Sophists From Ancient Greece

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Professional teachers of rhetoric (as well as other subjects) in ancient Greece are known as Sophists. Major figures included Gorgias, Hippias, Protagoras, and Antiphon. This term comes from the Greek, "to become wise."


  • Recent scholarship (for example, Edward Schiappa's The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece, 1999) has challenged conventional views that rhetoric was born with the democratization of Syracuse, developed by the Sophists in a somewhat shallow way, criticized by Plato in a somewhat impractical way, and rescued by Aristotle, whose Rhetoric found the mean between Sophistic relativism and Platonic idealism. The Sophists were, in fact, a rather disparate group of teachers, some of whom may have been opportunistic hucksters while others (such as Isocrates) were closer in spirit and method to Aristotle and other philosophers.
  • The development of rhetoric in 5th-century B.C. certainly corresponded to the rise of the new legal system that accompanied the "democratic" government (that is, the several hundred men who were defined as Athenian citizens) in parts of ancient Greece. (Keep in mind that before the invention of lawyers, citizens represented themselves in the Assembly--usually in front of sizable juries.) It is believed that the Sophists generally taught by example rather than precept; that is, they prepared and delivered specimen speeches for their students to imitate.
    In any case, as Thomas Cole has noted, it's difficult to identify anything like a common set of Sophistic rhetorical principles (The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, 1991). We do know a couple of things for certain: (1) that in the 4th century B.C. Aristotle assembled the rhetorical handbooks that were then available into a collection called the Synagoge Techne (now, unfortunately, lost); and (2) that his Rhetoric (which is actually a set of lecture notes) is the earliest extant example of a complete theory, or art, of rhetoric.

Plato's Criticism of the Sophists

"The Sophists formed part of the intellectual culture of classical Greece during the second half of the fifth century BCE. Best known as professional educators in the Hellenic world, they were regarded in their time as polymaths, men of varied and great learning. . . . Their doctrines and practices were instrumental in shifting attention from the cosmological speculations of the pre-Socratics to anthropological investigations with a decidedly practical nature. . . .

"[In the Gorgias and elsewhere] Plato critiques the Sophists for privileging appearances over reality, making the weaker argument appear the stronger, preferring the pleasant over the good, favoring opinions over the truth and probability over certainty, and choosing rhetoric over philosophy. In recent times, this unflattering portrayal has been countered with a more sympathetic appraisal of the Sophists' status in antiquity as well as their ideas for modernity."
(John Poulakos, "Sophists." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 2001)

The Sophists as Educators

"[R]hetorical education offered its students mastery of the skills of language necessary to participating in political life and succeeding in financial ventures. The Sophists' education in rhetoric, then, opened a new doorway to success for many Greek citizens."
(James Herrick, History and Theory of Rhetoric. Allyn & Bacon, 2001)

"[T]he sophists were most concerned with the civic world, most specifically the functioning of the democracy, for which the participants in sophistic education were preparing themselves."
(Susan Jarratt, Rereading the Sophists. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991)

Isocrates, Against the Sophists

"When the layman . . . observes that the teachers of wisdom and dispensers of happiness are themselves in great want but exact only a small fee from their students, that they are on the watch for contradictions in words but are blind to inconsistencies in deeds, and that, furthermore, they pretend to have knowledge of the future but are incapable either of saying anything pertinent or of giving any counsel regarding the present, . . . then he has, I think, good reason to condemn such studies and regard them as stuff and nonsense, and not as a true discipline of the soul. . . .

"[L]et no one suppose that I claim that just living can be taught; for, in a word, I hold that there does not exist an art of the kind which can implant sobriety and justice in depraved natures. Nevertheless, I do think that the study of political discourse can help more than any other thing to stimulate and form such qualities of character."
(Isocrates, Against the Sophists, c. 382 BC. Translated by George Norlin)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Sophists From Ancient Greece." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Sophists From Ancient Greece. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Sophists From Ancient Greece." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).