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Pre-Modernism
The Sophists & Socrates


 

 

The Age of Pericles

  • Recall that the 5th cent. BC was the Athenian Golden Age-

    • greatness was achieved in art, medicine, drama, poetry, architecture,

    • and Athenian democracy thrived.
       

  • Bracketed by 2 wars:

    • 490 & 480= The Persian Wars

    • 431-404= The Peloponnesian War
       

  • But towards the end of the cent., Athens entered a period of cultural & moral decline:

    • "The common meaning of words was turned about at men's pleasure; the most reckless bravado was deemed the most desirable friend; a man of prudence and moderation was styled a coward; a man who listened to reason was a good-for-nothing simpleton."
      -Thucydides
       

  • Why? 4 reasons, all related to the nature of Democracy:

    • (1) respect for poetic traditions about the gods declined

      • seen as the source of the rulers' authority.

      • metaphysical foundation for morality/values eroded.

    • (2) Contact with other cultures cast doubt on the notion that beliefs/standards/values were universal.

      • they came to be seen as culturally constructed.

    • (3) democratic lawmaking undermined idea that a city's constitution was of divine origin.

      • and democracy encouraged a kind of individualism-

      • putting personal freedoms over familial/national loyalties.

    • (4) Conflicting opinions of philosophers caused doubts about the possibility of arriving at truth.

    • [parallels to the contemporary West? Globalization? Multiculturalism? Postmodernism?]

 

    • A bit abt Athenian education of youth:

      • basically reading, writing, arithmetic, music, poetry, and gymnastics

    • but not adequate for success-

      • during the Age of Pericles, political authority resided w/ the "Assembly"

        • abt 30k adult male citizens

        • met monthly to decide political matters

      • judicial matters were decided by majority vote-

        • juries (also acting as judges) were composed of 101 to 1001 members

        • chosen by lot

        • no professional lawyers

        • plaintiffs and defendants pled their own cases.

      • In such a setting, rhetorical skill was essential for success-

        • the power to convince through persuasive public speach
           

The Sophists

  • 'Wisdom teachers' who traveled from city to city-

    • rejected emphasis on 'being' & nature of reality.

    • saw questions about the abstract/metaphysical as unanswerable.

    • shifted philosophy to questions about human nature-

      • what is best for 'man'?

    • 'professional' wisdom teachers, who taught rhetoric for $$.


Protagoras (485-415)

  • taught 'political virtue'- esp debate skills

  • Like Parmenides, he thought it impossible to think/speak of nothing,

    • BUT, Parm used this to prove that change was an illusion, therefore the popular belief in change was false.

    • whereas Prot used this to claim that whatever you think is true IS true- for you.

    • if another person thinks differently, then that is true too- for them.

      • so, no objective truth apart from personal belief.

    • So...why would you need a Sophist?
      • b/c some ideas, while not truer, are 'better' than others-
        • i.e., more likely to achieve a desired end or get you what you want.
    • and why not act out of radical/ruthless self-interest?
      • b/c it is 'better' (again, not truer) to live acc to traditionally accepted values/standards,
        • i.e., more politically expedient, and if the such values are not to your advantage,
          • you can convince others to change them.


  • Some thoughts:
  • 'Man is the measure of all things- of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.'

    • a humanist- what is best for man is the focus of philosophy.

    • a relativist- there is no objective standard to which man can appeal for truth or values

      • they are relative to communities, even individuals.

      • thus, 'man is the measure,' not 'being,' 'God,' etc.

      • opposite is realism- there are values/truths that are universal, objective.
         

  • claimed that, for every issue, 'there are two opposing arguments.'

    • i.e., pro or con. The person who makes the best case for their side and persuades others to agree wins- but that does not make their position 'truer,' or more real.

    • wrote Antilogiae, a collection of pro/con arguments

    • thus, rhetoric & relativism are connected- w/o absolute standards, the values of the polis are determined by human agreement

      • and persuading others to agree w/ you becomes paramount.

      • ANY effective method of persuasion is valid,

      • and argument is not constrained by logic/reasoning.

         

  • claimed he was able 'to make the weaker argument the stronger.'

    • i.e. he could teach one how to make any argument seem convincing.
       

    • Such a philosophy was perfect for 5th cent. Athens-

      • democracy is, in effect, rule by 'opinion' (Gk. δοξα)

      • it cannot 'tolerate' the 'tyranny of the absolute.'

