A Lesson From the Sophists
The ancient Sophists occupied the period in Greek philosophical history just after the physical philosophers had posited various explanations concerning the substance of the material world (ca. 450 B.C. [Kahn, 2005]). Sophists are often dismissed as charlatans or hypocrites, and to some degree this charge is just. Our purpose here, however, is not to evaluate the Sophists’ project, but rather to learn a lesson from the circumstance in which the Sophists found themselves and from the major question they posed. As the answer to this question highlights the value of special revelation, it is relevant to Christian apologetics.
The earliest Greek philosophers (e.g., Thales, Anaximander, Democritus, etc.), had focused primarily on developing accounts of physical reality, asking “Of what is the world made?” However, social and political unrest demanded that philosophers move beyond the merely physical questions (i.e., questions about substance) in order to address spiritual and ethical issues. The traditional Greek religion, with its accompanying supernatural explanations for the phenomenal world, were being questioned. Likewise, traditional laws were being questioned (see Rogers, 1923, p. 45). As all citizens in Athens had the opportunity to participate directly as legislators, those who wanted to advance in politics desired special training in rhetoric for the purpose of learning to persuade audiences in the legal/political realm. The Sophists occupied themselves as teachers of rhetoric, among other topics. Consider the following summary:
The basis [of the Sophists’] work was apt to be rhetorical, but with the abler Sophists, this was broadened out to cover the field of an all-round and liberal culture. Any knowledge that was available of the workings of the human mind, of literature, history, language, or grammar, of the principles underlying the dialectic of argument, of the nature of virtue and justice, was clearly appropriate to the end in view.... Now all this seems innocent enough.... In reality, however, there were some grounds for...suspicion. On the practical side, merely, there always was a danger lest the Sophistic skill be prostituted to unsocial ends.... Apart, however, from such chances for abuse, which no doubt were often taken advantage of, there was a more fundamental reason for the popular distrust. The habit of unrestricted inquiry and discussion which was crystallized by the Sophistic movement, the free play of the mind over all subjects that interest men, meant the overthrow of much in the existing civilization.... (Rogers, pp. 42-43).
While some of the Sophists had high ideals (e.g., Protagoras [see Plato, 1997, pp. 746-790]), nonetheless the legacy of the Sophists is that of a general ethical relativism.
Greek culture was at a crossroads. At issue was whether the traditions of previous generations of society would be maintained, or the desires of each present individual would be accepted as his own standard. Should the individual or society take prominence? The Sophists, exposing at times the lack of rational support for tradition, essentially offered the solution of “Every man for himself.” In so doing, they posed the following philosophical question: Is man the measure of all things (as modern secular humanists allege; see Colley, 2007), or is there some external, objective standard to guide human action? Some philosophers, such as Socrates, were rightly concerned that any solution whatever be subjected to the test of human reason, and that the solution be applied to all humanity. Yet, even a Platonic solution, such as that presented in the Republic, has aspects that are unsatisfactory to many (especially its communistic aspects [Plato, 1997, pp. 971-1223]).
This quandary is ancient, yet bears a strikingly current application. Our present culture is largely divided concerning the validity of divine authority and religious tradition. At least two lessons present themselves for the Christian apologist. The first, general lesson to be learned from this Greek predicament is that man needs divine guidance in order to flourish (Jeremiah 10:23). Anytime man rejects an objective standard concerning what is good, relativism threatens. “Someone who holds that nothing is simply good, but only good for someone or from a certain point of view, holds a relativist view of goodness,” and has invited revolution, as did the Greeks (Craig, 2005, p. 894). Yet, even a universally accepted standard, if not grounded in objective truth, is not desirable (it could happen to be philosophical pessimism, Nazism, etc.).
It is interesting to note that within a few generations of the Sophists, the greatest theophony Jesus Christ would appear, providing the way to human fulfillment and peace in the fullness of time (see John 10:10; 14:6; Galatians 4:4). The Greek-speaking world would be influenced heavily by Christianity, and many philosophers throughout the centuries would come to appreciate Christian principles, even developing philosophical systems involving biblical teaching (see Rogers, pp. 185ff.).
The second, specific lesson to be learned from the Greek situation during the Sophistical age is that Christianity provides grounds for perfect balance between emphasis upon the individual person and deference to his community. The individual is uniquely responsible for his own obedience and righteous lifestyle (Acts 2:40; 2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 11:6; Jude 21-23). The individual’s own rationality is central, but not for the purpose of originating religious truth. Rather, the individual uses his rationality to examine evidence for the validity of revealed truth, and to apply revelation properly. At the same time, he is divinely situated in the church, a community of believers who bear each others’ burdens (Philippians 2:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 John 4:7), exercise godly discipline (2 Thessalonians 3:6; 1 Peter 5:5), and appeal to a single standard for conduct (2 Samuel 22:31; Romans 10:13-17; Colossians 3:17). Christianity is not designed in such a way that its adherents exercise faith in isolation. No one Christian is more valuable or more important than another (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11).
The Bible contains the answers to philosophical questions—even those asked by the ancients. The Sophists indirectly raised the question of the degree to which such a source should be consulted when philosophers develop ethical and metaphysical arguments. To defend the affirmative answer is the task of the Christian apologist, who considers philosophy in light of divine revelation in order to develop the most effective response.
Colley, Caleb (2007), “Secular Humanism and Evolution,” http://apologeticspress.org/articles/3336.
Craig, Edward (2005), “Relativism,” in The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (New York: Routledge).
Kahn, Charles H. (2005), “Sophists,” in The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (New York: Routledge).
Rogers, Arthur Kenyon (1923), A Student’s History of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan).
Plato (1997), Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett).