4 thoughts on “2010/09/16 – The Failure of Philosophy: the Legacy of the Sophists

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  2. Great post Daryll. The Sophists were a group of philosophers who taught in the ancient Greek city-states. They traveled from city to city and were hired by prominent wealthy families to train their sons in the art of public speaking, discourse, and rhetoric, which were pillars of education in ancient Greek society. They taught that there was no such thing as
    absolute truth, and that if there was one , it was not
    knowable by human beings. Because of this, they contended, language could be used to make weaker arguments stronger. A debate was not an exercise to discern the truth but rather a contest between competing arguments.
    In his aptly titled treatise The Sophist, Plato uses
    dialogic dialogue to determine the nature of the Sophists. This is, of course, a commentary on
    philosophical rivals (Plato contended that objective
    reality and absolute truth do exist, in direct
    contradiction to the Sophists’ view), but it is worth mentioning for what it says about the Sophists’ techniques.
    Plato begins by describing the Sophist as a man who practices a certain art, and that his art is akin to a hunter’s art. The Sophist, however, is a hunter of persons.
    Specifically, he hunts wealthy young Greek men to teach them his scholarly art of disputation about all things and collect a monetary reward for his services. Plato posits, however, that it is impossible for anyone
    to be able to teach the art of disputation about all
    things because to do so it would require that person to know
    everything about all things. This, Plato, says, cannot be. And yet the Sophist boldly claims the ability to do nothing less. What the Sophist actually is, Plato holds, is an illusionist, skilled in the art of image making, but ultimately unable to create anything solid and real. He then goes into a lengthy philosophical defense for the existence of objective truth, which the Sophist contends does not exist. Plato’s defense is long and complex, dealing with what he calls “being” and “non-being”. To expound on this would be a lengthy and unnecessary distraction from the subject at hand, but suffice to say Plato makes a compelling argument for the existence of absolute truth and objective reality or, as he calls it, “being”. Since there is truth, then, it follows that there must be falsehood. There must be right and wrong, correct and incorrect.
    If Plato is correct, then the Sophist view that all things are relative cannot be so. The Sophist, then, becomes a hollow man with nothing real to teach, an “imitator of the wise”, as Plato calls him ( The Sophist). It is also useful to examine another intellectual figure
    in connection with the
    Sophists, one who is a towering figure in Western thought: Friedrich Nietzsche.
    Beginning in the 1970’s, scholars have been drawing parallels between Nietzsche and the Sophists, such as
    their shared contention that morality is a matter of opinion. Nietzsche also speaks quite extensively about the Sophists in his own writings, albeit in a selective and unapologetically partisan manner, and it is worth
    giving these instances a cursory look in order to learn more about the Sophists. It is worth noting then that Nietzsche admires the Sophists and disparages Plato, holding him to be an enemy of the Greek
    culture which he held in such high esteem, In fact, “as Werner Dannhauser observes, Nietzsche’s ‘quarrel with Socrates [Plato] is part of a
    vast historical drama which he recounts and which features Socrates [Plato] as the villain and Nietzsche himself as the final hero’. Nietzsche sees
    the Sophists as his forbears, his philosophical
    ancestors, and praises them by saying every
    opponent of the Platonic schools between they and
    he has required and reaffirmed the Sophists.
    Nietzsche admired the Sophists for what he calls their “will to power”, which is actually the name of one of his works. Nietzsche contended that striving for self-excellence was the very epitome of human existence. His concept of the Superman,
    humanity evolved/ascended to godhood, is the idealized form of this.

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