The Sophists

From around 450 BC onwards, Athens became the cultural centre of the Greek world and philosophy took a new direction.

The Natural Philosophers had been mainly concerned with the nature of the physical world.  Now, in Athens, philosophical interest focused on the individual and the individual’s place in society.

Debate and Rhetoric

Gradually a democracy evolved across Athens, with popular assemblies and courts of law. In order for society to work, people had to be educated enough to take part. For the Athenians, it was first and foremost essential to master the art of rhetoric, which means saying things in a convincing manner.

A group of traveling teachers and philosophers from the Greek colonies flocked to Athens. They called themselves Sophists. The word ‘sophist’ means a wise and informed person. In Athens, the Sophists made a living out of teaching the citizens for money.

The Sophists had one characteristic in common with the Natural Philosophers, they were critical of the traditional mythological world view. But at the same time the Sophists rejected what they regarded as fruitless philosophical speculation.

Their opinion was that although answers to philosophical questions may exist, man cannot know the truth about the riddles of nature and of the universe. In philosophy a view like this is called Skepticism.

Man is the Measure of All Things

The Sophists chose to concern themselves with mankind and a person’s place in society. ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ said the Sophist named Protagoras (c. 485 – 410 BC).

By that he meant that the question of whether a thing is right or wrong, good or bad, must always be considered in relation to a person’s needs. On being asked whether he believed in the Greek gods, he answered:

“Concerning the gods I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, or what form they might have, for there is much to prevent one’s knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man’s life.”


The Sophists were, as a rule, men who had traveled widely and seen different forms of government. Both conventions and local laws in the city-states could vary widely. This led the Sophists to raise the question of what was natural and what was socially induced?

By doing this, they paved the way for social criticism in the city-state of Athens and one man by the name of Socrates would be highly critical of Athenian society.

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