The Sophists Philosophy. Traces of political thought appear in the carliest literature of the Greeks. Homer portrayed a patriarchal regime in which kings were descender from the gods, exercised despotic authority, and held the mass of the people in contempt. In Hesiod and in the fragmentary writings of the Seven Sages, the supports of monarchy were somewhat weakened.
The duties as well as the rights of kings were emphasized, and the acts of rulers were judged by the same standards as those of other men. The growth of a more liberal theory of the state was both a cause and a result of the political movement from monarchy to aristocracy.
The fifth century B.c., beginning with the Persian and ending with the Peloponnesian War, gave the Hellenic world experience in every phase of politics. Close contact with Persian despotism and the bitter struggle between Spartan oligarchy and Athenian democracy stimulated political reflection.
The religious faith of the Greek world was disappearing; democracy was quickening popular intelligence, but also bringing danger of deterioration in administration and lack of stability in public policy.
Old restraints were disappearing, freedom of thought permitted the most revolutionary ideas, and intellectual life was in general ferment. A contest for political power was also waged between the old landowning aristocracy and a new wealthy class engaged in commerce, influenced by foreign ideas, and disposed to innovation.
The way was thus opened for the employment of the arts of the demagogue, and for the rise of a group of teachers who gave lessons in politics, teaching men how to appeal effectively, through eloquence and the art of disputation, to the public mind.
The Sophists, representing in their point of view the disintegrating tendencies of the times, aimed to supply the instruction that would fit a young man for a successful career in the practical life of a citizen. They rejected-the ideas of universal truth and of abstract principles of justice.
They taught that man is the measure of all things, each individual being qualified to judge, according to his own beliefs and desires, what was right. In denying fixed rules of conduct, they attacked the rationality of nature, which had been the basis of Greek philosophy and ethics.
They pointed out that such rules or laws varied widely, differing from government to government. So far were’ they from agreeing, that some laws expressly forbade what others commanded. Laws were thus mere conventions, not unchangeable laws of nature.
The Sophists, in holding that men were by nature selfish and unequal in strength, based political authority upor might. Political rule resulted, either from an agreement among the strong to oppress the weak, or from a combination among the weak to defend themselves against the strong.
This view is clearly expressed by Thrasymachus in the Republic, Thrasynnachus, as the representative in the dialogue of the Sophists, is asked by Socrates to define justice. His reply is that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.
The Sophists thus believed that might makes right. They also believed that men were naturally nonsocial, that the state rested upon an artificial and individualistic basis, and that political authority was essentially selfish in its aims. The Sophists were the first teachers of individualism, and originated the idea that the state rests upon a social compact. They also drew a distinction between morality and law, and showed that-law, because of the nature of political authority, often forces men to act contrary to the dictates of reason.
To what degree these ideas were accepted, it is difficult to say. But -probably the Sophists were more convincing than Plato and later critics would have us believe. On the basis of existing evidence, it appears that by the middle of the fifth century B.c. these ideas had made so much progress that they were receiving general assent. Mcllwain points to several examples of this.
Athenian envoys in Thucydides are quoted as saying, you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.
There are, in addition, similar passages in Aristophanes Clouds and Xenophon’s Memorabilia which McIIwain quotes to the same effect. But more than this, Sophist doctrines have stood the test of history extremely well. The very essence of modern democratic government rests on their notions of individualism.
It was they who first developed the thesis that not only is man the measure of all things but each man is the only measure. Truth rested in each man’s opinion of the truth, not in a system of norms or absolutes. The Sophists, to conclude, deserve a better name than they are usually given.