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Monday 14 November 2005

In the latter half of the fifth century, a group called the Sophists ("those with wisdom") shifted the inquiry away from natural science and towards the nature of morality and society. Socrates follows in the footsteps of the early Sophists in making ethics his primary topic; with this and with Plato’s overwhelming concern with ethics, Greek philosophy became primarily concerned with ethical and civic virtue. A knowledge of the ideas of their predecessors is the best way to approach Plato and Aristotle. These early Greek philosophers who preceded Socrates, the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, are divided up into several schools.

The Sophists were professional teachers who, for a fee, would undertake to teach their students how to get ahead in the world.

Socrates was often allied with them by his contemporaries, but his purposes were, in some respects, different. The best-known Sophists were Protagoras, Gorgias, and Hippias, who were significant original thinkers.

To get a position of importance, especially in a democracy, one had to have oratorical skill, strength in debate, and a knowledge of law and politics; one would need to know how to manage property and maybe run the State, and know something of music, astronomy, math, physics, and so on.

The Sophist equipped one to be a leading citizen, and supplied answers to help people live in a world whose reality had been somewhat undermined by the Pre-Socratics.

Philosophers of antiquity have nothing but bad things to say about the Sophists (even though it is extremely likely that Thucydides adhered to Sophistic principles) and we share this attitude.

However, despite all we say about the origins of the modern university in Plato and Aristotle, the modern university owes more to Sophistic principles than any other philosophical school. Perhaps the most important Sophistic idea is a brand of skepticism: human affairs, ethics and politics, do not admit of certain knowledge so that good arguments can be made on either side of an argument.

This view will dominate later antiquity and modernity and the exercise of arguing on both sides of the question (called in Latin, in utrumqem partem ) is one of the principal aspects of Western education from the Roman Republic to the twentieth century.

A big question that concerned the Sophists and their critics was: how is virtue (areté) acquired? Can it be taught? These aren’t ivory tower questions, such as the nature of Nous , but were vital in a society where power was shifting from the "well-bred" aristocrats to the less educated masses. Answers involved two different principles which are essential for understanding Greek thought: physis , "the unchanging," "fundamental existence," or "nature" (we get the word "physics" from this term: physics in the Greek world is primarily the study of "the unchanging" and secondarily the study of "nature") and nomos , "custom," "the changing," "convention," or "law," and includes morality, tradition, and state laws, all of which are subject to change or revision.

This dichotomy is a little like that between "nature" and "nurture." However, what the Greeks meant by physis is a bit different from our idea of "nature" or "natural." Physis designated what remained constant (like the gravitational constant) and so could not be changed; however, sometimes the Classical Greeks use this term to mean something like "nature." From the third century onwards, physis will mean something closer to our idea of "natural law." For the Greeks the scope of the dichotomy between nomos and physis applied to practically everything, and it entered into questions such as: do gods really exist (physis ), or are they only a conventional human belief (nomos )? Are class divisions or gender divisions natural (physis ) or artificial (nomos )? Is justice an inborn characteristic of humanity (physis ), or a convention invented by the weaker as a defense against the stronger (nomos )? Is it natural for the stronger to rule the weaker? Is it "natural," or merely self-evident, for all men to be created equal . . .?

Both nomos and physis may be considered good or bad. Nomos brings progress in society (as in Pericles’s Funeral Oration or the American Constitution); but if laws are only valid by nomos they may be changed with circumstances, and may conflict with physis. Physis justifies universal laws ("honor thy father and thy mother") and the equality of rich and poor, men, women, and slaves; but can also justify considering the laws of the State an unnatural limitation on individuals, to be observed only when transgression is likely to be found out. For instance, I could justify breaking the law by appealing to some universal right or some universal law; when governments defend "freedom fighters" rebelling against other governments, they are appealing to some universal, unchanging law that is greater than the laws of an individual state.