The Fundamental Characteristics of the Sophists


Although sophists can (and often have been) regarded as the same as philosophers, in this paper, I will contend that they have the qualities that typically distinguish them.

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Although sophists can (and often have been) regarded as the same as philosophers, in this paper, I will contend that they have the qualities that typically distinguish them. The sophists focused on the use of persuasive speaking in achieving practical goals. Moreover, the sophists considered the truth as that which depends on the specific circumstances and objectives. Consequently, based on the idea that the truth as an absolute and independent phenomenon does not exist, they rejected the existence of the universal laws (as it was argued by Socrates, Plato and other classic philosophers). Such ideas influenced their positions concerning religion and morality, which were seen as a result of individual cultural features and hence were not related to the absolute truth.

The term sophist (from the Greek “sophist?s”- a “sage”) was initially used to define the man who devoted him/herself to mental activity (Taylor and Lee n.p.). Solon and Pythagoras, as well as the famous “seven wise men" were referred to as the “sophists.” Subsequently, the concept had become narrowed by receiving certain features. The most famous sophists were Protagoras, Gorgias, and Prodikos, "teachers of wisdom" who taught not only the art of political and legal work, but also the art of philosophical reflections. It is important to emphasize that the sophists focused their attention on social issues, on human beings and on the problems of communication, teaching oratory and political activities, as well as concrete scientific and philosophical knowledge. Sophists subscribed to the idea that it is possible, and often necessary to prove anything, as well as to refute anything, depending on the interest and the circumstances. That idea resulted in indifference to the truth in the proofs and refutations. Sophists believed that people could be persuaded of the truth of any statement if the speaker was persuasive enough and used the correct speaking techniques.

Protagoras most fully expressed the views of the sophists. According to his famous statement, "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." (Plato n.p.). In other words, all knowledge was relative. proving that every statement might be rejected and its contrary accepted. Similarly, Gorgias, another famous sophist, argued that being does not exist. If it existed, it would be impossible to know it, since there is an unbridgeable incompatibility between being and thinking. The incompatibility is conditioned by the inability of the mind to create non-existent images. The conceivable being is fundamentally different from the means of its expression - words. Again, according to Plato, Prodikos showed an exceptional interest to the language, the nominative functions of the words, and the problem of semantics and synonymy, i.e. identification the words having a similar meaning and the correct use of words (n.p.). He constructed the etymological clusters of related words and analyzed the issue of homonyms, i.e. discriminating the sense of verbal constructions having graphical similarities by using appropriate contexts. Prodikos paid great attention to the rules of a dispute, approaching the analysis of the techniques of a rebuttal, which was of great value to the discussions. (Plato n.p.)

The relativism and skepticism of the Sophists towards the truth characterized their interpretation of morality, religion, and other spheres of human life. In particular, if they did not deny religion at all, they had some doubts concerning it. For example, Protagoras argued that "concerning the gods I am not able to know either that they exist or that they do not exist or what their nature is; for there are many things which prevent one from knowing, both the unclarity (sc. of the subject) and the short span of human life "(Taylor and Lee n.p). The sophists’ idea of relativity also manifested itself in the ethical views since the sophists believed that the ethical standards are defined by features of the living conditions of individual nations. For this reason, it is possible to observe differences in ethical views among representatives of different cultures and cultural traditions.

To sum up, sophists were the first teachers and researchers of rhetoric, and philosophical linguistics appeared as a result of their theory. They argued the idea that since there is no objective truth, and a man is the measure of all things, then there is a semblance of the truth, which may be born by a human word. The human word can change its meaning, making the strong weak and vice versa, the black white and the white black. In this regard, the sophists considered language as an extremely important object of reflection. As a result, words became the subject of a separate study. Although some sophists were rather influential thinkers, their relativism often led to subjectivism and skepticism, including the spheres of religion and morality. In general, Sophists should be considered primarily as a practicing philosophers, because they considered philosophy as a tool for practical purposes. As is known, rhetoric is a graphic and a practical example of the use of linguistic features, logical analysis, and philosophical reflection. Sophists were the ones who did an excellent job of using philosophical and rhetorical features, in which the role of linguistics occupied a special importance. That is why, one cannot deny their evident role in the development of dialectics. Sophists contributed to the development of skills of practical application of knowledge about disputes and debates.

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