The intellectual climate of Socrates’ time and its relation to the present

In my previous post, I described the philosophical problem of being vs becoming and characterised it as the first significant dialectic that western philosophy experienced. I also alluded to the climate of skepticism that this dialectic produced. It is easy to understand why the common man turned to skepticism: if intellectual titans such as Parmenides and Heraclitus could not find a way around this impasse, then what hope was there for anyone else? The pursuit of truth was consequently viewed by many as an act in futility.

Thus enter the Sophists. Following logically from the idea of the pursuit of truth as an act of futility, the Sophists encouraged the pursuit of excellence (or arete in Greek). The Sophist orator was judged by the quality of his rhetoric i.e. how his speech pleased and influenced his audience, rather than the truthfulness of his claims. According to Plato, Socrates recognised the “specious” and “deceptive” nature of  such rhetoric and believed it was responsible for the moral and intellectual decline of Greece. I think it is not to controversial to say that anyone who has been exposed to advertising or listened to a politician speak has heard modern sophistry (and there are of course many more subtle examples).

In rejection of the sophist claim of the primacy of the pursuit of excellence, Socrates emphasised the pursuit of truth (and consequently other virtues such as justice etc.). Socrates opposed the skepticism of his time, proposing that truth could indeed be discovered through the application of logic and reason.

Is our time an era of skepticism or optimism in regards to the pursuit of truth? In terms of philosophical claims I would say we live in a time of skepticism. Yet, in regard to sciences ability to produce theses that accurately correspond to the real world there is a sense of unbridled optimism. Of course, the sophists of our day know this – which is why they paint their philosophical claims as scientific.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Rosie on 01/12/2012 at 9:07 pm

    Also, the scientific arena in this day and age most likely not only has a wider audience base, but also one which is more willing to see ideas floated as potentially concrete truths, to grab onto, even if they end up being proved wrong or changed.


  2. […] are commonly victims of populist fashion and can be found just about anywhere. They are related to sophists, but tend to be less […]


  3. […] Protagoras was a philosopher who operated in the same era as Socrates (and as such is generally classified as a pre-Socratic). Plato referred to him as a sophist, and in his dialogue Protagoras  credits him with inventing the … […]


  4. […] Following the conquests of Alexander the Great and the death of Aristotle, Greek philosophy made it’s transition from the Socratic era to the Hellenistic era. The Hellenistic era was similar to the pre-Socratic era in that it was an age of uncertainty where t… […]


  5. […] In this way, the modern philosophical movement is not unprecedented. It follows the usual historical pattern: a time of certainty, followed by a time of skepticism, foll…. […]


  6. […] too. This ultimately leads to the denial of time to maintain the coherency of their philosophy. It was Plato who first broke the Parmenides-Heraclitus stalemate of antiquity, and his dualistic account of nature would later inspire Aristotle’s knock-out […]


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