Sophists & Lawyers ~ Russell 1945

The great pre-Socratic systems that we have been considering were confronted, in the latter half of the fifth century, by a sceptical movement, in which the most important figure was Protagoras, chief of the Sophists. The word “Sophist” had originally no bad connotation; it meant, as nearly as may be, what we mean by “professor.” A Sophist was a man who made his living by teaching young men certain things that, it was thought, would be useful to them in practical life. As there was no public provision for such education, the Sophists taught only those who had private means, or whose parents had. This tended to give them a certain class bias, which was increased by the political circumstances of the time. In Athens and many other cities, democracy was politically triumphant, but nothing had been done to diminish the wealth of those who belonged to the old aristocratic families. It was, in the main, the rich who embodied what appears to us as Hellenic culture: they had education and leisure, travel had taken the edge off their traditional prejudices, and the time that they spent in discussion sharpened their wits. What was called democracy did not touch the institution of slavery, which enabled the rich to enjoy their wealth without oppressing free citizens.

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In many cities, however, and especially in Athens, the poorer citizens had toward the rich a double hostility, that of envy, and that of traditionalism. The rich were supposed—often with justice—to be impious and immoral; they were subverting ancient beliefs, and probably trying to destroy democracy. It thus happened that political democracy was associated with cultural conservatism, while those who were cultural innovators tended to be political reactionaries. Somewhat the same situation exists in modern America, where Tammany, as a mainly Catholic organization, is engaged in defending traditional theological and ethical dogmas against the assaults of enlightenment. But the enlightenment are politically weaker in America than they were in Athens, because they have failed to make common cause with the plutocracy. There is, however, one important and highly intellectual class which is concerned with the defence of the plutocracy, namely the class of corporation lawyers. In some respects, their functions are similar to those that were performed in Athens by the Sophists.

Athenian democracy, though it had the grave limitation of not including slaves or women, was in some respects more democratic than any modern system. Judges and most executive officers were chosen by lot, and served for short periods; they were thus average citizens, like our jurymen, with the prejudices and lack of professionalism characteristic of average citizens. In general, there were a large number of judges to hear each case. The plaintiff and defendant, or prosecutor and accused, appeared in person, not through professional lawyers. Naturally, success of failure depended largely on oratorical skill in appealing to popular prejudices. Although a man had to deliver his own speech, he could hire an expert to write the speech for him, or, as many preferred, he could pay for instruction in the arts required for success in the law courts. These arts the Sophists were supposed to teach.


There was a story about Protagoras, no doubt apocryphal, which illustrates the connection of the Sophists with the law-courts in the popular mind. It is said that he taught a young man on the terms that he should be paid his fee if the young man won his first law-suit, but not otherwise, and that the young man’s first law-suit was one brought by Protagoras for recovery of his fee.

However, it is time to leave these preliminaries and see what is really known about Protagoras.

Protagoras was born about 500 B.C., at Abdera, the city from which Democritus came. He twice visited Athens, his second visit being not later than 432 B.C. He made a code of laws for the city of Thurii in 444-3 B.C. There is a tradition that he was prosecuted for impiety, but this seems to be untrue, in spite of the fact that he wrote a book On the Gods, which began: “With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are of that they are not, no what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”

His second visit to Athens is described somewhat satirically in Plato’s Protagoras, and his doctrines are discussed seriously in the Theaetetus. He is chiefly noted for his doctrines that “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.” This is interpreted as meaning that each man is the measure of all things, and that, when men differ, there is no objective truth in virtue of which one is right and the other wrong. The doctrine is essentially sceptical, and is presumably based on the “deceitfulness” of the senses.

One of the three founders of pragmatism, F.C.S. Schiller, was in the habit of calling himself a disciple of Protagoras. This was, I think, because Plato, in the Theaetetus, suggests, as an interpretation of Protagoras, that one opinion can be better than another, thought it cannot be truer. For example, when a man has jaundice everything looks yellow. There is no sense in saying that things are really not yellow, but the colour they look to a man in health; we can say, however, that, since health is better than sickness, the opinion of the man in health is better than that of the man who has jaundice. This point of view, obviously, is akin to pragmatism.

