Archetypes of Wisdom
Douglas J. Soccio
Chapter 3
The Sophist: Protagoras
Learning Objectives
On completion of this chapter, you should be able to
answer the following questions:
What is the difference between a sophos and a philosopher?
What role did the need for explanations play in the
development of Presocratic philosophy?
What is a rational discourse?
What is a Sophist?
What is ethnocentrism?
How did changing fees affect the teachings of the Sophists?
What is relativism?
What is the Ring of Gyges?
What is moral realism?
What is the doctrine of the Superior Individual?
A cultural center of its time, Athens attracted people from
all around the Mediterranean and parts of Asia.
Those who considered themselves “original, true
Athenians” grew uncomfortable and defensive. Social
scientists now call this attitude ethnocentrism.
Ethnocentrism comes from Greek roots meaning “the race
or group is the center.”
Ethnocentric individuals see their ways as inherently
superior to all others. They believe that their religion, for
example, is the one true religion. Their own practices are
right or natural, while those of others are wrong or deviant.
The Greeks of this time were so ethnocentric that they
invented the term barbarian to mock people who spoke in
other languages.
Mimicking the way foreigners talked - by making the
sound “bar, bar, bar” to suggest that their languages
sounded like noise or nonsense – the Athenians stigmatized
other cultures as “uncivilized” or “less human” than
However, many of these new “barbarians” were
entrepreneurs struggling to get ahead in Athenian society,
and hiring Sophists to help them and their children build a
better future.
As early Greek civilization became increasingly refined
and sophisticated, a new kind of thinker emerged known as
a sophos, from the Greek word for “wise.”
The sophos lived and spoke in ways that were interpreted
as showing disregard for conventional values, and that set
them apart from regular folks living “normal” lives.
One of the earliest popular images of philosophers is the
stereotype of an “absent-minded,” starry-eyed dreamer
asking silly questions.
Woman as Sophos
One of the earliest examples of a woman philosopher was
Aesara of Lucania (c. third century B.C.E.).
In a fragment of her book, On Human Nature (included in
the text), she claims that through the introspection and
contemplation of our own souls, we can discover the
“natural” foundation of all law and the structure of
From Sophos to Philosopher
Whereas the sophos (sage or wise man) was seen as a kind
of prophet-priest-therapist, the philosopher was seen as an
unusual sort of thinker and truth-seeker.
The very first Western thinkers identified as philosophers
were initially concerned with questions about nature
(physis) and about the order of the world (kosmos).
The earliest philosophers were referred to as the
Presocratics because they appeared prior to Socrates, the
first major figure of the Western tradition.
Presocratic Rational Discourse
The Presocratics initiated the transformation of mythology
into rational inquiry about nature and the cosmos.
The Presocratic philosophers’ intense interest in
explanations shaped the development of reason by
triggering questions of logical consistency and standards of
These concerns played a major role in the origins and
historical development of Western philosophy.
Despite the fame of Socrates, the first Western philosopher
was Thales (c.624-545 B.C.E.).
He is the first thinker to suggest that all of the things in
nature are ultimately made of one basic “stuff” (which he
believed to be water), since, as he says, “the nutriment of
everything is moist.”
This is an example of monism – the belief that reality is
essentially one – whether it be one process, one structure,
or one substance.
Thales’ claim that everything is composed of water was a
move beyond mythological accounts, an attempt to explain
the changes he saw in nature. Seeking reasons for holding
a belief is part of rational discourse.
The fragments of writing that remain of Heraclitus (510480 B.C.E.) reveal a powerful intellect.
He claimed that all things are constantly changing. But he
also claimed that there is an order to how things change,
which he called the Logos.
A complex Greek word, logos means “thought,” “speech,”
and “meaning” (to name a few). But its most important
sense was “the rule according to which all things are
accomplished and the law which is found in all things.”
For Heraclitus, the Logos is like God, but without the
human qualities earlier philosophers and poets had
attributed to “It.”
In contrast to Heraclitus’ notion that things are always
changing, Parmenides (c. fifth century B.C.E.) felt that
change was an illusion. The senses make us trust in the
way things appear, while what is really the case can only
be understood through rational thought.
This is the distinction between appearance and reality.
Parmenides claimed that there are not actually many things
(though there appears to be), but only “the One” (existence
itself, or “being”).
Parmenides radically transformed the early philosophers’
interest in cosmology (the study of the universe as a
rationally ordered system) into ontology (the study of
Zeno’s Paradoxes
A student of Parmenides, Zeno (c.490-430 B.C.E.),
constructed paradoxes in order to illustrate the truth of his
teacher’s counter-intuitive claims.
In each case, the senses tell us that there is motion (of
individual objects), while rational thought shows that
motion is impossible (since the space to be traversed can
be infinitely divided).
Zeno’s paradoxes are one of the earliest uses of a method
of proof known as a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to
absurdity), which shows that following a particular
position leads to a contradiction (which can never be true).
In contrast to Parmenides, the Atomists claimed that
reality consists of atoms (minute, indivisible particles) and
the void (empty space containing no atoms).
The two most prominent Atomists were:
Leucippus (c. fifth century B.C.E.)
Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.E.)
Atoms are minute material particles, the ultimate material
constituents of all things.
Because motion is an inherent property of atoms, they are
constantly moving.
Reason and Necessity
Atomism is a type of materialism – the belief that
everything in the world is made of matter. While this
serves us well in science, it raises interesting problems.
Is there is any purpose or intention in the universe? The
atomists’ answer is “no.” Though there is predictable
order, “nothing occurs at random.” So there are no chance
occurrences, and everything happens by necessity.
This leads to another problem: if thinking is a material
process, according to Democritus, we are “cut off from the
real,” unable to have certain knowledge.
