sophist: mid-16C. via Latin from Greek sophistēs, from sophizesthai “devise, become wise,” from sophos “wise”
- a person with expertise (sophia) in a specific domain of knowledge or craft, e.g., a charioteer, a warrior, a sculptor [in Homer; 9C BCE];
- a person wise about human affairs, e.g., in politics (statecraft), ethics (soulcraft), or household management (“economics”) [e.g., the Seven Sages like Solon, in Herodotus], or, at about the same time,
- a “poet,” especially as a teacher of practical wisdom [7-6C BCE];
- an itinerant intellectual who taught courses in “excellence” or “virtue,” speculated about the nature of language and culture, and employed rhetoric to persuade others [in Plato and Aristotle; 5C BCE];
- a teacher of rhetoric and orator [Roman Empire: 27 BCE-476 CE, especially 1-2C CE];
- a person who persuades his audience with clever but specious arguments [modern].
[According to Kerferd (The Sophistic Movement [Cambridge UP, 1981] 24), Aristotle originated an influential, but historically inaccurate schema about the development of sophistry from the particular to the universal: as
- skill in a handicraft,
- practical and political wisdom, or
- scientific or philosophical wisdom.
He holds, instead, that sophists were wise men: “the poet, the seer, and the sage,” thought to possess knowledge not otherwise granted to mortals.
According to Heidegger (Plato’s Sophist, trans. Richard Rojcevicz and André Schuwer [1992; Indiana UP, 1997] 206-11), in the Sophist Plato gives five definitions of the sophist:
- the hunter who seeks wealthy pupils; three species of merchant who trade in logos (discourse), namely,
- the retailer who trades in knowledge and virtue,
- the shopkeeper who trades in foreign products—or public arguments, or
- . . . in their own products—or private arguments; and
- the disputer who battles in discourse.]
Their practice of taking fees (and their corresponding wealth), of questioning the existence of and appeals to traditional deities, of investigating cosmology and “physics,” and of using rhetoric in argument—not to mention their attacks on Socrates—prompted a popular reaction against them.
Protagoras, he of “man is the measure of all things” fame, is generally regarded as the first of the (Greek) sophists; others include Gorgias [“Nihilist”], Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus (several of these names are familiar from Plato’s dialogues). The Roman sophists include Libanius, Himerius, Aelius Aristides and Fronto.
Plato (and, to a lesser degree, Aristophanes, especially in The Clouds) is largely responsible for the modern view of the sophists as greedy instructors who use rhetorical sleight-of-hand and linguistic ambiguity to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning; the sophist is not concerned with truth and justice, but power.
Certainly, some sophists had a relativistic view of cognition and knowledge; they criticised the status quo in law, ethics and religion, in favour of rhetoric, pragmatism and agnosticism/atheism, which may have required or allowed a tolerance toward the beliefs of others. Their interest in the politics of discourse embodied and, no doubt, nurtured the growth of democracy in Greek politics.
Nowadays, we normally use these terms derogatively.
A sophism: an often clever, but always specious argument used to deceive someone. It might
- seem logical while actually being wrong, or
- use difficult words and complicated sentences to intimidate the audience into agreeing, or
- appeal to the audience’s prejudices and emotions rather than logic.
A sophism is often designed to make the audience believe the writer or speaker to be smarter than they actually are.
A sophist: a person who uses sophisms to persuade their audience at any cost, without regard for logic or fact, or to confuse or deceive them to exercise power over them.
Sophistry: the frequent use of sophisms, or a particular text or speech riddled with sophisms.
Unlike the Sophists, Socrates accepted no fee and adopted a self-effacing posture, as exemplified in his Socratic (interrogative, maieutic) method (although Diogenes Laertius thought that it was invented by Protagoras). He was, nonetheless, often grouped with them, e.g., by Aristophanes.
He states that the Sophists are better educators than he, and sends one of his interlocutors to study under one (W.K.C. Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 3 [Cambridge UP, 1969] 399, 401).
Two views of rhetoric
Heidegger (SS 1924) goes a step further, in explicating Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
For him, Aristotle completes Plato’s threefold reading of rhetoric:
- the Gorgias: rhetoric is un-truthful (-)
- the Phaedrus: rhetoric is truth-producing (+)
- the Sophist: rhetoric allows truth to emerge dialectally out of un-truth; it works with otherness (+/-).
He contrasts rhetoric (Aristotle) and sophistic (Gorgias):
- rhetoric is open to all the possibilities of persuasion, whereas
- sophistic aims at absolute conviction (“unbedingt zu überzeugen”).
This openness is in keeping with rhetoric’s existential, i.e., essential, function. That is to say, if discourse is the instrument of existential relations (if language enables us to be—to be together, in particular), rhetoric, as the art of discourse, is the hermeneutic of Miteinandersein [“being-together”] (rhetoric reveals how we are together). Rhetoric is thus “inside politics,” rather than its “handmaiden.”