Differences Between Socrates and The Sophists

This planet has existed for billions of years, whether birthed by “God” or the “big bang theory”. However it got here, it is undeniable that the evolution of humanity has made it what it is today. Through generations of innovation, society is advancing to a point that no other coexisting species could have the capacity to bring it to. Despite our prolonged dominance, there is one thing standing in the way of our knowledge: our ignorance. When we believe in a certain method or idea, we are not accepting of any other idea that does not correlate with it. As the author of The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas, states, this habitual attitude has even existed in the most profound of thinkers, notably Socrates and the Sophists.

As the mythlogical age of ancient Greece subsided, more contemporary, secular minds emerged. The Sophists were known for leading this new wave. They consisted of teachers who focused on ideology based on pure intellect and practicality. Their primary belief was that since man has the full capacity to think for himself, he should live according to his own personal beliefs, with no conformation to a written religion. To Sophists, truth was based on relativity rather than absolutes. In essence, morality could not have a uniform definition.

The Sophists believed that if the way of a man’s life was regulated to any extent, that man could never be free. They often suggested that since all codes of conduct and traditional beliefs were created by humans, there is no reason why they cannot or should not be changed. As teachers, they would advise the young to study subjects with no spiritual basis, such as mathematics, history, music, and even politics. These areas of study would assist them in living in the society of their time, which was becoming increasingly democratic.

The philosophies of Socrates were inspired in the midst of the Sophist transition from

mythological obedience to free secularity. His interest in natural sciences had him questioning

the speculative approach that Sophists applied to even the physical nature of the universe.

Socrates compared the stars and planets to ethics and logic. If there are multiple conflicting, yet all accepted theories of the nature of the universe, how could the universe truly exist? The universe existed long before human thought, therefore Socrates believed that there must be one absolute nature that yielded its existence. Even with the world being how it is now, this same nature is the only thing that allows continuous change. Similarly, Socrates felt that there must be one “nature”, or set of principles that must govern our life in order for us to truly progress. To follow our own personal guidelines would only cause relative progression. As a result, society would be moving in all different directions and would not even be to the point it is today.

The Sophists and Socrates presented perspectives that would exist on opposite sides of a spectrum to most. The Sophists believed in relative truth, while Socrates believed in absolute truth. While the Sophists emphasized the importance of the man’s freedom, they ironically are accepting that he be bound to only what him and his fellow humanity has created. The importance of ideology based on practicality does not consider anything external to human nature. Socrates realizes that we do not exist within humanity, but rather within the universe. Therefore, we should strive to follow the nature of the universe in order to progress as we have for countless years.

I believe that it is necessary to not look at the ideas of the Sophists and Socrates as opposing arguments, but as two pieces to a concrete conclusion. If Socrates had beliefs completely opposite to Sophists, would that not make him a religious, conservative philosopher? And if he was so, then why was he put on trial and killed because of his philosophical views? Socrates was supporting, but adding humility to the humanistic Sophist views. A true Sophist

feels that he is most free yet is confined to only what humanity has done. Humanity did not create the universe, so in principle it would not evolve without principle.

As a whole, this way of life can be compared to the concepts of archetypal Forms. An archetype is an unseen essence that is attempted to be replicated by physical forms, but is not perfectly replicated. Each physical form has a unique “flaw”, resulting in features that discern one from its relatives. For example, we all carry the essence of the archetypal human, yet we all have different appearances. This does not stop us from being human in nature. If we did not physiologically act as the archetypal human, we would not be able to live, biologically. In order to live a good life, we must recognize and apply this archetypal concept. Similar to the Sophist approach, we cannot help but live our lives different from others; human nature already instills this as the “freedom” within us. There is an archetypal way of life that we must strive to follow, or else we will not live a good life.

The very reason that human society advanced to the point in which the Sophist thought arose was because of the following of religious beliefs. All religions that have existed are supportive of Socrates’ assertions. The problem with the ancient religious thought was that it was essentially blind worship out of fear of supreme powers. Tarnas stated that around the time of the Sophists, there became an increasing consensus that man should be seen as an advanced being coming from savagery, rather than a degenerate of the gods.

There is an argument very analogous to the Sophists and Socrates in the modern era: science versus religion. The true problem with the argument is not the argument itself, but the refusal to compromise on either side. Remaining in the extremities of both perspectives will only keep the war going for eternity. With the combination of open-minded thought and

recognition of nature, man can truly be free, without ever stepping into the realm of delusion.

Therefore, he will rightfully live a happy life.

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