What is Sophism?

Fifth-century Athens, known as the Golden Age of Athens, oversaw the flourishing of Classical Greek Philosophy, dominated by the teacher-student duo of Plato and Socrates, two men dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, who searched tirelessly for objective knowledge, who wanted to uncover the truth, who planted the seeds of knowledge that would influence ages to come. It was also during this period that a new breed of seekers came, whom Plato despised, whom we today connote with negativity: the Sophist. Nowadays, to call someone a sophist, or to say an argument is sophistic, is to call them deceitful, glib, and a fraud. However, while this figure is buried in stigma by history, there lies a greater story about this controversial lover of wisdom.


Before the word “sophist” acquired its negative connotations, it originally came from the Greek word for wisdom, σοφός, and was used to designate a wise man or sage, such as Thales, who was called one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, or even just a craftsman or artisan who was highly skilled at his trade. It was an honor, then, to be called a Sophist (σοφιστής), so teachers were quick to adopt the name, proud to bear its glory as they spread their knowledge throughout the lands. The Sophists were traveling teachers. They had no place they called home, and they went from city-state to city-state, looking for pupils, stopping at every public festival, where they could gather a crowd and amaze them with their impressive rhetoric, where they could present speeches designed to attract customers and get their name known. To Gomperz, the Sophist reminded him of a “half professor and half journalist,” for he wasted no time jumping upon new opportunities, seeking a new job, a new student in whom he could invest his knowledge.[1] The Sophist was, early in his career, regarded as a true sage, and he was bestowed great honors and respected by his peers for his vast areas of expertise. In public the Sophist spoke through epideixis (ἐπιδεικτικός), a form of oration in which the speaker is able to exhibit his skills or to praise some particular thing; and in private study the Sophist taught through dialectic (διαλεκτική), the same question-and-answer technique made famous by Socrates. Evidently, the Sophist was highly adaptable, and because he was always on the move, he was able to attract a large following and gain a reputation of the same magnitude. paulathenssmall.jpgHowever, the Sophists taught by mouth alone, not pen, and none of their writings were written, as they were made with the intent of being performed in public, in front of an audience, not in private, for the delight of a reader. The fact that none of them established a school, too, contributes to a lack of primary sources regarding the Sophists’ ideas. Further, because no schools were made, and because their students were not permanent, there exist no student records. Other philosophers, like Socrates and Epictetus, despite not writing what they taught, have extant writings, because their students, Plato and Arrian, recorded them; the Sophists, contrarily, had no students to do so. Fortunately for the Sophist, he was able to prosper in a thriving intellectual climate, as Athens was, at the time, the center of philosophical thought, and it experienced a tremendous surge in intellectual pursuits brought forth by the leadership of Pericles. Education was therefore a major focus—perfect for the Sophists.

The targeted audience of the Sophists was select: their primary customers were young, eager-to-learn Athenian men, of whom there were plenty. Central to sophistic curriculum was political virtue, or areté (αρετέ). As Jaeger put it, “[T]he aim of the educational movement… was not to educate the people, but to educate the leaders of the people.”[2] Just as we in today’s education advertise school as a way of training our future leaders, so the Sophists in Athens’ education advertised their tutoring as a way of training their Unknown-1.jpegfuture leaders. Pericles was the paragon of democratic leadership, so it was important that youths were taught to emulate how he ruled. The best way to lead well, the Sophists believed, is through rhetoric, the art of speaking well (ευ λεγειν), of persuasion, of using language to the best of its abilities. Interestingly, the word “politician,” in Ancient Greece, was used interchangeably with “rhetor;” they were perfectly synonymous. Therefore, it was important that a good leader learn rhetoric, especially when he is young. So dedicated were they to their craft that the Sophists considered their teaching a techné (τέχνη), an art. For Sophist to refer to a trained craftsmen, and to have teaching be a craft, is to confirm that education, schooling, was first given its value in Ancient Athens, and for that we owe the Sophists. We find in Athens the idea that teaching is a delicate craft which requires perfecting and which is integral to a culture’s being. In addition to rhetoric, the Sophists tried to teach both practical and theoretical things, of the former day-to-day necessities, the latter liberal arts. So wide was their knowledge that they taught everything from natural science to metaphysics, grammar to poetry. For the most part, the Sophists accepted Pre-Socratic thinking, but they rejected Eleatic thought. Thus, cosmology was a popular subject, and students were taught the essentials, from Thales to Anaxagoras. Since grammar and rhetoric were taught, it was necessary that logic, too, was taught, meaning the Sophists were the inventors of the original trivium comprising grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Their lessons, for example, featured all kinds of logical problems and rules, and Unknown-2.jpegthey also taught about different fallacies and how to avoid them in reasoning. Of theoretical knowledge there were two types the Sophists taught: factual and formal knowledge. Factual knowledge was just as it sounds, consisting of general, wide-ranging facts, encyclopedic in extent; formal knowledge was specific, and its intent was not so much on learning but training, specifically how to use knowledge to think critically and practically. According to the Sophists, who viewed teaching as a craft, virtue was teachable. Political virtue, areté, as well as virtues like temperance and courage, were able to be taught and were not acquired specially. The Appeal to Nature is commonly associated with the Sophists, the argument that whatever is natural is good, whatever is unnatural is bad. While this does not apply to every Sophist, it does capture the essence of their conflicting views regarding Nature. The disagreement was between convention (νομος) and nature herself (φύση), man-made law and natural law. Thrasymachus thought self-interest was morally right and that the stronger is better than the weaker; Callicles thought our self-conscious is what is right; and Iamblichus chose convention, stating that we ought to do whatever state laws tell us.


