The sophists were freelance teachers around the time of Pericles and Socrates (c. 450 BC). They taught whoever paid them; their students were often affluent youth who expected to play a prominent role in the new democratic polis, and the sophists often taught political subjects like the nature of justice or the art of oratory. “Sophist” can be translated “learned man,” or “know-it-all,” depending on whether we admire the sophists or scorn them. Jaeger generally takes a positive view of the sophists, while Socrates and Plato often argue with them. We shouldn’t charge all the sophists with sophistry, though some may have been guilty of sophistry, and the word “sophistry” comes from “sophist.”
The sophists didn’t promote a new religion or a new morality or a new economic theory. They weren’t fanatics or “true believers.” If they were fanatical about anything, it was knowledge in general, culture in general. They were a symptom of something larger, a symptom of the discovery of intellect, the discovery of reason; as Jaeger says, “the fifth century [BC] had an almost limitless faith in the powers of the mind.”1 The sophists were the first to become conscious of culture as an ideal.
The word “paideia” originally meant “child-rearing,” then it came to mean the process of education, and finally it came to mean the content of education. Our word “culture” has evolved in a similar way. “Culture” is related to “agriculture,” probably because the sophists compared educating to farming.
|Successful agriculture requires, first, good soil, then a skillful farmer, and lastly good seed. In education the soil is human nature, the teacher corresponds to the farmer, and the seed is the instruction and advice imparted by the spoken word.2|
This metaphor was popularized by Plutarch’s essay “On the Education of Children.” Plutarch’s essay “was of fundamental importance in Renaissance humanism: it was published again and again.” The agriculture metaphor led to the Latin phrase cultura animi (the cultivation of the mind), and finally to the English word “culture.” And the agriculture metaphor illustrates the sophists’ view that successful education is a combination of nature (physis), learning (mathesis), and practice (askesis).3
The teaching of the sophists can be divided into the forms of knowledge and the content of knowledge. Formal knowledge is grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, which later became known as the Trivium. Jaeger says that these three disciplines are unheard of before the sophists; “they must therefore have invented them.” Grammar is the form of language, rhetoric the form of oratory, and dialectic the form of thought. The discovery of the Trivium is, according to Jaeger, “one of the greatest discoveries which the mind of man has ever made,” it enabled the mind to understand “the hidden law of its own structure.”4
The sophists also taught the contents of knowledge — arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These four fields became known as the Quadrivium. The Trivium and the Quadrivium together comprise the Seven Liberal Arts. Though the sophists didn’t formalize the Seven Liberal Arts, they were pioneers in the teaching of these subjects, and thereby laid the foundations of Western education.5
The image below shows Philosophy surrounded by the Seven Liberal Arts. Seven streams emerge from Philosophy, three leading to the Trivium, four to the Quadrivium (one thinks of the old saying that Philosophy is “the art of arts and the science of sciences”). Philosophy is crowned with three heads, representing the three branches of Philosophy — Ethics, Logic, and Physics. The image is from the Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights), an illuminated encyclopedia created about 1185 AD.
“Below the circle are four men seated at desks, poets or magicians, outside the pale and beyond the influence of Philosophy. According to the text, they are guided and taught by impure spirits and they produce only tales or fables, frivolous poetry, or magic spells. Notice the black birds speaking to them (the antithesis of the white dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit).”6
In earlier issues, I mentioned Jaeger’s view that the Greeks believed there was justice in the universe, justice in the divine management of the world, justice in the legal system of the polis. I said it was difficult for us to share that faith in justice; innocent people often suffer, while guilty people often flourish. We see that the criminal is sometimes punished by a bad conscience, an unquiet soul, but nonetheless it’s difficult for us to share the Greek faith in justice. We see only a partial and imperfect justice in the world, we don’t see as high a degree of justice as the Greeks saw.
When Jaeger discusses the sophists, however, he says that they shared our modern doubts about justice. They doubted the justice of the universe, the justice of the gods, the justice of the polis. “The universe was now conceived as the fortuitous product of compulsion and superior power in the mechanical inter-play of forces.”7 In Plato’s Republic, “the right of the stronger is supported by the sophist and rhetor Thrasymachus.”8 In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles argues that “law is an artificial bond, a convention agreed on by the organized weaklings to repress their natural masters, the strong, and make them do their will.”9 Callicles opposes the morality of the weak, opposes what Nietzsche called “slave morality”; Callicles advocates a Nietzschean “master morality.”
The views of Callicles were apparently popular among Athenian aristocrats, and a group of aristocrats launched a coup in 403 BC; according to Jaeger, the coup was “inspired by the spirit of Callicles.” Even the Athenian middle-class was losing respect for the legal system, as each shift of political power brought a new set of laws. How could the average citizen respect the laws when they were constantly changing? Aristotle argued that “it is better for the state to have inferior laws for a long time than laws which constantly change, even if they are good.”10 If laws change constantly, the legal system loses its moral authority.
