The Sophistic movement in Ancient Greece (2024)

Ancient Greek enlightenment and the Sophistic movement

The enlightenment and the Sophistic movement in Ancient Greece includes all philosophical currents that are based on sound reason, spread knowledge and combat entrenched, arbitrary and dogmatic notions as well as any form of authority, often divine.

The ancient Greek enlightenment began in the 6th BC. century, in Ionia, with the natural philosophers (p. 77). Later it was centered and developed in Athens, where the Sophist movement, as it was called, peaked around the middle of the 5th century BC. century, when the so-called first generation of sophists was active – male sages who roamed the Greek cities teaching the young with great success, and high fees.

One of them, Protagoras, when asked what exactly he was teaching, replied that “the lesson is right thinking about private matters, how to govern one’s household better, as well as about matters of state, how to become eminently capable of handles, by deeds and words, political affairs” (Plato, Protagoras 318-319).

By setting such lofty aims, Sophistic teaching could easily go astray; and indeed, the Sophists of the second generation were not long in abusing their rationality and eloquence: not infrequently their reasonings led them into dead-end sophistry, and their teaching had demonstrably more rather than an educational character. Justly, their extreme positions provoked the reaction of Socrates and the Socratics, especially Plato, who is mostly responsible for the final defamation of the Sophistic movement. Thus, the very word sophist, which originally meant “brainy, knowledgeable, master” etc., quickly came to be used as it is today, with a negative meaning, for those who mislead and deceive their listeners with their words.

The latest developments should not overshadow the catalytic, initially ambiguous, impact of the Sophists on Greek society. On the one hand, the Sophist movement broke down barriers, opened avenues, fertilized progressive thought, and positively influenced all fields of letters and arts; on the other hand, it undermined old recognized values, created ideological vacuums, and awakened doubts. The Greeks of the 4th BC century they no longer felt unshakably under their feet the foundations on which the outstanding achievements of the golden age rested.

In general in the classical centuries, but especially after the traumatic experiences of the Peloponnesian war, the states certainly did not stop building temples and celebrating religious festivals with splendor, private and public sacrifices continued, oracles and other religious centers continued to welcome crowds. pilgrims and vows; but more and more the deep and genuine religious feeling which we discerned in the Archaic age gave way to a superficial piety, which only apparently reacted to moral perversity and atheism.

In the last quarter of the 5th BC, they succeeded the proud generations of marathon fighters and the Salamis fighters, which they and their children accomplished and experienced in the era of great prosperity. century, the fanatical generations of the Peloponnesian war, followed, after the war, by the injured, embarrassed generations of the descendants. Weakened, the city-states were unable to effectively resist first the Persian wills, then the Macedonian advance, until the slogan of Panhellenism reopened a new hopeful perspective. It is no coincidence that Philip wanted in a pan-Hellenic meeting, again in Corinth, to renew the Greek Alliance against the Persians and to revive the nation.

Literature and arts

The failure of the Ionian revolution resulted in the spiritual center of Hellenism moving from the Asia Minor cities of Ionia to Athens, whose primary position in letters and arts remained unquestionable for the entire Classical era: Pindar described it as a “theocratic state” ( sec. 76), Thucydides called it “the great school of Greece” (, Plato “the rectory of wisdom” (Protagoras 337d), .

Its intellectual flourishing was supported on the one hand by the many notable Athenian writers, thinkers and artists, and on the other hand by the numerous writers, thinkers and artists who in the classical years (especially in the 5th century BC) left their homelands to to visit, live and act in Athens.

It would be unfair to attribute the intellectual advance of classical Athens simply to the economic prosperity that followed its military and political successes. Certainly, the primary factor of prosperity was the democratic state, which frees thought, awakens interests and allows everyone to take part in intellectual and artistic life and develop his personality.

It is obvious that democracy favored the development of rhetoric. No longer only kings, lords and nobles but every citizen had the opportunity to buy and be heard, both in the courts for his private affairs and in the town church for the affairs of the state.

His success or failure in getting his point across was of course related to whether he was right in what he said, but also to the quality of his speech, his ability to captivate listeners and persuade.

Characteristic of democracy, the equality of citizens (isigoria) and freedom of speech (parrisia) lead to open dialogue: reason and counter-reason, proposal and counter-proposal, arguments and counter-arguments, questions and answers – this is how problems were laid bare, this was how issues were presented and clarified opposing opinions in the courts, in the market debates, and in the town church, so all matters ripened before the vote.

