The great pre-Socratic systems that we have been considering were confronted, in the latter half of the fifth century, by a sceptical movement, in which the most important figure was Protagoras, chief of the Sophists. The word 'Sophist' had originally no bad connotation; it meant, as nearly as may be, what we mean by 'professor'. A Sophist was a man who made his living by teaching young men certain things that, it was thought, would be useful to them in practical life. As there was no public provision for such education, the Sophists taught only those who had private means, or whose parents had. This tended to give them a certain class bias, which was increased by the political circumstances of the time. In Athens and many other cities, democracy was politically triumphant, but nothing had been done to diminish the wealth of those who belonged to the old aristocratic families. It was, in the main, the rich who embodied what appears to us as Hellenic culture: they had education and leisure, travel had taken the edge off their traditional prejudices, and the time that they spent in discussion sharpened their wits. What was called democracy did not touch the institution of slavery, which enabled the rich to enjoy their wealth without oppressing free citizens.
In many cities, however, and especially in Athens, the poorer citizens had towards the rich a double hostility, that of envy, and that of traditionalism. The rich were supposed—often with justice—to be impious and immoral; they were subverting ancient beliefs, and probably trying to destroy democracy. It thus happened that political democracy was associated with cultural conservatism, while those who were cultural innovators tended to be political reactionaries. Somewhat the same situation exists in modern America, where Tammany, as a mainly Catholic organization, is engaged in defending traditional theological and ethical dogmas against the assaults of enlighten-ment. But the enlightened are politically weaker in America than they were in Athens, because they have failed to make common cause with the plutocracy. There is, however, one important and highly intellectual class which is concerned with the defence of the plutocracy, namely the class of corporation lawyers. In some respects, their functions are similar to those that were performed in Athens by the Sophists.
Athenian democracy, though it had the grave limitation of not including slaves or women, was in some respects more democratic than any modern system. Judges and most executive officers were chosen by lot, and served for short periods; they were thus average citizens, like our jurymen, with the prejudices and lack of professionalism characteristic of average citizens. In general, there were a large number of judges to hear each case. The plaintiff and defendant, or prosecutor and accused, appeared in person, not through professional lawyers. Naturally, success or failure depended largely on oratorical skill in appealing to popular prejudices. Although a man had to deliver his own speech, he could hire an expert to write the speech for him, or, as many preferred, he could pay for instruction in the arts required for success in the law courts. These arts the Sophists were supposed to teach.
The age of Pericles is analogous, in Athenian history, to the Victorian age in the history of England. Athens was rich and powerful, not much troubled by wars, and possessed of a democratic constitution administered by aristocrats. As we have seen, in connection with Anaxagoras, a democratic opposition to Pericles gradually gathered strength, and attacked his friends one by one. The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 B.C.;1 Athens (in common with many other places) was ravaged by the plague; the population, which had been about 230,000, was greatly reduced, and never rose again to its former level (Bury, History of Greece, I, p. 444). Pericles himself, in 430 B.C., was deposed from the office of general and fined for misappropriation of public money, but soon reinstated. His two legitimate sons died of the plague, and he himself died in the following year (429). Pheidias and Anaxagoras were condemned; Aspasia was prosecuted for impiety and for keeping a disorderly house, but acquitted.
In such a community, it was natural that men who were likely to incur the hostility of democratic politicians should wish to acquire forensic skill. For Athens, though much addicted to persecution, was in one respect less illiberal than modern America, since those accused of impiety and corrupting the young were allowed to plead in their own defence.
This explains the popularity of the Sophists with one class and their unpopularity with another. But in their own minds they served more impersonal purposes, and it is clear that many of them were genuinely
concerned with philosophy. Plato devoted himself to caricaturing and vilifying them, but they must not be judged by his polemics. In his lighter vein, take the following passage from the Euthydemus, in which two Sophists, Dionysodorus and Euthydemus, set to work to puzzle a simple-minded person named Clesippus. Dionysodorus begins:
You say that you have a dog?
Yes, a villain of a one, said Clesippus.
And he has puppies?
Yes, and they are very like himself.
And the dog is the father of them?
Yes, he said, I certainly saw him and the mother of the
puppies come together.
And is he not yours?
To be sure he is.
Then he is a father, and he is yours; ergo, he is your father,
and the puppies are your brothers.
In a more serious vein, take the dialogue called The Sophist. This is a logical discussion of definition, which uses the sophist as an illustration. With its logic we are not at present concerned; the only thing I wish to mention at the moment as regards this dialogue is the final conclusion:
'The art of contradiction-making, descended from an insincere kind of conceited mimicry, of the semblance-making breed, derived from image-making, distinguished as a portion, not divine but human, of production, that presents a shadow-play of words—such is the blood and lineage which can, with perfect truth, be assigned to the authentic Sophist.' (Cornford's translation.)
There is a story about Protagoras, no doubt apocryphal, which illustrates the connection of the Sophists with the law-courts in the popular mind. It is said that he taught a young man on the terms that he should be paid his fee if the young man won his first law-suit, but not otherwise, and that the young man's first law-suit was one brought by Protagoras for recovery of his fee.
However, it is time to leave these preliminaries and see what is really known about Protagoras.
Protagoras was born about 500 B.C., at Abdera, the city from which Democritus came. He twice visited Athens, his second visit being not later than 432 B.C. He made a code of laws for the city of Thurii in 444–3 B.C. There is a tradition that he was prosecuted for impiety, but this seems to be untrue, in spite of the fact that he wrote a book On the Gods, which began: 'With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.'
His second visit to Athens is described somewhat satirically in Plato's Protagoras, and his doctrines are discussed seriously in the Theaetetus. He is chiefly noted for his doctrine that 'Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.' This is interpreted as meaning that each man is the measure of all things, and that, when men differ, there is no objective truth in virtue of which one is right and the other wrong. The doctrine is essentially sceptical, and is presumably based on the 'deceitfulness' of the senses.
One of the three founders of pragmatism, F. C. S. Schiller, was in the habit of calling himself a disciple of Protagoras. This was, I think, because Plato, in the Theaetetus, suggests, as an interpretation of Protagoras, that one opinion can be better than another, though it cannot be truer. For example, when a man has jaundice everything looks yellow. There is no sense in saying that things are really not yellow, but the colour they look to a man in health; we can say, however, that, since health is better than sickness, the opinion of the man in health is better than that of the man who has jaundice. This point of view, obviously, is akin to pragmatism.
The disbelief in objective truth makes the majority, for practical purposes, the arbiters as to what to believe. Hence Protagoras was led to a defence of law and convention and traditional morality. While, as we saw, he did not know whether the gods existed, he was sure they ought to be worshipped. This point of view is obviously the right one for a man whose theoretical scepticism is thoroughgoing and logical.
Protagoras spent his adult life in a sort of perpetual lecture tour through the cities of Greece, teaching, for a fee, 'any one who desired practical efficiency and higher mental culture' (Zeller, p. 1299). Plato objects—some-what snobbishly, according to modern notions—to the Sophists' practice of charging money for instruction. Plato himself had adequate private means, and was unable, apparently, to realize the necessities of those who had not his good fortune. It is odd that modern professors, who see no reason to refuse a salary, have so frequently repeated Plato's strictures.
There was, however, another point in which the Sophists differed from most contemporary philosophers. It was usual, except among the Sophists, for a teacher to found a school, which had some of the properties of a brotherhood; there was a greater or smaller amount of common life, there was often something analogous to a monastic rule, and there was usually an esoteric doctrine not proclaimed to the public. All this was natural wherever philosophy had arisen out of Orphism. Among the Sophists there was none of this. What they had to teach was not, in their minds, connected with religion or virtue. They taught the art of arguing, and as much knowledge as would help in this art. Broadly speaking, they were prepared, like modern lawyers, to show how to argue for or against any opinion, and were not concerned to advocate conclusions of their own. Those to whom philosophy was a way of life, closely bound up with religion, were naturally shocked; to them, the Sophists appeared frivolous and immoral.
To some extent—though it is impossible to say how far—the odium which the Sophists incurred, not only with the general public, but with Plato and subsequent philosophers, was due to their intellectual merit. The pursuit of truth, when it is wholehearted, must ignore moral considerations; we cannot know in advance that the truth will turn out to be what is thought edifying in a given society. The Sophists were prepared to follow an argument wherever it might lead them. Often it led them to scepticism. One of them, Gorgias, maintained that nothing exists; that if anything exists, it is unknowable; and granting it even to exist and to be knowable by any one man, he could never communicate it to others. We do not know what his arguments were, but I can well imagine that they had a logical force which compelled his opponents to take refuge in edification. Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this, he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since. It was probably largely hostility to the Sophists that gave this character to his dialogues. One of the defects of all philosophers since Plato is that their inquiries into ethics proceed on the assumption that they already know the conclusions to be reached.
