Dr Menahem Luz,
Presocratic Philosophers
Summary 10
Sophists, Protagoras, Gorgias etc.

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  1. Sophists

    sophist figures

  2. Protagoras of Abdera
  3. Gorgias of Leontini
  4. Hippias of Elis
  5. Prodicus of Ceos

    two surviving sophist documents

  6. Dissoi Logoi
  7. Anonymous Iamblichus

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  1. Sophists

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  2. Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 BC)

    • Abdera was also the home of Democritus the atomist.
      • Because of this the ancients mistakenly supposed that Protagoras was his pupil (tadpis p. 25 no. 2).
      • There is little in common between them except that both thought that every sensation was true qua (= in as much as) it is a physical sensation.

    • Around 444/443 BC, he drew up the constitution for the new colony of Thurii in south Italy As it was a pan-Hellenic colony founded by colonists from different cities with different types of constitutions, Protagoras gave it a mixed constitution suitable for its diversity (tadpis p. 25 no. 2) Such an act was in conformity with his philosophy of the conventionality of social justice. Justice is what is conventionally accepted as just by society.
    • As other sophists, he taught in various cities of Greece and Italy -- Plato describes his visit to Athens in his dialogue Protagoras (Heb. trans. Liebes, vol. 1) where he pesents his philosophy that all can learn statesmanship in a democracy.
    • the titles of his works are recorded (tadpis p. 25-26 no. 15) but very little is left of their actual content

    Philosophy and Fragments
    His work, They that Make a (Wrestling) Throw discussed
    1. how to win an argument
    2. the subjectivity and individuality of truth.

      1. argumentation is based on equipollence:
      2. Truth is subjective:
        • Man is the measure (metron) for all things (tadpis p. 25 no. 5) -- i.e., Man is both an attributive measure (that things are of such a quality) and an existential one -- that they exist (tadpis p. 26 no. 6)

        for this he was criticised by Plato, Aristotle and the Sceptics
        • According to the sceptics Protagoras was not an actual sceptic since he had a criterium to judge things (Man is the measure)(tadpis p. 26-7 no 7-8)
        • According to Plato and Aristotle, Protagoras breaks the law of the excluded middle -- that an object can exist and not exist simultaneouly and have contrary qualities simultaneously (tadpis p. 27 no 9-10)

        in addition
      3. a new fragment -- probably of sceptic origin -- gives examples of Protagoras' idea of the subjective truth of existential and attributive descriptions of the world (tadpis p. 26 no 6)

      4. The idea of Progress
      • Although he believed that individual truth was subjective and that social truths were conventional, Protagoras also believed in the progress of civilisation by means of endeavour, learning and training (tadpis p. 29 no 18)
      • the details are found in a number of literary texts that do not cite Protagoras by name (tadpis p. 29-30 no 19-20)
        that man advances technologically and in the arts and sciences. Parallels may be found in the speeches attributed to Protagoras in Plato's dialogue Protagoras (Heb. trans. Liebes, vol. 1)

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    3. Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily)(485-380 BC)
      • He wrote a number of epideictic speeches meant to show off his ability as a rhetorician to defend impossible themes.

        1. His philosophy of reality is contained in the speech On Nothing In it, he extended Protagoras' subjectivism to include a form of nihilism
          • Nothing exists
          • even if it did, it would be impossible to understand
          • even if it were comprehensible, no one could teach it.
            (tadpis pp. 32-33 no. 5)

            It is possible that the whole speech is an unserious parody of Parmenides
            but it could also be interpreted as an extension of Protagoras' subjectivism

        2. His speech A Defense of Helen
          • Here he attempts to justify the actions of Helen of Troy in abandoning her husband, children and country in order to commit adultery and thus lead to a war in which many were killed because of her.
          • Part of his argument also relies on this philosophy that justice and morality are dictated by the correct hour (kairos) to do a deed -- and by expediency and needs (deon)
            (tadpis p. 30-31 no. 3)
          • Plato attacked him for this philosophy in his dialogue Gorgias (Heb. trans. Liebes, vol. 1)

        3. His speech A Defense of Palamedes
          • He defends the mythological hero, Palamedes, of the charge of treason
            (tadpis p. 31 no. 4)

    4. His denotative method of definition was attacked by Plato, but defended by Aristotle:
      1. In Plato's Meno, Gorgias' type of definition overlooks the universal essence of virtue that Socrates wanted, but merely lists examples of it
        (tadpis p. 30 no. 1)
      2. His opening of the Defense of Helen uses this type of denotative list of defnitions to explain the concept of kosmos
        (tadpis p. 30 no. 3) < /ul>
      3. Aristotle prefers Gorgias method to that of Socrates
        (tadpis p. 30 no. 2)

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      4. Hippias of Elis (contemporary of Protagoras (c. 490-420 BC)

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      5. Prodicus of Ceos (a contemporary of Socrates)

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      6. Dissoi Logoi

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      7. Anonymous Iamblichus

        • This is another anonymous sophistic document but preserved in a quotation by the Neoplatonic writer Iamblichus
        • it examines what we need in order to achieve greatness: nature, learning and training.
          (tadpis p. 29 no. 17)

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