Category: Plato in 80 entries

Sophistic movement

The Sophists play an important role in fifth century Athens intellectual life and trigger the educational rivalries of the fourth century, teaching, most of them for pay, often excessive, ideas that were original and challenging. Their rise is connected to the development/flourishing of the democratic institutions of ancient Athens. Committed to the value of participation of all the citizens in institutions in an unprecedented way, these institutions lead to a new value but also to a need: the cultivation of the ability to reason and to argue.

The term ‘sophist’ originally designated an expert in wisdom, it could involve more technical or theoretical issues, and was relatively neutral. The differentiation of the group of people who were later called Sophists from those that either defined themselves, or were later perceived, as philosophers was gradual, and springs from the effort mainly on Plato’s side to distinguish his own program (but also, to an important degree, that of his teacher, Socrates) from the program of his rivals in the field of education.

The most prominent sophists are Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, Prodicus, Hippias, Critias. In addition, there are two important unnamed texts that are attributed to the sophists: The Anonymus Iamblichi and the Dissoi Logoi.

It is hard to trace a unifying doctrine that is shared by people who would later be recognized as members of the Sophistic movement. Many of the extant texts, however, are marked by a common general direction, common interests, subjects or views. Most prevalent among them are the following: A trust to the power of human reason and an interest in exploring its limits and constraints. In the case of Protagoras this leads to an early version of relativism; The development of different techniques of argumentation; the criticism of traditional religion; the question of obedience to the law, the nomos-phusis antithesis, the origin of language and its relation to reality.

Author: Chloe Balla
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