The heritage of ancient sophists and modern culture
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The heritage of ancient sophists and modern culture

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The heritage of ancient sophists and modern culture

Cyprian Mielczarski
University of Warsaw

The ideas of ancient sophists are visible in those trends of today’s humanities that express the essence of the democratic formation (for instance, various forms of postmodernist philosophy, Perelman’s “New Rhetoric”, and all the schools of the rhetorical theory of reality). The art of persuasion is the basic mechanism of democracy: Plato discovered the rhetorical nature of this type of political system and criticized it as based on something contrary to real knowledge. Sophists made revolutionary changes in Greek upbringing, creating the foundations of practical education. They were the first to regard the society as a community of individuals sending and receiving messages. Their pedagogy, based on rhetoric, had as its theoretical foundation a practical understanding of personal excellence. That pedagogy gave rise to the utilitarian and pragmatic orientation that formed the classical European liberal thought. The sophists were the authors of the idea of social contract, the essential mechanism of a democratic state. They were expounding various points of view; their conviction of the subjective character of various persons’ ideas about the world anticipated the now generally accepted democratic approach based on cultural pluralism. That is why the sophists should be treated as precursors of the modern idea of tolerance. They are also the inventors of the paideia, which in our times teaches people to express themselves, makes them assertive and gives them general comparative knowledge. Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias and Antiphon regarded man as a dynamic subject, destined for self-realization in social interaction based on variety of attitudes and opinions. Therefore their thought is the archetype of today’s social pedagogy. Their rhetoric, oft en criticized as totally relativistic, was in fact oral efficiency, providing their users with successful communication in a democratic society.

The spirit of classical sophistry functions in many trends of contemporary humane arts, which are devoted to the idea of democratic formation (for example: different trends of postmodern philosophy, Perelman’s “new rhetoric” and all of the schools of rhetorical reality theory). The art of persuasion is the basis of proper functioning of democracy – in which rhetoric was found and stigmatized by Plato as contradictory to the real knowledge. The sophists performed a real revolution in Greek upbringing, creating the basis of practical education. They were the first to see the society as a commune of individuals transmitting and receiving statements. Practical view of personal courage was the very foundation of their pedagogy (based on rhetoric). This kind of pedagogy was the beginning of utilitarian and pragmatically orientation, which created the classical European liberal thought. The sophists were the creators of social agreement – the essence of fully functional democratic country. They were teaching to see at least several points of view and their belief in subjective character of perceiving the world is the anticipation of contemporarily accepted democratic outlook, based on cultural pluralism. That’s why one should consider the classical sophists as forerunners of modern idea of tolerance. They are also the creators of paideia, which in our times gives one the ability of self-expression, assertivity and general comparative knowledge. Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias and Antiphon perceived the man as a dynamical subject, whose destiny lies in self-realization in social space based on variety of attitudes and opinions – so the sophistic thought is an archetype of contemporary social pedagogy. Their rhetorical art, often understood as a cult of uncompromising relativism, is an oral efficiency ensuring the success of communication in democratic reality.

Traditional, historical humane studies still much too often separate the intellectual history from modern culture reality, what is truly contradictory to anthropological and sociological thesis on social and individual accumulation. The thesis was confirmed in generally comprehended history of thought. In Nietchean times one of his teachers, antiquarian philologist, Theodor Droysen, said : „The history interests us not because of the reason it happened, but because somehow it is still happening and affecting us.”1 It would seem that contemporary, proper humane studies should develop in this direction, if they want to preserve its significant position as the art of explaining the world around us. A great example of this understanding can be the perspective analysis of heritage and message of classical sophistry of Pericles and Plato.

It will be a specific example, because the reception of ideas of the very first and greatest sophists is an exceptional phenomenon in the history of European thought. Although their work has disappeared2, the sophistic theoretical orientation, rejected by the greatest classical philosophers, has returned after twenty four centuries in times of the final – as it would seem – triumph of liberal democracy, which appears to be the end and fulfillment of European dream of freedom. Relativistic spirit of classical sophistry can be seen in many trends of modern humane studies, which describe the essence of democratic culture (for example: different postmodern philosophies, Perelman’s “new rhetoric” theory and all of the schools of rhetorical reality theory).