Plato expresses the views of Callicles with such “ease and sympathy” that we might suspect he shares these views, or at least shared them in his youth. The fictional Callicles may be based on Critias, the oligarch who was related to Plato. Critias’ party viewed Plato as “a highly suitable comrade and partisan... [Plato] sympathized with their policy for some time.”11 I’m reminded of Dostoyevsky, who could express the atheist position because he once subscribed to it himself, before ultimately settling on a traditional morality and religion.
Dostoyevsky’s final position was that there can be no morality without belief in God. The Greeks believed that the legal system of the polis was “the highest standard for human life and coincided with the divine government of the universe,” so if a Greek became skeptical about the legal system, morality in general was undermined, “the foundations of his life dissolved.” The Greeks couldn’t rescue morality by appealing to God and conscience; “a purely private moral code, without reference to the state, was inconceivable to the Greeks.” The only way out was to find some sort of morality in “the eternal order of nature... the law of the cosmos.” One of the first sophists to seek a moral order in the cosmos was Hippias.
Different sophists held different views, so it’s dangerous to generalize about the views of the sophists. Some sophists agreed with Callicles that democratic equality is a violation of nature, that people are naturally unequal. Other sophists agreed with Hippias that democratic equality doesn’t go far enough, that it’s limited to free citizens of one polis, but it should extend to all people in all countries. Jaeger says that Hippias was close to “the cosmopolitanism of Hellenistic times.”12 Hippias and his school contrasted law and nature, nomos and physis, and decided that we should respect nature rather than law.13
Like other sophists, Hippias claimed to possess broad knowledge. He even wanted to learn carpentry, tailoring, ship-building, etc. “[Hippias] had the ambition to be master of all crafts as well as all kinds of knowledge.... [Hippias] wore no garment or ornament which he had not made himself.”14 One sophist, Gorgias, performed at festivals such as the Olympics, offering to answer any question that he was asked.
One of the key moral questions is, Do you follow moral rules when no one’s watching? Or do you follow moral rules only when people are around, because you’re afraid of damage to your reputation, or afraid of punishment? When the sophists began to respect the law of nature rather than the law of the polis, they said that the law of the polis was only followed in the presence of witnesses, it had no moral authority.
In the Republic, Plato spoke of a ring that made people invisible; by eliminating witnesses, this ring could separate those who were truly just from those who wanted to be perceived as just. Democritus spoke of aidos (shame) not in front of society, but in front of oneself; this seems to be an early form of conscience. If you have this kind of aidos, you’ll act morally even if you’re wearing the ring of Gyges.15
After the Persian Wars, Athens became an imperial power, and people were judged not by moral qualities, but by intellectual qualities, by the qualities that led to political and economic success. The sophists arose to satisfy the hunger for intellectual distinction and career advancement. Plato and Aristotle “attacked the whole system of sophistic culture” because it didn’t aim at truth or virtue, it aimed at distinction and success.16
The sophists stopped short of ultimate questions, they were content with moral relativism and religious agnosticism. “Protagoras said of God that he could not assert either that He existed or that He did not exist.”17 The sophists didn’t speculate about the essence of the physical universe, as the pre-Socratic philosophers had done. One might say that the sophists were pragmatic rather than profound.
Jaeger says that Plato bitterly opposed the moral relativism of the sophists, that Plato was “a fierce and lifelong opponent of the sophists” because of their relativism.18 But Nietzsche sided with the sophists against Plato; Nietzsche was wary of Plato’s moral absolutes, just as Plato was wary of the sophists’ moral relativism. Nietzsche accused Plato of decadence, a charge that my theory of history supports.
It is sometimes said that the sophists claimed to teach virtue, while Socrates doubted whether virtue could be taught. Jaeger says that the sophists didn’t equate areté with virtue; they thought of areté as “political areté,” that is, “intellectual power and oratorical ability.”19 So the sophists didn’t claim to teach virtue, their conception of areté was different from Socrates’; “Socrates and the sophists were really thinking of different things.”20
The old Greek aristocrats were preoccupied with noble blood, descent from a god. But the democrats in the Periclean age developed the concept of human nature, a concept that first arose in the field of medicine. The concept of human nature originally meant the body, and later “came to mean the whole man, made up of body and soul together.”21 In modern times, medical doctors like Freud and Jung played key roles in the field of psychology, and in the exploration of human nature.
The sophists constitute an important chapter in Greek intellectual history. If we learn about the sophists, we can better understand Socrates and Plato. Jaeger’s writings on the sophists seem especially valuable since we can’t study the sophists directly — their writings haven’t survived.
