Plato considers the sophists to be one of the primary enemies of virtue, and he is merciless in his attacks on them. The sophists, who were relatively new in Plato’s day, were a class of itinerant teachers who instructed young statesmen in the arts of rhetoric and debate for a fee. (See Protagoras). They taught that values are relative, so that the only measure of who is right is who comes out on top. Their teachings capitalized on a void left by the ancient myths and religion, which were falling out of fashion as Greek civilization moved toward a more rational worldview. The old values were losing their relevance, and there were no new values to replace them. Plato could see the danger this moral relativism posed for the state and for the people who lived in it, and his attacks on the sophists show up their hollow bravado that so many took for wisdom. Plato’s Theory of Forms, and the whole enterprise of The Republic, can be read as an attempt to find a solid grounding for moral values in rational principles.

Popular pages: Selected Works of Plato