In the classical era the rejection of sophistry was decided by Plato, who in his Dialogues described its schooling in a very caricaturist way. Of course this criticism was very deeply immersed in reality and politics, but, importantly, in metapolitics. The sophists were described as charismatic and ruthless masters of persuasion, which is the art of negation of everything true, good and beautiful. These absolute values show themselves in moral and political zone – Plato was saying that both these subjects should be based on constant principles. The creator of idealism and the theory of immortal soul were considering that sophists were dangerous and truly immoral teachers of relentless relativism, leading in the first place to disturbance in all norms of behavior, then to anarchy and to the tyranny. Sophistic art of persuasion, i.e. rhetoric in general, is the essence of democracy – the political system based on belief, so, according to Plato, on “non-existence”, being the very negation of knowledge. The sophists are therefore a real threat for a good state. Plato’s criticism of democracy is forever relevant – it’s a criticism of politics based on pragmatical and utilitarian wordplay, which thanks to the art of performing orators seem to be true and are in reality only a tool used to seduce the crowd. The idea of rhetorical democratic culture was discovered and stigmatized by Plato as negation of real knowledge – or philosophy3. For Socrates the effectiveness of the orator (“a politic” in meaning) was something suspicious and anti-philosophical4. The dispute between philosophy and rhetoric is constant intellectual trend of European thought from the age of decline of democracy to times of Derrida and Gadamer – their own dispute on the field of hermeneutics is the contemporary remaking of Plato disputing with the sophists.

Relativistic art of sophistry was rejected by all classical schools of philosophy both from metaphysical and ethical reasons. Their cognitive theoretical skepticism was not something they could reconcile with any rules of normative philosophy – theory of existence as well as in moral department. In later times also their evaluative acuity was associated with empty charm of words, which often captivate one’s mind. This anti-rhetorical orientation of classic, idealistic lineage, appears in every European culture. A very good example of this is one of old English traditions. John Milton, great poet from the age of blooming political rhetoric, follower of Parliament and close friend of a prominent orator, Cromwell, in his work, The Paradise Lost, describes Belial, one of the most cunning fallen angels, as the master of persuasion – a rhetorical type who is both highly captivating and false, low minded creature (although he seems to be full of grace and readiness for great deeds5). Satan is clearly described here as a sophist with low thoughts, but being able to make a bad case appear better. Belial is the same type of a wise man as Protagoras, who taught how to make “a lesser argument a greater one” – as Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric6. The characteristics of the worst of the demons are undoubtedly a recall of many classical works showing rhetoric at a disadvantage, although this art was in this age an obligatory school subject. Its canonical status was irrefutable to the times of Fathers of the Church, who had been clearly very educated in rhetoric – one should remember Lactantius, Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine of Hippo.

In modern times, although classical education was still present in schools, the prejudices concerning sophists as non-ethical teachers of fickle tricks having nothing in common with real education That was the general opinion about the first teachers of speech, although in the Renaissance some humanists in a very sublime way revalorized the meaning of a word, rhetoric in literature and, in connection with the latter, humanistic refinement7. To the XIX century, however, the sophists were considered as a personification of all their anti-values, which are brought by graceful, effective and, in the matter of fact, twisted and endangering the truth rhetoric, which is really an art of cunning and captivating using of words and one’s own personality. For example, John Locke, father of liberal thought, who was really a follower of idea of a freedom of speech, have fiercely condemned rhetoric as the cause of every evil in the public area8. This outlook is very important, because every ancestor of European liberalism was deeply connected with freedom of political speech – however they never morally approved the effective rhetorical tricks which captivate the audience. In time classical sophistry was recognized by them also. The evidence can be found in opinion of George Grote, liberalist and antiquarian philologist, who was working close to with John Stuart Mill. In his History of Greece (1869) he succeeded in open apotheosis of Athenian democracy and described the sophists as followers of the spirit of their era. In any case one cannot prove that their works contributed to demoralization of democratic society, what was suggested by Plato9. In this way, for the very first time the pluralistic spirit of sophistry was recognized as an archetype of education based on freedom.

In Germany the first great philosopher to recognize the value of sophistry, was Hegel10. He recognized it and its followers as a great trend in history of human thought, because thank to them in Greece development of culture based on rational foundations was even possible. This rationalism is, according to Hegel, comprehension of different things and the reality itself from many points of view. So the titan of German idealism appreciated the pedagogical relativism of the sophists. He emphasized also that they were the first to think about impulses and inclinations which are imprinted in a person, besides they tried to rationally explain, where do the ethical ideas and why should one listen to laws and do some duties11. In his works Hegel has clearly differed ideas of culture and philosophy. He understood the relativistic art of sophistry as a formal education, which is the basis of general personal culture of a person. The education has nothing in common with philosophy, where the main rule is inquiring into the truth. Of course, basing on this opinion the philosopher proved to be a successor of a socratean conception of philosophy as a universal science. In this way his XIX century follower opposed the sophistry to the real intellectual art – philosophy. In opinions of the first sophists Hegel saw the basis of culture founded on “resonating thinking” – meaning that considering different points of view one can substantiate all facts, ideas and relations between people. This kind of thinking is really a big threat for beauty, common good and truth, which in this way are a potential subject of “imperious deed”12

