Part I. GREEK PHILOSOPHY -
Sect. 2. The Moral Period
It was said of Socrates that he brought philosophy out of the seclusion of the
schools into the arena of common life. This was the feature not of Socrates
only, but of Greek thought generally at the period at which we have now arrived.
After the victories of the Persian wars, the mental and spiritual life of the
nation became intensified, and knowledge, formerly confined to the few,
broadened out and became the possession of the multitude.
The nation as a whole,
disciplined by the stern experiences it had passed through, had
entered upon its manhood. Greece had become the foremost nation
in the world. At the head of the Athenian State stood Pericles,
the master of oratory and statesmanship, around whom were
clustered the most illustrious names in poetry, science and art.
It was an era of great mental activity, rich in every form of
intellectual achievement. Knowledge was coming to be valued for
its practical results.
The State now demanded light on the complex questions of
government and policy. In every department of activity the man of culture and
education was recognised as the most capable and the most useful, and truth was
sought as a means to successful attainment. Positions in the political
and social world were no longer acquired by birth or rank, but by ability, and
the man who desired to gain honour found that intellectual discipline and study
were indispensable. Nowhere were these tendencies so manifest as in Athens, the
capital of Greece, and the centre of its political life.
This demand for education created the supply, and the Sophists came forward into
public life as the teachers of the people. From all parts of Greece philosophers
of different schools flocked towards Athens to expound their various doctrines.
The Sophists, as these wandering teachers were called, were the inaugurators of
this age of enlightenment. It became their vocation to instruct the youth in
those mental accomplishments which seemed necessary to success in life. The
Sophists, as Mr. Grote and others have pointed out, were not so much a
philosophic sect as a professional class who taught for payment and came forward
to meet a demand. As one of the primal requirements for politics was a capacity
for public speaking, the Sophists became teachers of eloquence and rhetoric.
These masters or teachers of wisdom would obviously not confine their teaching
to the young. "They brought to the altars of rhetoric and literature," says Gomperz, "the same gifts and resources which served them in their teaching
capacity." Modern life has no exact parallel to the Sophists. They resembled the
journalists and men of letters of to-day in their constant readiness for the war
of words. They earned a rich meed of reward no less than material success, and
the enthusiasm that their foremost representatives aroused in the youth of
Greece, with its keen love of beauty and culture, was immeasurable. The best
known of these—Protagoras, Hippias, Prodicus and Gorgias—were men of high
attainments and almost encyclopaedic learning, which they used for the highest
purposes. For the most part they were men of lofty ideals, whose aim it was to
inculcate virtues and practical wisdom into their pupils, and in the "choice of
Hercules" by Prodicus and in Plato's dialogue of "Protagoras" we may see what their teaching
was when it was at its best. Too often, however, the ends of truth were
sacrificed for outward brilliancy and mere elegance of language. Philosophy
underwent a change in character and spirit. Research, in so far as it was
seriously pursued, turned away from the old problems of being to questions of
life and ethics, investigating the inner activities of man,—his thoughts,
sensations and volitions.
The danger of this condition of things was that the Sophist became content with
the mere discussion of terms and the graceful presentation of ideas irrespective
of the worth of truth. Gradually the question as to whether there was any
universally valid truth was discarded and a general spirit of scepticism
It would be a mistake to stigmatize the Sophists as a class as the corrupters of
the youth of their times, and to charge them with undermining the morality of
Greece. They were born at a time of political ferment, when new political forces
were coming into conflict with old customs. The Persian wars had brought about a
disintegration of society and created a general upheaval of life and thought in
Athens. New radical ideas were set up in opposition to conservative beliefs. The
spirit of democracy was breaking down the sanctity of law and awakening in the
minds of individuals the consciousness of the rights of private judgment. Not
only were the established laws of the State called in question, but the moral
law, the very meaning and obligation of virtue and justice and truth, was
brought to the bar of criticism. "The whole epoch," as has been said, "was
penetrated with a spirit of revolution and progress." This spirit was reflected
in the development of poetry, and especially of the drama. "The whole action of
the drama," says Zeller, "comic as well as tragic, was based on the collision
of duties and rights." The Sophists were the representatives of the spirit of
the age. The Sophistic movement was not so much a cause
as a symptom: its danger lay in stimulating those new tendencies to
individualism and radicalism which needed control. It was only natural that they
should take part in the intellectual movement of the times and become the
mouthpiece of ideas which were rising into predominance. They were the critics
of the period, and in general the vehicles of emancipation, though the majority
of them, possibly on account of their dependence on the public, maintained an
attitude of moderation, and none of them was so radical an assailer of tradition
and superstition as Socrates or even Plato himself. In the eyes of the
old-fashioned and conservative, the whole class was regarded with suspicion,
because they set themselves in opposition to the popular religious belief and
fixed conventions of the past. It is unfortunate that in forming a conception of
the teaching and influence of the Sophists we are dependent almost solely for
our information regarding them on their victorious opponents, Plato and
Aristotle. In Plato's Protagoras we have a delineation of a Sophist congress
full of irony, and in the Gorgias and the Theaetetus a serious criticism of
their methods of teaching. In the dialogue, the Sophist, we have a somewhat
malicious definition of their theories. Aristotle also seeks to expose their
fallacies, and in general regards them with little approbation.
