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Posted: September 30th, 2023

The Sophists’ Moral and/or Epistemic Relativism

The Sophists’ Moral and/or Epistemic Relativism

The Sophists were a group of ancient Greek teachers who travelled around the cities of Greece, offering their services to anyone who wanted to learn the art of rhetoric, persuasion and argumentation. They were influential in the development of democracy, law and education in Athens, but they also faced criticism from philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who accused them of being dishonest, manipulative and corrupting the youth.

One of the main reasons why the Sophists were controversial was their stance on moral and/or epistemic relativism. Relativism is the view that there are no absolute or objective truths, values or standards, but rather that everything depends on one’s perspective, culture, situation or preference. The Sophists argued that there is no universal or natural law or justice, but only human conventions and opinions that vary from place to place and time to time. They also claimed that there is no certain or reliable knowledge, but only subjective opinions and beliefs that are influenced by one’s emotions, interests and biases.

The Sophists’ relativism can be seen as a response to the diversity and complexity of the Greek world, where different city-states had different laws, customs and traditions, and where people encountered different cultures and religions through trade, travel and war. The Sophists challenged the traditional assumptions and authorities that claimed to have access to absolute truth or morality, such as religion, mythology, poetry or philosophy. They taught their students how to examine, question and criticize any argument or claim, and how to defend their own views and interests in any situation.

The most famous Sophist who advocated relativism was Protagoras, who is known for his statement that “Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not” (DK 80B1). This means that human beings are the ultimate source and criterion of truth and value, and that there is no reality or morality independent of human perception and judgment. Protagoras also said that “on any matter there are two arguments opposed to each other” (DK 80B6), implying that there is no definitive way to resolve disputes or disagreements, but only persuasive ways to win over one’s audience.

Another Sophist who expressed relativism was Gorgias, who wrote a famous speech called “On Not-Being”, in which he argued that nothing exists; if anything exists, it cannot be known; if anything can be known, it cannot be communicated (DK 82B3). Gorgias used paradoxes and contradictions to show the limitations and problems of language, logic and knowledge. He also used rhetorical devices and techniques to demonstrate the power and effectiveness of speech, regardless of its truth or falsity.

The Sophists’ relativism had significant implications for ethics, politics and education. On the one hand, it could be seen as a liberating and empowering view that encouraged people to think for themselves, to challenge authority and tradition, to respect diversity and pluralism, and to adapt to changing circumstances. On the other hand, it could also be seen as a dangerous and destructive view that undermined morality and justice, that promoted skepticism and relativism, that fostered selfishness and opportunism, and that eroded social cohesion and stability.

The Sophists’ relativism remains relevant and controversial today, as we face similar issues of diversity and complexity in our globalized world. We can learn from their insights and criticisms, but we can also question their assumptions and consequences. We can ask ourselves: Is there any absolute or objective truth or morality? How do we know what is true or right? How do we communicate and justify our views? How do we deal with conflicts and disagreements? How do we balance our individual interests with our social responsibilities?


– Kerferd G.B., The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
– Guthrie W.K.C., History of Greek Philosophy Vol. III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1969).
– Meiland J.W. & Krausz M., eds., Relativism: Cognitive And Moral (Notre Dame: University Of Notre Dame Press 1982).
– Zeller E., Outlines Of The History Of Greek Philosophy (London: Routledge 1931).

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