Hegel knew that the source of culture based on different and numerous opinions was the Age of Enlightenment. His thinking shows that values preferred in this specific age: open culture and intellectual freedom are the very foundations of sophistic way of describing the world and its features. He clearly compared (similarly to Voltaire) the Enlightenment as foundation of his times with sophistic paideia of Pericles age. On the other hand however the free “resonating” of the educated people on the subject of reality has no cognitive value. because it’s based on external things and categories and not on things as themselves and for themselves. In Hegel’s deliberation appears in this way an opposition coming from Platonic tradition – opposition between sophistry and philosophy. The first one brings people the charms of rational persuasion that can convince much kind of audience, and the second one leads to recognition and understanding of absolute ontological rules, which are the foundation of cultural, political and formal norms. This is the final meaning of Hegel’s philosophy, who was a passionate critic of newly-born liberal formation, which praised the freedom of choice and approving of different interpretation of the world. He was also the creator of idea of police state, founded on strength, discipline and commitment to one’s nation, what was then mostly contradictory to the teachings of new, liberal Anglo-Saxon philosophers. The idealistic philosophical doctrine influenced also his political outlook – he was a fierce enemy of English parliament and idea of political culture based on public debate, which for him was the example of worthless and dangerous for one’s spirit self-assurance. He didn’t want to accept any democratic values, which created the idea and practice of British constitutional monarchy – its political customs were closely connected with the exquisite art of speaking.

We’re bringing up Hegel here, because his opinion is the testimony of idealistic spirit in German education in XIX century. The spirit influenced all the Europe, what was one of the reasons of negative position on the sophists. Of course, one of important reasons of the negativism was still the high position of Plato in European culture. From the perspective of twenty four centuries one should admit that the reception of his teachings is full of astonishing paradoxes. Although metaphysical thought and idealistic culture has almost vanished, the doctrine of maybe the greatest sophistry antagonist’s is still in great regard and still being researched by philologists, anthropologists and historians of philosophy, culture and education13. Meanwhile the following words – a sophist, sophistry, sophistical – in common speech and most often in scientific one also – have the negative connotation. Surely these prejudices are a heritage of intellectual tradition founded on XIX century Bildung, which was immersed in anti-relativistic spirit14. Nihilistic attack on Socrates and Christianity, performed by Nietzsche, was an effort of overthrowing the theological rules of European education, formed by normative philosophical tradition, which in our times still has many followers. One should also mention that the latest most prominent synthesis of classical philosophy – Reale’s work – is the interpretation of classical thought immersed in Platonic ideas. It seems to be worthwhile to recall briefly the ideas of the most prominent sophists, which were and are still very important in European culture15.

Protagoras of Abdera (born 491-481, dead in the end of V B.C.)

The first sophist, student of Democritus (materialist), close to Pericles, law-maker for pan-Hellenic colony of Thurioi (444 B.C.). He was interested in philosophy and art of discussion16. Author of the famous rule: man-measure (homo-mensura), according to which „Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not”17, so there are no absolute criteria of truth and false, the only criterion is an individual being. The thesis was opposed by Plato, who was saying, that God is the measure of all18. Protagoras was teaching about the relativity of good and evil and any other values. Every one of them can have different, equally legal interpretations, often contradictory to each other. The same thing one person can consider as good, and a second one – as a bad one. The state was considered by him not as a tyranny of values, but as a union of continuously educating and disciplined individuals, jointly responsible for the law. According to him the upbringing is the preparation for civil life, which is, inter alia, speaking useful and just opinions compliant with public life. In the political area a wise man can recognize things useful to the state and can persuade others to see them as so19. Therefore Protagoras, although the very first teacher of free dispute, was not a ruthless relativist. He considered that measure of every value is it usefulness (together with the opinion of non-existence of absolute good and objective moral categories). He was also the creator of the idea of political and moral individualism, which is to this day the basis of democratic mentality.

