Sophism: Plato and Pericles

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In this essay I would like to talk about the nature of sophism and how it changes religion, politics and education. In the first part of my essay I am going to define the meaning of sophism, in the second part I am going to talk about the connection of sophism and aristocrats, in the third part of my essay I am going to talk about the changes in religion with the help of sophism; in the fourth part I will examine the changes in decision-making and in last part I will talk about Socrates use of cross-examination to find out the meaning of the oracle’s message. As a source of information I am going to use Plutarch’s essays Pericles and Alcibiades, Plato’s Apology and Crito, and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. I

The meaning of sophism. In Athens all young aristocrats were getting traditional education in gymnasium. They studied music, poetry, mathematics, athletics, etc. But for some wealthy aristocrats it was not the only education they were getting, they had private tutors that taught them sophism. A number of sources proves the fact that many successful and famous leaders in Athens had sophist teachers. Pericles was one of the most popular leaders in ancient Greece. He had three teachers named Damon, Zeno, and Anaxagoras. Damon was a sophist who taught music. He was teaching Pericles how to speak with confidence, how to use words to affect human psychology. He was using music to show him the art of giving a good speech: “This Damon appears to have been a sophist of the highest order, who used his musical teaching as a screen to conceal his real talents from the world in general; in fact it was he who trained Pericles for his political contests, much as a masseur or trainer prepares an athlete.” (Pericles, p.168, par. 4).

Pericles was also taught by Zeno. Zeno was lecturing him on natural science (biology and astronomy) and the technique of cross-examination. And, the third teacher that Pericles had was Anaxagoras to whom he was very close. Anaxagoras taught Pericles how to deal with Gods, omens and oracles. The teacher also taught Pericles how to properly dress, behave, and act before the audience. Anaxagoras was playing a role of all educators combined in one: “But here was one man more closely associated with Pericles than any other, who did most to clothe him with a majestic bearing that was more potent than any demagogue’s appeal, and who helped to develop the natural dignity of his character to the highest degree.” (Pericles, p. 168-169, par. 4)

All three teachers were teaching Pericles different subjects but if summoned together it would be easy to understand what sophism is. It is the knowledge of science, rhetoric and cross-examination. The meaning of sophism can also be found in Plato’s Apology where he describes the charges against Socrates. Socrates is charged on account of being a sophist because he uses cross-examination to make weaker argument defeat stronger, because he teaches science and supposedly is getting paid for it, and because he knows science he can easily give a scientific explanation to any omen which means that he does not believe in Gods: “Socrates is committing an injustice, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example.” (Apology, p. 41, par. 19b)


Sophism and Aristocrats. Sophism is the only way aristocrats can get power over peasants. The most powerful leaders in Athens had sophist teachers who would teach them how to use words to manipulate people’s minds. One of the brightest examples is Pericles. He proved that rhetoric “in Plato’s phrase, is the art of working upon the souls of men by means of words” (Pericles, p. 182, par. 15). The ability to play with peoples’ emotions and speak in persuasive way helped Pericles to manage a chaos among the population of Athens: “There were as might be excepted, all kinds of disorders to be found among a mass of...
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