“Gorgias, who was the perfect example of a 20th century skeptic transplanted into ancient Greece […] maintained three basic propositions: one, nothing exists; two, if anything existed, you couldn’t know it; three, if you could know it, you couldn’t communicate it. Now that is what you call skepticism.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 7.
(I don’t like modern art. But if we look hard, there might be something to learn from it. The steel sculpture “Protagoras”, by Charles Ginnever, could well be considered the concretization of a philosophic idea. The sculpture changes shape as viewers move around it, the play of light and shadow on its triangular forms giving life to the massive structure. “The senses deceive” I’d say is the message. But, now, try to imagine someone jumping from this malformed idea (because it’s not the senses that are wrong, but the concepts we generate from them) to the conclusion that nothing exists. Perhaps some of the federal judges working at the Burger building, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where “Protagoras” is installed, would like it to vanish. But to assert it never existed would be a bit farfetched. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias did.)
The sophists have been branded throughout history as greedy and imoral teachers, but that’s polemics for a history course, or one on Plato and his obsession with them. Leonard Peikoff focuses instead on the ideas they put forth — even if their main idea is the negation of all ideas.
“To use a ridiculously simplified metaphor: It’s as though both writers are painting a portrait of a woman sitting at a table. But while the novelist is painting from imagination and can give the woman any features, any race, any age, any dress, the historian is looking at an actual young, white woman sitting at a sidewalk table outside a St. Louis eatery…”
— Susan Wise Bauer, “The Well-Educated Mind”, page 164.
(Self-portrait by Aert de Gelder painting an ugly old woman, 1685. Just like this painter, the historian cannot paint history as he pleases.)
SUMMARY: What follows is a summary of Chapter 7 of “The Well-Educated Mind“, by Susan Wise Bauer, entitled “The Story of the Past: The Tales of Historians (and Politicians)”. All the content (but my final comment) is hers. The interested reader is well advised to buy her book for a full treatment on the liberal education we should all have.
“A great many children live in that kind of world thanks to the wanton irrationality of their parents, whose behavior is characterized by constant switching and swimming so that nothing ever holds true from one moment to the next, and by constant contradictions. That is the perfect recipe for the Heraclitean world.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 3.
(Since very early in the history of philosophy, Heraclitus disregarded the senses as invalid and accepted contradiction in reality. Two and a half thousands years later, we still see the effects of such errors.)
Thales gave rise to philosophy by relying on sensory experience and reason. The next philosopher in line — Heraclitus — not only trailed a different path, but ignited a chain-reaction that ran through history toppling like dominos all that man tried to erect with his reason. It all began with the problem of change and multiplicity; it all ended with my thirteen-year-old niece asking petulantly: “Why can’t I simply decide I am a boy?”