The Sophists were teachers who traveled throughout Greece during the 400s B.C. They taught and lectured on a wide variety of subjects for a fee. Sophists had no school, no organization, and no common set of beliefs. Their main contribution to Greek thought was the development of techniques of argument and persuasion. Because of the Sophists’ claim that they could “make the weaker argument the stronger,” some critics attacked them on the grounds that their teachings undermined traditional values.
The Sophists provided a form of higher education that might not otherwise have been available at that time. They lectured on mathematics, history, geography, and many other subjects. Because oratory* was an important skill in the 400s B.C., especially in the assembly and the law courts of Athens, Sophists were in great demand for their ability to teach rhetoric*. To instruct their students on the techniques of effective persuasion and argument, the Sophists taught grammar, literary criticism, and semantics*. Sophists publicized their skills with free lectures at public events, such as the Olympic Games.
The Sophist teacher Protagoras was the first to write a study on the techniques of argument. He believed that effective argument has rules of its own. Protagoras stated that there are two opposing sides to any issue. A student of rhetoric tests each position through a process of trial and error to discover which side is more convincing. A strong argument would defeat a weak one. Other Sophists, such as Gorgias and Hippias, also taught rhetoric and the techniques of persuasion and argument. Some conservative critics considered these teachings dangerous. They believed that young people might use these techniques of debate to defeat others even if doing so harmed the state. Despite the criticisms leveled against them, the Sophists forced Athenians to pay greater attention to argument and style in their speech making.
The Sophists also claimed to be able to teach good citizenship. According to Protagoras, all humans naturally feel a need for justice. He also believed that he could teach arete, or excellence, in conducting one’s life. Socrates and Plato attacked the Sophists for their claims that they were able to teach wisdom, although Socrates himself was accused of being a Sophist. The term sophist now means a person who can argue cleverly but not necessarily soundly. (See also Education and Rhetoric, Greek.)
* oratory art of public speaking
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* semantics study of meanings in language