The word sophist (Greek: ho sophistês ) can be traced as far back as the early fifth century b.c.e. and means literally someone who engages in or teaches wisdom (sophia ). Thus Homer, Hesiod, the Seven Sages, Pythagoras, and other preeminent poets, musicians, philosophers, and statesmen are referred to as "sophists" by ancient writers. However, the word acquired a technical meaning by the middle of the fifth century b.c.e. to describe a number of itinerant teacher-intellectuals who, visiting Athens from time to time, displayed their wisdom in virtuosic speeches (epideixeis ) and claimed to be able to teach human excellence or virtue (aretê ) for large fees.
The principal source of information about the Sophists is Plato (427?–347 b.c.e.), whose dialogues portray them as occasional interlocutors of Socrates. Since their own works exist only in fragmentary form, there is uncertainty about their philosophical views and the precise impact of their thought on the history of rhetoric, philosophy, political theory, and pedagogy. If we follow Plato, the list of major fifth-century Sophists should include Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490–c. 421 b.c.e.), Prodicus of Ceos (c. 465–after 399 b.c.e.), Hippias of Elis (fl. after 460 b.c.e.), and the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus from Chios (fifth century b.c.e.), all of whom teach virtue for pay. It is customary, however, to include a number of other figures on the list, such as Gorgias (c. 485–c. 380 b.c.e.), Polus (fifth century b.c.e.), and Thrasymachus (fifth century b.c.e.), who appear in Plato's dialogues as teachers of rhetoric but not of virtue; as well as Xeniades (fifth century b.c.e.), Lycophron (late fifth or possibly early fourth century b.c.e.), Critias (c. 460–403), and Antiphon (c. 479–411), whom we know of from other sources.
Sophistic speeches were famous in antiquity for their rhetorical style and their moral and philosophical content. Prodicus' "Hercules at the Crossroads," (see Xenophon, Memorabilia, II.i.21–34) depicts a young Hercules at the brink of manhood choosing between a life of virtue and one of vice. Though the life of vice appears easy at first and the life of virtue difficult, virtue is said to produce genuine happiness (eudaimonia ), while vice produces shame and distress.
Another important speech is the "Great Speech" of Protagoras in Plato's dialogue by that name (302c–328d), which details the process of moral education from childhood through adulthood and celebrates the virtues of justice (dikê ) and respect for others (aidôs ) as prerequisites for civil life. In a different vein are the speeches of Gorgias, which showcase the power of certain rhetorical techniques to defend positions of dubious morality and truth. Thus his "Encomium of Helen" and his "Defense of Palamedes" make two classical villains appear blameless, while his speech "On the Non-Existent," argues that nothing exists, that even if it exists it is inapprehensible to man, and that even if it is apprehensible, it cannot be expressed.
Surprisingly little is known of the virtues that Sophists taught in private when they took students under their wing for long periods (a pedagogical method referred to as "association," suneimi ). Certainly skill in legal and political argument was a large part of these virtues, since the Sophists were all talented statesmen, and their students were aspiring members of the political class. Evidence suggests that the major Sophists imparted a fairly wide set of moral and intellectual virtues. Not only respect for others and justice, but euboulia, or sound political judgment, was evidently part of Protagoras' program; while Hippias taught students advanced arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music before arriving at anything immediately political.
An exception to this rule (besides Gorgias and other rhetoricians who eschewed the teaching of virtue) is the nefarious pair of Sophists, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, who in Plato's dialogue Euthydemus present their crash course in "eristic" as a complete schooling in virtue. Eristic, which derives from the Greek word for strife, is a form of rapid verbal combat in which opponents are drawn into well-rehearsed philosophical paradoxes in order to be refuted or confounded. It is doubtful whether these Sophists' spurious arguments were ever taken seriously as "virtue," but they were at least philosophically interesting enough to attract the attention of Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), whose On Sophistical Refutations responds to them directly.
