Greek philosophy

Description of Relativism/Sophistry

“Vol. III, A history of Greek philosophy: Socrates”, p. 111, by WKC Guthrie

“One feature in the thought and speech of his contemporaries seemed to Socrates particularly harmful. Whether in conversation, in political speeches, or in the oratory of the law courts, they made constant use of a great variety of general terms, esp. terms descriptive of ethical ideas- justice, temperance, courage, arete, and so forth. Yet at the same time, it was being asserted by the Sophists and others, that such concepts had no basis in reality. They were not God-given virtues but only “by convention”, varying from place to place and age to age. Serious thought about the laws of human behavior had begun with a radical skepticism, which taught that it rested on no fixed principles but each decision must be made empirically and ad hoc, based on the expediency of the immediate situation (kairos).”

Definition of expediency- the quality of being suited to the end in view

“From this theoretical soil grew the pride of youthful rhetoric in its ability to sway men to or from any course of action by mastery of the persuasive use of words. In such an atmosphere it was not surprising that there was much confusion in the meanings attached to moral terms. Socrates noted this, and disapproved of it. If these terms corresponded to any reality at all, he thought, then one meaning must be true and the others false. If on the other hand, the Sophists were right, and their content was purely relative and shifting, it must be wrong to go on using the same words for different things and they ought to go to out of use. He himself was convinced that the first alternative was true, and that it was illegitimate and unhelpful for an orator to exhort the people to adopt a certain course of action as being the wisest or most just, or for advocates and jury to debate whether an individual has acted well or bad, justly or unjustly, unless those concerned were agreed upon what wisdom, justice, and goodness are. If people are not agreed on that, but though using the same words mean different things by them, they will be talking at cross-purposes, and their discussions can make no progress either intellectually or- when ethical terms are in question- morally. Here, Socrates was raising for the first time a fundamental question of philosophy, the question of by what right we use general terms, including all nouns but proper names, and what is the factual content of such terms, and Aristotle was right to see that this was so. At the same time, as Aristotle also recognized, he did not see it as a logical or ontological question, but simply as an indispensable requirement for what to him was much more important: the discovery of the right way to live.

In Socrates’s opinion, then, if order is to be restored to thought on the rights and wrongs of human conduct, the first necessity is to decide what justice, goodness, and other virtues are.”

Instances of peity or justice are gathered for examination of a common quality which binds them. If they do not share a common quality, the same word cannot be used to describe them. (Footnote quotes in Greek: “We must learn to distinguish good from bad, useful from harmful, in order to follow the one and avoid the other.” Cf. The Qur’an exhorting the believers to “enjoin the good and forbid the evil”, which Salafists employ to discourge Muslims from assimilation in foreign societies, but actually shows the Qur’an as part of a library of universal wisdom, which the Book itself claims to be part of.)

“This common quality is the Essence, or “Form”, of peity. It will provide the definition of peity, abstracted from the accidental properties of time and circumstance which differentiate individual cases falling under it.”

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By AFarooqui

I write about the dichotomies present in religion, gathered mostly from discussions with average Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists.

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