The Sophists – we are the measure of all things – PhilosophyMT (2024)

Today, calling someone a sophist is often meant in an disapproving way. We often use the term for a certain type of individual: a sleazy politician, a shady lawyer, or some other figure good at bending the truth with clever but false arguments. These arguments, while seemingly valid, would be downright superficial and lacking real merit.

The term “sophist” can be traced back to ancient Greece and is related to the word “sophia”, meaning wisdom. Since the poet Homer, sophos referred to someone who was an expert in his profession or craft. Eventually it came to mean someone wise in human affairs such as politics and ethics: the “sages” in early Greek societies.

Who were the Sophists?

Democracy developed in Athens around the 6th Century BC. For it to work, people needed to know how to say things in a convincing manner; we call this “rhetoric”: the art of effective and persuasive communication.

“Sophist” came to refer to a number of lecturers, writers, and teachers of various subjects who lived in Greek cities between the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. They speculated about the nature of language and culture. They also excelled at using and teaching rhetoric. Often, they were employed by wealthy people. Athens, a flourishing city, was the perfect place for them to come together.

While Socrates embraced and spoke at length about universal and objective truths, the Sophists had their doubts. They spoke of relativism, where truth, knowledge, and morality are not absolute and exist only within a specific cultural, social, and historical context. For the Sophist, knowledge is merely subjective; there is no external or objective truth.

Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things”

Plato credits Protagoras of Abdera (c 490 – 420 BCE) with inventing the role of the “professional” sophist, one taking payment for his services. He does this in contrast with Socrates, whose only motivation was the truth, not payment.

Protagoras is primarily remembered for claiming the following:

1. “Man is the measure of all things.”

2. He could make the “worse (or weaker) argument appear the better (or stronger).

3. One could not tell if the gods existed or not.

Protagoras would be significantly influential on the development and history of philosophy. His relativism would inspire Plato to search for absolute and objective forms of knowledge that could somehow anchor moral judgment.

Of all things, the measure is man. Of the things that are, that (or how) they are, and of the things that are not, that (or how) they are not.

quoted in Sextus Empiricus’s Adversus Mathematicos VII 60

Gorgias: Moral truth is fiction

Gorgias (483 – 375 BCE) was another sophist figure and rhetorician. Born in Sicily (at the time an ally of Athens), his main occupation was that of teacher of rhetoric. Unfortunately, the vast majority of his writings have been lost to time and considerable alteration by later copyists.

Moral nihilism

He has been called Gorgias the nihilist for his moral nihilism. Nihilism is usually meant as the belief that life is meaningless, and as the rejection of religious and moral principles. Nothing can be really known or communicated.

Gorgias’s arguments could have been found in On Non-Existence, which unfortunately and ironically doesn’t exist any more. What we know of his arguments comes to us through commentary by other writers.

It seems he developed the following arguments:

  1. Nothing exists. If existence itself existed, it would be either eternal or generated. If it is eternal, it has no beginning and is therefore limitless. If it is without limit, then it is “nowhere”, and therefore it doesn’t exist. If, on the other hand, existence is generated, it has to come from something that exists. However, that something would run itself in the same contradiction just outlined.
  2. Even if something exists, it is incomprehensible. We can imagine chariots racing in the sea, but that does not make it actual. What happens in the mind is fundamentally distinct from what happens in the actual world.
  3. Even if we could understand, we certainly cannot convey the content of that understanding to one another. What we reveal to one another is not an external substance, but merely logos – our thoughts about things, which are not the real deal but merely internal, mental representations fundamentally different from the actual world.

As we’ve seen, the Sophists attack notions of objective truth and morality. With Protagoras, truth and morality are relative; it is the individual herself, rather than a god or some unchanging law, that is the ultimate source of value. It’s easy to apply relativism to things that are subject to taste. Let’s take strawberries as an example: if you like strawberries, then you are likely to say that they’re good, whereas if you don’t like strawberries you’re likelier to say that they’re not. In such a case, the terms good and bad are very much joined to the individual. They are qualities that we usually accept as relative to the whoever the subject is. Hence, we refer to taste as subjective. With Gorgias, if we are to consider him a nihilist, even that last bit of moral straw bed is taken from us. Morality becomes a fiction.

When truth loses its universality, things start to get a bit messy even morally speaking. Man not only becomes the measure of taste in strawberries, cars, or songs, but notions such as truth, beauty, justice, and virtue, which Socrates would insist are not subjective but objective and universal, and are subjected to the same relativism.