After the fifth-century, Sophism all but died out, but it was revived again in Rome during the Second Sophistic period, which ranges from approximately 60-230 A.D. The traveling teacher was brought back, and he became a sensation in a Roman-influenced Greece, where philosophy was going strong. However, the importance was shifted from philosophy to rhetoric, and as Will Durant writes, “It [philosophy] had been swallowed up in an ocean of rhetoric, and had ceased to think when it learned to speak.”[3] No longer was philosophy based on systematic thinking and the art of living; it had been replaced by rhetoric, and speech was valued above action, signaling the beginning of the decline of philosophy in the Western world. It was not all bad, though, and some good did come of the Second Sophistic; from it comes, like the value of education, arguably the first advocation of individualism. It was at this time that we saw men, without true homes, without anything to show for their work, traveling land to land, living off of that at which they were good, teaching whoever could pay them; we see true individualism—independent individuals making their way doing what they love, as though it were some kind of ancient American Dream. The Pre-Socratic philosophers philosophized about nature, the cosmos, and produced theories regarding that which was external to them; the Sophists, on the other hand, turned inwards, philosophizing about their fellow men. Consequently, there was a move from the theoretical to the practical, the cosmological to the humanistic, nature to man. The Sophists were “empirico-inductive” in their methods, examining what was before them and producing their theories from there, not from looking up at the stars, but at the society that surrounded them—humanity.[4]

So far, the Sophist seems a respectable figure responsible for the beginnings of higher education, humanism, and rhetoric; however, there is another side of the story, one that paints them in another, more sinister light. Probably the most distinctive thing about the Sophists was how they made money. As a pretty much homeless, traveling teacher, the Sophist had to make easy money, so he placed a fee on his lessons. While some Sophists were fair in their prices, most of them were not, pricing their lessons up to 10,000 Drachmas, equivalent to about $10,000 in today’s money. Because the prices were so high, only rich Athenians could afford lessons, a disadvantage to the poor and underprivileged. To exacerbate these conditions, Athens was the city-state with the most lawsuits, and since only rich men could get lessons in logic and rhetoric, it meant they could easily win. This is not to mention, of course, that it was considered dishonorable, ignoble, in Ancient Greece, to pay for another man’s knowledge. Many also thought professionalism boring and made fun of the Sophists for conducting their lessons accordingly, rebuking them for their private lessons taught in the privacy of one’s house. To say one’s argument is sophistic is an insult, for it means they have used cunning, deceitful, devious, and specious reasoning. This makes sense, because some Sophists could manipulate logic, easily able to win either side of an argument. Commonly, to show off, Sophists and later Skeptics would propose one side of an argument, present their case, then immediately switch to the other side and present an equally balanced argument. For this reason, the issue of lawsuits was even worse, for litigators could be taught unfair logical devices to beat their opponents.


Of the critics of the Sophists, Plato is the worst, evidenced by multiple of his dialogues, which make fun of the Sophists and poke holes in their reasoning. One thing Plato disapproved of was the fact that Sophists discounted objective knowledge, looking instead for relative knowledge, for according to the Sophists, only relative knowledge was possible. What is true for one person may not be true to another. Similarly, he scoffed at them for their phenomenalism. Plato believed in a higher realm, the world of Forms, in which all perfect entities exist, in which object knowledge resides; for the Sophists to claim that the phenomenal, or natural, world was the only existent thing, was, to Plato, distasteful and worthy of contempt. To believe that this imperfect world was the sole reality, thought Plato, is insane and an insult to objectivity. Regarding the lesson fees, Plato joked that if the fees were too low, it meant the lesson was just as worthless; and if they were too high, it meant it was outrageously expensive. One of the reasons Plato was repulsed by the Sophists was because they gave a bad name to Socrates. Socrates was considered a Sophist in its positive sense, and he used the dialectic properly in the search for truth; Unknown-7.jpegbut to compare him to the Sophists of Plato’s time was like comparing God to Satan—unthinkable, a downright insult. Plato blamed the Sophists, in part, for Socrates’ death, seeing as they gave him a bad name, tainting his reputation forever. Plato called the Sophists “anti-logical” and eristic, since they sought not actual knowledge, but argumentation. Like teacher like student, Aristotle, too, following in the footsteps of Plato, turned his pen against the Sophists. He wrote that the Sophists practiced “wisdom which exists only in semblance” and “what appears to be philosophy but is not.”[5] In his Sophistical Refutations, he adds, “[T]he sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.”[6] For a long time Aristotle waged a philosophical war against the Megarian School (also known as the Eristics), infamous for its paradoxes and logic problems, at one point calling them “sophists,” thus creating the first official usage of the word as a negative one. From that point on, even throughout Imperial times, philosophers began accusing each other of being “sophists.”

The Sophist is a polarizing figure, on one side an educational hero, on the other an anti-logical fraud. Whether he is one or the other cannot be solved by history, as there are always two sides. In the end, while we can frown upon them, laughing at their professional ways, exposing their deceiving logic, we must also be grateful for all that they have done, for making education as important as it is today in our culture, for creating the trivium to which we are dedicated in English, for living the true American Dream, and most of all, for angering Plato and Socrates.


[1] Gomperz, The Greek Thinkers, Vol. 1, p. 414
[2] Jaeger, Paideia, Vol. 1, p. 290
[3] Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3, p. 489
[4] Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 83
[5] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1004b20-27
[6] Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations, 165a22-24


For further reading:
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
A History of Ancient Western Philosophy by Joseph Owens (1959)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy Vol. 1 by Frederick Copleston (1993)
A Short History of Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon (1996)
The Greek Thinkers Vol 1. by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 3 by Will Durant (1972)
Paideia Vol. 1 by Werner Jaeger (1945)


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