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ATTIC PERIOD. 299
ble form; such, for instance, as the well-known allegory of the choice of Hercules.1
VI. In general, however, the labors of the Sophists were prejudicial alike to the moral condition of Greece and to the serious pursuit of knowledge. The national morality, which drew the line between right and wrong, though not, perhaps, according to the highest standard, yet, at any rate, with honest views, and, what was of most importance, with a sort of instinctive certainty, had received a shock from the boldness with which philosophy had handled it, and could not but be altogether undermined by a doctrine which destroyed the distinction between truth and falsehood. And though Protagoras and Gorgias shrank from declaring that virtue and religion were nothing but empty illusions, their disciples and followers did so most openly, when the liberty of speculation was completely emancipated from all the restraints of traditionary opinions. In the course of the Peloponnesian war, a class of society was formed at Athens which was not without influence on the course of affairs, and whose creed was that justice and belief in the gods were but the inventions of ancient rulers and legislators, who gave them currency in order to strengthen their hold on the common herd, and assist them in the business of government. They sometimes gave this opinion with this far more pernicious variation,.that laws were made by the majority of weaker men for their protection, whereas nature had sanctioned the right of the strongest, so that the stronger party did but use his right when he compelled the weaker to minister to his pleasures as far as he could.2
VII. If, however, \ve turn from the influence of the Sophists on the spirit of their age, and set ourselves to inquire what they did for the improvement of written compositions, we are constrained to set a very high value on their services. The formation of an artificial prose style is due entirely to the Sophists, and although they did not at first proceed according to a right method, they may be considered as having laid a foundation for the polished diction of Plato and Demosthenes. The Sophists of Greece Proper, as well as those of Sicily, made language the object of their study, but with this distinction, that the former aimed at correctness, the latter at beauty of style. Protagoras investigated the principles of accurate composition (o/>0oeVeta), though practically he was distinguished for a copious fluency, which Plato's Socrates vainly attempted to bridle with his dialectic ; and Prodicus busied himself with inquiries into the signification and correct use of words, and the discrimination of synonyms. His own discourses were full of such distinctions, as appears from the humorous imitation of his style in Plato's Protagoras.3
VIII. The view here taken of the Sophists is the one that is commonly entertained respecting them. It may not be amiss, however, before concluding, to state briefly the sentiments of an eminent historical writer on the subject, and to show the contrast between his views and the popular representation of the Sophists. According to the common notion, they were a sect; according to Grote, they were a class or profession. Ac-cording to the common view, they were the propagators of demoralizing
j Hist. Gr. Lit., vol. ii,, p. 37. 2 Id. ib,, p. 74. 3 Id. ib.