Sophists (sŏf´Ĭsts), originally, itinerant teachers in Greece (5th cent. BC) who provided education through lectures and in return received fees from their audiences. The term was given as a mark of respect. Protagoras was perhaps the first to style himself a Sophist and to receive payment for his instruction. He and Gorgias were respected thinkers, but others after them, notably Thrasymachus and Hippias, and many lesser figures, turned education into the development of skills useful to political careers. Hence, they cared little for the disciplined search for truth (dialectics), teaching in its place the art of persuasion (rhetoric). Although not properly speaking a philosophical school, they appear to have shared a basic skepticism regarding the possibility of knowing truth. The more notorious of them boasted of their ability to "make the worst appear the better reason." They were criticized by Plato and Aristotle for their emphasis on rhetoric rather than on pure knowledge and for their acceptance of money, a judgment that has passed into history and has given the term sophist its present meaning. George Grote's History of Greece (1846) was one of the first defenses of the Sophists. Modern studies have stressed the contributions of Protagoras and Gorgias to a theory of knowledge and to ethics. They are frequently cited today as forerunners of pragmatism.

See W. K. C. Guthrie, Sophists (1971); H. Diels, ed., The Older Sophists (1972).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Sophists: Selected full-text books and articles

The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists By Robin Waterfield Oxford University Press, 2000
Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured By Susan C. Jarratt Southern Illinois University Press, 1991
The Presocratic Philosophers By Jonathan Barnes Routledge, 1989
Librarian's tip: Chap. 21 "The Sophists"
Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato By Kathryn A. Morgan Cambridge University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "The Sophists and Their Contemporaries"
Classical Rhetoric & Its Christian & Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times By George A. Kennedy University of North Carolina Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Sophistic Rhetoric"
Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece By Tony M. Lentz Southern Illinois University Press, 1989
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "Writing as Sophistry: From Preservation to Persuasion"
Form and Argument in Late Plato By Christopher Gill; Mary Margaret McCabe Clarendon Press, 1996
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "The Literary Form of the Sophist"
A New History of Classical Rhetoric By George A. Kennedy Princeton University Press, 1994
Librarian's tip: Chap. Eleven "The Second Sophistic"
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