Ancient Greek enlightenment and the Sophistic movement

The enlightenment and the Sophistic movement in Ancient Greece includes all philosophical currents that are based on sound reason, spread knowledge and combat entrenched, arbitrary and dogmatic notions as well as any form of authority, often divine.

The ancient Greek enlightenment began in the 6th BC. century, in Ionia, with the natural philosophers (p. 77). Later it was centered and developed in Athens, where the Sophist movement, as it was called, peaked around the middle of the 5th century BC. century, when the so-called first generation of sophists was active – male sages who roamed the Greek cities teaching the young with great success, and high fees.

One of them, Protagoras, when asked what exactly he was teaching, replied that “the lesson is right thinking about private matters, how to govern one’s household better, as well as about matters of state, how to become eminently capable of handles, by deeds and words, political affairs” (Plato, Protagoras 318-319).

By setting such lofty aims, Sophistic teaching could easily go astray; and indeed, the Sophists of the second generation were not long in abusing their rationality and eloquence: not infrequently their reasonings led them into dead-end sophistry, and their teaching had demonstrably more rather than an educational character. Justly, their extreme positions provoked the reaction of Socrates and the Socratics, especially Plato, who is mostly responsible for the final defamation of the Sophistic movement. Thus, the very word sophist, which originally meant “brainy, knowledgeable, master” etc., quickly came to be used as it is today, with a negative meaning, for those who mislead and deceive their listeners with their words.

The latest developments should not overshadow the catalytic, initially ambiguous, impact of the Sophists on Greek society. On the one hand, the Sophist movement broke down barriers, opened avenues, fertilized progressive thought, and positively influenced all fields of letters and arts; on the other hand, it undermined old recognized values, created ideological vacuums, and awakened doubts. The Greeks of the 4th BC century they no longer felt unshakably under their feet the foundations on which the outstanding achievements of the golden age rested.

In general in the classical centuries, but especially after the traumatic experiences of the Peloponnesian war, the states certainly did not stop building temples and celebrating religious festivals with splendor, private and public sacrifices continued, oracles and other religious centers continued to welcome crowds. pilgrims and vows; but more and more the deep and genuine religious feeling which we discerned in the Archaic age gave way to a superficial piety, which only apparently reacted to moral perversity and atheism. 

In the last quarter of the 5th BC, they succeeded the proud generations of marathon fighters and the Salamis fighters, which they and their children accomplished and experienced in the era of great prosperity. century, the fanatical generations of the Peloponnesian war, followed, after the war, by the injured, embarrassed generations of the descendants. Weakened, the city-states were unable to effectively resist first the Persian wills, then the Macedonian advance, until the slogan of Panhellenism reopened a new hopeful perspective. It is no coincidence that Philip wanted in a pan-Hellenic meeting, again in Corinth, to renew the Greek Alliance against the Persians and to revive the nation.

Literature and arts

The failure of the Ionian revolution resulted in the spiritual center of Hellenism moving from the Asia Minor cities of Ionia to Athens, whose primary position in letters and arts remained unquestionable for the entire Classical era: Pindar described it as a “theocratic state” ( sec. 76), Thucydides called it “the great school of Greece” (, Plato “the rectory of wisdom” (Protagoras 337d), .

Its intellectual flourishing was supported on the one hand by the many notable Athenian writers, thinkers and artists, and on the other hand by the numerous writers, thinkers and artists who in the classical years (especially in the 5th century BC) left their homelands to to visit, live and act in Athens.

It would be unfair to attribute the intellectual advance of classical Athens simply to the economic prosperity that followed its military and political successes. Certainly, the primary factor of prosperity was the democratic state, which frees thought, awakens interests and allows everyone to take part in intellectual and artistic life and develop his personality.

It is obvious that democracy favored the development of rhetoric. No longer only kings, lords and nobles but every citizen had the opportunity to buy and be heard, both in the courts for his private affairs and in the town church for the affairs of the state.

His success or failure in getting his point across was of course related to whether he was right in what he said, but also to the quality of his speech, his ability to captivate listeners and persuade.

Characteristic of democracy, the equality of citizens (isigoria) and freedom of speech (parrisia) lead to open dialogue: reason and counter-reason, proposal and counter-proposal, arguments and counter-arguments, questions and answers – this is how problems were laid bare, this was how issues were presented and clarified opposing opinions in the courts, in the market debates, and in the town church, so all matters ripened before the vote.

How can we not consider it natural, when at the same time we see the dialogic form dominating the literary genres and intellectual life in general: drama is dialogical, we find conflicting sermons and dialogues in historical works, argumentative dialogue and contradictions are cultivated by the sophists, the art of dialectic is practiced by Socrates, many philosophical works of the 4th BC have a dialogic form. century etc.

The most common form of dialogue is the verbal confrontation of two different, often opposing, points of view by two speakers, who are either trying to convince each other, or waiting for someone or listeners to decide who is right.

Justice requires that the two opposing interlocutors have equal opportunities to support their position; that is why in the courts they counted with the hourglass and gave equal time to the two parties, first to support their position, then to answer each other’s questions. other’s arguments:

This strict scheme is rarely applied in life; but we meet with it, in looser forms, both in tragedy and comedy. The dramatic poets took care in the fights (discourses), that is, when they presented two persons arguing and presenting their opinions face to face, to generally follow a formality that ensured equality between the two contending parties.

In the case of the dramas it is the poet himself who advances and defends both one point of view and its opposite – and we shall see how the sophists and rhetoricians claimed to be able to do the same.

The democratic state contributes manifold to spiritual development. The Athenian municipality, for example, predominantly rural, now had the right and obligation to decide by majority on the affairs of the state (legislation, economy, foreign policy), on peace and on war – on everything . Again, the Athenians as judges had to give justice to one or the other of the opposing parties, to measure punishments, to send the condemned to death or exile. All these obligations that citizens had in the direct Athenian democracy created a need for knowledge and intellectual cultivation.

The multitude had to be initiated into the secrets of politics, ethics, strategy, economics, law, etc., and this necessity brought to the fore many teachers: enlightened statesmen, historians, rhetoricians, rhetoricians, sophists, philosophers, poets – where all of them, each in his own way, consciously or not, they taught and guided the people to make right decisions. So, for example, in Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, when Euripides asks Aeschylus “why a poet should be admired”, Aeschylus replies: “for his skill and good advice, because poets make people in states better »

The visual arts

In the visual arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, vase painting, etc.) archaeologists divide the classical centuries into four periods:

Period of strict rhythm (480-450 BC)
Mature Classical Period (450-425 BC)
Period of the rich rhythm (425-380 BC)
Late Classical Period (380-325 BC)

This is not the place to study step by step the changes that occurred from each period to the next; however, we find that in general each period is lined up and keeps pace with its contemporary historical, social and cultural phenomena. The same is of course true for classical art as a whole, when it follows the dominant current of the time, the gradual transition from emotion to intellect, from the mythical way of thinking to rationalism (pp. 178-81).

“Classical art, in contrast to archaic art, is characterized by the accentuation of conceptual elements against the perceptible. “The idea is dominant, and you feel that the creation of a work of art has now become a consciously intellectual process, understood and controlled.” This is classical art, writes the English art historian Bernard Ashmole. This mental condition of classical creation is evidenced by the theoretical studies that both the architects Iktinos and Karpion felt the need to write about the Parthenon, as well as the shaper of the Doryforus, Polycleitos, in order to interpret their work.

The work of the former has not survived, but from Polykleitos the Canon some characteristic passages have reached us, enough to confirm the intellectual, scientific, we could call it, background of his artistic creation as well as the extreme diligence and care for the last details in the processing of his works. Only in this way can we understand the perfection of the classical works, which was the reason for the justifiable admiration they evoked.” (Manolis Andronikos )

A special mention should be made of the reconstruction of the Acropolis, as envisioned by Pericles and carried out by a brilliant staff of artists (Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnisiklis) with Pheidias as general coordinator. The Propylaia and the sanctuaries of the Acropolis (the Parthenon, the Temple of Apterus Nike and the Erechtheion) were designed and built in just forty years. Result: an artistic and constructional marvel where tradition merges with the modern spirit, and where the serious Doric rhythm combines with the light Ionic to form a unique aesthetic whole.

It is certain that the motive of Pericles, in deciding to build the temples of the Acropolis, was not so much piety as the greatness of Athens; and as the great artists of the age willingly co-operated in the planning and execution of the work, the rebuilding of the Acropolis is a characteristic example of how religion and the visual arts, as well as the entire intellectual life, in the classical years were subordinated to and served politics, in the broadest sense of the term.