Socrates and the Sophists, a group of teachers and philosophers of law and rhetoric , were contemporaries, and both made relevant contributions to political theory. Ancient Greece is where western political theory originated. The city-state of Athens was the key location for political theory's development and both Socrates and many...
Socrates and the Sophists, a group of teachers and philosophers of law and rhetoric, were contemporaries, and both made relevant contributions to political theory. Ancient Greece is where western political theory originated. The city-state of Athens was the key location for political theory's development and both Socrates and many of the Sophists resided there. Athens is also where the first primitive form of democracy was used to legislate and govern (primitive to our modern sensibility because Athenians owned slaves, while women and the poor were not allowed to participate in the government). Against this background Socrates and the Sophists discussed and debated what form of government was the most just, and, in typical philosophical fashion, they each professed contradictory notions of the ideal State.
The Sophists were interested in practical problems, like how to effectively argue and win a debate. They thought that every argument had two equally valid sides and often boasted that they could make the worse idea seem the better idea, just through their rhetorical methods. This doesn't prove the value or truth of an idea, but rather the skill of the person making the argument. The Sophists were mocked by Socrates and others as people who argued for the sake of argument or merely to impress others. Thus, even today, to call someone a Sophist insinuates that they don't argue to seek the truth but only to win the argument.
The Sophist Thrasymachus believed that most forms of government were fraudulent and only enact laws that benefit themselves, whether democratic or authoritarian. It is these artificial laws that create society and not a cooperative instinct between people. Sophists regard society, morality, and government to be artificial creations and believe that these can seem good to some and bad to others (like those Athenian slaves and women regarding the 'democracy' of their city-state). They consider all questions of morality and justice to be relative; they appear differently to each individual.
Socrates (and his student Plato, who recorded all of what we know of Socrates's philosophy) believed exactly the opposite: that society and the State were inevitable, natural, and caused no harm; that morals, such as good and evil, were absolute categories that applied to all humans and could be considered true for everyone regardless of their position in society. Socrates felt that all people have a 'natural' role in society—some are meant to be rulers and some are meant to be ruled—and if everyone knew and performed their roles society would function perfectly. But this is an inherently authoritarian system that promotes special hierarchical classes of people to leadership roles. Socrates and Plato distrusted democracy and feared that it could easily degenerate into chaos or rule by the unqualified.
Protagoras, the most influential of the Sophists, famously stated that "Man is the measure of all things." Yet Socrates would argue that the measure of all things are kinds of ideal forms that we are born with and can only know through knowledge and learning. The implication of Protagoras's idea of man is that all belief is subjective and relative to each individual person, meaning there can't exist absolute, ideal forms of anything. Thus, many Sophists believed that the lowliest citizen had just as much right to participate in his or her own governance as the wealthy elite.