B. I saw the movie Crazy Rich Asians (2018). At the beginning, it seems like an orgy of vulgarity and materialism, but gradually you realize that the vulgarity is a foil for integrity. Good movie.
C. One of the central facts of modern times is globalization — societies that were isolated 200 years ago have become part of a global exchange of goods, of ideas, of life in general. Another central fact of modern times is the fall of the aristocracy. Proust and other novelists depicted the decline of the aristocracy, a decline that was especially noticeable between 1890 and 1920. One way to illustrate the decline of the aristocracy is to look at the social origins of modern leaders.
|Stalin||1878||father a shoemaker|
|Mussolini||1883||father a blacksmith, mother a teacher|
|Hitler||1889||father a customs official; father and mother both from peasant families|
|Mao||1893||his father was the child of peasants, his mother the child of a shoemaker|
As the aristocracy declined, the lower classes rose to power.
D. I visited the Howland House in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which claims to be the only house in Plymouth where one of the original Pilgrims lived. John Howland came over on the Mayflower in 1620, and died in 1673. I was told that there are 2.5 million Howland descendants in the U.S. There may be 25 million Americans who can trace their ancestry to the Mayflower. The Howland and Alden families compete for the honor of having the most descendants. Among the Howland descendants are the Bush family, Humphrey Bogart, and Winston Churchill, whose mother was American.
|1.||Werner Jaeger, Paideia, Volume 1, Book 2, Ch. 3, p. 287. The students of the sophists were generally young, affluent, ambitious, and talented. “The aim of the educational movement led by the sophists was not to educate the people, but to educate the leaders of the people.”(p. 290) The most important quality for a leader was eloquence. “In classical Greek the politician is simply called rhetor, an orator.”(p. 291) The most gifted statesmen, like Themistocles, have qualities that can’t be taught, qualities that are inborn. But oratorical skill can be developed. back|
|2.||Ch. 3, p. 312. Jaeger credits the sophists with developing “the first humanism which the world had seen,” and he says, “they were the first to conceive the conscious ideal of culture.”(pp. 302, 303) But their humanism wasn’t “complete and mature.... it needed a deeper foundation, in philosophy and religion.” Are we able to do this now? Are we able to build a mature humanism, with a solid foundation in philosophy, psychology, and science? back|
|3.||Ch. 3, pp. 312, 313. So our word “math” is related to the Greek word for miscellaneous factual knowledge, and our word “ascetic” is related to the Greek word for “practice.”
Jaeger says that the “agriculture metaphor” is more than a metaphor, that there’s a kinship between agriculture and culture, that both use will and reason to shape nature, that both are rungs on the ladder of civilization. back
|4.||Ch. 3, p. 314. The sophists often focused on form, technique, skill. For practice, they would deliver “double speeches” — “attacking and then defending the same thesis.”(p. 315) back|
|5.||Besides the formal education of the Trivium, and the “content education” of the Quadrivium, there was a third type of education, “soul education,” which aimed at “cultivating all the powers of the soul.... it chiefly employed poetry and music to form the soul.”(p. 293) This third type was emphasized by Protagoras, a leading Sophist. If I compare the sophist school to my own approach, this third type of education would correspond to my emphasis on Eastern practices (meditation, yoga, etc.) and Western psychology (Jung, etc.).
