>>>>The Sophists are a group of philosophers
who come into Athens in the middle and the second half of the 5th century BC, the great
glory days of Athenian democracy. Sophist means “teacher of wisdom.” The Sophists are
teachers who thrive in the atmosphere of Greek democracy. They come and they teach rhetoric
and they teach philosophy. Two pursuits that are appropriate for a democratic society,
in which the leaders of the society wanted to train themselves and their sons in the
arts of rhetoric and philosophy. The Sophists are an intellectual movement, and they would
raise fundamental questions about the nature of morality and justice that have reverberated
throughout the rest of human history. I’d like to introduce a few of the concepts that
underlie Sophistic philosophy and that would provoke the reactions of Socrates, Plato and
Aristotle, among others. And to do this let’s introduce a set of terms that would prove
fundamental to Sophist thinking. The two terms are nomos and physis. Greek words nomos and
physis. Nomos means “law” or “custom.” Physis means “nature”, it’s where we get our world
physical. It means “nature.” And the Athens of the 5th century was a cosmopolitan city,
that it was it was open to external influences philosophers and thinkers from around the
world came to Athens. And it meant that the Athenians who were also at this time building
a naval empire, came into broad cultural contact with the wider world. Now, in any human situation
multiculturalism can be uncomfortable. It can be provocative, because it forces one
to encounter the ideas and the beliefs and the cultural norms of another human being.
The challenge of multiculturalism in the ancient Greek world is embodied in this dualism between
nomos custom or law and physis, nature. It’s a dualism that asks, what about our way of
life is due simply to convention, we might say, and what is due to nature? What is objective
and natural? What is inherent in the way things truly are and what is simply our creation?
What is our custom? What is our culture given to us? And it’s something that, a dualism
that can be invisible until one comes into contact with other cultures. But this is part
of the challenge of the Sophists, is that they raise fundamentally the question of what
about our social order is simply our conventional way of doing things? And this challenge is
embodied in a story that’s preserved in the “Histories” of Herodotus. Herodotus is the
father of history in fact, history too is a Greek word, it means “inquiry.” And Herodotus
comes to Athens in the glory days of Athenian democracy where he pens his “Histories”. And
his “Histories” are not just an account of the past going back to the great defeat of
the Persians by the Greeks, but in fact, are a sort of anthropological inquiry. They’re
an anthropologist’s account of the foreign cultures that surround the Greek world. Herodotus
is as much an anthropologist and ethnographer as he is a historian. He loves to look at
other cultures and asks about their conventions. And he tells the story of the Persian King
Darius, who one day brought subjects of his empire from the Far East and the Far West
into his court and he brought together a set of Greeks and asked them a simple question:
would you consider eating the flesh of your dead relatives? And the Greeks recoil in horror
and say that’s cannibalism, it’s a violation of the divine ordinances, it’s a unholy act.
And he brings together with these Greeks some Indians subject to his empire, the Callations,
and he asks them: would you ever consider incinerating the bodies of your dead relatives?
And they say this is an absolute desecration, that it’s a violation of the fundamental laws
of god. And he had proven a point because the Callations, so Herodotus says, considered
it holy to consume the flesh of their dead relatives. And the Greeks, of course in the
classical world, practiced cremation. They burned the bodies and buried the bones of
their relatives. So he asks one culture would they consider doing what this other culture
considered simply normative. And it’s the question itself that’s quite provocative because
the Greeks suddenly in this situation are forced to realize that their practices, these
most sacred sorts of rituals are perhaps simply convention. That is, what is it about this
that makes it right? Is it simply something we have created, or is it part of nature?
Is it something about the order of the cosmos? Is it nomos, convention, or is it physis?
And the way this question is posed is part of the challenge of the Sophists to traditional
morality, because if not consuming the flesh of your dead relatives is simply a convention,
what else might be mere convention?