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Sophism is a method of teaching. In ancient Greece, sophists were a category of teachers who specialized in using the techniques 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 Greek word sophist (sophistēs) derives from the words sophia, and sophos, meaning "wisdom" or “wise” since the time of Homer and was originally used to describe expertise in a particular knowledge or craft. 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 (such as 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."
Sophists were philosopher-teachers who traveled about in Greece teaching their students everything that was necessary to be successful in life including rhetoric and public speaking. These were useful skills, where being persuasive could lead to political power and economic wealth. Athens became the center of their activity, due to their tolerance of freedom of speech and the available wealth. There were numerous differences among Sophist teachings, and they lectured on subjects that were as diverse as semantics and rhetoric, to ontology, epistemology. Sophists taught their beliefs for a considerable price.
Sophists became popular following the development of thought and society in Athens, in the fifth century B.C. They offered practical education with teachings that included speculation on the nature of the universe as well as the art of life and politics. They believed that law was an agreement between people and that justice is nonexistent. Among the Sophists, Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Callicles, Lycophron, Antiphon, and Cratylus are the most well-known.
Early Sophists were well respected but they soon became unpopular and were subject to much opposition and controversy due to their high fees and their radical challenges to convention. The only citizens who had the money to learn from the Sophists came from the aristocratic class, meaning that many citizens were unable to learn from them. Sophist teachers were also thought to cater to the popular opinion to attract a greater number of students rather than being concerned with the truth.
Before the writing of Plato, the word "sophist" could be used as either a respectful or contemptuous title, much like way the word "intellectual" can be used today. It was in Plato’s dialogue, Sophist, that the first record of an attempt to answer the question “What is a Sophist?” is made. Plato described Sophists as paid hunters after the young and wealthy, as merchants of knowledge, as athletes in a contest of words, and purgers of souls. From Plato's assessment of Sophists it could be concluded that Sophists do not offer true knowledge, but only an opinion of things. Plato describes them as shadows of the true early Sophists and wrote, “...the art of contradiction making, descended from an insincere kind of conceited mimicry, of the semblance-making breed, derived from image making, distinguished as portion, not divine but human, of production, that presents, a shadow play of words—such are the blood and the lineage which can, with perfect truth, be assigned to the authentic Sophist”. Plato sought to separate the Sophist from the Philosopher. Where a Sophist was a person who makes his living through deception, a philosopher was a lover of wisdom who sought truth. To give the Philosophers greater credence, the Sophists had to receive a negative connotation.
Most sophists claimed to teach arête (“excellence” or “virtue”) in the management and administration of not only one’s affairs, but the city’s as well. Before the fifth century B.C., it was believed that aristocratic birth qualified a person for arête and politics. However, Protagoras, who is regarded as the first Sophist, explained that arête is the result of training rather than birth.
Protagoras was one of the most well-known and successful teachers. He taught his students the necessary skills and knowledge for a successful life, particularly in politics, rather than philosophy. He trained his pupils to argue from both points of view because he believed that truth could not be limited to just one side of the argument. Protagoras wrote about a variety of subjects and some fragments of his work survived. He is the author of the famous saying, “Man is the measure of all things,” which is the opening sentence of a work called Truth.
Gorgias is another well-known Sophist. Gorgias’ writings showcase his ability of making ridiculous and unpopular positions appear stronger. Gorgias authored a lost work known as On the Non-Existent, which centers on the argument that nothing exists. In it, he attempts to persuade his readers that thought and existence was different.
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 the 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 classified Socrates as a Sophist in his History of Greek Philosophy.
Only portions of the Sophists’ writings have survived and they are mainly known from Plato, a philosopher who helped lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato studied philosophy under the guidance from Socrates. Plato discusses his view on the Sophists’ thought, although his attitude is generally hostile. Due to his opposition, he is largely responsible for the modern view of the sophist as a stingy instructor who deceives. He 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. Aristophanes made no distinction between sophists and philosophers as Socrates did, and believed both would argue any position for the right fee. In the comedic play The Clouds by Aristophanes, Strepsiades seeks the help of Socrates (a parody of the actual philosopher) in an effort to avoid paying his debts. In the play, Socrates promises to teach Strepsiades' son to argue his way out of paying his debts.
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.
In some cases, such as Gorgias, some of his works survived, 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.
From the late 1st century AD the Second Sophistic, a philosophical and rhetorical movement, was the chief expression of intellectual life. The term "Second Sophistic" comes from Philostratos, who rejecting the term "New Sophistic" traced the beginnings of the movement to the orator Aeschines in the 4th century BC. But its earliest representative was really Nicetas of Smyrna, in the late 1st century AD. 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.
Despite the opposition from philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, it is clear that Sophists had a vast influence on a number of spheres, including the growth of knowledge and on ethical political theory. Their teachings, although controversial, had a huge influence on thought in the fifth century B.C. The Sophists turned away from the theoretical natural science to the more sensible examination of human affairs and the betterment and success of human life. They explained that divine deities could no longer be the explanation of human action.
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 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.
The Sophists were notorious for claiming to teach virtue/excellence and for accepting fees for teaching. The influence of this stance on education in general, and medical education in particular, has been described by Seamus Mac Suibhne.
In modern usage, sophism, sophist and sophistry are re-purposed and used derogatorily. A sophism is a specious argument for displaying ingenuity in reasoning or for deceiving someone. A sophist is a person who reasons with clever but fallacious and deceptive arguments. Authentic Sophists as described by Plato, would enjoy the discussion of the modern usage and shift of definition, as the dialogue would be of the nature that the Sophists employed.