Sophism and Disordered Democracy


The way we think about think about American democracy has been shaped by the sophistic movement of the 5th-century Athenian democracy. The effectiveness of the sophistic movement involved a cycle of disruption of commonplace thought followed by a reordering of values that created a more ordered democracy. When a democracy is disordered, it conflicts with its people, either because of underrepresentation or because its laws conflict with the wishes of its people. In our democracy, recent actions by the National Security Agency have been disorderly. Although much of sophistic thought already exists in our society, further inquiry into the concepts of Nomos and physis may assist in a reordering of our democracy.

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    W. K. C. Guthrie states that “no intellectual movement can be compared with [the sophistic movement] in the permanence of its results, and that the questions which the Sophists posed have never been allowed to lapse in the history of Western thought down to our own day” (3).  Although Guthrie wrote this over forty years ago, his statement is still applicable. Our way of thinking and our democratic structure owe much to the sophistic movement, meriting renewed attention to matters sophistic.

    The sophists questioned concepts of Nomos and physis to stabilize the disordered Athenian democracy. Ideally, in the creation of laws, a democracy draws from the needs and wishes of the people; but a disordered democracy is one that is either underrepresented by its citizens or that fails to represent their needs or wishes. Prior to the sophists, Athenian citizens were underrepresented because of their limiting views on Nomos and physis that the sophists disrupted, challenged, and reordered. While our own democracy is not seeing quite the same classist underrepresentation, dilemmas in our country now challenge our own concepts of Nomos and physis.

    The National Security Agency (NSA) has recently come under attack by the general populace as people debate what the NSA is actually doing as opposed to what it should be doing.  The debate about the NSA began when Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, leaked information about the NSA's spying habits that revealed that the US government had been breaking privacy laws by keeping track of phone calls and metadata (Elliott).

    While every democracy is to some extent disordered because of the delay between a change in the wishes of its people and a change in its laws, the disorder in our democracy because of the information about the NSA is that of a larger scale. The disorder created by the NSA is a result of a questioning about the rights of the government as those pertain to the gathering of information, to the rights of citizens to privacy, and to what should be the limitations of government—all of which follows patterns of sophist questioning.

    Although the sophists did not have to deal with questions concerning spying and privacy, they took a great part in reordering the democracy in which they lived through rigorous questioning and disruption of commonplace ideas. Just as the sophists were monumental in the change of thinking in Athenian democracy—thereby eventually affecting our democracy—so, too, can their questioning and disruption of commonplaces be monumental in reordering our own democracy as we approach the question of the NSA.

    Sophistic Inheritance

    Democracy in Athens had existed for nearly fifty years before the arrival of the sophists but was disordered because of the lack of education and other tools for lower classes to fully participate in their own government. The sophists took advantage of this disordered democracy by selling to the public those tools which would enable the people to have a say in their government. In order to perform rhetoric, to teach, and to gain success, however, the sophists first needed to disrupt current ways of thinking in which the Athenian people existed in their own right, and within their democracy. To understand the way Athenians thought prior to the arrival of the sophists, it is important to understand the history of their governmental reforms.

    From the formation of democracy in Athens, there had already been much ordering, disordering, and reordering, and the concepts of Nomos and physis had by the time of the sophists been redefined multiple times. Nomos is what "is believed in, practiced, or held to be right," whereas physis is "what exists apart from human perception and convention" (Johnstone 269). Questions of Nomos and physis existed in many parts of Athenian life, but Nomos and physis are most strongly represented in the class struggles that eventually led to the creation of democracy.

    One of the first examples of a change between Nomos and physis prior to the arrival of the sophists was the charge to commit law to writing. That change served as a representation of Nomos and physis in two ways: first, it placed written law above oral judgments; second, the change restricted the subjective value of the judges. The restriction of subjective judgments that high-born judges could make thus reflected the class struggle between upper and lower classes, for lower classes would have slightly more strength in court (in that judgments could not be as easily unfairly determined).

