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 knowledge and beliefs the sophists were paid to teach was political in nature and taylored to the desires of the student. That is, students were taught what they were willing to pay for, not what they ought to know.
D. Concerns were pragmatic, rather than speculative. The sophists saw little or no value in knowledge for its own sake. If it could not be put to practical use there was no sense in teaching it or pursuing it. (Many of today's educrats seem to share this view!)
E. Egoism (look out for oneself at the expense of others) is taught as the proper ethics. Laws based on equality only benefit the weak. As the Gyges Ring Story suggests, most sophists reduce the issues of right and wrong to 'what can I get away with in a given situation.' Thus there was a strong commitment to advancing one's social and political prominence in order to promote one's personal beliefs and desires.
F. Relativists--"Man is the measure of all things." This could lead to either culturalism or subjectivism.
In chapter 5, The Wise Man: Socrates, Soccio presents a description of the person often credited with having 'pulled Philosophy down from the clouds;' that is, Socrates applied his reason and judgment, not to questions about the nature of reality (although it seems clear that he held such opinions and derived his major social and moral views from them), but primarily to the question of what is the right way for human beings to live. Many of Socrates' activities were directed toward exposing flaws in the beliefs and methods of many of the sophists who taught and practiced in Athens.The early dialogues of Plato such as The Apology, The Crito, The Phaedo, and The Euthyphro are usually considered fairly accurate accounts of Socrates' activities and views, while the middle, e.g., The Republic, and later, e.g., The Laws, dialogues represent more and more of Plato's own Philosophy.
Although we only know Socrates through the dialogues of Plato and others, it seems clear that he disagreed with the sophists on most counts, and this eventually cost him his life. Plato's accounts of Socrates' life and activities are still enjoyable reading, both for Plato's prose and Socrates' method of question and answer to attempt clarification of complex concepts and beliefs (the Socratic method). Indeed, I have provided a link to a complete text of Plato's Republic with a summary of much of the argument. The Apology is one of the best accounts of Socrates' fundamental character and beliefs, as well as a great description of the business of Philosophy.
Before going on to The Apology, please note some of Socrates fundamental beliefs and how they respond to those of the sophists.
II. Socrates--Proper conduct based on reason. While the sophists' experience and reason lead them to believe and promote cultural and ethical relativism, Socrates shows that reason actually demands an objective standard of social and personal conduct; the more one develops her reason, the more knowledge of Truth is acquired, and that knowledge inevitably leads to greater virtue. This view of the relation between virtue, knowledge, and Truth can be represented by the following five Socratic beliefs:
A. Care for the soul above all else. The soul is the reasoning part of humans; and since reason is the only path to knowledge and Truth, the ultimate souces of value, development of the soul's potential must be the central focus of our lives. While the variety of beliefs and values among cultures and individuals convinced the sophists that there are no objective values, Socrates argues that our ability to take note of such variation demands appeal to objective, rational standards. That is, as we observe and judge the beliefs and practices of others, that act seems to require a stable, rational soul that decides for itself which beliefs and practices to reject or pursue. On what other basis could we draw a judgment?
B. Before we can care for the soul, we must understand it through careful self-examination of the soul's function, which is virtue. Since reasoning implies judgment and judgment requires acquaintance with Truth to form its standard, analysis of the soul's activity of reason implies the continued pursuit of this standard. Given the role it plays in cognition, according to Socrates, such a standard is what constitutes virtue.
C. Virtue is knowledge. Being good is simply knowing the Good. (No room for weakness of will or character!) That is, since the soul's function is to be virtuous, and the virtue is the pursuit of Truth as our fundamental standard, the acquisition of knowledge just is doing good. Thus, morality is identified with knowing the Truth. One cannot know the Good and not act accordingly. If someone seems to acknowledge moral behavior but not behave morally, Socrates would suggest that that person merely parroted something they heard without truly understanding the nature of those moral statements.
D. Doing evil only harms oneself (one's soul)--see Plato's Republic. Remember, the immaterial soul is the only avenue to Truth and virtue, and Truth and virtue are the fundamental values of human life. Any 'evil' that someone might direct at another would only be manifested as physical behavior and thus not even touch the soul. However, the conscious decision to do evil to another requires one's soul to not pursue truth or virtue, and thus detract from the soul's function. To detract from any function certainly seems to qualify as an evil.
E. The principles of Good and Evil are above everything, even God(s); they are autonomous. Socrates was no atheist, but he does argue in The Euthyphro that the only rational understanding of the God(s) suggests that they appeal to the objective standards of Virtue, and indeed, it is their perfect consistency with those standards that makes them God(s) and so worth worshipping. The moral goodness of God continues to be an interesting Philosophical and Theological issue. Does God set the standard of morality or appeal to some standard? If God appeals to an external standard, might that suggest something above and superior to God?
IV. Discussion Questions--consider these for yourself.
A. Would Socrates agree with the Sophists about religion? in what way? How might they differ?
B. What is the best use of argument, to win personal gain or to find the truth? Why?
C. Would you say the egoist/relativist ethics is more popular today, or Socrates' ethics of absolute, universal principle? Which is better as a guide to conduct? Which is a better description of people's behavior?
D. Is there such a thing as doing good for the sake of doing good? (Would you be willing to sacrifice everything for one person, without anyone else ever knowing of your sacrifice?)
E. Is it enough to simply know the Good (what is the right thing to do), in order to do good?