Sophists were professional teachers in fifth century Athens, Greece. They offered practical guidance to anyone who was trying to be successful. This guidance was particularly important given the political and cultural climate of Athens at the time: the older aristocracy was declining, the old religious beliefs were no longer as binding, and increased contact with other cultures was opening people’s eyes to new ways of acting and thinking. Change was at hand, and this change provided an opportunity for many people to rise up and gain status. The sophists, for the right price, could help one gain status that in earlier times would have been out of reach.
The sophists were skeptics and moral relativists:
- Skepticism: the view that knowledge is impossible to obtain
- Moral Relativism: the view that there are no objective standards for morality: morals are simply a matter of personal or cultural opinion, that is, they are completely subjective.
Given skepticism and moral relativism, the sophists obviously weren’t teaching truth. Rather, they were teaching how to appear to be whatever one wanted to appear as: to appear smart, courageous, good, etc. Sophistry is about cultivating the right IMAGE of something so one can be successful. Along with this cultivation of images, sophistry is about developing the rhetorical skills, that is, skills by which one can persuade others of one’s position for personal gain. This gain was measured primarily in terms of wealth, power, fame, etc.
But during this time in Athens there were also philosophers. Philosophers at this time were not relativists or skeptics. They believed in truth and objective values and claimed that by using logic we could obtain some degree of knowledge about a wide variety of topics. Moreover, it seemed to many of them that by seeking the truth with logic one was bound to become a better person. Not seeking truth and living in images would be a recipe for an unjust and immoral life—a life not worth living. Thus we have Socrates’ famous statement from Plato’s Apology: “The unexamined life is not worth living for man.” The philosophers believed that a philosophical life would lead to a different type of personal success: a just soul, a purified soul free of inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehoods. Such a soul would be a master of itself rather than being a slave to its desires for the fleeting things of the world. Indeed, such a soul might have a chance to become akin to the divine and possibly immortal.
Socrates was the most famous philosopher at the time and he often argued with sophists. In Plato’s Meno, we have a description of a dialogue between Socrates and the sophist Meno. Meno shows he is a relativist and a skeptic. He also shows his emphasis on images and his desire to use clever tactics—fallacies—to manipulate Socrates for his own ego. Socrates, however, doesn’t fall for these tactics and, by the end of the dialogue, is able to inspire Meno to take truth seriously and change some of his longstanding habits.
Meno wants to be told, wants to argue for personal gain, and wants to maintain an image of being wise rather than being wise. Socrates, on the other hand, wants to inquire together with Meno—he says he knows only one thing, namely, that he knows nothing—and he wants to argue for the truth not an image of having the truth. He wants to purify his soul not his external image.
This contrast between Meno and Socrates connects to many current day issues and conflicts we all have and therefore it is worth pondering. Some questions come to mind: how many people pursue an image, rather than the reality, of being educated? Of being in love? Of being rich? In what ways does the media manufacture images that capativate people and change them into mindless consummers who end up dumber, poorer, and unhappier? How can we expect to work through distorted images and get to the facts if most of our information is coming to us in sound bites through social networks? How can we get to the original story and verify what actually happened? Some post-modernists claim there are no originals…only images. But if we use the word image, don’t we assume an original that makes the notion of an imgage sensible? If not, why? And if not, what will happen to the truth? To justice? To goodness? To you?