A Few Notes on Socrates and the Sophists

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A FEW NOTES ON SOCRATES AND THE SOPHISTS

Sophists and Socrates both used the elenchus, a method of questioning which is something like ‘cross-examination.’

The Socratic elenchus eventually gave rise to the dialectic, the idea that through question and answer, through opposing ideas, through modifying one’s position and throwing out false opinions (doxa) truth might be pursued. It requires the searching out and bringing forth of true opinions in order to guide the interlocutor towards right thinking and a knowledge of the true forms. Although Socrates, in the Apologia, claims to have discovered no other truth than that he knows no truth, the Socrates of Plato’s earlier dialogues is of the opinion that truth is obtainable by use of the elenchus.

SOPHISTS - while they use the elenchus they do not develop a dialectic aimed at leading people towards truth. Some practice eristic, flashy and ostentatious employment of verbal tricks, capping an argument or trapping an opponent without regard to searching out truth. So, among all the other forms of decadence which Aristophanes points to in Athenian society at this time, might be added the decadence of philosophical argumentation.

SOPHISTS were mainly outsiders, not Athenians. They came offering an education suited to the creation of a competititve public sphere which seemed to threaten the Old Education, the traditional mythopoetic education based on the poets (Homer, Hesiod, Pindar), religious ritual, and cultic initiation rites such as the Mysteries at Eleusis. (cf. Chorus of Initiates in Frogs.) Yet what they offered in the New Education was highly adapted to the needs of a citizen body which required rhetorical skills in order to participate in the democratic institutions of the Law Courts and the Assembly.

Aristophanes shows the Sophists as mainly wanting to win arguments (or to practice what…...

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