5th-2nd Century BC

Sophists were itinerant teachers in 5th century BC Greece, who provided education through paid lectures. Responding to the growing demand for education, these teachers were scattered throughout Greece. Sophists were identified as a professional class rather than as a coherent intellectual school. They taught subjects such as rhetoric, politics, grammar, etymology, history, physics, and mathematics. Early on they were seen as teachers of virtue in the sense that they taught people what they needed to know to take part in society.

Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 bc) is considered to be the first Sophist; after him the most important Sophists were Gorgias of Leontini, Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Elis. Wherever they appeared, especially in Athens, they were received with enthusiasm and many flocked to hear them. Even such people as Pericles, Euripides, and Socrates sought their company.

Some, sophists, like Protagoras, were respected thinkers. Others were lesser figures who focused more on teaching persuasive techniques than they did on teaching about the truth. Thrasymachus and Hippias, sophists who were skeptics, challenged the possibility of knowing the truth. Gorgias, also a skeptic, asserted that it was not necessary to have any knowledge of a subject to give satisfactory replies to questions about it. Thus, he answered any question on any subject instantly and without consideration.

Later Sophists taught their students a set of techniques that that could be used to argue any position on any subject. They attained their goals of rhetorical persuasion by confusing their opponents, by harassing them with violence and noise and by dazzling them with flowery metaphors and unusual figures of speech. Their aim was to show their students how to appear clever and smart rather than how to convey truthfulness.

Two of the techniques that the early Sophists taught and used were (1) to extract themes in an argument or what they called “commonplaces” and (2) to create mnemonics so the themes could be remembered (McLuhan, p. 41)

Sophists were criticized by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle for their emphasis on rhetoric rather than on pure knowledge, and for their acceptance of money for their teachings. Plato said that sophists were greedy and used tricks such as ambiguities in language and fallacious reasoning to deceive others. According to Plato, rather than seeking justice, sophists sought power.

Cicero wrote about the sophists as follows:

The manner of speaking, then, which is observed in the demonstrative or ornamental species of eloquence, and which I have before remarked, was peculiar to the sophists.

As to the sophists, whom I have already mentioned, the resemblance ought to be more accurately distinguished: for they industriously pursue the same flowers which are used by an orator in the forum. But they differ in this--that, as their principal aim is not to disturb the passions, but rather to allay them, and not so much to persuade as to please--they attempt the latter more openly, and more frequently than we do. They seek for agreeable sentiments, rather than probable ones; they use more frequent digressions, intermingle tales and fables, employ more showy metaphors, and work them into their discourses with as much fancy and variety as a painter does his colors; and they abound in contrasts and antitheses, and in similar and corresponding cadences.

This species of Eloquence (I mean the middling, or temperate) is likewise embellished with all the brilliant figures of language, and many of the figures of sentiment. By this, moreover, the most extensive and refined topics of science are handsomely unfolded, and all the weapons of argument are employed without violence. But what need have I to say more?

Such Speakers are the common offspring of Philosophy; and were the nervous, and more striking Orator to keep out of sight, these alone would fully answer our wishes. For they are masters of a brilliant, a florid, a picturesque, and a well-wrought Elocution, which is interwoven with all the beautiful embroidery both of language and sentiment. This character first streamed from the limpid fountains of the _Sophists_ into the Forum; but being afterwards despised by the more simple and refined kind of Speakers, and disdainfully rejected by the nervous and weighty; it was compelled to subside into the peaceful and unaspiring mediocrity we are speaking of.

There was a revival of Greek eloquence and Sophism during the second century AD. At that time the name sophist was given to the professional orators who appeared in public with great pomp and delivered declamations either prepared beforehand or improvised on the spot. Like the earlier sophists, they went generally from place to place, and were applauded and given awards for their performances by their contemporaries, including Roman Emperors.

Writings about the Sophists

Blackwell, Christopher. (2007) Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy. 28 February 2003. The Stoa: a Consortium for Scholarly Publication in the Humanities. 25 April 2007.

Diels, Hermann (Ed.) (1972) The older sophists: A complete translation by several hands of the fragments in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press

Guthrie, W. K. C. (1971) Vol. 3 The history of Greek philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gleason, Maud. 1995. Making men: Sophists and self-representation in Ancient Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jarratt, Susan C. (1991) Rereading the Sophists: Classical rhetoric refigured. Carbondale, IL; Southern Illinois University Press.

Martin, Richard (1988) Seven sages as performers of wisdom. Cultural poetics in Archaic Greece. New York: Oxford.

McLuhan, Marshall (2006). The classical trivium: The place of Thomas Nashe in the learning of his time. (edited by W. Terrence Grodon) Ginko Press. Chapter 1B. Dialectics.

Sprague, Rosamond Kent (2001). The older Sophists. Hackett Publishing Company.