Sophism - The Philosophy of the Sophists

The Seven Sages of Greece
Hartman Schedel/Wikipedia/Public Domain

Sophism was a philosophy and a method of teaching that began around the fifth century BC. Individuals who taught sophism were known as ‘sophists.' Sophists were thought to expertise in a specific fields of knowledge.


Sophists were the specific type of teachers who taught and preached sophism. In their practices, sophists utilized the concepts of philosophy and rhetoric, which were largely unused otherwise.

Sophists aimed to instill qualities of excellence and virtue in their students, regardless of the field. Some sophists taught other emerging fields such as music, athletics, and even mathematics. Their student base was made up largely of well-to-do young statesmen and other affluent members of the nobility, as sophists charged for their services and such individuals were the only ones who could afford the teachings.

Rather than being a well-defined school of thought however, sophism is viewed as a loose grouping of line-minded individuals, who impact others.


Sophists’ practice of charging individuals for their teachings came under scrutiny and was widely criticized. In this system, only the elite and well-off could afford to receive an education from the sophists, creating an educational gap between the elite and all other members of society. This exclusive style of teaching was condemned by several influential philosophers.

Socrates, through Plato’s Dialogues, spoke negatively of Sophists, touching on what he felt was their deception. Xenophon’s Memorabilia was also highly critical of sophists, slamming them for charging money for education. In these works, sophists were described as deceptive. This is where the modern meaning of the term stems from.

Sophism was thought to be capable of bending and altering the truth, as sophists taught their students to look at, and argue both sides of an issue. In this manner, things were not simply as black and white as they once were, as points could be made from both side of an issue. Sophists were also charged with catering their teachings to common popular opinion, rather than deep truth, in able to attract higher numbers of paying students.

Despite all of these criticisms, sophists early on were actually well-respected and well-paid. They were respected as an educated people. However, as their teachings spread they grew unpopular and became subject to much opposition, due mainly to the high fees and challenges to the typical, established ways of thinking.


The modern word sophistication derives directly from the early sophists. In Ancient Greece, ‘sophia’ was the insight possessed by poets and prophets. This was also interpreted as the wisdom of philosophers, such as sophists.

The Seven Sages

In ancient Greece, sophists were a particular category of teachers who traveled around the country teaching students a variety of subjects. Athens, because of its abundant wealth and tolerance of speech, became a center for sophists.

The Seven Sages of Greece were sophists who were renowned for their wisdom. The Seven Sages are:

Solon of Athens (c. 638 - 558 B.C.), famous for his maxim "Know thyself."

Chilon of Sparta (6th Century B.C.), famous for his maxim "Do not let one's tongue outrun one's sense."

Pittacus of Mytilene (c. 640 - 568 B.C.), famous for his maxim "Know thine opportunity."

Bias of Priene (6th Century B.C.), famous for his maxim "All men are wicked."

Cleobulus of Lindos (died c. 560 B.C.), famous for his maxim "Moderation is impeccable."

Periander of Corinth (7th Century B.C.), famous for his maxim "Forethought in all things."

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Gill, N.S. "Sophism - The Philosophy of the Sophists." ThoughtCo, Dec. 20, 2015, Gill, N.S. (2015, December 20). Sophism - The Philosophy of the Sophists. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Sophism - The Philosophy of the Sophists." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).