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The Practice of Sophism in Athenian Politics, Religion, and Decision Making

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Baruch College

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  1. Introduction
  2. The practice of sophism
  3. How Sophists changed Athenian religion
  4. Why Socrates was accused of being a sophist
  5. Sophists and omens and oracles
  6. Dealing with Mytilene and Melos

In this paper I will discuss the study of sophism as a system of education in ancient Greece and the ways in which it impacted the inhabitants and the conflicts of the ancient Greek society. In the first part I will discuss the subject matters that sophists taught, the reasons why young aristocrats needed to study sophism to gain political success, and the ways in which sophists made those who they opposed politically vulnerable. In the second part, I will describe the ways in which the Athenian religion was altered by sophists. I will also go into depth on whether or not Socrates was a sophist and what his conception of oracles was. In the third part of the paper I will explain the alternative way of thinking that sophists offered in place of the traditional belief in omens and oracles. I will then discuss the differences between the decisions that Athens made about what to do with Mytilene and Melos. To answer these questions I will use the primary sources entitled History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, The Last Days of Socrates by Plato, particularly the chapters in the Apology and on Crito, and The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch, mainly the chapters on Pericles and Alcibiades.

[...] Alcibiades was considered to be such an effective speaker that greatest orator Athens ever knew, Demosthenes, refers to Alcibiades as a man who spoke with extraordinary power? (Plutarch 253), and according to ?Theophrastus, who was the best informed in historical matters of all the philosophers, Alcibiades possessed in a higher degree than any of his contemporaries the faculty of discerning and grasping what was required in a given situation? (Plutarch 253). Due to his extraordinary ability to use the art of rhetoric effectively, Alcibiades was able to be very successful in gaining political success in Athens. Therefore, Pericles, Alcibiades, and other young aristocrats needed sophism to gain political success since their knowledge of rhetoric and science allowed them to win over their political opponents and win political contests. The practice of sophism provided political success to young aristocrats by making their opponents politically vulnerable. [...]

[...] In place of omens and oracles, sophists used scientific reasoning to explain why things happened the way they did. One such instance was when Pericles was once sent the head of a one horned ram from his country estate. Immediately, it was viewed as an omen that the city, which was at the time led by both Pericles and Thucydides, would concentrate in the hands of only one man and that that man would be Pericles, since the ram was found on his property. [...]

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