Instead, our only option is to rely on how we perceive
things and what others around us think is true – that is, on
The Advent of Professional
While we tend to think of ancient Athens as the symbol of
democracy, it was in many respects chauvinistic.
Full citizenship was confined to males from aristocratic
families. Wealth dictated who could participate as equals.
The struggle for political power required the ability to
convince others of the strength of one’s position.
Hence, there was great value in rhetorical skills, which the
Sophists taught to young men of Athens whose families
could afford to pay the price.
Enter the Sophist
In earlier times, the sophos had been sages, concerned with
the study of nature.
The “new sophos” of the fifth century B.C.E. – now called
Sophists – thought it impossible to discover “the Truth,”
and so turned their attention to human life and conduct.
In addition to the art of argumentation, these traveling
teachers gave lessons in anthropology, psychology, and
sociology – thus enabling their students to fare well in the
socio-political marketplace (since whoever won the won
the argument “won the day” as well).
For that reason, the Sophists might well be thought of as
the first social scientists, with the best of them being much
sought after and highly paid.
Power and Education
The teachings of the Sophists were valuable to the extent
that they were useful or helpful in forwarding the interests
of those who hired their services.
But their concern with practicality was also due to their
contention that what is called “the truth” is subservient to
power, that what matters most is winning the argument,
getting people to believe that what was said is true.
The “truth” then, becomes a matter of what the people
believe. And whoever wins in that struggle is “right.”
The Ring of Gyges
The Ring of Gyges is a mythical story told by Glaucon in
Book 2 of Plato’s Republic.
According to the myth, the Ring of Gyges granted its
owner the power to become invisible at will. Through the
story of the ring, the Sophist Glaucon discusses whether a
typical person would be moral if they did not have to fear
the consequences of their actions.
The point of the story is that good and bad is a matter of
custom and preference. While different individuals desire
different things, everyone seeks some form of power.
The Sophists were the first systematic thinkers to conclude
that the truth is relative. Based on this tenet, the Sophists
argued that we need only accept what, according to our
culture, seems true at the moment.
Relativism is the belief that knowledge is determined by
specific qualities of the observer.
There are two basic variants of relativism:
Cultural relativism – the belief that all values are culturally
Individual relativism – that even in the same place and
time, right and wrong are relative to the unique experiences
and preferences of the individual
Pythagoras, the Pragmatist
Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.E.), believed that the
principle of number accounted for everything in the world,
expressing the mathematical relations of an ordered whole.
Most of us are familiar with this name – from the
Pythagorean theorem in geometry class.
From music to astronomy, the Pythagoreans felt that the
motion of the heavenly bodies produced harmonies, which
they described as “the cosmic music of the spheres.”
It is possible to think of these ordered relations, which
describe how things change or move, as an example of
what Heraclitus meant by the Logos.
Perhaps the greatest of the Sophists was Protagoras (481411 B.C.E.), who claimed that “man is the measure of all
things” – meaning that there is no way to get outside of
ourselves to check our views about what is right and
wrong, or true and false.
In claiming this, Protagoras predicted a crucial tenet of
modern social science: that it is utterly impossible to form
a culture-free or context-free belief.
We can compare beliefs and cultures, but only to other
beliefs and cultures.
The relativist views of Sophists like Protagoras are
comparable to what later came to be called pragmatism
(from the Greek pragma, meaning “deed”).
Pragmatism is the view that beliefs are to be interpreted in
terms of “whether they work” (their usefulness or
For the pragmatist, ideas have meaning or truth to the
extent that they produce practical results and are effective
in furthering our aims.
Protagoras’s Wager
With this pragmatic attitude toward the art of
argumentation, there was a great deal of competition.
A famous example is a story known as Protagoras’s
Wager, in which Protagoras is so sure of his abilities that
he tells his young student Eulathus that he must pay in full
only after he has won his first case. But Eulathus neither
argued his first case, nor paid.
Protagoras claimed he would sue, since if he won in court
he would be paid, and if he lost he would still be paid (it
then being Eulathus’ first victory).
Eulathus countered, saying that if he lost he would not
have to pay, and if he won he would not have to pay (since
the court would not require it).
Moral Realism:
Might Makes Right
As humorous as they might be, instances such as
Protagoras’s Wager illustrate the problem with the
Sophists’ relativism (now called sophistry for that reason).
Without an objective means of determining truth, “right” is
a matter of who is most powerful, cunning, or able.
This view - that might makes right - is often referred to as
moral realism.
The idea is that, when realistic about it, we can see that
those in power really do call the shots (and there are many
instances in history which seem to support this view).
The Superior Individual
Not everybody willingly submits to those in power or
depends on a group for clout.
Those who do not are well represented by the Sophist
Callicles (c. 435 B.C.E.), who asserted that by nature the
strong dominate the weak.
This view goes by different names: the natural man, the
true man, the superman – and represents the doctrine of
the superior individual, an elitist way of looking at
individual virtues or traits.
In nature, the survival of the fittest is the rule. Callicles
held that the superior individual has a natural right to
dominate others, since all people are no more created
equal than all animals.
The Legacy of the Sophists
The Sophists helped free the Greeks to think on new, less
restricted levels.
From this beginning emerged a nonreligious scientific
method as well as a philosophic method of questioning.
The Sophists, therefore, laid the cornerstone for the
scientific study of behavior, and helped to break the
shackles of dogma and superstition.
So that, even today, we remain in their debt.
Discussion Questions
Are lawyers Sophists?
Are advertisers Sophists?
In what ways are these professions susceptible to
sophistry? Explain.
Chapter Review:
Key Concepts and Thinkers
reductio ad absurdum
moral realism
Parmenides of Elea

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