Although the political reality in Athens didn’t admit the absolute freedom of thought and speech. It was said that Pericles was banned from the city because he was convinced that one cannot prove the thesis about existence of gods20. In contemporary times Protagoras is often considered as an apologist of democratic egalitarianism and positive social evolutionism. He was saying that Zeus has given a natural feel of justice to all people. In this way all individuals have some “political wisdom” and thanks to gradual development of human race the idea of state and law was created21. Popper thought this first sophist as one of the creators of open society22. Undoubtedly Protagoras was negating the elite paideia of aristocrats, who claimed that only they (because they were born in aristocratic families and of godly origins) are predestined to rule the country and they are the only ones to have the necessary virtue and courage (arête). That’s why – from the natural reasons – only them can say what is right and what is just. Protagoras’ outlook, propagated in Athens in age of fierce political battles between aristocrats and democrats, is an archetype of many modern egalitarian ideas. That’s the main reason why this sophist is a symbol of opened and free intellectual culture based on competitions of free opinions, what really made him a patron of democratic formation.

Gorgias of Leontinoi ( 485/480 – 375 B.C.)

He is said to be the first teacher and theoretician of rhetoric in Athens. He was also a philosopher, and one can name it the criticism of all great “Greek narrations”. One of the greatest classical nihilists, famous atheist of controversial, critical outlook on every subject. In his work On non-existence he claimed that nothing really exists – and if it was, it would be non-cognitive; and if it would be cognitive, one couldn’t express it or deliver. Of course it was a critic of every cognitive absolutism of philosophical origin: thoughts and words are not identical with things, which are always differently expressed by different words. This assertion can be named a basic cognitive theory of many contemporary schools of rhetorical reality interpretations, which confirm that for everyone the same word can mean a different thing and therefore its full conotation cannot be described or discovered. Gorgias thought that there is nothing but words, which are “the great leaders” and can convince everyone to do anything. This sophist claims that the value of a word is greater than the value of truth, which in reality does not exist. The belief, that people succumb to attractively delivered opinions, is the beginning of every modern science and art, which are taking up the subject of influencing the audience by different media, different individuals and social groups (social psychology, communication theory and so on).

The Greeks perceived Gorgias as the first theoretician of artistic prose and a patron of exaggerated, Hellenistic rhetorical school, which was founded and blooming in Hellenic times and was famous even in Rome in times of young Cicero. The fascinating style of this orator was close to poetry and was striking with numerous metaphors and antithesis. The master of rhythmical and elegant sentences occurred to be also the father of pragmatical and utilitarian orientation – its very theory began seriously influence the development of our science and social mentality. He claimed that the goal of every man is gaining some benefit or avoiding distress. This thesis anticipates the political doctrine of modern utilitarian, created by Jeremy Bentham. Gorgias’ Paideia was also very pragmatic. He thought of himself as a teacher of courage (arête), which he understood as ability in influencing others by using words and as a general efficacy of life – both political (or state) and professional23. In his grasp courage is not the aristocratic, inborn virtue, but an ability leading to success in social relations, which results from learning the rhetoric. Art of persuasion is the highest value, because it helps people to achieve freedom and allows one to direct the others. This idea explains relations between people and describes every community based on free social competition. In Gorgias’ outlook one can see a conception of relations typical for democracy, founded not on violence and force or a traditional authority, but on co-influence resulting from oral and persuasive abilities one could learn in school (every sophist was using argumentation taken from poetry, which was for the Greeks the most important art and something like an universal cultural media). In his controversial art Gorgias took up new subject, concerning this area of human behavior, which now we call the social communication24. Nearly all pedagogy theoreticians claim, that “communication efficacy” is a basic ability necessary to function in a society founded on confrontation and negotiated positions – so every democratic society.

Still, Gorgias has emphasized that the art of speech is a tool which should be used only to realization of just cases, so his teachings were moral and very important in public and political area25.

According to Gorgias the rhetoric efficacy lies in saying the right things in a right time (kairos), that is why some say that he was the very first master of relativistic ethics of situation, which has nothing in common with normative ethics based on irrefutable rules26. He was claiming that the effectiveness of a man results from the ability of readjustment to the situation and the moment. Every good orator should have this ability. In this part the outlook of this master of democratic politics are completely concordant with contemporary political practice. One should easily see that is the very way of behaving in case of every prominent leader of democratic world. Rhetorical education in American schools allows for broad theory of selection of proper arguments, fitted to specific audience. This theory is the foundation of all the works of Chaim Perelman.

Prodicus of Keos (born 470/460 – dead at the beginning IV B.C.)