    The change of oral to written law sought to reorder the government because, as Blackwell states,"[b]y inscribing laws, either on wood or in stone, and setting them in a public place, knowledge of the laws was made available to all citizens, rather than to a small elite" (3). I say that the reordering was an attempt because, while the change from oral to written law added some structure to the law, the implementation of the innovation created further disorder. An aristocrat, Draco, was picked to create a written set of laws from which judges were meant to base their decisions, but the punishment for any infraction was death, for Draco felt "[s]mall ones (crimes) deserve it and [he could] find no greater (punishment) for the most heinous" (Plutarch 82). Draco's laws served only to increase the tensions between classes, and were replaced after nearly two decades.

    Solon's reforms replaced Draco's laws in an effort to compromise between classes and aided in reordering the Athenian government by repealing all of Draco's laws except those on homicide. Solon's laws did not create democracy, but they anticipated it because he canceled all debts, freed men who had been enslaved because of debt, and opened government involvement to some of the lower classes. Solon's laws were meant to provide stability because of their written nature, but "the agreement to accept Solon's laws may be seen as a treaty of sorts between mutually suspicious powerful men who relied on oaths because they had no other way of enforcing their agreement" (Rosivach 235). That Solon's laws were able to replace those of Draco yet still provide a measure of stability shows writing to be malleable. Despite this stability, however, Athens was taken over by Pisistratus in his ascent to tyranny, proving that although written laws were created in order to be seen (and thus followed) by all, they were not necessarily a permanent structure in and of themselves.

    Pisistratus's ascent to tyranny is a representation of the fall from ordered government because it went against the will of the people. Because he ruled under many of Solon's laws, this disorder was not disastrous but the disorder of his ascent led to greater disorder under his son's rule. Pisistratus ruled for two decades, and his son Hippias arose as a cruel tyrant, which eventually led to his demise and, consequently, to the rise of democracy. 

    Cleisthenes ascended as Archon after the tyranny had been destroyed, and he became the founder of Athenian democracy. In order to do so, however, Cleisthenes had to disrupt the laws of his predecessors and reorder the entire system of government. Cleisthenes's democratic reforms included breaking up aristocratic families and creating demes, wherein political representation would be based upon population (much like our own House of Representatives). Several demes made up a tribe, each of which sent fifty men annually to the newly-constructed Council of Five Hundred, which governed national policies and resembled our Senate because no matter the population of tribes, each tribe would be represented evenly.

    The scrambling of familiar governing (now voting) bonds was a physical display of reordering of Nomos and physis because bonds which might have previously been thought of as unbreakable were, in fact, broken by changes in written law. The written law had thus proven its stability once more, for families followed it in order to maintain alliances with other families. The creation of democracy relied upon the tensions between writing and performances (be they following or breaking the written law), and the sophists took advantage of that tension.

    As with many other issues, the sophists privileged writing over speech and abstracted the Nomos and physis ideals to which the Athenians had become accustomed. That the sophists rarely wrote down their works and their teachings shows how they experienced tension when considering writing (law) and power (as seen in Pisistratus's takeover). The power that the sophists used was not the same brute force as Pisistratus' but rather the power of speech over others, for even a tyrant "depended to a certain extent on the goodwill of the people for his position" which meant being persuasive of his right to rule (through force as well as through the actual practice of ruling). By choosing speech over writing, the sophists attempted to take that which was commonly more favorable and place it in the weaker position against the persuasiveness of speech (a habit common of Protagoras as well as others) (Guthrie 51). This hierarchical switch was the first of many the sophists employed to disrupt common Athenian thinking and reorder those concepts to create a rhetorical advantage, which eventually led to the reordering of Athenian democracy.     


    The sophists were traveling teachers who moved to Athens after the growing economy brought about by democracy. The democracy the sophists inherited was greatly disordered because citizens who could not participate in democracy lacked the tools to do so effectively. By selling the tools for accessing democracy, the sophists not only changed the mindset of the Athenian people but also the way democracy was ordered.

    One of the great criticisms of the sophists is that they were too pragmatic in dealing with complex thought. Yet it was their pragmatism that led them to become successful in their art as well as in the ordering of democracy. The sophists used the reordering of the Nomos and physis ideals to reorder Athenian thinking; they also sold new concepts of skepticism, arête, and rhetoric to the public to do so.


    The sophists taught skepticism of a sort that we tend to exhibit within our own democracy. Our government does not share the same history as Athens, so the way in which our democracy formed its values differs, but many of our practices, particularly in skepticism, are much the same. As for how people feel about the NSA, for example, there is much skepticism about the government's proper use of the organization (Johnson). Sophistic skepticism occurs in all reaches of sophistic teaching, from the existence of gods to the justifiable rightness of commonplace behaviors. The sophistic skepticism is not merely for skepticism's sake, however, but for a matter of practicality in the judgment of Nomos and physis.

    Protagoras displays his skepticism in his statement that "[c]oncerning the gods, [he] cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist; for there is much to prevent one's knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of a man's life" (The Older Sophists 4).  Protagoras' skepticism is thus located on the practicality of faith rather than on the legitimacy of the faith itself. This disrupted Athenian thought because of the faith they had in their gods. By contesting that which the Athenians held in such high regard, Protagoras made available the ability to challenge other seemingly stable concepts. In other words, Protagoras' "atheistic" remark is a representation of the tensions in Nomos and physis that the sophists abstracted because it was highlighting the tension between that which is within man's power and that which is held to be true by nature.

    A similar pattern is seen in the sophistic concept that law was "no more than agreement, instituted by men and alterable by consent" (Guthrie 6). This concept was developed as a result of the sophistic attention to the history prior to democracy, particularly where Solon's laws were overtaken by Pisistratus's tyranny. The idea that law is a contract between men dually functions to show the tensions of law during Solon's time as well as to illustrate the fact that this particular sophistic idea has transitioned through time to our modern beliefs. Statements that law is merely an agreement show skepticism about the nature of law and government, questioning as well the powers that govern. By illustrating such skepticism, the sophists disrupted commonplace Athenian concepts of law and reordered them to one of possibility—for if laws were merely an agreement, their power was not necessarily intrinsic.

    Another sophist (unnamed) created a great list of skeptical arguments that show the impossibility of deciding that which is "good" and "bad" in laws. The author of the Dissoi Logoi concerns himself with many Athenian commonplace behaviors in comparison to other cultures' commonplaces. That author does so to create skepticism regarding the absolute rightness of common ideals. In creating an ambiguity of rightness of Athenian commonplace assumptions, the sophist disrupts such thinking and fashions space for the argumentative assumption that there are other behavioral possibilities for Athenians to implement. By disrupting Athenian commonplace assumptions of what is good and bad, the author of the Dissoi Logoi creates disorder in the absolutes of law before reordering the concept in a skeptical manner that revels in gray areas. The skepticism of legal absolutes follows the skepticism of the construction of law as a natural entity rather than as a compact. Already the implications for Athenian democracy have been constructed through sophistic reordering of Athenian thought.

    A form of extreme skeptical thought may be found in Gorgias's On the Nonexistent or On Nature. In this work, Gorgias states that (1) nothing exists; (2) if something exists it is inapprehensible to man; and that  (3) if it is apprehensible to man, it is still unexplainable to man (The Older Sophists 43). While this line of thought was later attacked, this is a clear—if somewhat extreme—example of the skepticism the sophists illustrated.

    Nomos and Physis

    I have stated earlier that the sophists were pragmatic in the way they practiced their art, and this is especially seen in their attentions to their teaching. Prior to the sophistic movement, educational systems were seen as exclusively for the wealthy; but with the growing middle class, there was room for more to learn the tools that would enable them to have a greater say in the government. The sophists taught any who could afford their services, regardless of their status. That was a novel concept. In our democracy, the idea that persons should not be taught on the basis of class affiliation was an innovative, and therefore foreign, as was the sophistic concept of equal learning among the Athenians. Simply by providing education to the lower classes of Athenians, the sophists reordered the democracy.

    To the sophists, Nomos and physis was not simply about the boundaries between man-made law and nature, but also how these concepts applied to human practices. The sophists were constantly attentive to the tensions that Athenian society deemed commonplace, especially those about the nature of man and law. By challenging the regularity of these notions, the sophists positively reordered the democracy.  