For a long time this depreciatory judgment of the Sophists was repeated, and the
title "Sophist" was used in a disparaging sense. Hegel was the first to
rehabilitate the Sophists, and he claims for them as a class that they fostered
culture and scattered many fruitful seeds of thought.
The Sophists flourished from about 450 B.C. to 400 B.C. Though Sophism as a
profession did not entirely disappear at the later date, after the appearance of
Socrates the movement dwindled into insignificance.
The chief Sophists were Protagoras, the individualist; Gorgias, the nihilist;
and Prodicus, the moralist.
1. Protagoras was born at Abdara about the year 440. He was a man of upright
character, whose life was darkened by the shadows of national misfortune. Though
a friend of Democritus in his youth, his thoughts were transferred from the
investigation of nature to the study of human affairs. He was the first to call
himself a Sophist, which meant an itinerant teacher of wisdom. He made repeated
visits to Athens, where he was honoured with the friendship of Pericles and
Euripides and other eminent men. As a teacher he was in great demand, and his
instruction centred in a preparation for public life. He was a witness of the
deadly struggle between Athens and Sparta, and of the fearful ravages of
pestilence which were added to the horrors of war, and he extols the heroism of
his patron, Pericles, under the calamities of his time. He himself fell a
victim, like his contemporaries, Anaxagoras and Socrates, to the fanaticism of
the masses. At the age of seventy he was expelled from the city on a charge of
Atheism, and was said to have been drowned on the voyage to Sicily.
His work On the Gods was burned in the marketplace. It begins with the words, "Of the gods I know not whether they are or are not—many things, such as the
obscurity of the subject and the brevity of life, prevent us from knowing."
He held that there is no absolute being and no universal knowledge. All truth is
simply a matter of subjective feeling. Good or bad does not belong to the nature
of things, but is determined solely by law and agreement. Starting from the
Heraclitic thought of perpetual flux, he applied the principle to the
individual. He enunciated his famous dictum that "man is the measure of all
things," by which he meant that truth is relative to the individual. His
feelings and desires are his only test of what is true and good, and therefore
his only guide in matters of duty. The individual is the measure of the true and
the good. An act that benefits one man is bad for another. Practical
truth is a relative thing—a matter of taste, temperament and education.
It is impossible to prove anything but the fact of sensation, and it is still
more impossible to know the ultimate causes of reality.
Let a man therefore occupy himself—as the only accessible object—with
Let him abandon all sterile speculations with regard to nature. Happiness is the
only problem of importance. To be happy is to govern one's self. Hence
philosophy is the art of being virtuous. As a means let us think correctly and
speak correctly. Protagoras was thus the champion of individualism, the first
agnostic and advocate of the relativity of knowledge. As a teacher he was also
the earliest to introduce grammar into his curriculum, and it is remarkable that
in the teaching of Greek thought there was before him not the remotest attempt
to distinguish the forms of expression or to analyse the principles of speech.
As a teacher of rhetoric he invented themes in which his pupils were to argue
the pros and cons. Though these practices tended to produce formalism, we cannot
lay the blame at the door of the man who gave the first impulse to the art of
forensic oratory for which Greece has given the model to the world.
