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A sophist or sophister (Greek: σοφιστής, Latin: sophistes) was a specific kind of teacher in both Ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire. Many sophists specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric, though other sophists taught subjects such as music, athletics, and mathematics. In general, they claimed to teach arete ("excellence" or "virtue," applied to various subject areas), predominantly to young statesmen and nobility. There are not many writings from and about the first sophists. The early sophists' practice of charging money for education and providing wisdom only to those who could pay resulted in the condemnations made by Socrates through Plato in his Dialogues, as well as by Xenophon in Memorabilia and, somewhat controversially, by Aristotle who, being paid to tutor Alexander the Great, could be accused of being a Sophist . Author of The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction James A. Herrick wrote, “In De Oratore, Cicero blames Plato for separating wisdom and eloquence in the philosopher’s famous attack on the Sophists in Gorgias.” [1] The classical tradition of rhetoric and composition refers more to philosophers like Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian than to the sophists. Despite these criticisms, however, many sophists flourished in later periods, especially during the era of Roman history known as the Second Sophistic.


The Greek σοφός (sophos), related to the noun σοφία (sophia), had the meaning "skilled" or "wise" since the time of the poet Homer and originally was used to describe anyone with expertise in a specific domain of knowledge or craft. For example, a charioteer, a sculptor or a warrior could be described as sophoi in their occupations. Gradually, however, the word also came to denote general wisdom and especially wisdom about human affairs (for example, in politics, ethics, or household management). This was the meaning ascribed to the Greek Seven Sages of 7th and 6th century BC (like Solon and Thales), and it was the meaning that appeared in the histories of Herodotus. Richard Martin refers to the seven sages as "performers of political poetry."[2]

From the word σοφός (sophos) is derived the verb σοφίζω (sophizo), which means "to instruct or make learned," but which in the passive voice means "to become or be wise," or "to be clever or skilled in a thing." In turn, from this verb is derived the noun σοφιστής (sophistes), which originally meant "a master of one's craft" but later came to mean "a prudent man" or "wise man."[3] The word for "sophist" in various languages comes from sophistes.

The word "sophist" could also be combined with other Greek words to form compounds. Examples include meteorosophist, which roughly translates to "expert in celestial phenomena"; gymnosophist (or "naked sophist," a word used to refer to a sect of Indian philosophers, the Gymnosophists), deipnosophist or "dinner sophist" (as in the title of Athenaeus's Deipnosophistae), and iatrosophist, a type of physician in the later Roman period.

Sophists of the 5th century BC

In the second half of the 5th century BC, particularly at Athens, "sophist" came to denote a class of mostly itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in various subjects, speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others: "Sophists did, however, have one important thing in common: whatever else they did or did not claim to know, they characteristically had a great understanding of what words would entertain or impress or persuade an audience."[2] Sophists purposely went to Athens to teach rhetoric because of how flourishing the city was at the time. It was good employment for those who were good at debate, which was the specialty of the first Sophist's; they received the fame and fortune they were seeking. Protagoras is generally regarded as the first of these professional sophists. Others include Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus. A few sophists claimed that they could find the answers to all questions. Most of these sophists are known today primarily through the writings of their opponents (specifically Plato and Aristotle), which makes it difficult to assemble an unbiased view of their practices and beliefs. In some cases, such as Gorgias, there are original rhetorical works that are fortunately extant, allowing the author to be judged on his own terms. In most cases, however, knowledge about what individual sophists wrote or said comes from fragmentary quotations that lack context.

Many sophists taught their skills for a price. Due to the importance of such skills in the litigious social life of Athens, practitioners often commanded very high fees. The sophists' practice of questioning the existence and roles of traditional deities and investigating into the nature of the heavens and the earth prompted a popular reaction against them. The attacks of some of their followers against Socrates prompted a vigorous condemnation from his followers, including Plato and Xenophon, as there was a popular view of Socrates as a sophist. For example, the comic playwright Aristophanes criticizes the sophists as hairsplitting wordsmiths, and makes Socrates their representative.[4] Their attitude, coupled with the wealth garnered by many of the sophists, eventually led to popular resentment against sophist practitioners and the ideas and writings associated with sophism.

