the sophists. He saw them as important figures in the history of Western thought, drawing inspiration from them in his own philosophy, which rejected objective morality and emphasised the freedom and subjectivity of the individual. They would be important precursors to the existentialist ideas that he would develop.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Sophists, here are a few texts that are considered essential reading. These will give you a deeper understanding of the Sophists and their ideas, as well as their influence on subsequent philosophy:

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