Classical Greece generated a variety of philosophical schools of thought, including the sophists and the physical, that influenced each other to some degree. The most famous to come from Classical Greece was Socrates and his dialectic approach to the question of the nature of things. Comparatively, Socrates is the most similar to the sophists because, in likeness to a sophist, he often stumps and humiliates the person who he is conversing with and does not seek the truth despite claiming otherwise.
Socrates’ first goal is to show the person whom he is engaged in a dialogue with that they know nothing at all. This is demonstrated in Plato’s Alcibiades I in which Socrates, through questioning, gets Alcibiades to say that it is “not very likely” that he knows anything about things he previously thought he understood. (Alcibiades I 112d) Socrates does this by finding faults in Alcibiades’ definition of justice and by proposing examples of when the definition does not conform to what seems just. If Alcibiades’ definition is comparable to an argument about what justice is, Socrates is like a sophist in his attempts to defraud Alcibiades’ argument to comparatively bolster his own.
Interestingly, Socrates does not present an argument to directly address the proposed issue. He often gets away with only proposing a pathway to reach a possible resolution to the issue, but he, himself, never feels the need to follow these same prescriptions. In Meno, Meno and Socrates engage in a dialogue to find virtue, and Socrates tells Meno that “true belief and knowledge, guide correctly.” (Meno 99a) Additionally, in Alcibiades I, Alcibiades and Socrates engage in a similar discussion about justice, and Socrates, similarly, tells Alcibiades that “it’s impossible for anyone to prosper unless he is self-controlled and good.” (Alcibiades I 134a) In both of these cases, Socrates, after dismantling these men’s arguments, presents them with the idea that knowledge and self-cultivation are the only ways to virtue and justice. Countless times, Socrates claims that he engages in these dialogues to seek the truth, but he never takes the final steps necessary to achieve this concluding knowledge. Thus, it appears that the claim of seeking the truth is false. However, the one thing that Socrates achieves, before anything else, is the dismantling of the other man’s definition or argument. So, this suggests that Socrates’ true goal, similar to a sophist, lies in the victory of the argument.
Socrates is the most similar to a sophist in comparison to other schools of thought but is not truly a sophist. The difference lies in the consistency of his ideas, and this culminates in a coherent philosophy. A sophist, conversely, would continuously change their position concerning various topics to show that he can win any argument regardless of the side he supports. Thus, Socrates likens himself to a sophist in his approach to the dialogues by humiliating his “opponent” but he, ultimately, retains his distinction from sophists through his consistency.
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