In comparison, Socrates accepted no fee, instead professed a self-effacing posture, which he exemplified by Socratic questioning (i.e. the Socratic method, although Diogenes Laertius wrote that Protagoras — a sophist — invented the "Socratic" method[5][6]). His attitude towards the Sophists was by no means oppositional; in one dialogue Socrates even stated that the Sophists were better educators than he was,[7] which he validated by sending one of his students to study under a sophist.[8] W. K. C. Guthrie classified Socrates as a Sophist in his History of Greek Philosophy.[8]

Plato, the most famous student of Socrates, depicts Socrates as refuting some sophists in several Dialogues. These texts depict the sophists in an unflattering light, and it is unclear how accurate or fair Plato's representation of them may be; however, Protagoras and Prodicus are portrayed in a largely positive light in Protagoras (dialogue). The works of Plato and Aristotle have had much influence on the modern view of the "sophist" as a greedy instructor who uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning. In this view, the sophist is not concerned with truth and justice, but instead seeks power.

Some scholars, such as Ugo Zilioli[9] argue that the sophists held a relativistic view on cognition and knowledge. However, this may involve the Greek word "doxa," which means "culturally shared belief" rather than "individual opinion." Their philosophy contains criticism of religion, law, and ethics. Though many sophists were apparently as religious as their contemporaries, some held atheistic or agnostic views (for example, Protagoras and Diagoras of Melos).

Sophists and democracy

The first sophists prepared Athenian males for public life in the polis by teaching them how to debate through the art of rhetoric. The art of persuasion was the most important thing to have a successful life in the fifth century Athens social commonplace when rhetoric was in its most important stage. The sophists' rhetorical techniques were extremely useful for any young nobleman looking for public office. The societal roles the Sophists filled had important ramifications for the Athenian political system at large. The historical context provides evidence for their considerable influence, as Athens became more and more democratic during the period in which the Sophists were most active.[10]

Athens was a flourishing democracy before the Sophists started their teachings there. The Sophists certainly were not directly responsible for Athenian democracy, but their cultural and psychological contributions played an important role in its growth. They contributed to the new democracy in part by espousing expertise in public deliberation, since this was the foundation of decision-making, which allowed and perhaps required a tolerance of the beliefs of others. This liberal attitude would naturally have precipitated into the Athenian assembly as Sophists acquired increasingly high-powered clients.[11] Continuous rhetorical training gave the citizens of Athens "the ability to create accounts of communal possibilities through persuasive speech".[12] This was extremely important for the democracy, as it gave disparate and sometimes superficially unattractive views a chance to be heard in the Athenian assembly.

In addition, Sophists had great impact on the early development of law, as the sophists were the first lawyers in the world. Their status as lawyers was a result of their extremely developed argumentation skills.[13]

Sophists and education

Sophists taught the art of speaking and writing in the western world before any other philosophical or rhetorical figure. The Sophists were notorious for their claims to teach virtue/excellence and for accepting fees for teaching. The influence of this stance on education in general, and medical education in particular, have been described by Seamus Mac Suibhne.[14] The sophists "offer quite a different epistemic field from that mapped by Aristotle," according to scholar Susan Jarratt, writer of Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured.

The Second Sophistic

The term "Second Sophistic" comes from Philostratos. In his Lives of the Sophists, Philostratus traced the beginnings of the movement to the orator Aeschines in the 4th century BC. But its earliest representative was really Nicetes of Smyrna, in the late 1st century A.C. Unlike the original Sophistic movement of the 5th century BC, the Second Sophistic was little concerned with politics. But it was, to a large degree, to meet the everyday needs and respond to the practical problems of Graeco-Roman society. It came to dominate higher education and left its mark on many forms of literature. The period from around 50 A.D. to 100 A.D. was a period when oratorical elements dealing with the first sophists of Greece were reintroduced to the Roman Empire. The province of Asia embraced the Second Sophistic the most. Diococceianus (or Chrysostomos) and Aelius Aristides were popular sophists of the period. They orated over topics like poetry and public speaking. They did not teach debate or anything that had to do with politics because rhetoric was restrained due to the empirical government’s rules.[15]

Owing largely to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, philosophy came to be regarded as distinct from sophistry, the latter being regarded as specious and rhetorical, a practical discipline. Thus, by the time of the Roman Empire, a sophist was simply a teacher of rhetoric and a popular public speaker. For instance, Libanius, Himerius, Aelius Aristides, and Fronto were sophists in this sense.

