This spirit of skepticism was favored by the tide of worldliness and prosperity which followed the Persian War. Athens became a great centre of art, of taste, of elegance, and of wealth. Politics absorbed the minds of the people. Glory and splendor were followed by corruption of morals and the pursuit of material pleasures. Philosophy went out of fashion, since it brought no outward and tangible good. More scientific studies were pursued - those which could be applied to purposes of utility and material gains; even, as in our day, geology, chemistry, mechanics, engineering, having reference to the practical wants of men, command talent, and lead to certain reward. In Athens, rhetoric, mathematics, and natural history supplanted rhapsodies and speculations on God and Providence. Renown and wealth could only be secured by readiness and felicity of speech, and that was most valued which brought immediate reward, like eloquence. Men began to practice eloquence as an art, and to employ it in furthering their interests. They made special pleadings, since it was their object to gain their point, at any expense of law and justice. Hence they taught that nothing was immutably right, but only so by convention. They undermined all confidence in truth and religion by teaching its uncertainty. They denied to men even the capability of arriving at truth. They practically affirmed the cold and cynical doctrine that there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink. Qui bono, the cry of the Epicureans, of the latter Romans, and of most men in a period of great outward prosperity, was the popular inquiry, - who shall show us any good? - how can we become rich, strong, honorable? - this was the spirit of that class of public teachers who arose in Athens when art and eloquence and wealth and splendor were at their height in the fifth century before Christ, and when the elegant Pericles was the leader of fashion and of political power.

[Power and popularity of the Sophists.]

[Influence of the Sophists.]

These men were the Sophists - rhetorical men who taught the children of the rich; worldly men who sought honor and power; frivolous men, trifling with philosophical ideas; skeptical men, denying all certainty to truths; men who, as teachers, added nothing to the realm of science, but who yet established certain dialectical rules useful to later philosophers. They were a wealthy, powerful, honored class, not much esteemed by men of thought, but sought out as very successful teachers of rhetoric. They were full of logical tricks, and contrived to throw ridicule upon profound inquiries. They taught also mathematics, astronomy, philology, and natural history with success. They were polished men of society, not profound nor religious, but very brilliant as talkers, and very ready in wit and sophistry. And some of them were men of great learning and talent, like Democritus, Leucippus, and Gorgias. They were not pretenders and quacks; they were skeptics who denied subjective truths, and labored for outward advantage. They were men of general information, skilled in subtleties, of powerful social and political connections, and were generally selected as ambassadors on difficult missions. They taught the art of disputation, and sought systematic methods of proof. They thus prepared the way for a more perfect philosophy than that taught by the Ionians, the Pythagoreans, or the Elentae, since they showed the vagueness of their inquiries, conjectural rather than scientific. They had no doctrines in common. They were the barristers of their age, paid to make the "worse appear the better reason," yet not teachers of immorality any more than the lawyers of our day, - men of talents, the intellectual leaders of society. If they did not advance positive truths, they were useful in the method they created. They taught the art of disputation. They doubtless quibbled when they had a bad cause to present. They brought out the truth more forcibly when they defended a good cause. They had no hostility to truth; they only doubted whether it could be reached in the realm of psychological inquiries, and sought to apply it to their own purposes, or rather to distort it in order to gain a case. They are not a class of men whom I admire, as I do the old sages they ridiculed, but they were not without their use in the development of philosophy. [Footnote: Grote has a fine chapter on the Sophists (part ii. ch. 67).] The Sophists also rendered a service to literature by giving definiteness to language, and creating style in prose writing. Protagoras investigated the principles of accurate composition; Prodicus busied himself with inquiries into the significance of words; Gorgias proposed a captivating style. He gave symmetry to the structure of sentences.


[The method of Socrates.]

[Ethical inquiries of Socrates.]