Probably the student of Protagoras. He was the teacher of Socrates, Euripides and Isocrates. He wrote may works on philosophy and philology, which did not survive27. He was a professional in teaching the art of speaking and he was interested in subjects or beginning of the country, law and religion. According to him the common work delivered the first social and state bonds. Similar to Protagoras he saw the positive side of human evolution, which he understood in the historical way. He is the author of the first rational theory of religion – he claimed that in the beginning people identified gods with every natural forces and natural things which were useful, for example: the Sun, the Moon, rivers and fruits of the Earth. In time the gods became individuals who discovered some new abilities. Prodicus thought that religious beliefs are historically formed product of people’s imagination. One can see him as a precursor of the modern methodology of study of religions, based on anthropological and historical studies. In the classical era he was famous for being an author of a moral parable about Heracles on the crossroads28. In this story the personification of Arête virtue (in Greek language it means something the best) speaks to the hero and identifies virtue with happiness and moderate pleasure. It emphasizes that they can only be achieved by useful deeds. It is therefore an interpretation of utilitarian ethics, because the Virtue clearly speaks that specific gains results always from specific deeds. The main dimension of this short story is very practical, anti-aristocratic and – philosophically – very anti-idealistic, because the virtue isn’t a value as itself, but the tool to achieve success in life on different fields. Prodicus’ outlook on state and law in his times were very innovative and concordant with political reality of Athenian democracy. He claimed that the state is formed by civilians from the middle class – mesoi politai, who agrees to legislate the law protecting the society from the rich men wanting their possessions to be bigger and from the poorest who are likely to start a revolution to gain some influences and possession on their own. This anti-aristocratic conception of the state based on the middle class anticipates the commonly known Aristotelian theory of the best political system, based also on middle class supporting the political stability. Similar outlook is still present in contemporary liberal political thought and is the very foundation of social politics in every democratic country.

It is said that Prodicus is the creator of synonyms. He claimed that from every word one can deliver nearly uncountable number of meanings. He was conscious of polysemy and that brought him to a conclusion that speech is a great force which can make anyone act like we want him to act. One should also remember that the connection of polysemy with its efficacy is the basic subject of many contemporary schools of rhetorical criticism and may trends of postmodern philosophy.

Hippias of Elida (V/IV B.C.)

An erudite and a teacher of science represent the second generation of classical sophistry – co called naturalistic trend. He was the first follower and the master of encyclopedic knowledge (polymathia) which for him was the basis for every education. He was also doing some comparative studies.

By explaining the poets he took up some moral problematic – he was therefore a creator of didactic methods which remained in classical education till the XIX century. It was the beginning of the upbringing and education based on general knowledge, and then it had a prominent value in society and in politics, because it was contradictory to traditional way of upbringing aimed at body and mind perfection (artistocratic kalokagathia). The education basing on comparative learning the facts and different opinions could be the reason of relativistic relation to political reality in one’s own country. The methods initiated by Hippias were therefore very educational and immersed in the spirit of political changes which happened in democratic Athens. There methods had nothing in common with aristocratic educational ideals and that is the reason why Plato disliked them – he even described them in a caricature way in his two dialogues on this sophist (Hippias the Great, Hippias the Lesser).

In Hippias’ works there is a contradiction of nature (physis) and conventional laws of man (nomos), based on the agreement between civilians. This opposition is the beginning of the doctrine of a natural law, which is still present in European political law. This master, mocked by Plato, was claiming that laws of men are actually dividing people and differ them, but according to nature all men are equals29. Laws of men are accidental and variable, laws of nature are immortal and invariable. One should emphasize that only just from the Age of Enlightenment the idea of equality of all men (independently on their parentage) is the foundation of European political and humanistic outlook. Hippias is therefore a classical precursor of the idea of egalitarism and brotherhood of all men. This idea is the very basis of doctrines of almost all contemporary political orientations (besides different formations of utmost nationalism).

Antiphon (V B.C.)

The author is also described as the follower of so-called naturalistic trend of sophistry. We don’t know much about his life and works30. He wrote some philosophical papers, in which he analyzed the nature and action of a man. Similar like Hippias, he didn’t like any state prejudices and he was a follower of equal treating of all the people, both the Greeks and the barbarians. It results from the eternal and indisputable law of nature, which should be obeyed, because its lack is a great evil. The opinions of Antiphon are the beginning of the creation of general idea of a mankind, which is contrary to any diversification of our species: social, cultural and national. This idea in the contemporary times became the superior value of every progressive theories of a natural law and to this day is plays an important role in the development of European civilization. The preserver little fragments of philosophical scriptures of the sophists prove that it was them, not the stoics, who began this way of thinking out humanity which forms every contemporary pluralistic outlook.