The Influence of the Second Sophistic on Roman Education

During the Second Sophistic, the Greek discipline of rhetoric had heavy influence on Roman education. It was during this time that Latin rhetorical studies were banned for the precedent of Greek rhetorical studies. In addition, the Greek history was preferred for the education of the Roman elites above that of their native Roman history.[16]

Many rhetoricians during this period were instructed under specialists in Greek rhetorical studies as part of their standard education. Cicero, a prominent rhetorician during this period in Roman history, is one such example of the influence of the Second Sophistic on Roman Education. His early life coincided with the suppression of Latin rhetoric in Roman education under the edicts of Crassus and Domitius. Cicero was instructed in Greek rhetoric throughout his youth, as well as in other subjects of the Roman rubric under Archias. Cicero benefited in his early education from favorable ties to Crassus.[16]

In his writings, Cicero is said to have showed a "...synthesis that he achieved between Greek and Roman culture..." summed up in his work De Oratore. Despite his oratorical skill, Cicero pressed for a more liberal education in Roman instruction which focused more in the broad sciences including Roman history. He entitled this set of sciences as "politior humanita." Regardless of his efforts toward this end, Greek history was still preferred by the majority of aristocratic Romans during this time.[17]


  1. Herrick, James (2005). The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. p. 103. ISBN 0-205-41492-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Plato protagoras, intro by N Denyer, p1, cambridge up, 2008
  3. A Lexicon Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford: Clarendon, 1996, s.v.v. σοφίζω and σοφιστής.
  4. Aristophanes' "clouds"; Aeschines 1.173; Diels & Kranz, "Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker",80 A 21
  5. Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, p. 83
  6. Sprague, Rosamond Kent, The Older Sophists, Hackett Publishing Company (ISBN 0-87220-556-8), p. 5
  7. Guthrie, W. K. C. Vol. 3 of History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 399
  8. 8.0 8.1 Guthrie, W. K. C. Vol. 3 of History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 401
  9. Waterfield, R. (2009), Protagoras and the Challenge of Relativism: Plato's Subtlest Enemy. By Ugo Zilioli. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 509–510. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_1.x
  10. Blackwell, Christopher. Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy. 28 February 2003. The Stoa: a Consortium for Scholarly Publication in the Humanitiez. 25 April 2007.
  11. Sprague, Rosamond Kent, The Older Sophists, Hacker Publishing Company (ISBN 0-87220-556-8), p. 32
  12. Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbon dale and Edwards ville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, p. 98
  13. Martin, Richard. "Seven Sages as Performers of Wisdom." Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece. New York: Oxford, 1988. 108–130.
  14. Mac Suibhne, Seamus. "Sophists, sophistry, and modern medical education". Medical Teacher 2010 Jan;32(1):71-5.
  15. McKay, Brett (2010). Classical Rhetoric 101: A Brief History.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 Clarke, M.L. (April 1968). "Cicero at School". Greece & Rome, second series. Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association. 15 (1): 18–22. Retrieved 15 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Eyre, J.J. (March 1963). "Roman Education in the Late Republic and Early Empire". Greece & Rome, second edition. Cambridge University Press. 10 (1): 47–59. Retrieved 15 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Blackwell, Christopher. Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy. 28 February 2003. The Stoa: a Consortium for Scholarly Publication in the Humanities. 25 April 2007.
  • Clarke, M.L. "Cicero at School". Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Apr., 1968), pp. 18–22; Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association; Article Stable URL:
  • Eyre, J.J. "Roman Education in the Late Republic and Early Empire". Greece & Rome,Second Series, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Mar., 1963), pp. 47–59,Published by: Cambridge University Press; Article Stable URL:
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. Vol. 3 of History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969
  • Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
  • Kerferd, G. B., The Sophistic Movement, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1981 (ISBN 0-521-28357-4).
  • Rosen, Stanley, Plato's 'Sophist', The Drama of Original and Image, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1983.
  • Sprague, Rosamond Kent, The Older Sophists, Hackett Publishing Company (ISBN 0-87220-556-8).
  • Herrick, James A. The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Beacon, 2005. Print
  • McKay, Brett, and Kate McKay. "Classical Rhetoric 101: A Brief History." The Art of Manliness RSS. The Art of Manliness, 30 Nov. 2010. Web. 03 Oct. 2013.

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