         

  • 'concerning the gods, I am unable to know that they are, or that they are not.'

    • he was truly agnostic- believed we could have 'no knowledge' of the transcendent, divine, absolute.

      • so, it cannot be a standard or starting point for govt.
         

  • Acc to legend, Protagoras was prosecuted in Athens for impiety,

    • and died in a shipwreck while fleeing the city.

    • Irony, anyone?

Gorgias (died abt 380 BC)

  • rejected the idea (contra Protagoras) that 'virtue' was teachable-

    • taught only rhetoric, acknowledged that it could be used to bad ends,

    • but considered himself blameless when this happened b/c it was not his intent.

  • a relativist b/c of the disagreements of the Presocs-

    • they could not agree upon a structure underlying reality b/c there wasn't one.

  • "when persuasion joins with speech, it can affect the soul in any way it wishes."
     

Callicles (a contemporary of Gorgias)

  • Took sophistic relativism to its logical extreme-

    • If there is no truth/opinion distinction,

    • if what one believes is true for them,

    • then if one believes 'might makes right,' then it's true for him/her.

  • Saw virtue as convention, not human nature.

    • in fact, he thought nature revealed quite the opposite:

      • In nature, it seems that the superior rules over and has more than the inferior, all are not "treated as equals."

    • Believed that conventional concepts of virtue were no more than attempts by the weak to protect themselves from the will of the strong...


  • A paradoxical question: Is relativism 'bad'?

    • more to the point- given the precondition of democracy, is relativism an unrealistic starting point for politics? Where else would it start?

    • the response to the relativism of Protagoras and the Sophists comes from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

     

 

Σωκρατης

Socrates (469-399 BC)

 

  • Socrates himself wrote nothing [like another famous teacher I could mention...]

    • Plato prob. tells why in Phaedrus, where Soc. offers 4 reasons why writing is bad-
       

      • writing weakens memory.

        • we no longer 'learn by heart,' but become dependent on a system of external symbols.
           

      • It makes us dumber not smarter-

        • by eliminating the distinction between what is worth remembering and what is not,

        • it gives the appearance of wisdom to the worthless.
           

      • Soc. thought that a written text took on a life of its own,

        • subject to incorrect interpretation,

        • w/o the author there to clarify.
           

      • It cannot 'refuse itself' to anyone-

        • he thought some people simply should not read certain things,

        • b/c they are incapable of understanding.
           

      • He preferred speech, 'the legitimate brother of the bastard,' aka writing.

         

  • Soc. is known to us from 3 sources:

    • Plato's dialogues

      • our most important source, and most complete picture, but...

      • Is it the 'historical Socrates,' or a mouthpiece for Plato's own philosophy?
         

    • Xenophon's Memorabilia,

      • also important and sympathetic,

      • but they contribute little that isn't also in Plato.
         

    • Aristophanes' Clouds,

      • ridicules Socrates, making him look like a buffoon.

      • or, does it ridicule popular beliefs about Socrates?

        • Plato portrays Aristophanes sympathetically in Symposium, where he offers a humorous account of the origins of Love.

           

  • What can be known about him?

    • Born 469,

    • his father was a sculptor; his mother a midwife.

    • Served as a hoplite in the Athenian military during the Peloponnesian War.

    • an unimpressive physical appearance.
       

    • Towards the end of the Pel. War, an anti-Democratic revolt took place in Athens,

      • and the city was ruled for about a year by what came to be called the 'Tyranny of the Thirty'

      • Among the revolutionaries were some men who had been former students of Socrates.

      • when they were overthrown and the Democracy was replaced,

        • general amnesty was granted to all involved,

        • but Socrates was distrusted,

        • and disliked anyways because his questioning had often embarrassed those in power.

    • He could not be charged with any crimes assoc. w the tyranny,

      • so he was brought up on other charges.

      In 399 BC, found guilty by an Athenian court of

      • corrupting the youth of the city

      • being an 'atheist'- rejecting belief in the city's gods.

      • spent 30 days in prison, died from drinking hemlock.
         

    • In Apology, he claims:

      • the oracle at Delphi told his friend Chaerephon that no man was wiser than Socrates.

      • Puzzled by the riddle, he sought to disprove the oracle by finding someone wiser than himself.

        • sought out politicians, poets, craftsmen,

        • all thought they were wise, but when questioned, they were not, and didn't like having it pointed out to them.
           

      • Socrates' conclusion:

        • I am wiser than they for this reason alone: I am wise enough to know how ignorant I am.
           