For the personal integrity of Protagoras Plato himself vouches. In
the dialogue bearing his name, whenever he has to choose between a lower
and a higher standard of ethics, the higher is invariably represented by
2. Gorgias (483-375) of Leontini in Sicily carried the spirit of agnosticism
still further, in so far as he denied all truth and despaired of finding any
standard of knowledge. He was sent by his countrymen to Athens at the head of an
embassy to solicit help against Syracuse. Here he gained a great literary
reputation. In old age he betook himself to Thessaly. His character and speech
were said to have been marked by vulgar ostentation. In physical philosophy he was an adherent of Empedocles, but his activity lay chiefly in the
domain of rhetoric, in which he rivalled Protagoras. In his chief work—On Nature
or the Nonexistent, which has been preserved by Sextus Empiricus—he emphasises
his three famous propositions: 1st, nothing exists; 2nd, even if anything did
exist, it could not be known; 3rd, and even if it could be known, it would be
If Protagoras affirmed that every opinion was equally true, Gorgias declared
that every opinion was equally false. Such thoroughgoing scepticism makes
knowledge impossible. All is delusion. Gorgias has been called, with reason, a
It is only necessary to mention the names of Prodicus of Chios and Hippias of
3. Prodicus discoursed upon the choice of a life-purpose, upon adversity and
death. He displayed keen observation, and was characterized by purity of moral
sentiment, on account of which he has been called the forerunner of Socrates. He
ventured to account for religion on utilitarian principles. In early times he
said men deified whatever was profitable to themselves; thus bread was
worshipped as Demeter, wine as Dionysus, water as Poseidon, and so forth. He is
best known on account of what might be called his moralizing essays, the most
celebrated of which is entitled Hercules at the Cross-Roads, an allegory not
without its influence upon early Christian literature.
Of Hippias of Elis, a younger contemporary of Protagoras,
it is enough to call to mind his extraordinary attainments. He
was astronomer, mathematician, poet and even sculptor. He
interests us chiefly on account of the famous distinction which
he drew between nature and law, between what is originally
binding by the constitution of things and what is of merely
human enactment. Plato attributes to him the bold paradox—"Law
is the tyrant of man because it prescribes many things contrary
to nature." There were not wanting others who carried to their
extreme consequences these revolutionary utterances.
The later Sophists were for the most part free-thinkers, and many of them became
simply charlatans, who undermined all law and morals, representing the right of
the strong as the law of nature, and preaching the unrestrained satisfaction of
the senses. The maxim attributed to Protagoras, "man is the measure of the
universe," may be accepted as the common principle of the Sophists. The meaning
which they attached to this saying was that truth, goodness, beauty, are
relative to the individual. There is no absolute standard of right—what a man
holds to be true is true for him. This doctrine, if carried to its extreme, as
it was by several of the Sophists, is the denial of all objective truth and
morality. The Sophists held that the criterion of right is personal advantage.
They carried this rule of expediency into every department of life, making all
law and justice yield to individual interest. In assuming this position they
were impelled partly by the character of the age and partly by the tendency of
recent philosophy—especially the atomist theory of sensation.
In Greece at this time individualism reigned supreme, State trampled upon State.
The old traditional respect for the validity of law began to waver. The frequent
and sudden changes of constitution undermined the people's reverence for statute
as a divine institution. The laws of the State became a subject of discussion.
Losing their veneration for ancient custom, the people were not slow in
violating private as well as public rights, and the question arose whether there
was any primary universal standard of right and justice at all.
Not only were the Sophists influenced by the experiences of public life, but
also, on the one hand, by the teaching of Anaxagoras with respect to the
supremacy of the mind, and, on the other, by the atomist theory of sensation.
Before the time of Anaxagoras nature was held to be greater than man, and all
that came from nature,—law, government, necessity,—were regarded with
unquestioning reverence. But Anaxagoras revealed a power superior to nature—the
mind which controlled nature. But if mind existed anywhere it had its seat in
man: so that man, possessed of intellect, was really greater than nature. Thus,
argued the Sophists, instead of the universe being the measure of man, to which
he must bow, man is the measure of the universe, where he may impose his power
In one sense the doctrine of the Sophists embodies a valuable truth. Man, in so
far as he is sharer of the universal mind and is true to the truth as it exists
for all men, is indeed the measure of the universe. But the Sophists, as we have
seen, made the individual man, with his subjective feelings and desires, the
standard of truth and right. They acknowledged no universal faculty in man, and
were led to the conclusion that whatever appeared to any individual to be true,
was to him true; and whatever ministered to his personal advantage or pleasure
was for him right and good. The later Sophists indeed pushed the doctrine of
Protagoras to its last consequences and taught that the individual ought to
follow solely the impulses of his own nature.
There is no objective truth, and sensations are our only test of good. The free
man, therefore, should not bridle his desires, but let them have their full
Greek Philosophy. Pluralistic Theories
Greek Philosophy. Socrates. Cynics and Cyrenaics