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Socrates is known as one of the first philosophers in Western philosophy to dedicate his life to the study of human nature. Furthermore, he believes that human beings are rational, and that pursuing the truth is the most rational thing humans can do to truly live as human beings and care for their souls. The similarities and the differences among many types of new educators appearing in the fifth century in Athens, particularly between Socrates and Sophists, is a huge topic even today. It also leads to the indistinguishability of the citizens of ancient Athens between him and the Sophists, which eventually causes Socrates’ death. As a consequence, a comparison of similarities and differences between Socrates and Sophists will be discussed in this essay in order to further understand their different approaches and purposes to human excellence.
Generally speaking, Socrates and Sophists are often mistaken because they both talk about human affairs and arete, also known as virtue or excellence of humanity. They also use rhetoric, “the art of communication and argument, in technique of persuasion” when they discuss these topics. However, Socrates and Sophists have different goals and benefits. For the Sophists, they teach their students the skills of speaking and persuasion for victory. The Sophists believe that persuasion is the basis of strong debate in order to defeat their opponents. They would use words as weapons and strategies to make their speeches stronger. Perhaps that is one of the main reasons why people see that “the Sophists aim at victory, not truth” (Melchert 95, ed. 8). In contrast, Socrates uses rhetoric to reach for the truth when he talks to other people, not “to win over his opponent but to advance toward the truth” (Melchert 95, ed. 8). In addition, he states that if people treat conversations like debates or battles and try to win over an argument, they will not learn anything new. He wants to have a new perspective of human affairs to find out their ultimate truth. That is why Socrates prefers questioning and listening to people to make them really think about what they are saying. Therefore, Socrates’ and the Sophists’ purposes of using rhetoric will lead to different goals, as the Sophists’ aim is for their own gains, whereas Socrates’ is for people’s goods and souls.
Another aspect that needs discovering is about teaching. This is also one of the greatest points that make Athens citizens confused between Socrates and the Sophists. In Aristophanes’ The Clouds, he tries to differentiate between traditional and new education and criticize the new education as danger to Athens morality and culture (Mintz 736). According to Mintz, Aristophanes not only addresses Socrates as “the chief representative of this new education,” but he also says that Socrates “has a school and students who pay fees”. Nevertheless, Plato’s Socrates denies himself as a teacher, which is different from Aristophanes’ version. Plato’s Socrates describes himself as “a “midwife” in the realm of thought” as well as “a gadfly of Athens”. Plato’s Socrates’ description illustrates that he is not a teacher because he does not know much, or anything, about human excellence. Rather than teaching someone and actually delivering the truth, he is more likely to pull out the information or knowledge that people already have and connect them altogether. Consequently, everything that people know comes from themselves through a conversation with Socrates. On the other hand, the Sophists see themselves as teachers of certain subjects such as geometry, philosophy and rhetoric. They even claim that they have something to educate others, particularly their students.
Talking about teaching, payment, or tuition fee, also indicates the difference between Plato’s Socrates and the Sophists. As people have already known, the Sophists teach their juniors, or students, to use rhetoric for debate and gain victory in every conversation, or argument. For them, these skills are strategies for someone to go into a verbal fight. Hence, their goals are to gain “fame, wealth, and the satisfaction of one’s [their] desire” through teaching (Melchert 97). From the Sophists’ perspective, good is whatever is good for themselves only, which is known as the law of self-preservation, to live as comfortably and luxuriously as possible. On the contrary, Socrates does not receive money because he does not desire material and physical things. For Socrates, nothing is more valuable than making true friends and leading to the truth. Moreover, he truly thinks that everything people understand and realize comes from their own selves when they have conversations and arguments with Socrates. This can be understood that he does not teach anyone anything, so he does not receive payment. Another reason why Socrates does not receive payment relates to his freedom of choice. According to Blank, Xenophon’s Socrates puts emphasis on the fact that he does not have to engage in a conversation if he does not want to. In other words, Socrates cannot cancel the course or leave his instructions behind once the payment has been made.
Following the payment, Plato’s Socrates and the Sophists have a huge difference in their beliefs. The Sophists tend to believe in skepticism, holding a doubt whether there is truth or not, and relativism, considering the knowledge and the truth is relative in various contexts. They have a strong confidence that truth is content and is changeable. They argue that truth for someone might not be the truth for another due to the difference “from culture to culture, from time to time, and even from individual to individual” (Melchert 62). For instance, people may not have the same thought about whether other creatures exist outside the Earth, or even the solar system, or not. According to Melchert, more than a truth, the Sophists seem to rely more on humanity itself as a “measure,” the only standard of how things are. Furthermore, they have a skeptical viewpoint about the truth. In this particular area, Melchert suggests that the theories of many natural philosophers represent probabilities, not the truth, however, that humanity can reach out at best. On the other side, Socrates believes in absolute truth. He claims that human beings are rational and that pursuing the truth is the most rational thing that humans can do to enrich their souls. For Socrates, human beings should live like their nature, which are self-reflection, truth, knowledge, and wisdom. Not only do individuals find out the truth, but they also need to value it as it is the goal of their lives. Although Socrates has confidence in absolute truth, he has not found it yet. Accordingly, Socrates begins a conversation and asks people questions to have many perspectives and start a logical thought to seek for the truth.
The final difference between Socrates and the Sophists is nomadism versus fidelity to Athens. Since people know that Sophists teach for payment and reputation, they tend to travel from place to place, transmit knowledge to many students and try to make more money and wealth for their own satisfaction. On the other hand, Socrates is more traditional. He wants to stay within Athens and devote his life and knowledge as well as pay back to his community, which allows him to think and become a philosopher as he is.
Many stories with different versions of Socrates along with the similarities between Socrates and the Sophists on topics, audiences and rhetoric can explain the indistinguishability of the people of old Athens. Despite that, a comparison and analysis of the use of rhetoric, teaching, payment and beliefs really show the differences between them and how they approach their field in different aspects. Although they both study about human virtue and excellence, Socrates and the Sophists have different goals to practice and pursue. Overall, they all have had a huge contribution to philosophy.
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