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A sophist (Greek: σοφιστής, sophistes) was a specific kind of teacher in ancient Greece, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Many sophists specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric, though other sophists taught subjects such as music, athletics, and mathematics. In general, they claimed to teach arete ("excellence" or "virtue", applied to various subject areas), predominantly to young statesmen and nobility.
There are not many writings from and about the first sophists. The early sophists' practice of charging money, often employed by rich people, for education and providing wisdom only to those who could pay resulted in the condemnations made by Socrates through Plato in his Dialogues, as well as by Xenophon in his Memorabilia and, somewhat controversially, by Aristotle who, being paid to tutor Alexander the Great, could be accused of being a Sophist (although Aristotle did not actually accept payment from Philip, Alexander's father, but requested that, in lieu of payment, Philip reconstruct Aristotle's home town of Stagira, which Philip had destroyed in a previous campaign, terms which Philip accepted). Author of The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction James A. Herrick wrote, "In De Oratore, Cicero blames Plato for separating wisdom and eloquence in the philosopher's famous attack on the Sophists in Gorgias." Through works such as these, Sophists were portrayed as "specious" or "deceptive", hence the modern meaning of the term.
The classical tradition of rhetoric and composition refers more to philosophers like Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian than to the sophists. Owing largely to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, philosophy came to be regarded as distinct from sophistry, the latter being regarded as specious and rhetorical, a practical discipline. Thus, by the time of the Roman Empire, a sophist was simply a teacher of rhetoric and a popular public speaker. For instance, Libanius, Himerius, Aelius Aristides, and Fronto were sophists in this sense. However, despite the opposition from philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, it is clear that Sophists had a vast influence on a number of spheres, including the growth of knowledge and on ethical political theory. Their teachings, although controversial, had a huge influence on thought in the fifth century B.C. The Sophists turned away from the theoretical natural science to the more rational examination of human affairs and the betterment and success of human life. They argued that divine deities could no longer be the explanation of human action.
From the late 1st century AD the Second Sophistic, a philosophical and rhetorical movement, was the chief expression of intellectual life. The term "Second Sophistic" comes from Philostratos, who rejecting the term "New Sophistic" traced the beginnings of the movement to the orator Aeschines in the 4th century BC. But its earliest representative was really Nicetas of Smyrna, in the late 1st century AD. Unlike the original Sophistic movement of the 5th century BC, the Second Sophistic was little concerned with politics. But it was, to a large degree, to meet the everyday needs and respond to the practical problems of Greco-Roman society. It came to dominate higher education and left its mark on many forms of literature. Lucian, himself a writer of the Second Sophistic, even calls Jesus Christ "that crucified sophist". This article, however, only discusses the Sophists of Classical Greece.
The Greek σοφός (sophos), related to the noun σοφία (sophia), had the meaning "skilled" or "wise" since the time of the poet Homer and originally was used to describe anyone with expertise in a specific domain of knowledge or craft. For example, a charioteer, a sculptor or a warrior could be described as sophoi in their occupations. Gradually, however, the word also came to denote general wisdom and especially wisdom about human affairs (for example, in politics, ethics, or household management). This was the meaning ascribed to the Greek Seven Sages of 7th and 6th century BC (like Solon and Thales), and it was the meaning that appeared in the histories of Herodotus. Richard Martin refers to the seven sages as "performers of political poetry".
From the word σοφός (sophos) is derived the verb σοφίζω (sophizo), which means "to instruct or make learned", but which in the passive voice means "to become or be wise", or "to be clever or skilled in a thing". In turn, from this verb is derived the noun σοφιστής (sophistes), which originally meant "a master of one's craft" but later came to mean "a prudent man" or "wise man". The word for "sophist" in various languages comes from sophistes.
The word "sophist" could also be combined with other Greek words to form compounds. Examples include meteorosophist, which roughly translates to "expert in celestial phenomena"; gymnosophist (or "naked sophist", a word used to refer to a sect of Indian philosophers, the Gymnosophists), deipnosophist or "dinner sophist" (as in the title of Athenaeus's Deipnosophistae), and iatrosophist, a type of physician in the later Roman period.
In the second half of the 5th century BCE, particularly at Athens, "sophist" came to denote a class of mostly itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in various subjects, speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others: "Sophists did, however, have one important thing in common: whatever else they did or did not claim to know, they characteristically had a great understanding of what words would entertain or impress or persuade an audience." Sophists purposely went to Athens to teach rhetoric because of how flourishing the city was at the time. It was good employment for those who were good at debate, which was the specialty of the first Sophists; they received the fame and fortune they were seeking. Protagoras is generally regarded as the first of these professional sophists. Others include Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus. A few sophists claimed that they could find the answers to all questions. Most of these sophists are known today primarily through the writings of their opponents (specifically Plato and Aristotle), which makes it difficult to assemble an unbiased view of their practices and beliefs. In some cases, such as Gorgias, there are original rhetorical works that are fortunately extant, allowing the author to be judged on his own terms. In most cases, however, knowledge about what individual sophists wrote or said comes from fragmentary quotations that lack context.