    The author of the Dissoi Logoi takes particular interest in the concepts of Nomos and physis in his argument of that which is just and unjust. He arranges the argument in such manner as to highlight and manipulate the tensions in the contrasting outlooks. The author focuses on the tensions between stealing as an act of theft and stealing the things a friend may be using to try to kill himself, as well as in the tension between brute honesty and lying to one's parents to preserve their life against their will (Dissoi Logoi 160). The author draws upon examples that foreground ethical ambiguity concerning otherwise skeptical constructs of what is "good" or "bad."

    Similarly, one of the greatest examples of a tension between the Athenian commonplaces and sophists outlook is in the transformation of the idea of arête. Guthrie states that prior to the sophists, arête was considered "those qualities of human excellence which made a man a natural leader in his community, and hitherto it had been believed to depend on certain natural or even divine gifts which were the mark of good birth or good breeding" (25). Despite the newfound freedom to participate in one’s own government, the commonplace idea still existed that arête could never be taught, nor could lower-born men possess it. This assumed monopoly of talent (particularly in persuasive arguing in governmental affairs) fortified the classist boundary between the upper and lower classes and discouraged democratic thought.

    The sophists challenged this notion by claiming to teach that which was not previously seen as being teachable. This revision of the Athenian way of thinking resulted in a great change in the way lower classes contemplated how they might participate in government. By claiming that something like arête could be taught in persuasive speech, the sophists claimed that the tools the lower classes needed to reorder their government could be applicable to them as well. In our era, belief that education in a particular field may lead to success in that field is one that is ingrained in the American dream, indicating that our democracy is more ordered than that which the sophists inherited. Sophistic revision of the pedagogy of arête therefore anticipated, and arguably influenced, latter-day democracy.


    The idea of arête is aligned, as well, with sophist rhetoric because the persuasive speech of rhetoric was previously seen as a natural talent. Despite teaching a wide range of subjects, sophists deemed, rhetoric one of the defining quantities of pedagogy. Each sophist had a different manner of teaching, but the goal was always a pragmatic style of argumentation.

    Gorgias offers an exemplary illustration of sophistic rhetoric, very much in accord with the fame associated with his wealth and eloquence. He believed that "[s]kill in logoi [argumentation] was the road to supreme power" and he frequently boasted that he could speak on any topic (Guthrie 271). In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias uses Protagoras' rhetorical exercise of making the weaker argument the stronger by speaking in support of Helen, whose actions had earned social disfavor. In the Encomium, Gorgias illustrates how skill in rhetoric possesses the power more customarily associated with drugs (The Older Sophists 54). For those who wished to participate in government, a pragmatic but effective rhetorical ability was therefore necessary; thus, for Gorgias to display his ability to make a weaker argument persuasive symbolized the capacity to be persuasive in democratic debate. Thus, learning rhetoric became very attractive, which led to the ordering of Athenian democracy. 

    Rhetoric also played an important role in the legal aspects of Athenian democracy, for the sophists were (in a way) the first lawyers. In Athenian courts, there were no lawyers to represent clients, but sophists could teach a person how to make a convincing argument or (as in the case of Antiphon) a sophist could offer, through solicitation, to make  speeches on behalf of his  “client.” In either case, the sophist was able to assist in giving his “client” a better and more equitable chance in court. 

    In his review of Gagarin’s Antiphon, the Athenian, Cooper states that “Antiphon was a pioneer in forensic oratory who laid the groundwork for the genre of oratory which came to replace drama as the most important medium of cultural activity in the fourth century Athens” (398). Broadly, forensic oratory is the kind of rhetoric one uses in the court room. This kind of rhetoric was conspicuously pragmatic, for Athenians could come to a sophist like Antiphon and either learn how to perform forensic oratory for themselves or commission speeches for specific cases. Like the new concepts of Nomos, physis, and skepticism, forensic oratory lessons and speeches had practical use that aided many who would not have otherwise possessed the capacity to defend themselves effectively.

