The Great Conversation: Sophistry Vs. Philosophy

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Sophistry Versus Philosophy In The Great Conversation, Norman Melchert says, “The term ‘sophist’ has rather negative connotations for us” (44). The Nature Philosophers and the Sophists were teachers. They held similar interests and intents; both groups lived in Ancient Greece, proposed radically different ideas, and argued passionately for their beliefs. The words “philosophy” and “sophistry” even contain the same Greek root, which can be translated to English as the word “wise” (Melchert, 44). Yet, we treat the Nature Philosophers as legendary heroes, and the Sophists as ancient villains. Even though the Nature Philosophers and the Sophists have some similarities, they are more different than they are similar due to their general methodologies, …show more content…
In Ancient Greece, no such division existed. Everyone in search of wisdom was grouped together. The Nature Philosophers attempted to find and explain fundamental truths of the Universe, whereas the Sophists focused their efforts on the studies of argument and justice. This explains the trust Nature Philosophers put in rationalism and empiricism, and the comparable trust the Sophists put in rhetoric. In addition, it can also explain the disagreement between the Sophists and the Nature Philosophers regarding the belief in (or lack thereof) a god or gods. The Nature Philosophers often mentioned a god, gods, or at the least a divine structure when they set out to explain the world around them. As Melchert puts it when discussing Xenophanes, “But for these ancient Greeks, the existence of order always presupposes an ordering intelligence” (17). This presupposition begins to fade when the Sophists arise. The Sophist Protagoras “says that in light of the difficulty of the question and because life is short, we are prevented from knowing about the gods” (Melchert, 46). The agnosticism of the Sophists provides a stark contrast from the Nature Philosophers almost undoubting belief in divinity. This distinct discrepancy also gives light to the differing views regarding the attainability of truth proposed by each …show more content…
At first, this seems similar to the Atomist view that we are “cut off from the real”, but the Atomists held that reality could be reached through reasoning (Melchert, 45). Unlike the Atomists and the other Nature Philosophers, the Sophists held that reason could not ever lead to the truth. They showed the possibility of reason leading two different people to two different conclusions, which in their minds proved that truth lacked uniformity, and only exists in relativism (Melchert, 46). Thus, the Sophists stopped searching for fundamental truths about the universe, and started examining our systems for justice. This is the antithesis of the technique utilized by the Nature Philosophers, who used reason to search for fundamental truths first and then examined how those truths could be used to establish moral systems for justice. The Nature Philosophers attempted to reach wisdom by building from the bottom up, whereas the Sophists tried to reach wisdom by tearing from the top down. They attacked the issue in opposing ways, and time has proven the Nature Philosophers to have been more successful in their

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