Social and Political Thought of Sophists - Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias, and Antiphon
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By emphasising the role of the social factor in the human life, the sophists created the foundations of European sociopolitical thought which arose from the spirit of criticism, pervading the Athenian democratic culture in the second half of the 5th century B.C. They gave rise to the first anthropological breakthrough in the history of our civilisation by treating philosophy, education and upbringing as preparation for life in a free civil society. They also had their share in depriving the laws of their sacral status since they treated the state and the law as results of a social contract dictated by utilitarian reasons. Therefore they should be regarded as the inventors of legal-political conventionalism and utilitarianism which have formed the basis for today's democracy. Protagoras was the author of the notion of social evolution. That notion was later to become the foundation of leftist, liberal and conservative sociopolitical attitudes. According to Protagoras, education is preparation for life in the society, and thus he might be called a patron of the modern 'education for democracy'. Prodicus put forward the ideal of an individual sacrificing his interests for the sake of the community and showed the social function of work. He also regarded religion as a human invention, acquiring its shape in the course of history. Hippias and Antiphon created the notion of the law of nature and the idea of social egalitarianism, since they claimed that all human beings are naturally equal. Moreover, they formulated and contrasted the two notions: nature (phýsis) and legal convention (nómos). Later this opposition became a fundamental question of the European philosophy of law and politics.The sophists of the classical period, though they propagated relativism and epistemological sensualism, were far from preaching antisocial and immoral individualism. Their teachings were based on antihedonistic ethical restraint. They all recognised primacy of the community over an individual which was the most important foundation of the Greek political culture in that period. They were also forerunners of those tendencies in the modern pedagogy that aim at endowing the pupil or student first of all with social and professional efficiency.
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