My approach resembles the sophist approach insofar as I champion culture in a broad sense, rather than preaching a particular religious or moral or economic worldview. I champion culture from various times and places, even primitive culture, just as the sophists “considered all the art and philosophy of earlier Greece as part of their cultural ideal, as its necessary content.”(p. 303)
My approach resembles the humanism of the sophist Protagoras, who said “Man is the measure of all things.” My approach differs from that of Plato, who said, “God is the measure of all things.”(p. 301)
The sophists took a utilitarian approach to poetry. Jaeger speaks of, “the sophistic belief that poetry is meant to instruct. The sophists regarded Homer as an encyclopedia of all human knowledge, from wagon-building to strategy, and as a mine of prudential wisdom for the conduct of life.”(p. 296) back
|6.||The image depicts the seven subjects as subordinate to (subjected to) philosophy (is this the origin of the term “subjects”?). Click here for a complete description of the image. back|
|7.||Ch. 3, p. 323 back|
|8.||Ch. 3, p. 324. Earlier sophists, like Protagoras, probably held more conservative views. Protagoras believed that the legal system aimed at education. He also believed that the purpose of punishment was education. “[Protagoras] rejects the old Greek causal theory of punishment, as retribution to be paid because a man has sinned, and puts forward the obviously new final theory that punishment is ameliorative and deterrent — it improves the evildoer and frightens others.”(p. 309)
As the theory of punishment was evolving, so too the theory of legal argument was evolving. “In the age of the sophists Greek advocates [i.e., lawyers] gradually abandoned the old methods of proof by witnesses, tortures, and oaths, for the new rhetorical tricks of proof by logical argument.”(p. 316) back
|9.||Ch. 3, p. 325. This is a quote from Jaeger, not Plato. Jaeger describes Callicles’ position with a Nietzschean phrase, “transvaluation of all values.” back|
|10.||Ch. 3, p. 329. This is a quote from Aristotle, not Jaeger. back|
|11.||Ch. 3, p. 324, 325. Jaeger cites Plato’s seventh letter. Evidently Plato wrote letters as well as dialogues. back|
|12.||Ch. 3, p. 326. Another example of a disagreement among sophists: Protagoras, perhaps the best of the sophists, tried to teach broad culture, and said that other sophists “ruin young men” by teaching “purely factual instruction.”(p. 300) back|
|13.||In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advocates living “according to nature.” Perhaps he was influenced by cosmopolitan Stoics who had little respect for nomos, and considerable respect for physis. When Marcus said, “live according to nature,” he probably didn’t mean, “follow your impulses, listen to your unconscious, be spontaneous.” He probably meant, “live according to nature’s laws/principles.” But it isn’t clear what nature’s principles are; some say that nature’s principle is “might makes right,” while others say that nature’s principle is, “Whatever becomes too big will be cut down to size.” back|
|14.||Ch. 3, footnote 87, p. 478 and p. 297. Jaeger speaks of the sophists’ “pride in their own intellectual powers.... Plato is never tired of parodying and ridiculing it in its numerous forms, from exaggeratedly self-conscious dignity to mean and trivial conceit.”(p. 296) back|
|15.||Ch. 3, p. 330 back|
|16.||Ch. 3, p. 293. Jaeger says that Thucydides, “with the insight of genius,” noticed the change in Athenian values. As Jaeger puts it, “now more than ever before the end of life was achievement, success.... The intellectual side of man came to the fore, and thereby created the educational mission which the sophists endeavored to fulfill.”(p. 292)
But if we judge the sophists by their leading representatives, it’s clear that they had a deep grasp of culture, of humanism, and they impacted even leading intellectuals like Thucydides. Jaeger says that Thucydides “was obviously dominated by the formal art of the sophists, in the very details of his oratorical technique, his sentence-structure, and even his grammatical use of words.”(p. 316)
Perhaps some sophists focused on style rather than truth, rhetoric rather than philosophy. Jaeger speaks of, “the great cultural conflict which was to rage through succeeding centuries — the conflict between philosophy and rhetoric.”(p. 298)
Perhaps the Greeks were too fond of rhetoric, perhaps they loved rhetoric “not wisely, but too well.” Jaeger says, “rhetoric was the principal form of cultural education in later classical antiquity. It suited the Greek passion for form so well that it actually ruined the nation by overgrowing everything else like a creeping plant.”(p. 316)
We said earlier that the mission of the state, according to the Greeks, was education, character-formation. In the age of the sophists, a new ideal arose: power. Thucydides argued that “the new state was compelled by its very nature to strive for power.”(p. 321) Perhaps Thucydides was thinking of two kinds of power: power over the citizens, and power over other states. Jaeger says, “the Athenian empire... aimed at ruling all Greece.”(p. 320) He’s critical of this aim, and speaks of, “the notorious and baneful ideology of Athenian imperialistic power-politics.... the unscrupulous power-policy which the state was driven to adopt more and more every year.”(p. 334)
Perhaps we can infer from this that Jaeger blames Athens for starting the Peloponnesian War, and thereby bringing about its own destruction. Was Athenian hubris the cause of Athens’ downfall, as Persian hubris had been the cause of Persia’s downfall? back
|17.||Ch. 3, p. 301 back|
|18.||Ch. 3, p. 301 back|
|19.||Ch. 3, p. 291. Greek poets had discussed some of the same topics that the sophists discussed. “Simonides, Theognis, and Pindar had already used poetry to discuss whether areté could be taught.... Poetry became the debating-ground of educational theorists. Simonides, for example, was a typical sophist at bottom.... The fact that educational theory was now transferred from poetry to prose is a sign that it was at last thoroughly rationalized.”(p. 296) The sophists traveled from city to city, staying at the homes of the rich and powerful, just as the poets had done.(p. 297) back|
|20.||Ch. 3, p. 292 back|
|21.||Ch. 3, p. 306. According to Jaeger, “there was a parallel development of the scientific mind in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries centered about the concept of human nature.”(Ch. 3, footnote 57) back|