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What is a Sophist?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon301384 — On Nov 03, 2012

Amazing. It's the 21st century, yet, most comments are influenced by "in the box" perspectives, and powerful political philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato. The author, in saying, 'To be a sophist was to be tricky, morally suspect, and overall to prefer teaching slippery language instead of morally sound doctrine." clearly, begins this article, with a bias for Plato. Hyrax53's comment seems more current for our times. Sophism, Protagoras' thoughts on perspective and our current theorist, Lave and her situational theory, proves Protagoras was beyond his time.

By anon280618 — On Jul 18, 2012

It is clear that you are all sophists and truly missing the high learning opportunities presented by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Sophists were the elite's indoctrination team. They have done more harm than good.

By anon246570 — On Feb 10, 2012

I find the sophists very deceiving.

By stolaf23 — On Feb 03, 2011

@recapitulate, I have read some odd things about Plato's view of women too, and I think that reason is probably part of why some people found the Sophists to be much more agreeable; for one thing, they do not seem to have strong feelings against women. For another, they were viewed as an "other" by the mainstream as much as women often were.

By recapitulate — On Jan 31, 2011

@hyrax53, one of my personal favorite annoying views of Plato is his contradictory view of women. While in The Republic he argues that the difference between men and women is mostly psychological, he also argues that women, while able to anything men can do, will be inferior in the actual accomplishment of these tasks.

By hyrax53 — On Jan 29, 2011

While I do often agree with and appreciate the work of Plato and Aristotle, there is little denying that they were something of the evangelicals of their day. Plato in particular, despite everything good he had to say, neglected any views with which he disagreed, while Aristotle, though a genius, had a condescending way of writing that is easily read in his Poetics and other works.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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