Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Tamed Lion (Sophists on the Broken Man)

In this post on "The Broken Man", I will discuss the Sophists, a group of professional educators at the time of Socrates with important influence through the rhetorical tradition of the Roman Empire.  Like the other groups I have examined, they had an explanation as to why happiness is so difficult for human beings.  In many ways, theirs is quite different than those of the philosophical "schools", and their explanation was much maligned, especially by Plato.  However, their understanding of human nature and human fulfilment is fundamentally different than those presented by the other ancient intellectual traditions, so I will present it in as plausible a form as possible, so that it may play a role in the discussion of the craft of living. 

Most sophists argued for a distinction between nature ("physis") and convention ("nomos").  In nature, the clever and strong dominate the stupid and the weak.  They are able to take whatever they want from the weak, and the weak can do nothing about it.  In fact, in nature, everything really belongs to the clever and the strong.  Since they have the capacity to take what they want at any time, it is really "theirs" to dispose of as they please.  The strong often take positions of leadership, in which they organise the city to their own advantage, putting in place laws that enable them to remain in control and continue to have access to all the property of those underneath them in the city.  It is worth noting that this is considered not simply a value-neutral fact about nature.  In nature, the clever and strong have a right to everything that they can take.

However, the weak and stupid were (reasonably enough) not fans of this situation, so they set out to prevent the strong and clever from this tyrrany.  To do so, they created laws and conventions ("nomoi" is the word for both) to keep the strong in line.  Specifically, they created justice ("dikia"), a virtue of sharing goods with others.  Since they cannot take more for themselves, they are willing to settle for equality.  They then make sure that anyone born into their city believes that justice is a virtue, so that they won't try to take more than their share, and the weak and stupid can live in peace without the interference of the strong and clever.

The Sophists believe that this situation crushed the fulfilment of the strongest and cleverest members of sociey, who are the only members of city capable of true human fulfilment anyway.  What this creates is mediocrity in which no great person can develop.  What the Sophists promise to teach is the capacity for the strong and clever to reach their fulfilment, rather than be strangled by city.  However, such a transition is very difficult, and before one can learn to reach that fulfilment, one must first get rid of the various chains by which the weak and stupid bind the strong and clever.

The first technique used is to fool the reason of the clever into believing that "dikia" or justice is anything other than a mere convention designed to protect the weak and deny the strong their natural right.  Societies lie about justice in a number of ways.  They claim that the gods will punish those who act unjustly.  They claim that justice is noble or beautiful.  They  claim that nature is in some sort of harmony, and we should therefore imitate that harmony in our societies as a microcosm of nature.  In other words, societies pretend that justice is somehow "natural" or "good", and fool the strong and clever from the beginning of their lives into believing in equality and justice.

The second technique, however, is even more subtle.  The city takes the young clever and strong person and, like someone taming a lion, uses songs and stories to train their emotions as well.  They try to get the strong and clever to love justice and hate power.  The primary emotion on which they work is shame or "aidos".  They try to ensure that whenever a clever and good person tries to seize more for himself, he feels guilt and embarassment for it.  They reinforce this through stories and ridicule.  The clever and the strong, even if they escape from the belief that justice is natural, still hold onto the shame.  This shame takes its own sort of training to overcome.

The Sophists, therefore, believed that happiness is very difficult.  For the many, who are weak and stupid, it is impossible.  For the few clever and strong, they are seized by the city soon after their birth, and tamed like lions.  In order to overcome this training, they require both philosophy to see that justice is not nature and courage to overcome their shame.  The Sophists believe such training was possible (indeed, it's what they claimed to teach), but the training would be very difficult.

Sculpture: Hercules Battles the Nemean Lion, Source Unknown.


  1. Do you have any good books about sophists?