It seems that there were men, in the Athens of the late fifth century, who taught political doctrines which seemed immoral to their contemporaries, and seem so to the democratic nations of the present day. Thrasymachus, in the first book of the Republic, argues that there is no justice except the interest of the stronger; that laws are made by governments for their own advantage; and that there is no impersonal standard to which to appeal in contests for power. Callicles, according to Plato (in the Gorgias), maintained a similar doctrine. The law of nature, he said, is the law of the stronger; but for convenience men have established institutions and moral precepts to restrain the strong. Such doctrines have won much wider assent in our day than they did in antiquity. And whatever may be thought of them, they are not characteristic of the Sophists.
During the fifth century—whatever part the Sophists may have had in the change—there was in Athens a transformation from a certain stiff Puritan simplicity to a quick-witted and rather cruel cynicism in conflict with a slow-witted and equally cruel defence of crumbling orthodoxy. At the beginning of the century comes the Athenian championship of the cities of Ionia against the Persians, and the victory of Marathon in 490 B.C. At the end comes the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 B.C., and the execution of Socrates in 399 B.C. After this time Athens ceased to be politically important, but acquired undoubted cultural supremacy, which it retained until the victory of Christianity.
Something of the history of fifth-century Athens is essential to the understanding of Plato and of all subsequent Greek thought. In the first Persian war, the chief glory went to the Athenians, owing to the decisive victory at Marathon. In the second war, ten years later, the Athenians still were the best of the Greeks at sea, but on land victory was mainly due to the Spartans, who were the acknowledged leaders of the Hellenic world. The Spartans, however, were narrowly provincial in their outlook, and ceased to oppose the Persians when they had been chased out of European Greece. The championship of the Asiatic Greeks, and the liberation of the islands that had been conquered by the Persians, was undertaken, with great success, by Athens. Athens became the leading sea power, and acquired a considerable imperialist control over the Ionian islands. Under the leadership of Pericles, who was a moderate democrat and a moderate imperialist, Athens prospered. The great temples, whose ruins are still the glory of Athens, were built by his initiative, to replace those destroyed by Xerxes. The city increased very rapidly in wealth, and also in culture, and, as invariably happens at such times, particularly when wealth is due to foreign commerce, traditional morality and traditional beliefs decayed.
There was at this time in Athens an extraordinarily large number of men of genius. The three great dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all belong to the fifth century. Aeschylus fought at Marathon and saw the battle of Salamis. Sophocles was still religiously orthodox. But Euripides was influenced by Protagoras and by the free-thinking spirit of the time, and his treatment of the myths is sceptical and subversive. Aristophanes, the comic poet, made fun of Socrates, Sophists, and philosophers, but, nevertheless, belonged to their circle; in the Symposium Plato represents him as on very friendly terms with Socrates. Pheidias the sculptor, as we have seen, belonged to the circle of Pericles.
The excellence of Athens, at this period, was artistic rather than intellectual. None of the great mathematicians or philosophers of the fifth century were Athenians, with the exception of Socrates; and Socrates was not a writer, but a man who confined himself to oral discussion.
The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. and the death of Pericles in 429 B.C. introduced a darker period in Athenian history. The Athenians were superior at sea, but the Spartans had supremacy on land, and repeatedly occupied Attica (except Athens) during the summer. The result was that Athens was over-crowded, and suffered severely from the plague. In 414 B.C. the Athenians sent a large expedition to Sicily, in the hope of capturing Syracuse, which was allied with Sparta; but the attempt was a failure. War made the Athenians fierce and persecuting. In 416 B.C. they conquered the island of Melos, put to death all men of military age and enslaved the other inhabitants. The Trojan Women of Euripides is a protest against such barbarism. The conflict had an ideological aspect, since Sparta was the champion of oligarchy and Athens of democracy. The Athenians had reason to suspect some of their own aristocrats of treachery, which was generally thought to have had a part in the final naval defeat at the battle of Aegospotami in 405 B.C.
At the end of the war, the Spartans established in Athens an oligarchical government, known as the Thirty Tyrants. Some of the Thirty, including Critias, their chief, had been pupils of Socrates. They were deservedly unpopular, and were overthrown within a year. With the compliance of Sparta, democracy was restored, but it was an embittered democracy, precluded by an amnesty from direct vengeance against its internal enemies, but glad of any pretext, not covered by the amnesty, for prosecuting them. It was in this atmosphere that the trial and death of Socrates took place (399 B.C.).