What Is Sophism?

Sophism in the modern definition is a specious argument used for deceiving someone. In ancient Greece, sophists were a category of teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric for the purpose of teaching arete — excellence, or virtue — predominantly to young statesmen and nobility. The practice of charging money for education and providing wisdom only to those who could pay led to the condemnations made by Socrates, through Plato in his Dialogues, as well as Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Through works such as these, Sophists were portrayed as “specious” or “deceptive”, hence the modern meaning of the term.

The term originated from Greek sophisma from sophizo “I am wise”; confer sophistēs, meaning “wise-ist, one who does wisdom, one who makes a business out of wisdom” and sophós means “wise man”.

Greek Writing Engraving Stone MarbleSophists of ancient Greece

The Greek word sophos, or sophia, has had the meaning “wise” or “wisdom” 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.”

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.” 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.

Many of them 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. 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.

Protagoras is generally regarded as the first of the sophists. Others include Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus.


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). 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, which he validated by sending one of his students to study under a sophist.W. K. C. Guthrie associated Socrates with the Sophists in his History of Greek Philosophy.

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). Another contemporary, the comic playwright Aristophanes, criticizes the sophists as hairsplitting wordsmiths, and makes Socrates their representative.

Plato is largely responsible for 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. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all challenged the philosophical foundations of sophism.

Some scholars, such as Ugo Zilioli 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).

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 of sophist thought comes from fragmentary quotations that lack context. Many of these quotations come from Aristotle, who seems to have held the sophists in slight regard.

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.

Sophists and democracy

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.

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. Continuous rhetorical training gave the citizens of Athens “the ability to create accounts of communal possibilities through persuasive speech”. 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.

Sophists and education

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.

Modern usage

In modern usage, sophism, sophist and sophistry are used derogatively.

A sophism is taken as a specious argument used for deception. It might be crafted to appear logical while actually representing a falsehood, or it might use obscure words and complicated sentence constructions in order to intimidate the opponent into agreement out of fear of feeling foolish. Other techniques include manipulating the opponent’s prejudices and emotions to overcome their logical faculties.

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