THE SOPHISTIC MOVEMENT

Socrates Against the Sophists

With the exception of Gorgias, the Sophists were all dead by the time Plato wrote his dialogues. In the Protagoras and the Gorgias, Socrates' interlocutors are Sophists.
Protagoras of Abdera. The most famous of the 5th BCE century Sophists. He is in the Protagoras.

Gorgias of Leontini. The other famous 5th BCE century Sophist. Gorgias is a younger contemporary of Protagoras. He is in the Gorgias (along with Polus and Callicles).

Prodicus of Ceos. Contemporary of Socrates.

Thrasymachus of Chalcedon. Last third of the 5th century BCE. He is in Book I of the Republic.

Hippias of Elis. Contemporary of Thrasymachus. Hippias is in the Hippias Major.

Polus. Associated with the Sophists. He is in the Gorgias. Aristotle mentions him in the Metaphysics.

Callicles. Associated with the Sophists. Callicles is unknown outside Plato's dialogues and may be a character of Plato's invention. He appears in the Gorigas.

Isocrates. 436 - 338 BCE. One of the ten attic orators. Has an interest in and view about φιλοσοφία.

The conversations in these dialogues bring the Socratic conception of the competency in living into sharper focus by contrasting it with a competing conception Plato associates with the Sophists. The Sophists appeared to many (and especially to the children of the aristocracy) to teach their students how to life a good life, but Plato thought this was an illusion and that they were dangerous. As Plato portrays them, they are salesman with no real interest in what Socrates describes in the Apology as "wisdom and truth and the best state of the soul."

In addition, in the Gorgias, in thinking about what the Sophists sell to their students, Plato begins to work out an explanation for why human beings have the false beliefs that stand in the way the good life and happiness. The view, it seems, is that the soul is more than reason.

The Rise of the Sophists

The Sophists were itinerant teachers, primarily of rhetoric but also of other subjects. Many came to Athens from other cities as part of political embassies (whose function was to negotiate on behalf of their home cities). Athens had become rich and powerful, and the children of the aristocracy realized that in the law courts and elsewhere in Athenian society, the traditional education was no match for the ability in rhetorical persuasion the Sophists possessed.



"[I]f Hippocrates applies to me [Protagoras], he will learn precisely and solely that for which he has come. That learning consists of good judgment in his own affairs (εὐβουλία περὶ τῶν οἰκείων), showing how best to order his own home, and in the affairs of his city (πόλεως), showing how he may have most influence on public affairs both in speech and in action" (Protagoras 318e-319a).

To win in the law courts and more generally get what one wants, the ability to use rhetoric to persuade appeared to be the means and hence the key to a good life and happiness.

• rhetoric is a way of getting what one wants
• getting what one wants is what happiness is

In general, the Sophists did little to disavow this impression. They were interested in making money, not in understanding the good life and how to live it. They set themselves up as teachers, and the sons of the aristocracy paid huge sums of money to study with them.



Pericles (495-429 BCE) turned the Delian League into an Athenian Empire and also led Athens as general in the initial years of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). He promoted democracy, the arts, and public building projects, including the Parthenon, but the war was long and devastated Athens. Never again did the city regain its position of prominence in the ancient world.


