Sophistry and Socrates: Similarities and Differences
Socrates found nothing in the sophists’ arguments concerning human affairs but the self-inflicted imaginary wisdom. In his view, reasonable and creative activity of an individual, as well as any positive personal development, are theoretically and practically impossible without the recognition of absolute truth and the true norms of human activity. However, their views had much in common. The paper will argue that Socrates and the Sophists shared simultaneously similar and different understanding of the role of an individual in the process of learning.
The appearance of the Sophists on the philosophical horizon was accompanied by making a clear statement about the role of a subject, i.e. person, in the learning process. To this end, the Sophists introduced the epistemological problem of the reliability of human knowledge. However, they did not recognize any objective truth. Any opinions were seen as equally true and false. Each thing could be described in terms of different and even contrary judgments, which might be equally convincing. Hence, the Protagoras’s principle was that “man is the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are, of the non-existence of the things that are not” (Burrell, 1932, p. 36). This means that the world of things is the way it appears in one’s sensations. Human knowledge cannot reach beyond the feelings and experiences of a subject.
The conclusion is that an objective truth, strictly speaking, is impossible. If there is no objective truth, and an individual perceives oneself as the measure of all things, then this person also becomes own measure of all the rules of behavior. Furthermore, if only those legal and ethical things are real that seem real, people are not guaranteed against the consequent conclusion that everything is permitted to everyone. It is clear that the arguments of Protagoras and the Sophists led them to the complete relativism in all fields of knowledge and culture. Their individualistic setting to understand the community and public life crushed society into searate “atoms,” highlighted the individual, specific, and special, forgetting the totality (universal), and announcing it as fiction.
Socrates strongly opposed individualism, subjectivism, and relativism of the Sophists. Nonetheless, he made a point significantly different from the positions of a wide range of his fellow citizens. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates was convinced that, despite the variety of people in terms of all their differences associated with the ways of life, behavior, and experiences, there is always something that unites them. It can be expressed in a single concept or idea. Therefore, different people can have a common understanding of something. For example, if it is virtue and a variety of its manifestations, it is possible to speak of a single virtue in itself, regardless of its parts or manifestations. In Plato’s dialogue “Protagoras” (1992), Socrates argued that the existence of virtue as a whole is similar to the existence of one’s face. It brings together its different parts, such as mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. No matter how varied they are, they do not amount to the entire face, should they be taken separately. The latter comprises something common, unified, and whole. It is inseparable into parts, although it consists of them. In fact, it combines and shapes them into one.
According to Socrates, the virtues work in a similar way. They have many manifestations such as courage, justice, piety, or humility. However, this does not give one a right to dismember a single virtue to many pieces and deny the existence of virtues as an integral entity, or, in modern terms, a structure. The unity of the virtues as such an entity comprises a single content of thought that is identical to those concepts of virtues as they are discussed by individuals in different conditions. The abovementioned can be attributed to such concepts as truth, beauty, and justice.
A deep gulf between the Sophists and Socrates seemingly exclude the presence of common elements in their views. However, this is not entirely true. Neitther the Sophists nor Socrates related the fundamental problem of philosophy to cosmology, as did their predecessors. The anthropological problem became central to their systems. They were not interested in the world and its order but the human being and its life. All the natural philosophy’s cosmological and ontological statements were declared minor and of little importance. According to Socrates, “trees and open country won’t teach me anything” (Plato, 1997, p. 25). The Sophists and Socrates did not share their predecessors’ understanding of a man as a part of cosmos. However, it could be argued that Socrates agreed with Protagoras’s the “measure” thesis to a certain extent.
Eventually, common to the Sophists and Socrates is that they oriented philosophy to raise the question about the nature of human, as well as one’s place and purpose in the world. To this end, they “humanized” philosophy, arming it with humanistic goals and objectives. Nevertheless, this common understanding of the main tasks of philosophy rooted in differences in principles. First of all, they are related to the interpretation of the concept of a “man.” The Sophists, referring to an individual, emphasized the divergence between people. They came, in this regard, so far as to talk about the impossibility of a common understanding of a certain subject by different individuals in varying conditions. They believed that a specific term expressed by a certain object, while comprises a single content of thought, is broken down into a lot of contents by people’s perception. Thus, the thought loses its unity. From this perspective, the subject of thought will not stay identical even for the same person, given that one’s capacity and ability of perception will vary at different times and conditions.
To conclude, one of the main differences between Socrates and the Sophists is related to the question of the existence of objective truth. The Sophists were sure that there was no truth outside of an individual. Socrates strongly opposed this view.