The disbelief in objective truth makes the majority, for practical purposes, the arbiters as to what to believe. Hence Protagoras was led to a defense of law and convention and traditional morality. While, as we saw, he did not know whether the gods existed, he was sure they ought to be worshipped. This point of view is obviously the right one for a man whose theoretical scepticism is thoroughgoing and logical.

Protagoras spent his adult life in a sort of perpetual lecture tour through the cities of Greece, teaching, for a fee, “any one who desired practical efficiency and higher mental culture” (Zeller, p.1299). Plato objects—somewhat snobbishly, according to modern notions—to the Sophists’ practice of charging money for instruction. Plato himself had adequate private means, and was unable, apparently, to realize the necessities of those who had not his good fortune. It is odd that modern professors, who see no reason to refuse a salary, have so frequently repeated Plato’s strictures.

There was, however, another point in which the Sophists differed from most contemporary philosophers. It was usual, except among the Sophists, for a teacher to found a school, which had some of the properties of a brotherhood; there was a greater or smaller amount of common life, there was often something analogous to a monastic rule, and there was usually an esoteric doctrine not proclaimed to the public. All this was natural wherever philosophy has arisen out of Orphism. Among the Sophists there was none of this. What they had to teach was not, in their minds, connected with religion or virtue. They taught the art of arguing, and as much knowledge as would help in this art. Broadly speaking, they were prepared, like modern lawyers, to show how to argue for or against any opinion, and were not concerned to advocate conclusions of their own. Those to whom philosophy was a way of life, closely bound up with religions, were naturally shocked; to them, the Sophists appeared frivolous and immoral.

To some extent though it is impossible to say how far the odium which the Sophists incurred, not only with the general public, but with Plato and subsequent philosophers, was due to their intellectual merit. The pursuit of truth, when it is whole-hearted, must ignore moral considerations; we cannot know in advance that the truth will turn out to be what is thought edifying in a given society. The Sophists were prepared to follow an argument wherever it might lead them. Often it led them to scepticism. One of them, Gorgias, maintained that nothing exists; that if anything exists, it is unknowable; and granting it even to exist and to be knowable by any one man, he could never communicate it to others. We do not know what his arguments were, but I can well imagine that they had a logical force which compelled his opponents to take refuge in edification. Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this, he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since. It was probably largely hostility to the Sophists that gave this character to his dialogues. One of the defects of all philosophers since Plato is that their inquiries into ethics proceed on the assumption that they already know the conclusions to be reached.

It seems that there were men, in Athens of the late fifth century, who taught political doctrines which seemed immoral to their contemporaries, and seem so to the democratic nations of the present day. Thrasymachus, in the first book of the Republic, argues that there is no justice except the interest of the stronger; That laws are made by governments for their own advantage; and that there is no impersonal standard to which to appeal in contests for power. Callicles, according to Plato (in the Gorgias), maintained a similar doctrine. The law of nature, he said, is the law of the stronger;

but for convenience men have established institutions and moral precepts to restrain the strong. Such doctrines have won much wider assent in our day than they did in antiquity. And whatever may be thought of them, they are not characteristic of the Sophists.

During the fifth century whatever part the Sophists may have had in the change there was in Athens a transformation from a certain stiff Puritan simplicity to a quick-witted and rather cruel cynicism in conflict with a slow-witted and equally cruel defence of crumbling orthodoxy. At the beginning of the century comes the Athenian championship of the cities of Ionia against the Persians, and the victory of Marathon in 490 B.C. At the end comes the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 B.C., and the execution of Socrates in 399 B.C. After this time Athens ceased to be politically important, but acquired undoubted cultural supremacy, which it retained until the victory of Christianity.

About the author

Bertrand Arthur William Russell [18 May 1872 2 February 1970], was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician and advocate for social reform. The preceding is an excerpt taken from Bertrand Russell’s 1945 work The History of Western Philosophy. A prolific writer, he was also a populariser of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics, ranging from very serious issues to those less so. Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was a prominent anti-war activist for most of his long life, in favor of women’s suffrage, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism. As one of the world’s best-known intellectuals, Russell’s voice carried great moral authority, even into his mid 90s. Among his political activities, Russell was a vigorous proponent of nuclear disarmament and an outspoken critic of the American military intervention in Vietnam. In 1950, Russell was made a Nobel Laureate in Literature, “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”

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