We have seen how a boy in Athens was taught Homer and music and athletics. In his teens he received two years of military training. After this he was thought to be grown up; but he soon found that there was a great deal still to learn. In the age of Pericles, Sophists, or wise men, came to Athens from all over the Greek world, ready to teach in return for a fee. What a young man starting in life most wanted to know was how to get ahead.
The most useful thing he could learn was the art of persuading other people, which was needed in politics, law, or business. Even nowadays we can hear a man say, "Because this is true that must follow," without ever seeing that it does not follow at all. The Sophists taught logic, which is the study of the rules of argument, showing what follows or does not follow, and why. It often happens, too, that we cannot explain ourselves, even when we are right. The Sophists taught grammar, which helps you to say what you mean. They taught how to group your thoughts together and make them interesting. They even taught voice production, because in those days few letters were written, and speeches took the place of our daily papers.
In this way the Sophists showed people how to think and talk, but they did not entirely forget what people ought to think and talk about. Because they were paid for their lectures, Sophists taught only what people wanted to know. All the same, Hippias, who was an Athenian Sophist about twelve years older than Socrates, gave lectures on mathematics, astronomy, grammar, poetry, music, the heroic age, and handicrafts, as well as making his own discoveries in geometry. It is not a bad list. Others taught the meaning of dreams, which was a popular subject because dreams were thought to be messages from the gods. No doubt these lectures on dreams would seem strange to us if we heard them, but they often discussed religion, which is always an interesting subject.
During the age of Pericles, many people were thinking about religion. Older men, like Aeschylus, retold legends in ways which brought out great truths; but younger people, like Euripides, were discontented with Greek religion as a whole. It had grown up in an earlier world when gods were thought of as being like nature, strong and beautiful, but not always kind or good to men. By now many were beginning to despise the gods of the old legends because of evil deeds that they were said to have done. Men were seeking for a religion which reflected their own ideas about good and evil. In other words, they were looking for God, even if often in ways which were different from ours.
Naturally the Sophists shared these ideas, but they were afraid of being unpopular with the people who paid them. Most of them felt it safer to keep some opinions to themselves. Other men, however, who did not earn their living by teaching, were brave enough to discuss what they pleased. Such people called themselves not Sophists, or wise men, but philosophers, or lovers of wisdom.
It would be impossible to sum up all the thoughts of the early philosophers about truth. Some of them, for instance, were what we should call scientists and invented the earliest theories about atoms. Others worked out a great deal of what we know as geometry. Others again made discoveries about space or the nature of the world. All of them tried to understand the human soul, to find out what was good and what was bad in life, and to know what the world was really like.
We can well imagine that young Socrates was not much interested in chipping stone when there were such things to think about. He neglected his business to hang around in the market place where there were handsome colonnades for people to linger in, exchanging ideas. His wife used to get angry with him because he grew poor. But Socrates, as long as he was not actually starving, did not care.
The first thing that he found out was that the Sophists did not really know what it was best to teach. Indeed, they did not care as long as they earned their money. Socrates saw that before he could teach anything he had to clear away a lot of rubbish from people's minds, to show them that they did not really know all they thought they knew. In order to do so, he used a method which people ever since have called Socratic.
Socrates would start by getting someone or other to say something which was generally thought to be obvious. A man might remark, for instance, "Justice means doing good to your friends and ill to your enemies."
"Well, let us consider this, " Socrates would say. "To start with , you will agree that this must be true..." And he would say something very simple.
"Well then, if that is so, does not this follow?...." And he would make another easy statement.
By simple steps like this, in a short time Socrates would have so confused his opponent that he would have to admit that he did not understand "justice" or "good" or "friends" or "enemies," because he could not explain how reasoning that seemed obvious at the time was not correct... The Golden Days of Greece by Olivia Coolidge, Ch XII