Sophists, A Revaluation: Overview
Following the personal recollections of Plato, the insight but not the epistemology of Nietzsche, and the philosophic revelations of Pirsig in, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the following essays seek to incite a ‘reconsideration’ of the ‘genus’ Sophists, a tree with many incompatible branches, it turns out. By looking at the philosophic, then the psychological, and finally the cultural, historical, and archaeological roots of this tree I hope to make known both the seed from which it came, and the sower, and then to lop off the usurping branches grafted by error or worse, leaving the pure tree as intended, out of which grew, a ‘Socrates’.
Sophists, A Revaluation: Philosophic Basis
Why would I call myself a sophist when the common description of a sophist, of ‘sophistry’ is derogatory? I am a sophist because I wish to correct an error and rightly honor certain sophists known and unknown who have been unfairly lumped together with others not so honorable.
Of a certainty, Socrates was a sophist, and as such, the philosopher Socrates shall serve as evidence for this revaluation mostly because posterity failed to record the works of others of the Socratic-type sophists, but of this I feel sure, that Socrates was not the first but the last (maybe) of a long line of ‘wise men’ reaching who knows how far back in antiquity, practicing ancient arts which from generation to generation were used to pass the torch of truth as a light unto the world.
Our underestimation of the pre-Greek world in general is horrendous. For at least two thousand years before the golden age of Greece highly ‘sophisticated’ civilizations existed across the globe. We know from the archaeological record that extensive trade occurred between there far-flung enclaves of culture during that time. As is usually the case in any human interaction, ideas must have spread along these trade routes as well. The human thirst for the ‘new’ would have seen to that.
I conjecture that just as the dissemination of information and philosophies today have resulted in a defacto one world culture the same transfer of philosophies was occurring in those ‘pre-Socratic’ cultures and at least in the individuals whom had the talent for these endeavors and the access to such idea-traders or ‘disseminators’ there would have been the beginnings of a unified philosophy maturing among a loose network of ‘Adepts’, ‘Sophists’, ‘Gurus’, ‘Masters’, ‘Sufis’, etc.; by whatever name the same pool of ideas watered the diverse philosophic flowerings along the edge of the pool. This is the rich two thousand year tradition from which the ‘pre-Socratics’ grew and were nourished. The few individual ‘pre-Socratics’ we still have record of most likely represent a very minute sample, all from only one locality, Asia Minor.
Of this legacy and against this backdrop Socrates made his daily rounds, engaging the curious and the earnest in dialog, always seeking to guide and inspire desire for reflection and ‘the examined life’. Never accepting money, he challenged those around him to look beyond appearances to the essence of our existence. Seeking nothing for himself but the truth and the joy of sharing it, this reportedly ugly, disheveled, unkempt, ragged man was a thorn in the flesh of the self-satisfied Athenians for at least forty years till they finally put him to death by poison for ‘corrupting the youth’ and blasphemy.
Socrates was certainly a sophist yet he did not believe in the moral relativity which is erroneously ascribed to all sophists. In his words recorded by Plato in the ‘dialogues’ dealing with his trial and death he repeatedly affirmed his belief in an absolute God (which was the basis of the charge of 'blasphemy' brought against him by the good pantheistic citizens of Athens). Of these dialogues at least, I believe Plato was faithful in recording his mentor's words, to honor his memory. Other dialogues may be more problematic, as some believe Plato used Socrates to speak his own views.
In the dialogue ‘Phaedrus’, which is probably one of the last written by Plato, Socrates makes (allegedly) what would appear to be a problematic speech on persuasive oration where he supposedly says that in making speeches to win arguments in court or otherwise truth is irrelevant. All that matters is plausibility. If the truth is implausible then you must not say the truth if you want to win (paraphrased). This would seem to put Socrates in bed with the moral relativists but consider this. To lie about what is true does not imply that you believe there is no absolute truth. It only says that deliberate misleading or false statements are sometimes more prudent than the unabashed truth when dealing with men or legal entities, which may be hypocritical in light of his professed belief in an absolute, it may be more pragmatism that idealism, but it is not the same as moral relativism as in Protagoras. [More telling as to Socrates true morality is the fact that he could have denied his belief in a one absolute God at his trial, yet he did not.] Socrates (or maybe Plato here) merely spoke a ‘truth’ about truth seldom acknowledged in polite society. Even honorable men will say or do that which is less than forthright or upright if necessary to insure survival or even less, to acquire that which they desire.
Such is the nature of the human beast.
Despite these exigencies Socrates saw in man a higher nature as well, and the dialectics and rhetorical methods of his arguments were techniques in oral education derived from the previously mentioned ‘ancient arts’, designed and employed as catalysis to ‘spark’, ‘prod’, or ‘point’ the adept ‘toward’ the ‘self-discovery’ of truth and ‘Arête’, or, ‘Excellence', which is Pirsig’s ‘Quality’ in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book which if fully understood, is a better education on this subject than a hundred philosophy courses in our ‘universities’. The infamous moral relativism of certain but not all sophists was based on the belief that either, 1) There is no absolute, no ‘ideal forms’, no unequivocal truth or good to look to in justifying a particular morality or 2) If there is an absolute it is unknowable (foundation of modern existentialism). Socrates’ belief in an absolute is perhaps even more significant in this case because it grew from personal direct experience or ‘revelation’ of a type of phenomena associated with the dimensionality of the absolute. Such “encounters” of various forms are in fact the true reason such a ‘belief’ has been maintained throughout history.
The atheist or agnostic would ascribe these beliefs to superstition and fantasies created to ‘explain’ imagined or misunderstood aspects of experience. The truth is innumerable people throughout history up to the present day have had and continue to have experiences that cannot be explained any other way. Despite the disdain of ‘scientists’, the world is a place that five senses cannot, except for rarer circumstances, completely comprehend or detect. Yet those ‘special-relativity’ circumstances do occur, and are examples of the true condition of man in the world, which I call 'Absolute Relativity’.
As to the other Socratic-type sophists we may rightly conjecture that history is biased in favor of the fierce over the fine, the simple over the complex and profound. Whether from experience, intuition, or ontological insight there must have been many pre-Socratic sophists who, as did Socrates, condemned relativism, while using the same rhetorical, ‘circumambulatory’ techniques to reveal the essence of a otherwise unknowable absolute. Don’t ask me how I know this, ‘I JUST KNOW IT’.
©2003 Thomas Theodore Welborn