Antiphon claimed that the legislated laws are a result of an agreement and can be contradictory to nature. The nature of man was, however, threaded very realistically and pragmatically – he clearly saw that the relations between the people are based on contradictory aspects. Some of his thoughts are very radically acute. „What is good for these people, is bad for another”31. Reading the preserved fragments by Antiphon one can get the idea that the real nature of man is to aspire to the pleasure and avoiding the harm. Their opinions are an archetype of so-called law of self-preservation, which in different readings shows in contemporary pragmatic thought (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham, contemporary psychology and newest critical pedagogy). Havelock has a point in proving though, that in Antiphon teaching the doctrine of non-aggression appears for the first time as the basic rule of human behavior32. So the sophist is a creator of the idea of citizen and political agreement (probably this was the subject of his lost treaty On the agreement). We all know that contemporary this way of thinking is the very foundation of democratic ideology and the modern philosophy of dialogue, which deals with every form of the communication happening when humans speak. .


All of the abovementioned sophists33 and their pupils made a resolution in Greek upbringing, creating foundations of practical education. All of them claimed that virtue (arête) is an ability in every deed and not the inborn characteristic of these who were called “the best” (aristoi). Their opinions must have been very revolutional then, because they stated that everybody, independently on their birth, social class or gender, should have a specific and his own virtue or the courage, so even women, children and slaves. The practical understanding of self-courage was a basis of sophistic pedagogy, founded on rhetoric, which was, according to them, an art. Of persuasion. They were aware that the country is a community of influencing each other and competing individuals. Nowadays the historians and anthropologists emphasize the agonistic character of the whole social culture in Greek city-states. The political rivalisation between the citizens on democratic Athens was a typical example of such a competition. The sophists saw rhetoric as an art. Of persuading people with the help of words. Let’s remind that the Greeks perceived the citizens’ action as the most important and most noble task Worth of free men, so the sophistic paideia, founded on oral efficiency was preparing young people to the life in a city. This was the basis of their education which had a comparative character. The didactic material was poetry, which the Greeks perceived as a treasury of wisdom. The pedagogy of the sophists gave a beginning to the utilitarian and pragmatic orientation and was a foundation of the European, classical libertarian thought. The Athenian teachers of pronunciation claimed that laws and traditions have a contractual character, so they were the actual creators of the idea of social agreement, which is the essence of functioning of a democratic country.

The sophists taught the different points of view, which was unnerving for Plato, who was looking for the perfect, of undisputable ideal of a Man. Their belief about a subjective character of perceiving of the world by different people is today a generally accepted democratic outlook founded on cultural. Sophists therefore were patrons of culture based on such values, that’s why one should consider them as precursors of modern ideas of tolerance. Postmodern liberal social philosophers, similar to34 the first sophists who saw the country as a collection of citizens influencing each other. Every social, legal or national norm is a historical creation, which happened due to the development of human interaction. The result is the social consensus. These outlooks, realized practically in every democratic country, are a continuation of sophistic perceiving of country and the law, and also are the compete contradiction of Platonian tradition. This philosopher treated the country as a superior normative institution, which should create virtue of its citizens. According to him the law is the tool of the unity of the country and cultivating beauty and everything that’s good, and not a subject of discussion between the citizens. As one knows, this idea brought him to the utopian theory of national community, based on the norms which should be created by the philosophers – only people predestined for knowing the God’s truth, being the Source of the law. The sophistic education anticipates the knowledge about society, which modernism gained the character of national theories, connected with the social and political practice. One should also remember that these wise men were the first to ask practical questions on the subject of the beginning of the law, morals and every social device. According to them they are created by humans in dependence on the conditionis and circumstances. A similar theory in the Age of Enlightenment was described by Montesquieu on his fundamental work “The Spirit of the Laws”. This fact proves the exceptional progressivity of the sophistry, being an archetype of modern, liberal rationalism. The Montesquieu work has undermined the metaphysical, transcendental conception of the established law.

