Classical Rhetoric & Its Christian & Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times

By George A. Kennedy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Sophistic Rhetoric

Handbooks were not the only source of skill for one who wished to learn speaking and argumentation in classical Greece. The older tradition of imitating a successful orator, without necessarily any conceptualization of the techniques involved, continued to be followed and became the characteristic form of rhetorical study in what may be called the “schools” of sophists.

The word sophist is derived from the adjective sophos, meaning “wise,” and might be translated “expert.” In the fifth century the term was used for anyone who gave lessons in grammar, rhetoric, politics, ethics, or other subjects for pay (see Plato Protagoras 313c). Among the most famous were Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, and Hippias. Sophists were professors of how to succeed in the civic life of the Greek states. Most were not Athenians, but the young men of Athens constituted their chief clientele. A vivid, though rather negative picture of sophists can be found in several dialogues of Plato, including Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias Major and Minor, and The Sophist. Sophists taught primarily by public or private epideixis, oral demonstrations that presented in a striking style their ideas and techniques of proof. Their presentations were sometimes dramatic, as when Hippias appeared at Olympia in a costume of his own making (Plato Hippias Minor 368b).

Some of the sophists, Protagoras in particular, may rightly be thought of as philosophers who developed ideas and published treatises on what we might call epistemology, anthropology, linguistics, and almost anything involving human life and belief. Before the time of Aristotle, however, what we think of as separate disciplines of the arts and sciences

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