Socrates and the Sophists

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In his comedy, Clouds, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as a Sophist: a duplicitous charlatan eager to take peoples' money for teaching them to flout the laws and defy moral norms. The conflation of Socrates with the Sophists is based on a superficial similarity between the interests of Socrates and the sophists concerning education and virtue, but which fails to distinguish between the moral relativism of the Sophists and the belief in absolute moral standards held by Socrates (and his puppet-master Plato).

The term "sophist"" is derived from the Greek words sophos and sophia which are usually translated as "wise" and "wisdom". The Sophists were itinerant teachers who claimed to teach wisdom; more specifically, Protogoras, one of the first to willingly identify himself as a Sophist, stated that he taught one how to take "proper care of his personal affairs, so that he may be manage his own household, and also of the State's affairs, so as to become a real power in the city, both as speaker and man of action." (Protogoras 318e-319a). Socrates reinterprets Protogoras' statement as a claim to make students into good citizens, and Protogoras readily agrees.

Socrates then presents two objections to the claim that one can learn how to be a good citizen by studying with a teacher. First, Socrates notes that, while an expert is consulted in technical matters such as architecture or shipbuilding, no special expertise is demanded in order to participate in government. Second, Socrates observes that "the wisest and best of our countrymen are unable to hand on to others the virtue which they posses." (Protogoras319e).  Even Pericles, great as he was, seemed unable to teach virtue to his own sons. Although Socrates shifts the subject of the debate from citizenship to virtue, Protogoras does not object; for the Greeks, citizenship and virtue were synonymous.

Protogoras then relates a story, the point of which is that virtue is inherent in everyone. Obviously, however, if everyone is virtuous, the education offered by Sophists is useless, so Protogoras makes it clear that only the capacity for virtue is present in everyone. As with any talent or skill, this capacity must be developed. Music masters help students develop skills in playing the lyre, while Sophists help students develop skills of citizenship and virtue.

Protogoras also points to the role of social pressure in the development of virtue. Furthermore, the very existence of laws presupposes that virtue can be taught: laws provide a positive model for appropriate behavior, and laws operate negatively by punishing inappropriate behavior. According to Protogoras, deterrence rather than retribution is the purpose of the laws, and deterrence is an educational function.  Since so much effort, both public and private, isdirected towards the encouragement of virtue, Protogoras declares that "the wonder would be if [virtue] were not teachable." (Protogoras 326e).

Protogoras' arguments evidently did not convince Socrates; virtue and whether or not it could be taught is the central subject of a later dialogue, the Meno. The dialogue opens with Meno's question: "Can you tell me Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?" (Meno70a). Socrates replies that he must first know what virtue is before he can answer Meno's question. Socrates claims complete ignorance of virtue; furthermore, Socrates has never met anyone who could give an adequate definition of virtue.

The discussion of virtue in the Meno illustrates some of Socrates' argumentative methods. First, Socrates emphasizes the necessity of adequate definitions. Socrates says he cannot determine if virtue can be taught since hedoes not know what virtue is, and he asks Meno to give a definition. Meno begins by describing the virtue applicable to a man, a woman, a slave, and so forth. Socrates rejects the particularized definitions and presses Meno for a characteristic common to the particular manifestations. Socrates also exposes Meno's attempts to use the term to be defined with the definition.

The most prominent feature of Socrates' argumentative technique is elenchus. After a provisional definition is formulated, Socrates asks questions which draw out the consequences of the definition. In addition, Socrates persuades his interlocutor to accept other premises, from which another series of consequences is drawn, always with the interlocutor's assent. Then Socrates springs his trap, as it were, and points out that the consequences of the definition contradict the consequences of a secondary premise, and therefore at least one must be abandoned or revised. The technique of elenchus induces a state of perplexity and confusion in Meno: "both my mind and my tongue are numb, and I have no answer for you." (Meno 80b).

This numbness is precisely the result Socrates intends. In order to acquire knowledge, the detritus of false opinions must be discarded, and the very first precept which must go is the belief that one holds accurate knowledge. According to Socrates, the realization that one's beliefs are false is also motivation to seek true knowledge. Therefore elenchus does not merely eradicate false beliefs, it also stimulates a quest for knowledge.

The attempt in the Meno to determine whether virtue is inconclusive. Socrates provisionally adopts the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge; since ,generally, knowledge can be taught, virtue must also be teachable. However, Socrates then questions the validity of his provisional hypothesis by raising the same issue he had during the discussion with Protogoras: the virtuous seem to be unable to foster virtue in their children. The dialogue concludes with the somewhat ironic suggestion that virtue is a gift from the gods.

In the Apology, Socrates emphatically denies being a teacher:

I have never been anyone's teacher. If anyone, young or old, desires to listen to me when I am talking and dealing with my own concerns, I have never begrudged this to anyone, but I do not converse when I receive a fee and not when I do not. I am equally ready to question the rich and poor if anyone is willing to answer my questions and listen to what I say. And I cannot justly be held responsible for the good or bad conduct of these people, as I have never promised to teach them anything and have not done so.
(Apology 33a-b).