In addition to their activities as teachers and statesmen, the Sophists wrote treatises on a staggering array of subjects, including rhetoric, debate, poetry, music, natural science, geometry, theology, and government. The surviving fragments of these treatises suggest that the Sophists' philosophical interests and doctrines varied widely. (One of the most common mistakes has been to treat the Sophists as a unified movement or school.) Protagoras is best known for the opening (and only surviving) lines of two works. His book On Truth began: "Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not." Debate has centered on whether this fragment represents some form of secular humanism (i.e., man, as opposed to the gods, measures the truth of all things), or a type of subjectivist relativism (i.e., each man measures what is true for himself ). The latter interpretation is most plausible, though the former is sometimes supported by reference to the famous fragment from Protagoras's work, On the Gods: "Concerning the gods I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, or what form they might have, for there is much to prevent one's knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man's life."
The Sophist Prodicus also wrote on the gods, arguing anthropologically that what are called gods are "things useful for human life." Whether his theory was meant to support atheism or rather to bolster belief in the gods by relating them to human needs is not clear. Prodicus was more famous in antiquity for his art of defining words (called "synonymic by German scholars), which enabled his students to untangle vexing paradoxes by distinguishing precisely between terms and concepts.
The fragments of Hippias of Elis testify to the breath of learning of the Sophists. If his work, The Collection (Synagogê ), was an encyclopedia of some kind, which is likely, it would help explain why he is cited well into the Middle Ages on a host of diverse topics—from the etymology of particular words, to the biographical details of famous personages, to questions of astronomy and geometry. Perhaps the most familiar Sophistic doctrine today is the one put forth by Thrasymachus in book one of Plato's Republic, namely that "justice is the advantage of the stronger." It is not certain that Thrasymachus should be grouped among the Sophists (Plato himself does not do so), but his oft-quoted maxim has been used to give the Sophists a bad name. It is interesting to compare Thrasymachus' views to those of the Anonymous Iamblichi, a short treatise thought to be composed by a Sophist of the late fifth-century b.c.e., in which laws are similarly understood as merely conventional and yet defended as the source of political stability.
The Sophists have always been controversial figures. They were vilified in Aristophanes' play The Clouds for teaching students to evade moral responsibility through argument. In Plato they are criticized chiefly for accepting pay when they have failed to think deeply and rigorously about the virtues they teach. Since the nineteenth century, however, the Sophists have been evaluated more favorably, beginning especially with George Grote's History of Greece (1850), which casts them as effective teachers of invaluable political skills. Grote's view that the Sophists contributed substantially to democratic theory, practice, and education was developed in the twentieth century by Werner Jaeger, Eric Havelock, Karl Popper, and Cynthia Farrar.
Other scholars, beginning with Hegel, have emphasized the Sophists' importance in the history of philosophy. This is usually described as a rejection of both Ionian and Eleatic accounts of reality for a greater emphasis upon sensory experience, where the Ionians had stressed a single causal substance at work in the universe (for example, fire or air), and the Eleatics (particularly Parmenides) had described being as one, the Sophists are said to have emphasized the phenomenal world with all its variety and contradictions. Though this philosophical-historical approach to the study of the Sophists has led to masterful studies by W. K. C. Guthrie and G. B. Kerferd, it often involves speculation beyond what the fragments can bear, as it did in Hegel's Philosophy of History and Mario Untersteiner's The Sophists. Most recently, the Sophists have been studied for their seminal role in the history of rhetoric. In this context the so-called "second Sophistic" movement is also important; this was a vast movement of the second century c.e. that attempted to recover and to develop the rhetorical techniques of the classical age.
See also Aristotelianism ; Democracy ; Platonism ; Rhetoric: Ancient and Medieval .
Diels, Herman, and Walther Kranz, eds. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, griechisch und deutsch. Berlin: Weidmann, 1951–1952.
Sprague, Rosamond Kent, ed. The Older Sophists: A Complete Translation by Several Hands of the Fragments in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, edited by Diels-Kranz. With a New Edition of Antiphon and Euthydemus. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.
Grote, George. History of Greece. Vol. 8. London: J. Murray, 1846–1856.
Guthrie, W. K. C. The Sophists. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover, 1956.
Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
Kerferd, G. B. The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Popper, Karl Raimund. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 1, The Spell of Plato. 4th ed.; rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Romilly, Jacqueline de. The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Less scholarly, but helpful for understanding the Sophists' political significance.
Untersteiner, Mario. The Sophists. Translated by Kathleen Freeman. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954.
David D. Corey