The Sophists were among the first teachers and theorists of rhetoric in Ancient Greece.
They made their living traveling from city to city, teaching the citizens the art of argumentation.
Having experienced a wide variety of local habits and customs during their travels, they saw truth as being relative in nature. They rejected any idea of objective truth or eternal values, favoring instead the position that “truth” was negotiated through language and determined by culture.
As a result, they were looked down upon by their now more famous contemporaries, Plato and Aristotle. This meant they would be regarded with similar contempt by students of philosophy during the many centuries to come.
However, recent decades have seen a renewed interest in the Sophistic movement. As Susan Jarratt, a respected researcher on this subject, notes, the Sophists anticipated the contemporary rhetorical theorists’ recognition of the gap between the sign and the signified, or the word and what it is supposed to mean.
Gorgias especially was ahead of his time in his understanding of language and reality.
I personally am a big fan of Gorgias, especially this famous quote of his:
“Nothing exists; even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.”
So what’s the point, then? Why even bother talking anymore? Should you just stop reading this now?
Well, I can’t say I actually know what Gorgias meant.
But I’m not sure it’s meant to be taken 100% at face value.
And I think that’s the entire point. It is meant to inspire humility around our use of language.
I don’t believe it’s wise to be a fanatic believer in any truth or dogma. Unlike Plato, I believe the world is too complex, too infinite to be limited to what we can say in words.
We can’t let ourselves get hooked on the belief that we are in possession of the only Truth, of the one Right way to think or be. It’s dangerous. This arrogance of thought is at the root of all zealotry and much of the world’s violence.
The point is not to reject all attempts at understanding, but to recognize them as just that: attempts, not absolutes.