  "Hippias, I can bear you witness that you speak the truth, and that your art really has progressed in the direction of ability to carry on public together with private affairs. For this man Gorgias, the sophist from Leontini, came here from home in the public capacity of envoy, as being best able of all the citizens of Leontini to attend to the interests of the community, and it was the general opinion that he spoke excellently in the public assembly, and in his private capacity, by giving exhibitions and associating with the young, he earned and received a great deal of money from this city. Or, if you like, our friend here, Prodicus, often went to other places in a public capacity, and the last time, just lately, when he came here in a public capacity from Ceos, he gained great reputation by his speaking before the Council, and in his private capacity, by giving exhibitions and associating with the young, he received a marvelous sum of money. None of the ancients ever thought it right to exact the money as payment for his wisdom or to give exhibitions among people of various places; so simple-minded were they, and so unconscious of the fact that money is of the greatest value. But either of these two has earned more money from his wisdom than any artisan from his art. And even before these Protagoras did the same.
  Why, Socrates, you know nothing of the beauties of this. For if you were to know how much money I have made, you would be amazed. I won't mention the rest, but once, when I went to Sicily, although Protagoras was staying there and had a great reputation and was the older, I, who was much younger, made in a very short time more than one hundred and fifty minas [about what an unskilled worker could make in a lifetime], and in one very small place, Inycus, more than twenty minas; and when I came home, I took this and gave it to my father, so that he and the other citizens were overwhelmed with amazement. And I pretty well think I have made more money than any other two sophists together" (Hippias Major 282b).

The Soul Requires Care

The Sophists, as Plato understands them, promote a misunderstanding of the competency involved in living a good life. The Sophists teach their students the means to get what they want, but this teaching does not include knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

The dialogues suggest that Plato thought the means to get what one wants, without knowledge of whether it is good, was the cause of Athen's political downfall. Plato's immediate audience lives after the great power and wealth of Periclean Athens has been dissipated in the Peloponnesian War. This audience is nostalgic for the leadership of Pericles and the life that was lost, but Plato does not share this nostalgia. As he looks back, it seems to him that Pericles and the politicians failed Athens. They engaged in the practice the Sophists managed to package and sell. This practice was the problem, not Socrates, contrary to what many Athenians thought. This practice corrupts the young because it ruins the soul. To function properly, the soul requires the "care" Socrates urged. The political leaders did not understand this.

Rhetoric Corrupts the Soul

To explain how rhetoric corrupts the soul, Plato takes up the contrast between "reason" and "experience" (that entered philosophy in the Presocratic Period) to explain the ways of thinking in the soul and how rhetoric encourages the soul live in terms of "experience."

The discussion of "experience" occurs in two places in the Gorgias. It occurs in the conversation in which Socrates and Polus discuss what rhetoric is (462b), and it occurs in the subsequent conversation in which Socrates and Callicles summarize the argument (500e).

Socrates in these conversations is not the Socrates of the early dialogues. He no longer just asks questions. He now presents views of his own. He says that the practice of rhetoric is a kind of flattery that the orators have acquired in "experience" and take money to teach, that their students use this practice to help them act in ways they would not act if their souls were healthy, and that it ingrains in them ways of living that "reason" cannot easily challenge.

The suggestion in these conversations is that "experience" is the default way of thinking human beings use in life, that it is a way of thinking and living they share with animals, that human beings also have "reason," and that "reason" gives them the ability to take control of their lives, and that exercising "reason" in the right way is the key to a good life and happiness.

"[Y]ou will not easily find another, who ... attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. ... I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long. ... [I]f you take my advice, you will spare me. But you, perhaps, might be angry, like people awakened from a nap, and might slap me, as Anytus advises, and easily kill me; then you would pass the rest of your lives in slumber, unless God, in his care for you, should send someone else to sting you" (Apology 30e).

The Sophists learn Rhetoric in Experience

"[T]here are many arts (τέχναι) amongst mankind that have been discovered experimentally (ἐμπείρως), as the result of experiences (ἐμπειριῶν): for experience (ἐμπειρία) conducts the course of our life according to art, but inexperience according to chance. Of these several arts various men partake in various ways, and the best men of the best. Gorgias here is one of these..." (Gorgias 448c). There is no evidence that the Sophists distinguished "reason" and "experience," but they did seem to understand rhetoric as a practice acquired in "experience," not "reason."


