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Who Were the Sophists and What Contributions Did They Leave Us?

The sophists were ancient Greek thinkers who devoted themselves to teaching the humanities of rhetoric and persuasion. Find out all about them here.

Who were the sophists and what contribution did they leave us?

Last actualisation: January 21, 2023

In ancient Greece, specifically within the democratic Athens of the fifth and 4th centuries BC there was a bunch of thinkers dedicated to teaching the humanities of rhetoric and persuasion. These scholars, called sophistshe pursued a practical goal: to instruct residents within the conduct of public affairs in exchange for money.

The sophists didn’t form a unified school. What that they had in common, nevertheless, was moral relativism, denial of objective truth, and skepticism in regards to the absolute value of information. Let’s take a better look.

Who were the sophists?

The word “sophist” comes from a Greek word sofawhich implies “sensible man”. Therefore, in ancient Greece it was used for the name of anyone who taught wisdom.

However, from the fifth century BC, the word began to tackle a pejorative and demeaning connotation. Various philosophers of that point (so-called pre-Socratic) accused them of not striving for objective truth.

The truth is that sophists were travelers who knew different culturesvery different from the Greek ones. Therefore, they began to query whether laws and customs are the results of social conventions or, quite the opposite, natural.

Thus, they advocated a relativistic interpretation of reality, through which objective truth didn’t exist, but was constructed on the premise of majority opinion. Therefore, as an alternative of in search of “true knowledge” (because the philosophers of the time did), they focused on teaching eloquence. In this manner, their students could achieve society and politics.

The sophists went from being “masters of wisdom” or “knowers of life” to “master charlatans”, “fraudsters” or “false sages”. Philosophers similar to Plato and Aristotle he even accused them of being crooks for using rhetoric and dialectics to deceive people.

Keep in mind that in this historical period, the system of presidency in Athens was a parliamentary democracy. Laws and state offices were passed in civic debates. Because, the mastery of rhetoric and persuasion was essential to influence public affairs.

So the sophists’ outstanding oratory skills got here in handy during this time, allowing them to show this skill to others and thus turn into the primary skilled thinkers to be paid to impart their knowledge.

Democratic Greece, which gave context to the sophists, allowed them to be useful with their knowledge.

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The most important representatives among the many sophists

The sophists weren’t a trend with unique thought. However, all of them shared a relativistic and skeptical view of truth. Among probably the most famous were the next.

Protagoras of Abdera (485-411 BC)

The most famous statement of this philosopher was:

Man is the measure of all things, those which might be, in the event that they are, and people who should not, in the event that they should not.

~ Protagoras ~

This expression refers back to the indisputable fact that the law is a social convention and may be modified in keeping with the interests of every community. Therefore, the one judges to be trusted are majority men.

Protagoras he’s remembered as an itinerant thinker, an authority in rhetoric, who charged high fees for the knowledge of the right use of words (orthoepia).

Gorgias of Leontinos (483-375 BC)

He was an ideal advocate skepticism. His most famous works are About nature or non-existence and Helena’s praise.

The first is a treatise on Eleatian philosophy through which he argues that nothing exists, if something existed it couldn’t be known, and if it could possibly be known it couldn’t be communicated. For its part, the Helena’s praise is a discourse through which he analyzes all of the the explanation why Helena is blamed for the Trojan War. Then it rejects all of them as false.

Antiphon (480 – 411 BC)

He was the spokesman for hedonistic theorywhich proves that human actions are motivated by the pursuit of delight. He also wrote rhetoric and political speeches.

He regarded law as a man-made human convention, often contrary to nature itself. Laws are changeable, as is human will; due to this fact justice fluctuates. In this manner he defended that there was no penalty for secretly transgressing human law.

Contribution of the sophists

Although the term is normally taken as pejorative within the philosophical community, it’s important to acknowledge the contributions that these great thinkers have left us. The most relevant are the next.

Relativism and skepticism

sophists they were the primary to propose a relativistic and skeptical perspective of reality. For them, there aren’t any universal truths or laws that specify the origin of things or dictate what is true and what’s flawed.

If they exist, man has no capability to know them. So there shall be different views of reality, all of which shall be equally valid.

Focus on the person and society

Philosophers before sophists focused on the study of nature, the creation and origin of the cosmos. On the opposite hand, these latest thinkers she broke with this tradition and focused on the study of man and societytaking into consideration various aspects related to them, similar to politics or education.

The sophists brought relative political evaluation to the study of philosophy. Something that continues to today.

The importance of discourse and language

Similarly, the sophists were the primary thinkers to think about discourse and its importance in persuading others. In this sense, they’re the precursors of rhetoric as a discipline.

For their part, the sophists made great contributions to philology and linguistics, similar to the categorization of verbs and nouns, the grammatical evaluation of words, the interpretation of meanings, the right practice of syntax, the excellence between words and kinds of sentences.

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Finally, the sophists they were the primary thinkers to charge money for his or her teachings. In addition, they’re considered to be precursors of education in a man-made environment (characteristic of Western civilization). This replaced traditional Greek education, conducted in a social environment of adults.

Vindication of sophists

Although the philosophical tradition has been liable for discrediting the sophists, some modern philosophers have attempted to prove the importance of those great thinkers. For example, authors like Friedrich Nietzsche and George Grote defended that the sophists were real philosophers, whose doctrines are to be analyzed as serious positions of information.

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