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A History of Philosophy in Epitome by Schwegler

Generally may it be said of the Sophists


and moral defect of the Sophistic

philosophy is at first view obvious; and, since certain modern writers of history with over-officious zeal have painted its dark sides in black, and raised an earnest accusation against its frivolity, immorality, and greediness for pleasure, its conceitedness and selfishness, and bare appearance of wisdom and art of dispute--it needs here no farther elucidation. But the point in it most apt to be overlooked is the merit of the Sophists in their effect upon the culture of the age. To say, as is done, that they had only the negative merit of calling out the opposition of Socrates and Plato, is to leave the immense influence and the high fame of so many among them, as well as the revolution which they brought about in the thinking of a whole nation, an inexplicable phenomenon. It were inexplicable that _e. g._ Socrates should attend the lectures of Prodicus, and direct to him other students, if he did not acknowledge the worth of his grammatical performances or recognize his merit for the soundness of his logic. Moreover, it cannot be denied that Protagoras has hit upon many correct principles of rhetoric, and has satisfactorily established certain grammatical categories. Generally may it be said of the Sophists, that they threw among the people a fulness in every department of knowledge; that they strewed about them a vast number of fruitful germs of development; that they called out investigations in the theory of knowledge, in logic and in language; that they laid the basis for
the methodical treatment of many branches of human knowledge, and that they partly founded and partly called forth that wonderful intellectual activity which characterized Athens at that time. Their greatest merit is their service in the department of language. They may even be said to have created and formed the Attic prose. They are the first who made style as such a separate object of attention and study, and who set about rigid investigations respecting number and the art of rhetorical representation. With them Athenian eloquence, which they first incited, begins. Antiphon as well as Isocrates--the latter the founder of the most flourishing school of Greek rhetoric--are offshoots of the Sophistic philosophy. In all this there is ground enough to regard this whole phenomenon as not barely a symptom of decay.

5. INDIVIDUAL SOPHISTS.--The first, who is said to have been called, in the received sense, Sophist, is _Protagoras_ of Abdera, who flourished about 440 B. C. He taught, and for wages, in Sicily and in Athens, but was driven out of the latter place as a reviler of the gods, and his book concerning the gods was burnt by the herald in the public market-place. It began with these words: "I can know nothing concerning the gods, whether they exist or not; for we are prevented from gaining such knowledge not only by the obscurity of the thing itself, but by the shortness of the human life," In another writing he develops his doctrine concerning knowing or not-knowing. Starting from the Heraclitic position that every thing is in a constant flow, and applying this preeminently to the thinking subject, he taught that the man is the measure of all things, who determines in respect of being that it may be, and of not-being that it may not be, _i. e._ that is true for the perceiving subject which he, in the constant movement of things and of himself, at every moment perceives and is sensible of--and hence he has theoretically no other relation to the external world than the sensuous apprehension, and practically no other than the sensuous desire. But now, since perception and sensation are as diverse as the subjects themselves, and are in the highest degree variable in the very same subject, there follows the farther result that nothing has an objective validity and determination, that contradictory affirmations in reference to the same object must be received as alike true, and that error and contradiction cannot be. Protagoras does not seem to have made any efforts to give these frivolous propositions a practical and logical application. According to the testimony of the ancients, a personal character worthy of esteem, cannot be denied him; and even Plato, in the dialogue which bears his name, goes no farther than to object to his complete obscurity respecting the nature of morality, while, in his Gorgias and Philebus, he charges the later Sophists with affirming the principles of immorality and moral baseness.


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