AskDefine | Define sophist

Dictionary Definition



1 any of a group of Greek philosophers and teachers in the 5th century BC who speculated on a wide range of subjects
2 someone whose reasoning is subtle and often specious [syn: casuist]

User Contributed Dictionary



Greek: "pursuer of wisdom"


  1. One of a class of men who taught eloquence, philosophy, and politics in ancient Greece; especially, one of those who, by their fallacious but plausible reasoning, puzzled inquirers after truth, weakened the faith of the people, and drew upon themselves general hatred and contempt.
  2. Hence, an impostor in argument; a captious or fallacious reasoner.

Extensive Definition

Sophism can mean two very different things: In the modern definition, a sophism is a confusing or illogical argument used for deceiving someone. In Ancient Greece, the sophists were a group of teachers of philosophy and rhetoric.
The term sophism originated from Greek sophistes, meaning "wise-ist", one who "does" wisdom, one who makes a business out of wisdom (sophós means "wise man").

Sophists of Ancient Greece

The Greek words sophos or sophia had the meaning of "wise" or "wisdom" since the time of the poet Homer, and originally connoted anyone with expertise in a specific domain of knowledge or craft. Thus a charioteer, a sculptor, a warrior could be sophoi in their occupation. Gradually the word came to denote general wisdom and especially wisdom about human affairs (in, for example, politics, ethics, or household management). This was the term given to the Greek Seven Sages of 7th and 6th Century BCE (like Solon and Thales), and this was the meaning that appeared in the histories of Herodotus. At about the same time, the term sophistes was a synonym for "poet", and (by association with the traditional role of poets as the teachers of society) a synonym for one who teaches, in particular through the performance of prose works or speeches that impart practical knowledge. Richard Martin refers to the seven sages as "performers of political poetry."1
In the second half of the 5th century BCE, particularly at Athens, "sophist" came to denote a class of itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in "excellence" or "virtue," speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others. 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 practice of taking fees, along with the sophists practice of questioning the existence and roles of traditional deities (this was done to make "the weaker argument appear the stronger") and investigating into the nature of the heavens and the earth prompted a popular reaction against them. Their attacks against Socrates (in fictional prosecution speeches) 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 included Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus.
In comparison, Socrates accepted no fee, instead adopting a self-effacing posture, which he exemplified by Socratic questioning (i.e. the Socratic method, however, 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 illustrious student of Socrates, depicts Socrates as refuting the 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, it is also suggested that such criticism was often ironic. Another contemporary, the comic playwright Aristophanes, criticizes the sophists as hairsplitting wordsmiths, yet suggests that Socrates was one of their number.
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. It seems that some of the sophists held a relativistic view on cognition and knowledge. 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 (see Protagoras or 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, notwithstanding his other disagreements with Plato.
Owing largely to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, philosophy came to be regarded as distinct from sophistry, the latter being regarded as rhetoric, 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. In addition to the individual benefits that Sophistic-style teaching conferred, the societal roles that the Sophists’ filled had important ramifications for the Athenian political system at large. The historical context in which the Sophists operated 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 subjectifying truth, 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 . Contiguous 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. Subjectified truths and communicatively enabled individuals were wonderful for the burgeoning democracy, and, in a sense, they were democracy itself.
It is also necessary to state the importance of the Sophists for the Law, as we have it today, since the sophists were the first lawyers in the world, due their extremely developed argumentation skill.

The Persecution of the Sophists

After a crescent influence in the Greek politics, the sophists started to suffer from menace, persecution and even assassination. Such behavior against the old sophist masters were certainly influenced by the philosophers due their contempt for the democratic relativism of the Sophists.
It is necessary to understand that the Greek democracy was applicable in the politic arena only, and not necessarily in the sphere of ideas.
When a group of masters preached relativism, criticizing even the myth of the "Greek superiority" or the "wisdom of the gods", that was taken as a threat to the Greek states. Even Socrates (viewed by many as a sophist master) verbally recognized the Greek theogony (to avoid being killed).
Even with the sudden "disappearance" of the sophists (there are speculations that secret societies were created, or that they migrated to the East, where they helped in the creation and propagation of many religions), the persecutions continued, but in a written manner, since any reference written about the sophists were made in a very negative approach. These "facts" that were copied without analysis by many modern philosophers continued to portray the sophists as enemies of philosophy.
Presently, there is a historical revision tendency about the sophists role, that are now understood as an "ultra-democrat" group in a Greek age.

Modern usage

In modern usage, sophism, sophist, and sophistry are derogatory terms, due the influence of many philosophers in the past (sophistry and philosophy were enemy schools).
A sophism is taken as a specious argument used for deceiving someone. It might be crafted to seem logical while actually being wrong, or it might use difficult words and complicated sentences to intimidate the audience into agreeing, or it might appeal to the audience's prejudices and emotions rather than logic, i.e. raising doubts towards the one asserting, rather than his assertion. The goal of a sophism is often to make the audience believe the writer or speaker to be smarter than he or she actually is, e.g., accusing another of sophistry for using persuasion techniques. An argument Ad Hominem is an example of Sophistry.
A sophist is a user of sophisms, i.e., an insincere person trying to confuse or deceive people. Sophists will try to persuade the audience while paying little attention to whether their argument is logical and factual.
Sophistry means making heavy use of sophisms. The word can be applied to a particular text or speech riddled with sophisms.


  • Blackwell, Christopher. Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy. 28 February 2003. The Stoa: a Consortium for Scholarly Publication in the Humanities. 25 April 2007.
  • 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).


See also

sophist in Bulgarian: Софизъм
sophist in Catalan: Sofisma
sophist in Czech: Sofisté
sophist in Danish: Sofisme
sophist in German: Sophistik
sophist in Spanish: Sofisma
sophist in Esperanto: Sofismo
sophist in Persian: سوفسطائیان
sophist in French: Sophiste
sophist in Galician: Sofistas
sophist in Korean: 소피스트
sophist in Indonesian: Sofisme
sophist in Italian: Sofistica
sophist in Hebrew: סופיזם
sophist in Latin: Sophistae
sophist in Latvian: Sofisms
sophist in Lithuanian: Sofizmas
sophist in Macedonian: Софизам
sophist in Hungarian: Szofizmus
sophist in Dutch: Sofistiek
sophist in Japanese: 詭弁
sophist in Polish: Sofiści
sophist in Portuguese: Sofisma
sophist in Russian: Софизм
sophist in Serbo-Croatian: Sofisti
sophist in Slovak: Sofisti
sophist in Finnish: Sofismi
sophist in Swedish: Sofister
sophist in Turkish: Bilgicilik
sophist in Ukrainian: Софісти

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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