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© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Sophists: Selected full-text books and articles

The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists
Robin Waterfield.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured
Susan C. Jarratt.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1991
The Presocratic Philosophers
Jonathan Barnes.
Routledge, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 21 "The Sophists"
A History of Ancient Philosophy: From the Beginnings to Augustine
Karsten Friis Johansen.
Routledge, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "The Sophists"
Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato
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
George A. Kennedy.
University of North Carolina Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Sophistic Rhetoric"
Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece
Tony M. Lentz.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Writing as Sophistry: From Preservation to Persuasion"
Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity
Yun Lee Too.
Brill, 2001
Librarian’s tip: "Sophists without Rhetoric: The Arts of Speech in Fifth-Century Athens" begins on p. 85
Form and Argument in Late Plato
Christopher Gill; Mary Margaret McCabe.
Clarendon Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Literary Form of the Sophist"
The Greek World
Anton Powell.
Routledge, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Twenty-Six "Plato's Objections to the Sophists"
The Second Sophistic: A Cultural Phenomenon in the Roman Empire
Graham Anderson.
Routledge, 1993
A New History of Classical Rhetoric
George A. Kennedy.
Princeton University Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Eleven "The Second Sophistic"
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