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Their concerns were not with truth but with practical knowledge.

The Sophists (Ancient Greek)

They practiced rhetoric in order to persuade and not to discover truth. Their art was to persuade the crowd and not to convince people of the truth. They moved thought from cosmology and cosmogony and theogony, stories of the gods and the universe, to a concern for humanity. Their focus was human civilization and human customs. Their theater was the ethical and political problems of immediate concern for humans. They put the individual human being at the center of all thought and value.

They did not hold for any universals; not universal truths nor universal values. They sought and took payment for their lessons at speaking and writing.

Definition and Examples

Here are some excerpts:. Man is the measure of all things. There is relative truth only. Everyone has his won truth. If something does exist we can not know it. Callicles: Might is right and accident and not fate nor the gods ror destiny makes might. Thrasymachus : Might makes right. The Sophists challenged and criticized and destroyed the foundations of traditions and the moral and social order and they put nothing in its place nor did they care to. While Socrates looked for objective and eternal truths the Sophists were promoting ideas of relativism and subjectivism, wherein each person decides for him or herself what the true and the good and the beautiful are.

This appealed to the mob, the crowds, the unthinking horde but it is not an approach that serves as the foundation for a common life. Conflicts are resolved through the use of power. The Sophist held that might makes right. Society's demand for wisdom required more than what the Sophists offered. Socrates attempted another approach and in part due to the Sophists lost his life in his quest.

Competing Articulations of Philosophy

Plato would be inspired by Socrates to take up the challenge and find answers to the questions that were most basic and most in need of answering in the quest after wisdom and the GOOD. Socrates could debate with Sophists and do quite well. Socrates was skilled in the art of reasoning. In his exchanges with the Sophists Socrates developed his ability to think using a dialectical process.

This methodology would be not only an important part of his legacy to Plato but to Western thought as well.

There were other influences on both Socrates and Plato. The sophists were criticized mercilessly by Socrates. These wandering teachers were the successors of the rhapsodes. Recently discovered fragments from the fifth and fourth centuries B. When material from more than one source was put together, interpreters were needed to translate anachronistic expressions and foreign words. Some of the earliest prose consists of their efforts to explain the meaning of traditional names and phrases in the old theogonies.

Glosses, along with explanations of Homeric proper names and obscure words by "etymology," were developed, collected and transmitted by the rhapsodes. They also taught techniques of oral presentation and public speaking in addition to the use of an "art of memory," which was said to have been invented by Simonides.


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The early sophists wandered all over the Greek-speaking world. Later, they converged on Athens, the leading democratic city-state, where they could establish themselves as professional educators and gather their best students around them. A number of Plato's dialogues bear the names of the major sophists in the tradition - Gorgias, Protagoras, Critias and Hippias. For instance, at Protagoras a, there begins an extended passage in which the sophist explains a lyric poem by Simonides so as to rationalize some of its contradictions.

The Sophist offers a number of different definitions and classifies sophists themselves as "deceptive image makers. Socrates and Plato would criticize the Sophists for leading people away from the truth by calling up memorized passages and having the memory activated instead of reason. This method, later called "dialectic," grew out of the observation that "thoughts" and certain "parts of speech," do not call up images in the same way as material things Quintilian Institutio Oratoria XI.

The Sophists: An Introduction by Patricia F. O'Grady

Studies in Philosophy and Education. The rise of the sophists marked a pivotal moment in the history of education. The sophists were intellectuals who self-identified as educators and grappled explicitly with questions about education.

An Introduction to Sophistry

The sophists not only addressed the broad purposes of education, they were also innovators in both curriculum and pedagogy. Their intellectual and pedagogical agenda was so influential that one might argue we have not departed from it today. Despite their tremendous place in the history of philosophy and education, the sophists rarely receive the attention they deserve. In doing so, Corey draws attention both to the nuances with which Plato treats particular sophists and to the general value of sophists and sophistry for philosophy. Plato uses the sophists for propaedeutic purposes—to prepare people for philosophy—and protreptic purposes—to lead people towards philosophy.

But how might the sophists prepare people for philosophy or turn them towards it? Corey argues that this happens in different ways. Corey does not deny that the education offered by the sophists is inferior to Socratic philosophy. Yet the superiority of Socratic philosophy is not as straightforward as is typically assumed.

Plato intentionally obscures the differences between the sophists and Socrates in order to draw readers into questioning what is distinctive about Socratic philosophy. For Plato, no sophist seems closer to Socrates than Prodicus, a man whom Socrates describes as his own teacher. Nevertheless, skill in distinction-making is critical for sound reasoning and philosophical conversation p.