All of the sophists perceived the society as a community of the individuals transmitting and receiving the communicates. All know that the theory and practice of the rhetoric is the mirror of such understanding of social relations. The issues interesting to the sophists: relation between word and truth and between word and the communicating subjects became a very important theme of theoretical humane arts and contemporary philosophy – one should only refer to neopragmatists, Perelman, Gadamer of Habermas. The postmodern battle is being created more and more by omnipresent art. Of persuasion with Word, image and sound. This things, called by Plato „beliefs and non-existence „now is the dominant of this culture, which essence is change and the fluidity of values. This fluidity emerges i.a. as a result of pressure of many individual and collective subjects, dealing with persuasion (politicians, corporations, pop culture industry, media, pop culture idols, celebrities i.e.). May representatives of the most contemporary philosophy claim that there is none and there can be no connection between any philosophical system and the functioning of democracy (Rawls, many postmodernists, Rorty for example). This platform anti-doctrinarism and accompanying conventionalism is the final turn in the direction of sophistic political relativism.

The sophists were not only the precursors of every modern pragmatic and utilitarian ideology. They are also the creators of such a paideia, which in our times gives the ability of self-expression, assertivity and general comparative knowledge. The contemporary interactive education is also derived from the spirit of sophistic art of discussion. One cannot hide, that in social and pedagogical practice the complete victory as achieved by the theoretical cognitive conceptions of Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias and many more. In the meantime the idealistic pedagogy of Plato has finally failed, because the modern Man cannot be described with metaphysical cathegories. In democratic conditionis the transcendental motivation never more will be leading to general creativity, which in postmodern society is born from the intersubjective relations. These relations are formulated mainly by oral efficiency and the ability of influencing each other. The teachers of rhetoric in Plato times knew about it very well. The sophists were not only the precursors of any modern ideology of pragmatic or utilitarian character. They are also the creators of paideia which in our times gives the ability of the epoch of Plato. They’ve created the basics of utilitarian humane arts which nowadays are the main enemy of traditional, evaluating humane arts. Some claim that the final end of it took place in our epoch, what contributes to the fall of the educational role of the university34. It is a fact that such subjects as social psychology, management theory, marketing and theory of Communications are playing bigger and bigger roles at many universities. Philosophy and classical philology lost their positions as leaders a long time ago. Slowly the connection with Socratic ideals of ”knowledge for knowledge” is vanishing. Their ideas have transformed the education in XIX century, but nowadays the dominance of instrumental treating of every humane art is getting more and more popular. The contemporary individual and social pedagogy uses this disciplines as tools for the development of personality and creativity. The goal is not the knowing the absolute truth about the man and the world, but teaching of the skill and skilful acting on every field. In practice it is transgressing to the standards of socialization. The abovementioned tendencies of education create new, democratic ideals of upbringing, closely connected to the social practice. It is understandable, that the new way of education meets with some resistance of many people of conservatist orientation, who still want to treat the human arts axiological an historically, only as a stadium of their own cultural identity. In the United States, the most technocratic country in the whole world, from the ’20 of the XX century there is a discussion going on about this very subject. The problematic concerning the goal and the character of education is closely connected with theoretical and practical essence of democrat ion, the state based on different onions, values, rules and lifestyles. This all is consequently the foundation to quarrel on axiological subject of education. For example the newest American critical pedagogy takes into the account the reality of so-called competitive society. Its most prominent representatives claim that the modern upbringing prepares the man to live in the conditions of constant rivalisation between every individual and social groups35. This very rivalisation is of political, financial, culture and Outlook character. The competitiveness of outlooks and opinions is the Basic factor of socialization of a Man. The agonistic essence of contemporary democracy comes from the rules of citizen culture, which were created in city-states of Greece in V BC.

The sophistic thought is a theoretical basis of democratic pluralism and that’s the way one should interpret their pedagogy. They perceived a man as a dynamic subject, whom fate is to self-realize in the social sphere founded on different attitudes and opinions. Their didactics evoked initiative and motivation to political action. Work for the benefit of the country was greatly valued in ancient and classical Greece and was a title for the greatest glory and fame. The first sophists were therefore the creators of political marketing, because they’ve taught how to recognize the reality and social moods, what was necessary for making a political career in Greece (Gorgias and his pupils). The sophistry is the basis of social education founded on the cult of free will and natural competition, which effect is cultural diversity – the only absolute constant feature of democracy.