    Guthrie states that, in the hierarchies of what was deemed successful in Athens at the time of the sophists, politics was the greatest, and “its weapon was rhetoric,” with persuasion approaching the status of “a powerful goddess” (50). Rhetorical studies provided opportunities for all men to be able to participate in governmental processes; simply by providing the teaching of rhetoric, the sophists were therefore assisting in the reordering of democracy. According to Guthrie, Protagoras also makes the claim that rhetorical studies are not only useful but necessary because they taught that the “rhetoric must be able to defend opposing points of view with equal success but finally bring one to victor as the ‘stronger’” (174). In rhetorical teachings such as these, the sophists prepared Athenians for political debate. Such practices are as important for the democratic political scene today as they were during the sophistic movement.

    Consequences of Sophism in Modern Democracy

    In many subtle ways, sophistic thought may be found in our modern way of thinking. The importance of persuasive speech is not lost in our own politics, though our skepticism is such as to disincline us toward a work like the Encomium. In fact, our society tends to discredit rhetoric as useless argumentation or speech rather than any longer view it as pragmatic persuasion. Criticism is especially drawn to the government's use of "rhetoric" in our democracy, especially in instances like the NSA disruption of governmental function. Criticisms on behalf of, and in opposition to, the NSA, along with the quandary of officials seeking to deal with the organization, are the result of a disordered democracy.

    The question remains as to how the sophist outlook might bear upon NSA discord and disorder. As I have illustrated, sophists have a tendency to disrupt ideas or concepts deemed commonplace, but which are actually a product of a disordered democracy. Sophists would reorder the concepts of Nomos and physis in order to better the democracy. It is no coincidence that the height of Athens and its democracy occurred at the time of the sophistic movement; the sophists were able to disrupt prior Athenian thinking and reorder it accordingly.

    The questions of Nomos and physis that pertain to the NSA are: where, relative to hierarchical charts, resides the balance between the government’s obligation to protect its citizens and the citizens' rights to privacy? Are these ideals simply a construct of human law? Should something like privacy be seen as an inalienable right (physis)? Because we typically view law as the sophists did—as a legal compact—we may change laws to reorder our democracy, but first it is necessary to disrupt the commonplaces that we hold as well as those that citizens in our government hold. I have separated the two categories because, although our governmental employees are citizens, there is a commonplace ideal that the government must serve to protect its citizens. Such is the cause conflict in adjudicating rights to privacy. To reorder our democracy positively, we must disrupt one of the two commonplace ideals: either those of the citizens or those of government employees.

    We have already inherited many sophist ideas: skepticism about the "natural" order of things, the idea that law is a compact rather than a given, the belief that persuasive speech and rhetoric may be taught (or else where would schools and universities be?). Still, to fully understand and resolve a complex problem like the NSA, we must turn to the sophistic concepts of Nomos and physis. The sophists operated under fluid Nomos and physis guidelines by challenging that which might fall under each category, and such a tactic would be useful to implement in reordering current thought about privacy and government protection. 

    Works Cited

    • Christopher W. Blackwell. “Nomothesia (Legislation),” Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy. Web. 24 Jan. 2003.
    • Cooper, Craig. "Antiphon, the Athenian. Oratory, Law, and Justice in the Age of the Sophists by Michael Gagarin." Gnomon 77 H. 5 (2005): 398-402. JSTOR. Web. 9 May 2014.
    • Elliott, Kennedy, and Terri Rupar, "Six Months of Revelations on NSA." The Washington Post, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
    • Guthrie, W. K. C. The Sophists. London: Cambridge UP, 1971. Print.
    • Johnson, Kevin. "Skepticism Grows among Lawmakers over NSA Surveillance." USA Today, 17 July 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2014.
    • Johnstone, Christopher Lyle. "Sophistical Wisdom: Politikê Aretê and "Logosophia". Philosophy and Rhetoric 39.4 (2006): 265-89. Print.
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    • Sprague, Rosamond Kent. "Dissoi Logoi or Dialexeis." Mind 77.306 (1968): 155-167. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2014.
    • Sprague, Rosamond Kent. The Older Sophists. Cambridge: Hackett, 2001. Print.