How can we not consider it natural, when at the same time we see the dialogic form dominating the literary genres and intellectual life in general: drama is dialogical, we find conflicting sermons and dialogues in historical works, argumentative dialogue and contradictions are cultivated by the sophists, the art of dialectic is practiced by Socrates, many philosophical works of the 4th BC have a dialogic form. century etc.

The most common form of dialogue is the verbal confrontation of two different, often opposing, points of view by two speakers, who are either trying to convince each other, or waiting for someone or listeners to decide who is right.

Justice requires that the two opposing interlocutors have equal opportunities to support their position; that is why in the courts they counted with the hourglass and gave equal time to the two parties, first to support their position, then to answer each other’s questions. other’s arguments:

This strict scheme is rarely applied in life; but we meet with it, in looser forms, both in tragedy and comedy. The dramatic poets took care in the fights (discourses), that is, when they presented two persons arguing and presenting their opinions face to face, to generally follow a formality that ensured equality between the two contending parties.

In the case of the dramas it is the poet himself who advances and defends both one point of view and its opposite – and we shall see how the sophists and rhetoricians claimed to be able to do the same.

The democratic state contributes manifold to spiritual development. The Athenian municipality, for example, predominantly rural, now had the right and obligation to decide by majority on the affairs of the state (legislation, economy, foreign policy), on peace and on war – on everything . Again, the Athenians as judges had to give justice to one or the other of the opposing parties, to measure punishments, to send the condemned to death or exile. All these obligations that citizens had in the direct Athenian democracy created a need for knowledge and intellectual cultivation.

The multitude had to be initiated into the secrets of politics, ethics, strategy, economics, law, etc., and this necessity brought to the fore many teachers: enlightened statesmen, historians, rhetoricians, rhetoricians, sophists, philosophers, poets – where all of them, each in his own way, consciously or not, they taught and guided the people to make right decisions. So, for example, in Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, when Euripides asks Aeschylus “why a poet should be admired”, Aeschylus replies: “for his skill and good advice, because poets make people in states better »

The visual arts

In the visual arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, vase painting, etc.) archaeologists divide the classical centuries into four periods:

Period of strict rhythm (480-450 BC)
Mature Classical Period (450-425 BC)
Period of the rich rhythm (425-380 BC)
Late Classical Period (380-325 BC)

This is not the place to study step by step the changes that occurred from each period to the next; however, we find that in general each period is lined up and keeps pace with its contemporary historical, social and cultural phenomena. The same is of course true for classical art as a whole, when it follows the dominant current of the time, the gradual transition from emotion to intellect, from the mythical way of thinking to rationalism (pp. 178-81).

“Classical art, in contrast to archaic art, is characterized by the accentuation of conceptual elements against the perceptible. “The idea is dominant, and you feel that the creation of a work of art has now become a consciously intellectual process, understood and controlled.” This is classical art, writes the English art historian Bernard Ashmole. This mental condition of classical creation is evidenced by the theoretical studies that both the architects Iktinos and Karpion felt the need to write about the Parthenon, as well as the shaper of the Doryforus, Polycleitos, in order to interpret their work.

The work of the former has not survived, but from Polykleitos the Canon some characteristic passages have reached us, enough to confirm the intellectual, scientific, we could call it, background of his artistic creation as well as the extreme diligence and care for the last details in the processing of his works. Only in this way can we understand the perfection of the classical works, which was the reason for the justifiable admiration they evoked.” (Manolis Andronikos )

A special mention should be made of the reconstruction of the Acropolis, as envisioned by Pericles and carried out by a brilliant staff of artists (Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnisiklis) with Pheidias as general coordinator. The Propylaia and the sanctuaries of the Acropolis (the Parthenon, the Temple of Apterus Nike and the Erechtheion) were designed and built in just forty years. Result: an artistic and constructional marvel where tradition merges with the modern spirit, and where the serious Doric rhythm combines with the light Ionic to form a unique aesthetic whole.

It is certain that the motive of Pericles, in deciding to build the temples of the Acropolis, was not so much piety as the greatness of Athens; and as the great artists of the age willingly co-operated in the planning and execution of the work, the rebuilding of the Acropolis is a characteristic example of how religion and the visual arts, as well as the entire intellectual life, in the classical years were subordinated to and served politics, in the broadest sense of the term.

