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Sunday, 6 April 2014

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The Sophists’ resurrection

History repeats itself. In every age we see the recycling of previous customs and ideas as if they are something new. Although we have modern science and technology at our command, sometimes we bank on ancient practices and rituals. For instance, we are living in an age in which higher education is available to anyone who can afford to pay.

Even a cursory glance at newspaper advertisements will prove that courses leading to higher degrees cost millions of rupees. Many of the Master’s degree courses in business, psychology and a host of other subjects are available locally at a price. The course fee alone would exceed Rs 1 million. There is a big demand for such courses as the state universities are not in a position to accommodate a large number of students.

At the same time most local universities are not equipped to conduct such courses due to lack of trained professionals. This has led to the proliferation of private colleges affiliated to foreign universities which offer many postgraduate courses in various disciplines.

Greece

If you go back to Athens in Greece in the 5th century BC, you will note the same situation prevailing at that time. There were professionals known as Sophists who charged money for their teaching. They were prepared to teach anyone who had the means. They did not look into family background or any other qualifications. Many Sophists had travelled widely and they were highly “sophist-icated”. In fact, the word “sophisticated” originated in that period. The Sophists had a wide knowledge of cultures, religious practices, morals and a fine taste in clothing and food.

In a way, the Sophists were a type of social scientists who combined sociology, psychology and anthropology. The Sophists’ knowledge was viewed by the rulers as a threat to their existence. With education spreading at an alarming rate, the privileged class could not feel superior to others.


Protagoras: As to the Gods I have no means of knowing that they exist or that they do not exist.

The Sophists had their own philosophy of life. Being practical men, they considered nothing was good or bad by nature. What was good and bad was decided by custom. On the other hand, although people had different goals, everybody sought some form of power. They believed that nobody can be absolutely happy without power. Even today, most people wish to have some power over the others despite modern education.

High Fees

The Sophists demanded payment for their services. The scene is being re-enacted today with private educational institutions levying high fees for their courses. In ancient Greece the Sophists knew how to sell their products. Their glib talk and advertising skills attracted many young people into their fold. However, the philosophers such as Aristotle ans Plato did not appreciate what the Sophists were doing.

Plato referred to the Sophists as “paid hunters after the young and wealthy.” Aristotle said, “the art of the Sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality and the Sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.” Many Athenians were not sure whether Socrates was a Sophist or not. However, Socrates said, “It is wrong to charge money for teaching philosophy.”

To their credit, we can say that the Sophists were systematic thinkers who believed that the truth is relative. They said we should accept what was true at the moment according to our culture. The argument was not tenable because if there is no ultimate truth, no moral code is universally correct. For them, moral values did not reflect a divine or natural order.

Protagoras of Abdera (481-411 BCE) was perhaps the greatest of the Sophists who taught wealthy Athenians. He himself became rich and famous. As a typical Sophist, Protagoras travelled widely observing the cultures of other countries. He said morals reflected social traditions. His view that “man is the measure of all things” has been variously interpreted.

Protagoras was a pragmatist. According to his theory of pragmatism, beliefs are to be interpreted in terms of “whether they work” or “their usefulness.” However, Plato did not agree with him He said that reducing the concept of what is useful to whatever people think may be useful but it is not acceptable.

It is said that Protagoras did not follow his own advice. Once he held religion to the pragmatist test. His ideas offended the rulers. As a result, some of his works were burnt. He tried to flee to Sicily but the ship was wrecked and Protagoras drowned.

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