  1. Droysen J. G., Historik. Vorlesungen über Enzyklopädie und Methodologie der Geschichte, oprac. R. Hübner, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesselschaft, Darmstadt 1967 (wyd. I: München 1937), s. 275.
  2. All of sophists’ works are lost but two epideictic speeches of Gorgias: Defense of Palamedes and Praise of Helena. The last edition in: Gorgias von Leontini (1989)
  3. The basic, forever present aspects of Plato’s and sophists dispute is described in monograph by Mielczarski (2010, second edition), see chapters 3 and 4, 151-273.
  4. See Pl. Grg. 455d-461a et passim; Sph. 233b-235a and next.
  5. Paradise Lost II, 108-118. See Fish (2002), 424-425.
  6. Rh. II, 1402a.
  7. See Kristeller P. O. (1955), The Humanistic Movement, in: The Classics and Renaissance Thought, Camb- ridge, Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 3-23, (Polish edition: Ruch humanistyczny, transl. G. Błachowicz in: P.O. Kristeller, Humanizm i filozofia, Warszawa, IFIS PAN 1985, 12-35; see 21 and next).
  8. See Mielczarski (2010), 238.
  9. See ibidem, 220 and next, text and footnotes 145.
  10. The positive evaluation of first sophistry was done by Hegel in his Wykłady z historii filozofii (Berlin 1833), Polish transl. Ś. F. Nowicki, Warszawa, PWN 1994, see t. 1, 495-537.
  11. Op. cit., 499-502.
  12. Op. cit., 514.
  13. Good examples are the works by Strauss, Havelock, Szlezak, Barker, Mannsperger, Domański, Blandzi, Gawroński, Gajda-Krynicka, Legutko and more. See Bibliografia in: Mielczarski (2010), 291-301.
  14. Reale G. (1994-2002) Historia filozofii starożytnej, vol. 1-5, transl. E. I. Zieliński, Lublin, Ed. KUL. Ed. orig. (1989) Storia della filosofia antica, Milano, Università Cattolica.
  15. See the broader description of works and teaching of specific sophists, Mielczarski (2010), 15-113.
  16. These works are attributed to him: On truth (most probably with the subtitle “Speeches on Overthrowing”), On Primary Condition of Mankind, On Gods, Antilogies (rules of disputes).
  17. Sext. Ad. math. VII 60; Pl. Tht. 151e-152a.
  18. Pl, Lg. 716c.
  19. See Pl. Tht. 166 d-167 d.
  20. See Diog. Lae. IX, 51-52.
  21. See Pl. Prt. 320 c-328 and next. See G.B. Kerferd (1953)
  22. Popper K. R. (1971), The Open Society and its Enemies, Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press (1 ed. 1947); see. II Polish edition (2006): Społeczeństwo otwarte i jego wrogowie, t. 1: Urok Platona), transl. H. Krahelska, Warszawa, PWN, see 235 and next, comp. 218 and next.
  23. See Pl. Grg. 452 d-e; Men. 71e-72a, comp. 73 c.
  24. See Nerczuk (1997), 90 n.
  25. See Pl. Grg. 452 d-e; Men. 71e-72a, comp. 73 c.
  26. See Nerczuk (1997), 90 n.
  27. See Pl. Grg. 457 b-c. Migliori M. (1973), La filosofia di Gorgia, Milano, Celuc, s. 134. O naturze, Pory, O poprawnym mówieniu.
  28. Xen. Mem. II, 1, 23-25.
  29. See Pl. Prt. 337c-338a.
  30. Not so long ago it was still said that Antiphon the Sophist and a famous orator Antiphon of Ramnus is the same person, see Mielczarski (2010) 68 n. The interest of his outlook grew greater after discovering two scrolls (POxy XI n 1364,1 and LII, 3647) containing fragments of lost works by Antiphon (On Truth, On Agreement, Political Speech), see. Havelock (1957), 255-294.
  31. Diels – Kranz, 87, B 44
  32. 32.Havelock, op. cit., p. 206.
  33. The following article in account for its syntesive and general character describes only the Outlook of the most import ant sophists of the first generation (from the epoch of Pericles and Socrates).
  34. The example can be a charismatic American neo-conservatist, Allan Bloom, who fiercely attacked the contemporary liberal education, accusing it of common intellectual pragmatism and axiological relativism (see Bloom 1997), I ed.1987. and the work output.
  35. See Giroux (1983) for example.


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FAR 2011 No. 3 (26) July-September

Rhetoric and political polemics


Jako członkowie Towarzystwa reprezentujemy bardzo różne dyscypliny ( polonistykę, filologię klasyczną, neofilologię, językoznawstwo, historię, filozofię, socjologię). Są wśród nas doświadczeni badacze, jak i początkujący pracownicy nauki. Są teoretycy i praktycy, wykładowcy akademiccy, nauczyciele szkół średnich, pracownicy działów PR, logopedzi, specjaliści w dziedzinie komunikacji.

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