Sophism and Natural Philosophy in Ancient Greece
Sophism refers to a form of rhetorical instruction that was commonly used in Ancient Greece to provide rhetorical education to the aristocracy for a fee. Natural philosophy was a popular philosophical idea prior to the rapid advancement of science, and it sought to discover the facts in the best way possible at the time. Socrates was a famous philosopher who opposed sophism in favor of philosophy.
The Distinction Between Sophism and Natural Philosophy
The precise distinction between sophism and natural philosophy is still a point of contention. Socrates made the first attempts to differentiate between natural philosophy and sophism. In the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, the words philosopher and sophist were used to distinguish between the rivalry schools of thought (Barney 79).
The main distinguishing factor that makes sophism different from natural philosophy is the difference in moral character (Gibert 28). The methods used by Socrates were hardly different from those used by the sophists, but the overall purpose of two movements differed greatly. Both Plato and Aristotle emphasized that the style of living of the sophists greatly differed from those of philosophers. Sophists often travelled either together with their students or looking for the new ones. They taught rhetoric that was often combined with other applied sciences, including mathematics and even athletics. Moreover, sophists were known for receiving money for their work. On the other hand, philosophers were the ones who wanted to discover the truth more than anything. Financial benefits and secondary aspects of their activities did not matter to them at all because finding the truth was their only concern. Sophists were largely criticized by the philosophers in 5th century BCE for their mercenary character and overestimation of the figures of speech. Just like the sophists, philosophers often used the figures of speech. However, to them, rhetoric mostly served as a tool to extend their arguments rather than the purpose.
The Argument About Financial Gain
The argument about financial gain has clearly lost its appeal with time because modern-day philosophers are likely to ask money for participation in discussions, and this fact would not make them sophists (Barney 78). However, at times of Plato and Socrates, the argument was essential. Unlike sophists, the philosophers were not expected to ask money for their teachings because it would violate expectation of them dedicating their lives to knowledge. For the ancient natural philosopher, refusing the financial benefits was an evidence of his adherence to the chosen lifestyle. Today, the argument is still significant in the historical context.
The Argument of Logical Reasoning
Another factor commonly used to distinguish between sophists and natural philosophers is the distinguishing between their arguments. It is believed that the arguments of the natural philosophers are consistent with logical reasoning. On the other hand, the arguments of sophists are said to contain logical fallacies because sophists are mainly concerned with rhetorical styles rather than the principles of formal logic (Gibert 42). The word sophistry of sophism is currently used to indicate intentional logical fallacies, such as in the sentence "Beware of the sophism for they are sophisticated" (Dufour). However, the natural philosophy is not free of the logical fallacies either. Natural philosophers used logical arguments to prove their misconceptions about the universe at the time when the beliefs about Earth and Universe were not consistent with the actual way the Universe is built. Hence, both sophists and natural philosophers can be accused of logical fallacies.
Contribution of Sophism and Natural Philosophy
To conclude, despite the differences, both sophism and natural philosophy made the contribution into the contemporary culture and philosophy. The works of natural philosophy became the basis of the human civilization. Sophists contributed to the development of scepticism, relativism, and linguistic interpretation.
Barney, Rachel. “The Sophistic Movement”. A Companion To Ancient Philosophy, edited by
Mary Louis Gille and Pierrre Pellegrin, 1st ed., Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2006, pp. 77-
Dufour, Michel. “On the difference between fallacy and sophism.” OSSA Conference Archive,
Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.
Gibert, John. “The Sophists”. The Blackwell Guide To Philosophy, edited by Christopher
Shields, 1st ed., Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2003, pp. 27-50.