However, we know this claim is false: Socrates demonstrated his proficiency as a teacher in showing the boy how to double a square in the Meno (82b-85b). Socrates even contradicts himself later in the Apology when he states "I do not believe it right to supplicate the jury ... but to teach and persuade them." (35b-c). Socrates emphasizes the negative aspect of his encounters with Athenians -- he seeks to make them aware of their lack of knowledge; it then becomes their responsibility to fill the void exposed by Socrates. But Socrates' view of himself as a positive moral example becomes quite clear when he cites his actions in refusing to try the generals after the battle of Arginusae, or assist the Thirty Tyrants in a murder, or even to make a sentimental appeal to the jurors in his own trial. Despite his disingenuous disclaimers, Socrates consciously sought to teach virtue. Unlike the Sophists, however, he did not earn any income from his activities, and he was much more indirect in his instructional methods.

One very striking difference between Socrates can be seen by comparing the Apology and Gorgias' Encomium of Helen. Of course, in the Apology, Socrates' life is at stake, while the Encomium is nothing more than a display of its author's cleverness, but the different purposes alone do not account for the stylistic differences.

The style of the Encomium demands attention. The construction of the speech is as important as its message. The speech is highly wrought; it seems to have been fussed over as much as a poem, yet it is not at all poetic. A high proportion of the words are adjectives; comparatives and superlatives predominate. The use of parallel structures and antitheses is excessive.

The Apology, on the other hand, is plain and unaffected. The language of the speech does not call attention to itself, nor doe it interfere with the message of the speech. Simple sentence structures are used. As noted above, Socrates recognized the necessity of precision in language, but the Apology shows that precision does not require an ornate style.

The Encomium also illustrates the predilection of the Sophists for making the weaker argument the stronger one. Although prevailing Greek opinion condemned Helen for her role in the Trojan War, Gorgias absolves Helen of any blame by asserting that any of the four possible forces which brought Helen to Troy -- divine intervention, force, speech, or love -- exceeded Helen's ability to resist. Thus, one of these other forces must be blamed, since Helen cannot beheld responsible for yielding to a superior force.

The Sophists were often condemned for this tactic of making the weaker argument the stronger one, and it was one of the charges brought against Socrates. Interestingly, however, Socrates never defends himself against this charge anywhere in the Apology. Socrates may have considered this charge insignificant or not worth defending, but it is far more likely that this particular argument was too weak to be made into a stronger one by any amount of sophistry.

In the Republic, after Thrasymachus is subdued by Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus take up the argument Thrasymachus abandoned and restate it in such a way as to make it as strong as possible. They then challenge Socrates to refute the argument, and the remainder of the Republic involves Socrates' circuitous assault on Thrasymachus' position. Socrates evidently had the weaker case, or he would have been able to dispose of Thrasymachus' strengthened argument more directly.

The theme of the Republic is the nature of justice. As usual, the discussion begins with an attempt to define justice. Polemarchus offers the conventional definitions, but Socrates reduces him to silence by means of elenchus. Thrasymachus, a Sophist, then joins the discussion. Thrasymachus' first definition of justice, the advantage of the stronger, represents the conventionalist perspective. According to conventionalist ideas, justice is not more than something agreed upon and then labeled "justice". The conventionalist perspective is an aspect of the nomos-physis controversy.

Physis is usually translated as "nature", and nomos is usually translated as "law", "convention" or "custom". According to the conventionalist perspective, since justice is nomos has no real existence. Socrates attempts to apply elenchus to Thrasymachus, but Thrasymachus is a wily opponent. When he seems to be cornered by Socrates, he shifts to the immoralist position which maintains that justice does actually exist, but one's advantage is furthered by acting unjustly. In other words, the natural (physis) is opposed to the conventional (nomos), although Thrasymachus claims that the two positions he has proposed are consistent.

Glaucon makes this antithesis explicit in the reformulation of Thrasymachus' argument at the beginning of Book II (359c). The remainder of the Republic attempts to characterize physis in such a way that it does not conflict with ideals of justice or virtue.

The conflation of Socrates with the Sophists is based on superficial resemblances, and Socrates himself (that is, as portrayed by Plato) is responsible for much of the confusion. The Sophists were teachers primarily, and Socrates also pursued an educational agenda. Socrates method of elenchus often produced the same state of confusion generated by the argumentative techniques used by the Sophists.

Virtue played a central role for the Sophists and Socrates, although each developed different interpretations. The Sophists subscribed to a relativistic philosophy expressed by Protogoras' statement "Man is the measure of all things." Protogoras' use of "man" refers to each individual rather than humanity; application of his doctrine means that if the water feels cool to you but warm to me, the water is cool for you and warm for me. The result of the Sophists' extension of this analysis to ethics is moral relativism for individuals, cultures and governments. Such an idea was anathema to Plato, so we see the most radical difference between Socrates and the Sophists in moral theory. Despite similar interests and methodologies, the fundamental disagreement over the nature of virtue makes any conflation of Socrates and the Sophists completely untenable.

Gold rule


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Last revised: Apr. 24, 2014.

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