Athenian Anthropocentrism and the Sophists

20 May

The struggle with the Persians caused the Greek city states years of difficulty. The single city states fought hard to defend their territory and ended up having to work with other city states just to pull through and defeat the Persians to keep them out of their city states forever. When the idea of more naval forces was brought up, it was used and ended up defeating the Persians. Greece being out of war stimulated artistic and philosophical ideas. The philosophical group known as the Sophists became popular and higher education was desired. The higher education was taught by Sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias leading to a better generation of politicians in Greece. Protagoras and the Sophist’s idea of rhetoric laid the foundation for a whole new conflicting philosophical idea.

The United States was largely influenced by other governments and ideas when it was first formed. Our government was derived from Greek democracy and one could argue that Themistocles naval idea to defeat the Persians could have been an idea the U.S. took to thought when building the military. Greece defeated Persia because they somewhat united their city states and they built up the navy. After having been defeated before, Greece came up with new strategies to defend their city states. Once the Persians were defeated, the city state Athens became larger and more powerful than Sparta, Thebes or any of the other city states in Greece. They became large enough that a stage of prosperity settled in. Athens was able to make advances in military and government. The prosperity made Athens very wealthy. As exhibited in many other societies, extreme wealth and prosperity causes that society to not have to strive to survive but the society experiences an increase in creativity, thought, reason and indulgence. The exact same thing happened in Athens after the Persian wars creating the term Athenian Anthropocentrism. Art, philosophy and other creativity increased. With this increase a group called the Sophists was created. With the advances in government it was decided that politicians of the council would need more than a basic education. The Sophists were some of the first professors in Greece. They were given money to educate someone. The Sophists not only were educators but their methods of education contained groundbreaking ideas that created questions of some previous philosophies.

The two main Sophists were Protagoras and Gorgias. Protagoras taught his pupils with the attempt to make them better men. “Young man,… if you associate with me, this is the benefit you will gain: the very day you become my pupil you will go home a better man…” (Melchert, p. 41, Protagoras) is his quote to Hippocrates. He says this to people considering him as a teacher. Protagoras would not teach only things pertaining to government but ideas and principles of how to better run one’s life. Melchert specifically explains it has Protagoras teaching virtue and values. Protagoras’s idea of virtue is basically changing things to do service not only to yourself but to the city. One cannot lead in any governmental setting until one can deal with things smoothly in one’s own life first. Melchert states that virtue can also mean excellence. To Protagoras, one must have the correct values to practice virtue. The idea of the ‘better man’ that Protagoras will make out of each pupil must come from having the correct values and being taught virtue (excellence). Most today would argue that Protagoras’s definition of virtue is helpful in being successful. One can succeed in anything he or she wants as long as the person’s reasonable goals are decided and they have the right values. Virtue is only one of the teachings of the Sophists.

The real groundbreaking conflicting idea that the Sophists present is what Gorgias specialized in.  Rhetoric is the ideas that one uses for persuasive speech. “The central idea is that by using the principles of persuasive speaking, one can make a case for any position at all”, (Melchert, p. 42) states the large importance of rhetoric.  It is even stated that if ones case was very weak and not favored, one could win with the strategies that rhetoric presents. Protagoras would teach his students rhetoric by preparing them for both sides of a case and told them to be able to win for both sides using rhetoric. One would be very skilled if he could win for either side of any argument. These two sides are explained using the term Heraclitus used for the world order. “What the Sophists were training their students to do was to present opposite logoi. There was logos (what could be said) on one side and there was logos on the other”, is how Melchert explains the logoi. As one understands Heraclitus’s logos is fire and opposition. It could be understood that the logos that the Sophists present is similar to Heraclitus’s logos due to the opposition. The two sides that the Sophists present is opposition which could be why Protagoras and the Sophists used the term logos for this situation. The Sophists students were taught to be able to use rhetoric to influence anyone to see any side to any issue. This possibility is what breaks ground in philosophy.

