14 - Making the Weaker Argument the Stronger: the Sophists

In this episode, Peter Adamson discusses the sophists, teachers of rhetoric in ancient Athens, looking especially at the contributions of Protagoras and Gorgias.

Press 'play' to hear the podcast: 

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Further Reading: 

J.M. Dillon and T. Gergel, The Greek Sophists (London: 2003).

G.B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge: 1981).

Gabriel's picture

Hey Peter great job with the

Hey Peter great job with the podcasts thank you for doing all this tedious work to help philosophy noobs like me get introduced.

I'm unclear on one part of this podcast: how does the distinction between nature and custom tie in to the defence of the Sophists saying that "the stronger SHOULD gain the better rewards in life?"

I can't quite understand that part.

Peter Adamson's picture

Custom vs nature

Glad you are enjoying the podcasts. Sorry, maybe the nature/custom point goes by a bit fast in the episode. What I had in mind was that for the Sophists nature provides its own set of values: from the point of view of nature, the triumph of the strponger is what "should" happen. Custom then gives us a different set of values: e.g. the weak "should" be protected from the strong. But given that this second kind of value is artificial (and perhaps only exists because the custom has been introduced by the weak for their own benefit) we might think that the first, natural kind of value is more fundamental. To put it more simply, we should dismiss the value system of custom because it is a mere convention, and embrace the natural values which are actually fixed in reality. Does that help?

Gabriel's picture

But if there is some sort of

But if there is some sort of natural order of things, doesn't that mean they are saying there is an ultimate truth or reality, which contradicts what they say (about ultimate truths being non-existent) in the first place?

The way I understand the Sophists from your podcast, is that they shouldn't be allowed to use "should" at all.

And I don't see how the distinction between nature and custom defends this point.

Any ideas?

Peter Adamson's picture

More on nature vs custom

I think that you are here raising a more sophisticated objection to the nature vs custom claim, saying it is inconsistent with their relativism. I think the easiest solution here is to say that it is not necessarily the same sophists who make the nature/custom point and who make the relativism point. The former is more associated with Thrasymachus and Callicles, and mostly by Plato, though it is also found in testimony on sophists independent of Plato. The relativism idea is really Protagoras (again, Plato's version looms large). There is a family resemblance here: the nature vs custom move is a way of undermining conventional values; the relativism move is a way of undermining value claims and perhaps truth claims generally. But you are right that the first looks different from, and perhaps inconsistent with, the second. That's only going to be a problem if we find the same sophist saying both things though! (Incidentally we also find other "undermining" moves in other sophists, e.g. Gorgias with his idea that virtue is not just one thing but is different for different types of people; that undermines the notion of virtue in a way and is relativistic in a way, but it isn't Protagorean because he still accepts that a person of given type will be genuinely virtuous if they are the way people of that type should be. It's interesting to think about whether the historical Protagoras meant something more like this with his "man is the measure" idea, rather than the general epistemological view we find in Plato's Theaetetus.)

Gabriel's picture

So, general epistemological


general epistemological view of Protagoras = no absolute truth, only relative

Gorgias example = relative truths existing together with an absolute/norm

Is that quite what you're saying?

Like the "undermining" explanation though. That helps alot.

Peter Adamson's picture



Yes, that's pretty much it except that I think "relative" is being used differently in the two positions. For Protagoras truth itself is realtive to each person/observer. So if X seems good to me it is good for me, however it seems to you. Whereas on the Gorgias position it is absolutely true what is good and bad, but what is good and bad depends on the person; e.g. if I'm a human it's good for me to do politics, but that wouldn't be good for a horse (or in the view ancient Athenians, for a woman). That's a different kind of relativity.


Gabriel's picture

Thanks Peter. I've mostly got

Thanks Peter. I've mostly got it. :) Oh and also the podcasts are a really good way to do this. I would've never had the time to read through all of these episodes if they were in text.

Keep doing this, really appreciate it.