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History of Philosophy I

From Heraclitus to the Sophists


Michal Zvarík

This coursebook addresses key presocratics from Heraclitus to the sophists, who stand at the origin of philosophy as cornerstone of European spirituality. Readers might find that already at this point we encounter timeless and actual questions concerning the human condition in the world, limits of our knowledge, or the problem of adequate articulation of reality. Later thinkers did not philosophised from scratch, but criticised or were inspired by their predecessors. The coursebook thus provides an introduction to presocratic thought as an important field of our spiritual history.
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6. The Sophists


The word “sophist” sounds to modern ears rather defamatory, rather than as an attempt to imply serious reflection. But the Greek word sofistés in the 5th century was a rather neutral term and generally referred to anyone who knew specific, significant knowledge. It is no surprise that the sophists as vocational teachers received this designation as their own. The idea of a sophist as a “professional liar,” who misused skills for his/her own enrichment, is mainly a legacy of Plato and Aristotle. The Sophists opened new topics and transferred emphasis to new areas with the person at the centre of their interest. Even past thinking thematised the relationship between a person and the world and opened the door to the criticism of human capabilities to adequately perceive and cognise. Sophists increased these tendencies even further. ← 81 | 82 →

6.1 The Historical Context of Sophists

The rise of sophists, which can hardly be described as a single movement, is inextricably linked to the development of democracy. On one hand, democracy greatly expanded the possibilities of individual citizens to participate in government and the administration of common affairs. On the other hand, major offices should be designated to distinguished, appropriate individuals who excel over others, regardless of their origin. In the words of Pericles’ famous funeral speech: “Our constitution is called a democracy because conduct of affairs is entrusted not to a few but to the many… [B]ut public preferment depends on individual distinction and...

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