The term sophist is applied to the teachers of writing, rhetoric and speech, who traveled through Greece in the 5th century BCE. Since that time, being called a sophist, or sophistic implies negative connotations that derive from both Plato and Aristotle’s teachings. To be a sophist was to be tricky, morally suspect, and overall to prefer teaching slippery language instead of morally sound doctrine.
The prevailing negative academic attitude toward anyone termed a sophist led to an unfortunate failure to preserve much of any sophist’s work. Most of what we now know about the sophists comes from Plato’s dialogues, particularly the Gorgias and the Protagoras. Since these works were written to disprove the theories of any sophist, they are highly suspect.
The Dissoi Logoi is considered the work of a sophist, perhaps Protagoras. It establishes sophistic thought which focuses on moral relativism and the concept of kairos, which is knowing exactly what is needed in a particular social framework. In other words, knowledge of kairos is knowledge of one’s audience.
As a sophist traveled from city-state to city-state, he naturally would have observed the different cultural standards applied. This knowledge would in turn lead to the awareness that there is no “one way” to approach morality. Plato and Aristotle vehemently attacked this concept, suggesting theirs was the only way to teach and to live, so that students could not use words to become corrupt and do evil things.
The sophist, conversely, was more practical. To teach moral flexibility was not teaching immorality. The rhetorician determined morality of his work. Words themselves, are neither good nor evil.
Aristotle saw something of this truth in the school he opened in Athens. He taught rhetoric, but cautioned his students to use it morally. Today we might term sophism as political correctness, an understanding that we should respect the moral codes of others, even when they differ from our own.
Despite attack of sophist teachings, historians now believe that the Socratic method evolved from schools formed by Protagoras. These schools were the first to charge money to teach speech, memorization and topoi or commonplaces, as Aristotle termed them. Commonplaces were certain rhetorical forms that could be adapted for the purpose of extemporaneous speeches.
A sophist would generally teach older teen males who might apply rhetorical skills to participate in the democracy. Most statesmen owed their ability to speak well in public to the teachings of Protagoras, Gorgias, or others like them. In fact, most historians believe that sophist schools became so prevalent because of the developing democracy in Greece. Young men who might become politicians usually had an education equivalent to today’s education in a grammar school. Further learning was necessary to contribute fully to the state.
As well as learning topoi, sophists like Gorgias also taught men to analyze literature and to write fluently. Of these early writing schools, Isocrates, who always disclaimed he was a sophist, was the leader of the most popular school. He is credited as the earliest teacher of what we would now term composition, and his ideas are still adapted to the modern teaching of writing.
The sophist schools additionally tended to be less exclusive than the schools of Plato and Aristotle. Sophists maintained that all men, and sometimes women, could be taught rhetoric, while Plato and Aristotle wished to reserve rhetoric for a privileged few. Plato and Aristotle claimed the admission of simply anyone to a sophistic school proved that sophists were primarily motivated by profit. While this may have been the case, we now adopt the sophist concept that anyone can be taught to write. The right to an education for all in the US derives from sophist ideology.
Modern study of the history of classical rhetoric has done much in the last ten years to resurrect the importance of the sophist in the development of modern composition. There are still many who disregard these itinerant speech and language teachers, but as we dig further into the past we see the formation of many of our current teaching methods can be directly tied to sophist teachings. Once sophists are freed from previous criticism, study of their purpose in Greece may prove fruitful in understanding our own approach to education.