And here is where relativism starts to face criticism. If what is right and what is wrong is merely what seems to be right and what seems to be wrong to the individual, then how can we make claims such as murder is wrong, or compassion is a good thing? If murder, harm, or rape is not intrinsically right or wrong, then one can construct equally valid arguments for and against; morality itself becomes subjective. We can justify just about anything; all we need is the persuasive skills of an orator. With the right set of figures of speech and appeal to emotions, we can legitimise any act.

The Sophists – we are the measure of all things – PhilosophyMT (2024)

FAQs

What did the sophists mean by "man is the measure of all things"? ›

In the same way, "man is the measure of all things" could simply mean that, although objective reality exists and an Objective Truth may even exist, these things will be interpreted and understood differently by each person experiencing them.

What does the sophists claim that man is the measure of all things mean quizlet? ›

Perhaps the greatest of the Sophists was Protagoras (481-411 B.C.E.), who claimed that "man is the measure of all things" - meaning that there is no way to get outside of ourselves to check our views about what is right and wrong, or true and false.

What was the philosophy of the Sophists? ›

They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions. They believed and taught that "might makes right". They were pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost.

What is the meaning of the quote "man is the measure of all things"? ›

A statement by the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras. It is usually interpreted to mean that the individual human being, rather than a god or an unchanging moral law, is the ultimate source of value.

What does the measure of things mean? ›

The phrase "Man is the measure of things" means that humans determine the value and meaning of things based on their own perspectives and experiences.

What is the meaning of man is the measure of all things brainly? ›

Answer. The concept that "man is the measure of all things" originates from the philosophy of Protagoras, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. This statement suggests that humans are the ultimate evaluators and determiners of truth, value, and meaning.

What philosopher said man is the measure of all things? ›

Protagoras is known primarily for three claims (1) that man is the measure of all things (which is often interpreted as a sort of radical relativism) (2) that he could make the “worse (or weaker) argument appear the better (or stronger)” and (3) that one could not tell if the gods existed or not.

What is the argument against the Sophists? ›

The first accusation is that sophists make big promises that they cannot fulfill, especially relating to having the ability to teach the virtue and justice. The inconsistency between what the sophists claim to teach and their actual ability is Isocrates' second point.

Which best describes the Sophists? ›

The sophists, at least as portrayed in Plato's dialogues, are not interested in truth, or knowledge, or virtue. They are instead interested in winning arguments or persuading others, regardless of the truth of the position being advanced. They also charged for their teachings.

What did the Sophists believe about reality? ›

Answer: The Sophists viewed reality as ever-changing and malleable, emphasizing the power of rhetoric and the persuasive abilities of the human person. They rejected the notion of absolute truth and morality, instead advocating for the ability of humans to alter reality through persuasive discourse.

What did Plato think of the Sophists? ›

For Plato, the sophist reduces thinking to a kind of making: by asserting the omnipotence of human speech the sophist pays insufficient regard to the natural limits upon human knowledge and our status as seekers rather than possessors of knowledge (Sophist, 233d).

What were the morals of the Sophists? ›

The sophists believed morality was an a priori fact of existence, denouncing Platonic and Aristotelian nomocratic relativism. They outlined a new framework of ethics; a framework which transcends human convention and custom.

What does the sophist claim that man is the measure of all things mean quizlet? ›

First Greek Sophist. Said "man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not." Meaning our knowledge is limited/measured to/by our various perceptions.

What is the quote about measuring things? ›

"Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can't measure something, you can't understand it.

Is man is the measure of all things true or false? ›

Is this true or false? False. In Truth, Protagoras said man is the measure of all things. Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.

What is the measure of all things Greek? ›

It is thought that Protagoras used the phrase "Man is the measure of all things" (Ancient Greek: πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος). By this, he meant that nothing is absolutely truth, but there are different truths for each person, and each person makes the truth for themselves.

What is the measure doctrine of Protagoras? ›

Protagoras says that man is the measure of all things, just as if saying the man who knows or perceives [is the measure]; and [he says that] those men [are the measure] because one has perception and the other knowledge, which we say are measures of substances.

How does Socrates distance himself from the Sophists? ›

Socrates also wants to distance himself from the Sophists—people who went around taking money to teach people rhetoric or the art of persuasion. Socrates claims to not have the kind of knowledge that the Sophists profess to have and points out that he does not take money to teach anyone anything.

What is the theory of sophists in rhetoric? ›

SOPHIST THEORY

Sophists were a category of teachers who specialize in using the techniques of philosophy and rhetoric for purse of teaching excellence,, or virtue predominantly to young statement and nobility. Socrates condemned the practice of changing money for provision of wisdom only to those who could pay.

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