The Sophistic movement in Ancient Greece (2024)


The Sophistic movement in Ancient Greece? ›

The Sophists held no values other than winning and succeeding. They were not true believers in the myths of the Greeks but would use references and quotations from the tales for their own purposes. They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions.

What was the main idea of the Sophists? ›

The sophists focused on the rational examination of human affairs and the betterment and success of human life. They argued that gods could not be the explanation of human action.

What is an example of a sophistic argument? ›

An example of sophistry is the argument that cutting people is a crime, and since doctors cut people open, doctors commit crimes. This is the sophistry of the irrelevant conclusion.

What is the meaning of the word sophistic? ›

of or pertaining to sophists. adjective. plausible but misleading. synonyms: sophistical invalid. having no cogency or legal force.

What were the political ideas of Sophists? ›

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.

What is a sophist in ancient Greece? ›

Sophist, any of certain Greek lecturers, writers, and teachers in the 5th and 4th centuries bce, most of whom traveled about the Greek-speaking world giving instruction in a wide range of subjects in return for fees.

What was the problem with the Sophists? ›

Isocrates' Criticism of the Sophists

The first accusation is that sophists make big promises that they cannot fulfill, especially relating to having the ability to teach the virtue and justice. The inconsistency between what the sophists claim to teach and their actual ability is Isocrates' second point.

What are the characteristics of sophist theory? ›

Section 3 examines three themes that have often been taken as characteristic of sophistic thought: the distinction between nature and convention, relativism about knowledge and truth and the power of speech.

What did the Sophists claim? ›

Arguing that 'man is the measure of all things', the Sophists were skeptical about the existence of the gods and taught a variety of subjects, including mathematics, grammar, physics, political philosophy, ancient history, music, and astronomy.

What are Sophists influence today? ›

The ideas of ancient sophists are visible in those trends of today's humanities that express the essence of the democratic formation (for instance, various forms of postmodernist philosophy, Perelman's “New Rhetoric”, and all the schools of the rhetorical theory of reality).

Why was Socrates called a sophist? ›

Second, the trial of Socrates in 399 BCE seems to have changed people's attitudes towards and conceptions of the sophists drastically, because Socrates was the first and only “sophist” executed for being a sophist—i.e., one who did not believe in traditional gods and who corrupted the young.

What makes someone a sophist? ›

A sophist is someone who makes good points about an issue — until you realize those points aren't entirely true, like a political candidate who twists an opponent's words or gives misleading facts during a speech.

What is a synonym for the word sophistic? ›

adjectiveas in false, wrong. beguiling. deceiving. deceptive. deluding.

What are the four notable things about Sophists? ›

The Sophists were orators, public speakers, mouths for hire in an oral culture. They were gifted with speech. They were skilled in what becomes known as Rhetoric. They were respected, feared and hated.

What did the Sophists believe about reality? ›

To summarize, the Sophists held a variety of metaphysical viewpoints that were diametrically opposed to those held by Parmenides and Socrates. The Sophists were a group of philosophers who believed that reality was fluid and could be reshaped at will, and that there was no such thing as absolute truth or morality.

Which sophist famously claimed that man is the measure of all things? ›

Protagoras is best known for his claim that, "Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not" or, in other words, that everything is relative to individual experience, judgement, and interpretation.

What were the ideals of the Sophists? ›

They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions. They believed and taught that "might makes right". They were pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost.

What did Plato think of the Sophists? ›

For Plato, the sophist reduces thinking to a kind of making: by asserting the omnipotence of human speech the sophist pays insufficient regard to the natural limits upon human knowledge and our status as seekers rather than possessors of knowledge (Sophist, 233d).

What is Plato's sophist summary? ›

Among Plato's more cryptic and intricate works, 'The Sophist' is an extensive and systematic investigation of the dualities of truth and falsity, rhetoric and philosophy, appearance and reality. In The Sophist, Plato takes aim at two groups which can be considered his philosophical rivals, or even enemies.

What were the Sophists ideas about ethics? ›

The sophists believed morality was an a priori fact of existence, denouncing Platonic and Aristotelian nomocratic relativism. They outlined a new framework of ethics; a framework which transcends human convention and custom.

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