Sophists could be described both as teachers and philosophers, having traveled about in Greece teaching their students various life skills, particularly rhetoric and public speaking. These were useful qualities of the time, during which persuasive ability had a large influence on one's political power and economic wealth. Athens became the center of the sophists' activity, due to the city's freedom of speech for non slave citizens and wealth of resources. There were numerous differences among Sophist teachings, and they lectured on subjects that were as diverse as semantics and rhetoric, to ontology, epistemology.
Most sophists claimed to teach arête (“excellence” or “virtue”) in the management and administration of not only one’s affairs, but the city’s as well. Before the fifth century B.C., it was believed that aristocratic birth qualified a person for arête and politics. However, Protagoras, who is regarded as the first Sophist, explained that arête is the result of training rather than birth.
Protagoras was one of the best-known and most successful teachers. He taught his students the necessary skills and knowledge for a successful life, particularly in politics, rather than philosophy. He trained his pupils to argue from both points of view because he believed that truth could not be limited to just one side of the argument. Protagoras wrote about a variety of subjects and some fragments of his work survived. He is the author of the famous saying, “Man is the measure of all things,” which is the opening sentence of a work called Truth.
Gorgias is another well-known Sophist. Gorgias’ writings showcase his ability of making ridiculous and unpopular positions appear stronger. Gorgias authored a lost work known as On the Non-Existent, which centers on the argument that nothing exists. In it, he attempts to persuade his readers that thought and existence are different.
Only portions of the Sophists’ writings have survived and they are mainly known from Plato, a philosopher who helped lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato studied philosophy under the guidance of Socrates. Plato discusses his view on the Sophists’ thought, although his attitude is generally hostile. Due to his opposition, he is largely responsible for the modern view of the sophist as a stingy instructor who deceives. He depicts Socrates as refuting some sophists in several Dialogues. These texts depict the sophists in an unflattering light, and it is unclear how accurate or fair Plato's representation of them may be; however, Protagoras and Prodicus are portrayed in a largely positive light in Protagoras (dialogue). Another contemporary, the comic playwright Aristophanes, criticizes the sophists as hairsplitting wordsmiths. Aristophanes made no distinction between sophists and philosophers as Socrates did, and believed both would argue any position for the right fee. In the comedic play The Clouds by Aristophanes, Strepsiades seeks the help of Socrates (a parody of the actual philosopher) in an effort to avoid paying his debts. In the play, Socrates promises to teach Strepsiades' son to argue his way out of paying his debts.
In some cases, such as Gorgias, some of his works survived, allowing the author to be judged on his own terms. In most cases, however, knowledge of sophist thought comes from fragmentary quotations that lack context. Many of these quotations come from Aristotle, who seems to have held the sophists in slight regard.
Many sophists taught their skills for a price. Due to the importance of such skills in the litigious social life of Athens, practitioners often commanded very high fees. The sophists' practice of questioning the existence and roles of traditional deities and investigating into the nature of the heavens and the earth prompted a popular reaction against them. The attacks of some of their followers against Socrates prompted a vigorous condemnation from his followers, including Plato and Xenophon, as there was a popular view of Socrates as a sophist. For example, the comic playwright Aristophanes criticizes the sophists as hairsplitting wordsmiths, and makes Socrates their representative. Their attitude, coupled with the wealth garnered by many of the sophists, eventually led to popular resentment against sophist practitioners and the ideas and writings associated with sophism.
In comparison, Socrates accepted no fee, instead professed a self-effacing posture, which he exemplified by Socratic questioning (i.e., the Socratic method, although Diogenes Laertius wrote that Protagoras—a sophist—invented the "Socratic" method). His attitude towards the Sophists was by no means oppositional; in one dialogue Socrates even stated that the Sophists were better educators than he was, which he validated by sending one of his students to study under a sophist. W. K. C. Guthrie classified Socrates as a Sophist in his History of Greek Philosophy.
