Socrates vs Sophists

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Socrates and the Sophists (Plato's Dialogues)

In chapter 4, The Sophist: Protagoras, Soccio does an excellent job discussing a group of teachers and thinkers known collectively as sophists, and the social environment in which they flourished for a time. These professional educators were known for being widely travelled and thus having much experience with other cultures. This experience convinced many of them that there is no such thing as 'objective standards;' we merely have a set of culturally determined beliefs and behaviors. Thus, there is no reason to suppose that one set of cultural values is superior to another's, i.e., we have cultural relativism. Most sophists then went on to extend this kind of relativism to morality as well (see the lecture on Moral Relativism!). The sophists are most notable for being opposed by Socrates and Plato. That is, both Socrates and Plato disagreed with the sophists' relativist views and perceived them as a danger to any community of rational people. Thus, many of Plato's early and middle dialogues are specific arguments against the views of the sophists. (Although, it seems clear that some of his contemporaries considered Socrates, himself, a sophist--a view that I would strongly disagree with!) Before going on to Socrates' arguments and claims against the sophists, it would be well to discuss some of the more notable characteristics of the sophists.

I. The Sophists--Teachers of the art of persuasion by rhetoric in courts of law and politics:

A. Secularists--skeptical or cynical of religion. Although none of these men grew up in an 'atheistic' culture, their experience with the variety different cultures and religions in the Mediterranean and Aegean communities and their keen use of reason to examine these various cultures, convinced them that there is no compelling reason to favor one religion over another. This lead to a skepticism toward any supposed 'truth' to be found in religion. Many older sophists, such as Protagoras, respected religion as a kind of social control, necessary for any large aggregate of people to co-exist. Thus, while skeptical of the religious claims, themselves, these sophists still supported and encouraged organized religion as promoting social cohesion. However, younger sophists were cynical of religion's having any value beyond serving the interests of the elite, and thus rejected all religion out of hand. They viewed religion as a tool used by the aristocracy to impede the upward mobility of others and attempted to argue thus.

B. Argument to persuade for personal gain rather than for the search for truth. What most distinguishes Philosophy from Sophistry are their goals. Both develop and use their critical thinking skills to the highest degree possible. But where Philosophy is first, and foremost, concerned with the search for Truth, the sophists used to their keen reason strictly for personal gain. Indeed, this is what they taught their students as the only appropriate use for reason. This should not be surprising since, as already noted, the sophists rejected any kind of objective standard, and thus Truth. Reason is viewed as merely one more tool to apply to furthering one's own ambitions and they would argue for any view that was advantageous at the moment. Indeed, the question of what views should be argued for is superfluous since it implies an objective standard of right and wrong.

C. "Fee for services" education. Soccio seems to make much of this characteristic since the sophists are often considered the first to earn a living teaching. However, we should be careful about any praise we extend to them for being the first 'professional teachers.' It is well-worth noting that although they did concern themselves with teaching their students what they know, we must keep in mind the nature of this particular mercantile education. Since there were no standards (nor could there be, given their relativist views) much of the...
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