Sophists (Greek sophistes,"expert, master craftsman, man of wisdom"), originally, name applied by the ancient Greeks to learned men, such as the Seven Wise Men of Greece; in the 5th century BC, a name applied to itinerant teachers who provided instruction in several higher branches of learning for a fee.
Individuals sharing a broad philosophic outlook rather than a school, the Sophists popularized the ideas of various early philosophers; but based on their understanding of this prior philosophic thought, most of them concluded that truth and morality were essentially matters of opinion. Thus, in their own teaching, they tended to emphasize forms of persuasive expression, such as the art of rhetoric, which provided pupils with skills useful for achieving success in life, particularly public life.
The Sophists were popular for a time, especially in Athens; however, their skeptical view on absolute truth and morality eventually provoked sharp criticism. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
challenged the philosophic basis of the Sophists' teaching, and Plato and Aristotle further
condemned them for taking money. Later, they were accused by the state of lacking morality.
As a result, the word sophist acquired a derogatory meaning, as in the modern term sophistry,
which can be defined as subtle and deceptive or false argumentation or reasoning.
The Sophists were of minor importance in the development of Western philosophic thought. They were, however, the first to systematize education. Leading 5th-century Sophists included Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias of Elis, and Prodicus of Ceos.
The movement of sophism, a philosophical and religious term, began around the fifth century b.c. as a group of teachers, speakers, and philosophers who were paid to use rhetoric. Sophists were generally intelligent people with the intent of making a living off of speaking and teaching what they knew. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics defines sophestry as "...paid teachers who undertook to prepare young men by lectures or private tuition for public career in the city states of Greece."(Hastings 689) As a whole, sophists were generally not theoretical in thinking, but practical. They relied upon wisdom tested and gained by experience. Sophists were recognized as "Teachers of rhetoric."(Edwards 495) Most sophists in ancient Greece were the seers, prophets, and sages of the communities who insisted that the morals being taught be backed up by reasons.
The man who was mainly responsible for development of prose, style and forensic of rhetoric in ancient Greece was named Gorgias.. Gorgias was a sophist himself, but unlike others, he taught the rhetoric and not the virtue. His reasoning was that rhetoric was the most indispensible of any virtue a person could have.
Sophism, born in ancient Greece over 2,400 years ago, has left an indelible mark on philosophy. The Sophist, with their belief in the influence of rhetoric and the power of persuasion, transformed our concept of truth. Though seriously wounded by Plato's crushing criticism,these roving teachers of rhetoric have now found a place in the twenith-century study of rhetoric.
The latter part of the fifth and the early part of the fourth centuries B.C. marked a unique time in classical Greece in which Sophism was the major philosophy and its proponents, the Sophists, lived a life of luxury and privilege having both political power and prestige, to the envy of any present day professor of rhetoric. The Sophists were essential mobile teachers who "provided the first formal education beyond the basic schooling in gymnatics, music, and reading and writing" (Carter 304). Although the Sophists taught just about everything in the arts and sciences, they as best known as teachers or rhetoric, especially the rhetoric of law and politics, the means to power and upward mobility. Argumentation and persuasion was the name of the game and the sophist were masters at it. They believed that any side of two opposing arguments could be successfully aruged and they often encourage their students to try arguing the weaker side. "Some might say it was an adman's view of language" (Gibson 288). Their notoriety was so wide spread that "cities begged them to draw up the constitutions" (Revel 36). Not only were the sophists paid hansomely for the service they provided, reports Bowersock, but they were also granted speical privileges, such as immunity from serving as soliders or and from paying taxes and generally from most civic duties (33).
All was not to last for the Sophist, though, thanks in large part to Plato. It could be said that Plato single handedly brought down the Sophist and "what's come down to us, in the derogatory meaning of the very term sophist, is a sense of superficiality and phoniness" (Gibson 285). Once highly respected, the sophists were seen as manipulators and jugglers of truth whose purpose was to decieve through persuasion. Plato wrote several dialogues named after famous Sophists, like Protagoras, Hippias, and Gorgias, and even specifically entitled one Sophistes. In each, the Sophist were portrayed as "'the counterparts in the soul of what cookery is to the body'" (Gibson 285). This perception of Sophism stuck and Sophism was neatly locked away for 2,400 years. Carter writes that many of sophists were marked as threats to Athenian society and a number of them were accused of impiety and were put to death or exiled (308). We can speculate that it was probably the Sophist's inclination toward exaggerating the powers of rhetoric and astonishing success, particularly financial success, that left them so susceptible to attacks from Plato and led to their eventual demise.
At the core of Sophism is the beleif in the power of rhetoric. In contrast to Plato's foundationalism, the Sophist took a distantly different veiw of reality and truth,a more antifoundationalist approach. They believed that there was no absolute proof of anything, and "instead of language counting for everything, it counts for nothing" (Gibson 285). Sophists saw an insurrmountable gulf between the world and language's limited ability to express things in it. A dog can not be said to be a dog or a cat, a cat, because these are only made up words. They believed that nothing exits and if anything does exits it is inapprehensible by man and if even if it were apprehensible it would be incommunicable. As often quoted of Protagoras "'man is the measure of all things, of existing things that they exits, and of non-existing things that they exit not'" (Gibson 286). Unlike Plato, the Sophists were not concerned with truth "more important than truth value was the insight offered into the inherent ambiguity and relativity of what we can know" (Carter 307).
This belief in the power of rhetoric and the lack of a foundamental truth led to some rather unusual and seemingly paradoxical statements as outlined by Buridan. If one were to say that man is a species, he/she would be wrong for no man (in the sense of the president or the governor) is a species which contradicts the proposition that some man is a specices which, in turn, contradicts the indefinite propositionthat man is a species. If one were to say that you are a pig, he/she would be correct because both you and a pig are animals and since every pig is animal then one can say that you are a pig. Added to these paradoxes, no one can contradict me because who is to say that within the time it took me to speak that the statement was in fact true (regardless of whether it is true after I finish speaking) so no one can contradict what I say (97-99,170-171). As illustrated by these proof, the Sophist can be seen as playing with knowlege. They were taking seeming true or false statements and through the ambiguity of language turning them upside down as an example of their belief in there being no concrete view of reality.
With the emergence of the new view of rhetoric, there has been a return to many of the philosophical beliefs of the Sophists, particularly to the belief that truth or knowledge is created, not discovered, through the knowledge-making process that occurs when people communicate with each other. The Sophists saw a conflict between the limitations of language and the expression of reality, "sentiments that will sound familiar to many a late twentieth-century mind. The uneasy relation of symbol to thing symbolized is an issue now common place in almost every discipline" (Gibson 285). Gibson continues to give such examples of twentieth-century references to the limitations of language as an expression of the world as in the line "there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made" from Wallace Steven's "The idea of Order at Key West" and in Richard Wilbur's early poem in which the speaker reminds us that "we are the woods we wander in." From Joyce to Woolf great literature reminds us constantly of its fictionality (286-288). Even the Sophists belief in there being no absolute proof of anything can be seen as "a repudiation of dogmatism and the birth ot tolerance and humanism" (Revel 37). Despite the great efforts of Plato, Sophism still remains with us and it should be noted that Plato in his attack of the Sophists was using the major tool of Sophism, rhetoric.