Before the writing of Plato, the word "sophist" could be used as either a respectful or contemptuous title, much like the word "intellectual" can be used today. It was in Plato’s dialogue, Sophist, that the first record of an attempt to answer the question “What is a Sophist?” is made. Plato described Sophists as paid hunters after the young and wealthy, as merchants of knowledge, as athletes in a contest of words, and purgers of souls. From Plato's assessment of Sophists it could be concluded that Sophists do not offer true knowledge, but only an opinion of things. Plato describes them as shadows of the true early Sophists and wrote, “...the art of contradiction making, descended from an insincere kind of conceited mimicry, of the semblance-making breed, derived from image making, distinguished as portion, not divine but human, of production, that presents, a shadow play of words—such are the blood and the lineage which can, with perfect truth, be assigned to the authentic Sophist”. Plato sought to separate the Sophist from the Philosopher. Where a Sophist was a person who makes his living through deception, a philosopher was a lover of wisdom who sought truth. To give the Philosophers greater credence, the Sophists had to receive a negative connotation.
Plato, the most famous student of Socrates, depicts Socrates as refuting some sophists in several Dialogues. These texts depict the sophists in an unflattering light, and it is unclear how accurate or fair Plato's representation of them may be; however, Protagoras and Prodicus are portrayed in a largely positive light in Protagoras (dialogue). Protagoras was the first sophist, whose theory said "Man is the measure of all things", meaning Man decides for himself what he is going to believe. The works of Plato and Aristotle have had much influence on the modern view of the "sophist" as a greedy instructor who uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning. In this view, the sophist is not concerned with truth and justice, but instead seeks power.
Some scholars, such as Ugo Zilioli argue that the sophists held a relativistic view on cognition and knowledge. However, this may involve the Greek word "doxa", which means "culturally shared belief" rather than "individual opinion". Their philosophy contains criticism of religion, law, and ethics. Though many sophists were apparently as religious as their contemporaries, some held atheistic or agnostic views (for example, Protagoras and Diagoras of Melos).
The first sophists prepared Athenian males for public life in the polis by teaching them how to debate through the art of rhetoric. The art of persuasion was the most important thing to have a successful life in the fifth century Athens social commonplace when rhetoric was in its most important stage. The sophists' rhetorical techniques were extremely useful for any young nobleman looking for public office. The societal roles the Sophists filled had important ramifications for the Athenian political system at large. The historical context provides evidence for their considerable influence, as Athens became more and more democratic during the period in which the Sophists were most active.
Even though Athens was already a flourishing democracy before their arrival, the cultural and psychological contributions of the sophists played an important role in the growth of Athenian democracy. Sophists contributed to the new democracy in part by espousing expertise in public deliberation, the foundation of decision-making, which allowed—and perhaps required—a tolerance of the beliefs of others. This liberal attitude would naturally have made its way into the Athenian assembly as Sophists began acquiring increasingly high-powered clients. Continuous rhetorical training gave the citizens of Athens "the ability to create accounts of communal possibilities through persuasive speech". This was extremely important for the democracy, as it gave disparate and sometimes superficially unattractive views a chance to be heard in the Athenian assembly.
In addition, Sophists had great impact on the early development of law, as the sophists were the first lawyers in the world. Their status as lawyers was a result of their highly developed skills in argument.
Sophists taught the art of speaking and writing in the Western world prior to any other philosophical or rhetorical figure. The Sophists were notorious for their claims to teach virtue and excellence, and particularly for accepting fees for teaching. The influence of this stance on education in general, and medical education in particular, have been described by Seamus Mac Suibhne. The sophists "offer quite a different epistemic field from that mapped by Aristotle", according to scholar Susan Jarratt, writer of Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured.
During the Second Sophistic, the Greek discipline of rhetoric had heavy influence on Roman education. During this time Latin rhetorical studies were banned for the precedent of Greek rhetorical studies. In addition, the Greek history was preferred for the education of the Roman elites above that of their native Roman history.
Many rhetoricians during this period were instructed under specialists in Greek rhetorical studies as part of their standard education. Cicero, a prominent rhetorician during this period in Roman history, is one such example of the influence of the Second Sophistic on Roman Education. His early life coincided with the suppression of Latin rhetoric in Roman education under the edicts of Crassus and Domitius. Cicero was instructed in Greek rhetoric throughout his youth, as well as in other subjects of the Roman rubric under Archias. Cicero benefited in his early education from favorable ties to Crassus.
In his writings, Cicero is said to have showed a "synthesis that he achieved between Greek and Roman culture" summed up in his work De Oratore. Despite his oratorical skill, Cicero pressed for a more liberal education in Roman instruction which focused more in the broad sciences including Roman history. He entitled this set of sciences as politior humanitas (2.72). Regardless of his efforts toward this end, Greek history was still preferred by the majority of aristocratic Romans during this time.
In modern usage, sophism, sophist and sophistry are redefined and used disparagingly. A sophism is a specious argument for displaying ingenuity in reasoning or for deceiving someone. A sophist is a person who reasons with clever but fallacious and deceptive arguments.