Food for Thought July 2013 - Page 2

School of Thought: Sophistic


When you hear the word Sophist, what thought comes to mind? Someone who believes in the art of being soft? Someone smart? Maybe you've never even heard of the name before. Well, let me enlighten you on influential Sophists of that time and the epistemology of these dear intellectuals.


Protagoras (485-411 BC) is considered one of the earliest, most famous, and influential Sophist in Athens. He was an advisor to Pericles – Athen's ruler at the time – around the year 443 BC. This self-proclaimed Sophist was also a rhetorician, philosopher, teacher, and a very large advocate for establishing and developing democracy in Athens.

When Protagoras wasn't busy advising Pericles, he was out voicing his thoughts on knowledge and absolute truth. He believed that we are incapable of knowing anything absolutely so our knowledge is based on our perception. In one of his works titled "Truth", he opens with the line "Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are and of the things that are not that they are not" (Taylor, C.C.W. and Lee, Mi-Kyoung, "The Sophists"). All this means is that we are the ones who have the ability to measure what is true and from there form our own knowledge.

To create our own knowledge, he believed that our version of reality was constructed through words and that the masterful use of words was crucial for anyone in a subjective world. When he taught his pupils the skills of word use, he concentrated on teaching them arête and turning them into civil leaders or their community "who could convince others of the better probabilities in a world with only limited amounts of objective truth." It is through the use of rhetoric that you could change perceptions "so that humans could embrace the good, the just, and the beautiful"(Smith 42).

Dubbed the father of debate, he was the first to focus on both sides of the argument.The Greek term for this is dissoi logoi. "When a matter is debated, it is more likely to be examined carefully" (Smith 42) and with both sides of an argument being discussed you are left with a stronger argument.

Even though he was loved by other philosophers and his ruler Pericles, he was banished from Athens due to his religious beliefs. Protagoras was agnostic and believed that people were in contol of their own destinies and used rhetoric to do it. He didn't believe in divine beings because he thought that the gods were "too obscure" to know for sure if they truly existed (Smith 42).