Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Sophists
By George Grote (1794–1871)
From History of Greece

THE PRIMITIVE education at Athens consisted of two branches: gymnastics for the body, music for the mind. The word music is not to be judged according to the limited signification which it now bears. It comprehended from the beginning everything appertaining to the province of the Nine Muses, not merely learning the use of the lyre, or how to bear part in a chorus, but also the hearing, learning, and repeating of poetical compositions, as well as the practice of exact and elegant pronunciation—which latter accomplishment, in a language like the Greek, with long words, measured syllables, and great diversity of accentuation between one word and another, must have been far more difficult to acquire than it is in any modern European language. As the range of ideas enlarged, so the words, music, and musical teachers acquired an expanded meaning, so as to comprehend matter of instruction at once ampler and more diversified. During the middle of the fifth century B.C. at Athens, there came thus to be found among the musical teachers men of the most distinguished abilities and eminence; masters of all the learning and accomplishments of the age, teaching what was known of astronomy, geography, and physics, and capable of holding dialectical discussions with their pupils, upon all the various problems then afloat among intellectual men. Of this character were Lamprus, Agathokles, Pythokleides, Damon, etc. These two latter were instructors of Perikles; and Damon was even rendered so unpopular at Athens, partly by his large and free speculations, partly through the political enemies of his great pupil, that he was ostracised, or at least sentenced to banishment. Such men were competent companions for Anaxagoras and Zeno, and employed in part on the same studies; the field of acquired knowledge being not then large enough to be divided into separate, exclusive compartments. While Euripides frequented the company, and acquainted himself with the opinions of Anaxagoras, Ion of Chios, his rival as a tragic poet, as well as the friend of Kimon, bestowed so much thought upon physical subjects as then conceived that he set up a theory of his own, propounding the doctrine of three elements in nature—air, fire, and earth.
  Now such musical teachers as Damon and the others above mentioned, were sophists, not merely in the natural and proper Greek sense of that word, but, to a certain extent, even in the special and restricted meaning which Plato afterwards thought proper to confer upon it. A sophist, in the genuine sense of the word, was a wise man—a clever man—one who stood prominently before the public as distinguished for intellect or talent of some kind. Thus Solon and Pythagoras are both called sophists; Thamyras, the skilful bard is called a sophist; Socrates, is so denominated, not merely by Aristophanes, but by Æschines; Aristotle himself calls Aristippus, and Xenophon calls Antisthenes, both of them disciples of Sokrates, by that name: Xenophon, in describing a collection of instructive books, calls them “the writings of the old poets and sophists,” meaning by the latter word prose writers generally; Plato is alluded to as a sophist, even by Isokrates; Æschines, the disciple of Socrates, not the orator, was so denominated by his contemporary Lysias; Isokrates himself was harshly criticised as a sophist, and defends both himself and his profession; lastly, Timon, the friend and admirer of Pyrrho, about 300–280 B.C., who bitterly satirised all the philosophers, designated them all, including Plato and Aristotle, by the general name of sophists. In this large and comprehensive sense the word was originally used, and always continued to be so understood among the general public. But along with this idea, the title sophist also carried with it, or connoted a certain invidious feeling. The natural temper of a people generally ignorant towards superior intellect—the same temper which led to those charges of magic so frequent in the Middle Ages—appears to be an union of admiration with something of an unfavourable sentiment—dislike, or apprehension, as the case may be; unless, where the latter element has become neutralised by habitual respect for an established profession or station. At any rate, the unfriendly sentiment is so often intended, that a substantive word in which it is implied without the necessity of any annexed predicate, is soon found convenient. Timon, who hated the philosophers, thus found the word sophist exactly suitable, in sentiment as well as meaning, to his purpose in addressing them.  2
  Now when, in the period succeeding 450 B.C., the rhetorical and musical teachers came to stand before the public at Athens in such increased eminence, they of course, as well as other men intellectually celebrated, became designated by the appropriate name of sophists. But there was one characteristic peculiar to themselves, whereby they drew upon themselves a double measure of that invidious sentiment which lay wrapped up in the name. They taught for pay; of course therefore the most eminent among them taught only the rich, and earned large sums; a fact naturally provocative of envy, to some extent, among the many who benefited nothing by them, but still more among the inferior members of their own profession. Even great minds, like Socrates and Plato, though much superior to any such envy, cherished in that age a genuine and vehement repugnance against receiving pay for teaching. We read in Xenophon, that Socrates considered such a bargain as nothing less than servitude, robbing the teacher of all free choice as to persons or proceeding; and that he assimilated the relation between teacher and pupil, to that between two lovers or two intimate friends, which was thoroughly dishonoured, robbed of its charm and reciprocity, and prevented from bringing about its legitimate reward of attachment and devotion, by the intervention of money payment. However little in harmony with modern ideas, such was the conscientious sentiment of Socrates and Plato; who therefore considered the name sophist, denoting intellectual celebrity combined with an odious association, as pre-eminently suitable to the leading teachers for pay. The splendid genius, the lasting influence, and the reiterated polemics of Plato, have stamped it upon the men against whom he wrote as if it were their recognised, legitimate, and peculiar designation; though it is certain, that if, in the middle of the Peloponnesian war, any Athenian had been asked, “Who are the principal sophists in your city?” he would have named Socrates among the first; for Socrates was at once eminent as an intellectual teacher, and personally unpopular, not because he received pay, but on other grounds which will be hereafter noticed: and this was the precise combination of qualities which the general public naturally expressed by a sophist. Moreover, Plato not only stole the name out of general circulation in order to fasten it specially upon his opponents, the paid teachers, but also connected with it express discreditable attributes, which formed no part of its primitive and recognised meaning, and were altogether distinct from, though grafted upon, the vague sentiment of dislike associated with it. Aristotle, following the example of his master, gave to the word sophist a definition substantially the same as that which it bears in the modern languages—“an impostrous pretender to knowledge, a man who employs what he knows to be fallacy, for the purpose of deceit and of getting money.” And he did this at a time when he himself with his estimable contemporary Socrates, were considered at Athens to come under the designation of sophists, and were called so by every one who disliked either their profession or their persons.  3

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