The "Encomium of Helen" is one Gorgias' two extant "epideictic" speeches. (The other is the "Defense of Palamedes.") Encomium is a Latin word deriving from the Greek ἐγκώμιον for laudatory ode. An ἐπίδειξις is an exhibition, display. In the speech, Gorgias argues that Helen of Troy is not to be blamed for the Trojan War despite the fact that her adultery and flight with Paris caused the War.
Gorgias, for example, in his speech in defense of Helen, seems to say that the art of rhetoric consists in observing and remembering how certain uses of words produce opinions.



"[T]here has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts.... For it is by this we have laid down laws concerning things just and unjust, and things base and honorable; and if it were not for these ordinances we should not be able to live with one another. It is by this also that we confute the bad and extol the good. Through this we educate the ignorant and appraise the wise; for the power to speak well is taken as the surest index of a sound understanding, and discourse which is true and lawful and just is the outward image of a good and faithful soul. With this faculty we both contend against others on matters which are open to dispute and seek light for ourselves on things which are unknown; for the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and, while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skilfully debate their problems in their own minds. And, if there is need to speak in brief summary of this power, we shall find that none of the things which are done with intelligence take place without the help of speech, but that in all our actions as well as in all our thoughts speech is our guide, and is most employed by those who have the most wisdom. Therefore, those who dare to speak with disrespect of educators and teachers of philosophy (φιλοσοφούντων) deserve our opprobrium no less than those who profane the sanctuaries of the gods" (Isocrates, Nicocles or the Cyprians, 3.6).

The conception of "philosophy" in Isocrates is different than the one Plato has Socrates articulate.
"[I]ncantations divinely inspired by means of speeches are bringers of pleasure and removers of pain. For the power of an incantation, when it is conjoined with the opinion (δόξῃ) of the soul, beguiles it, persuades it, and transforms it by sorcery. For two arts have been discovered, those of sorcery and of magic, which are [for producing] errors of the soul and deceptions of opinion. Whoever has persuaded, and also persuades, whomever about whatever does so by fabricating a false discourse. For if all men, with regard to all things, had memory of the ones that have passed, understanding of the ones that are present, and forethought for the ones still to come, then a similar speech would not be similarly deceptive, as things are in fact at present, insofar as it is easy neither to remember what has passed nor to examine what is present nor to divine what is to come. So that about most things most people furnish themselves with opinion as a counselor for the soul. But opinion, being slippery and unstable, involves those who use it in slippery and unstable successes" (Gorgias, "Encomium of Helen").

"The power of speech has the same relation with the arrangement of the soul as the arrangement of drugs has with the nature of bodies. For just as some drugs draw some fluids out of the body, and others other ones, and some stop an illness and others stop life, in the same way some speeches cause pain, others pleasure, others fear, others dispose listeners to courage, others drug and bewitch the soul by some evil persuasion" (Gorgias, "Encomium of Helen").

The Socratic and Sophistic Education

The ordinary Athenians saw no real difference between Socrates and the Sophists. To them, both were part of the new education that was trying replace the traditional one.

In the Protagoras and Gorgias, to distinguish Socrates from the Sophists, Plato makes Socrates ask Protagoras and Gorgias what they do for their students. He is skeptical that the rhetorical persuasion they teach is the competency involved in living a good life.

In these discussions, as will become clear in the next two lectures, Plato shows that Socratic and Sophistic educations have different effects on the soul. A Sophistic education makes "experience," not "reason," the leader in the soul. This corrupts the soul. To care for the soul, as Plato understands Socrates, "reason" must come to control "experience."




Perseus Digital Library:

Isocrates's, Against the Sophists, Antidosis

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἐμπειρέω, verb, empeireō, "to be experienced in, have knowledge of"
ἐμπειρία,, empeiria, noun, "experience"
ἐμπειρικός, empeirikos, adjective, "experience"
ἔμπειρος, empeiros, adjective, "experienced or practised in a thing, acquainted with it"
ἐμπείρως, empeirōs, adverb, "by experience"
ρητορική, rētorikē, noun, "rhetoric"
τέχνη, technē,, noun, "art, skill"

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VIII: Sophists, Part 1




move on go back