Melchert specifically refers to Parmenides statement that thought and being are the same. The Sophists use the ideas of rhetoric to tear down this idea. Rhetoric teaches people to be able to persuade anyone on any issue. For example the Sophists taught people well enough to be able to influence a conservative today to see the liberal side to everything with their persuasive power. If that is true then thought and being cannot be the same because two opposites cannot both be true and yet a person can believe both of those opposites. Protagoras goes as far as to say that it is possible that what people perceive through senses could possibly not be true. It is only true to them. It could possibly be something different to someone else. Protagoras states that what one perceives is real to that person and what is really real is most likely beyond our perceptions. The term relativism is used to explain that each person has his or her own ideas of what reality is relative to what their senses perceive. Melchert says that what Protagoras said about the presence of a God reveals his agnosticism. What he states about God clearly defines what agnosticism is. He does not say that one does not exist just that we cannot decide that by our senses or reason. Melchert defines this lack of idea of whether God exists or not as skepticism. Most people would use the term agnosticism and skepticism for religion interchangeably. Protagoras sums relativism and skepticism by saying that “Man is the measure of all things”. Today everyone can easily see how rhetoric affects the world. Today’s attorneys are skilled in rhetoric as the Sophists students were. These attorneys defend people who are guilty of crimes and the really skilled attorneys win allowing their guilty clients to go free. Too many times today the skilled rhetorician frees the guilty criminal. The judge only has secondary sources when reviewing a criminal case and either side can persuade him or her. This serves as a disadvantage to society because the rhetorician is on the criminal’s side.

The Sophists forced importance of virtue and values is further explained and further debated with the idea of physis and nomos.  Physis is the word explaining nature. The Sophists explain physis as all of the natural processes and phenomena of the world and all things in it. Physis involves no processes and phenomena executed by humans. Melchert states that the Sophists think of physis as processes that no human force can go against. Nomos is the exact opposite of physis. Nomos is defined by Melchert as custom or convention of human affairs.

Nomos is all of the processes and existences that exist because humans place them there. Laws are one example stated by Melchert in that laws are a custom that humans put in place. Physis and nomos are two extremes that Sophists lay out to explain life and how to live by virtue. Humans cannot change physis and nature cannot change nomos. Laws are the best example for explaining nomos and physis. Melchert states that if one breaks the law set by nomos then one would receive some form of punishment also set by nomos. If the law violates physis, Sophists say that one can possibly not abide by that law. Melchert states that virtue and justice are good ways of showing ways to abide by physis and nomos. Natural justice and conventional justice were debated as to which is more important by the Sophists. Natural justice being physis generally seemed more important to abide by than the conventional justice or nomos. Physis and nomos also have a stance on whether a God exists. Melchert states that if God existed by physis then God would be beyond our comprehension and therefore meaning basically nothing to humans. If God existed by nomos, God would only exist by personal perception. One would state today that the middle path between these stances on God is what really exists. No one would agree with either the extreme stance of physis or nomos about religion. Most people today would say that God is not just in our own perception as nomos states but people have evidence that God exists to large numbers of people due to frequent religious fellowship. Most would also argue that God strongly exists by physis but not to the extent that people cannot perceive God. One would also argue that physis and nomos are just two conflicting ideas to allow Sophists and other philosophers to debate amongst themselves because everything that comes with each idea cannot coexist.

The Presocratic Sophists began a new school of thought that laid the foundation of more philosophies and ideas that later developed. Along with the Sophists came the idea for higher education for a better society. Their teachings inspired a new sense of self appreciation in the introduction of values and virtue. Men became better men from Protagoras’s ideas. Heraclitus’s logos was developed into rhetoric and physis and nomos created more debate and extensive thought. How other philosophers addressed the conflict between physis and nomos is something people probably did not achieve easily.


One Response to “Athenian Anthropocentrism and the Sophists”

  1. Success June 9, 2010 at 1:07 am #

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