    • spent the rest of his life questioning the assumptions of others, seeking wisdom.

    • concerned with the 'good life'- what is best for humanity?

    • a constant questioner-

      • sought to refine definitions of words/concepts often taken for granted and not reflected upon:

        • What is Justice? ...Courage? ...Beauty? ...Love? ...Truth? etc.

        • sought universal answers.
           

    • often did not answer his own questions-

      • just showed others that their own answers were insufficient.

      • The 'Dialectic'- a method of teaching by questioning.
         

    • Was concerned that Sophistry was philosophically mistaken and morally corrosive-

      • convinced of the necessity of distinguishing knowledge from opinion.

    • Acc to Cicero, it was Soc. who 'first called philosophy down from the sky, set it in cities and even introduced it into homes, and compelled it to consider life and morals, good and evil.'

      • well, not exactly...
         

Socrates' Philosophy

  • Aristotle claims that Socrates made 2 major contributions to philosophy:

    • Inductive arguments

      • reasoning from some examples of a class of things to general conclusions about all members of that class.
         

    • Universal definitions

      • suppose 2 diff. people perform 2 diff. acts at diff. times,

      • but both can be described as 'just.'

        • either the word means the same thing in both cases, or it doesn't.

          • but if no commonality of meaning, then language becomes meaningless.

          • If there is commonality, then 'just' refers to some quality or property found in all cases of 'justice.'

          • and a universal definition can be found. We use these to:

            • identify things

            • evaluate how well a thing fulfills its purpose.

               

  • The doctrine of Recollection or 'innate ideas.'

    • saw himself not as a teacher, but as a 'midwife of ideas.'

      • he does not give knowledge;

      • he helps others to find it within themselves.

      • Socrates assumed that, when these ideas were revealed, they would be the same for everyone [i.e. universally true]

    • resolves the "Meno Problem":

      • if we have no prior knowledge of a thing, how will we know it when we see it? If we can only know a thing with prior knowledge, how is any learning possible?

         

  • Socrates' Metaphysics

    • most in the dialogues is probably from Plato, but one aspect is likely from Socrates:

      • The Human Soul (Gk. ψυχη)

        • he saw the soul as the true self,

        • the body merely housed it.

        • saw the soul as immortal
           

      • So, care of the soul is more important than care of the body.

      • An excellent soul is:

        • well-ordered

        • wisdom-seeking

        • in control of emotions and the body's desires.

      • What follows?

        • The just person can never harm another, nor can another person ever truly harm a just person.

        • Huh?

        • Physically, yes. But your physical self is not your true self.

        • And your soul, which is your true self, cannot be harmed unless you allow it to be (thus you are responsible).

           

  • Socrates' Ethics

    • saw the most important goal for humans as living well,

      • same as living justly.

      • we must understand our purpose, our 'perfect end,' to live justly.

      • virtue (Gk. αρετη) is that which helps us to perfect ourselves.

        • [not the same as our concept of virtue]

      • Thus the connection between knowledge and morality-

        • we must know what virtue is if we are to live well.
           

    • Socrates reasons:

      • we naturally pursue our own good.

      • being virtuous is what is our good.

      • the wise person, who knows what is good, will do it.

      • In essence, to know the good is to do the good.

      • Also, no one chooses to do evil knowingly.

        • rather, we choose evil b/c we are mistaken about the good.
           

      • Realize that Socrates equates knowledge w/ wisdom,

        • so it is more than just knowing facts.

        • it involves real conviction, and a reason-dominated soul.

           

  • Socrates & the πολις

    • offers no comprehensive political philosophy,

    • but a few convictions:

      • distrusted democracy

        • [competence in a discipline requires knowledge, so governing would require a special knowledge that only some would have]
           

      • nevertheless, laws merit obedience. If we disagree, we can

        • argue for change

        • lawfully leave & renounce citizenship.

        • [but what if our citizenship is involuntary?]
           

      • but to disobey

        • tramples on the rule of law

        • encourages disrespect for the state

        • returns injustice for injustice, thereby corrupting the soul.
           

    • Implicitly, Socrates confirms 2 important political concepts:

      • social contract- as citizens, we enter into a binding agreement with the state, obligations are placed on both.

      • natural law- morality is universal and can be known through reason & experience.

        • Gov'ts/cultures do not create morality; on the contrary, their constitutions and laws are judged as just according to natural law.

 

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