Social Philosophy

The Sophists

          The Sophist flourished from about 450 B.C. to 400 B.C.; not that Sophism as a profession disappeared altogether at the latter date, but, after the appearance of Socrates as a teacher, the importance of the Sophist dwindled into insignificance. The word  Sophist, etymologically considered, denotes a wise man. In the earlier pre-Socratic period it meant one who made wisdom or the teaching of wisdom his profession. Later on, The abuse of dialect disputation of which the Sophists were guilty caused the name sophism to become synonymous with fallacy. Specializing in rhetoric, the Sophist were more professional educators than philosophers. They flourished as a result of a special need at that time for Greek education. Prominent Sophist include Protagoras (490-420 BCE) from Abdera in Thrace, Gorgias (487-376 BCE) from Prodicus (465-390 BCE) from the island of Ceos.

 Protagoras (490-420 BCE)

          Protagoras of Abdera was one of several fifth century Greek thinkers (including also Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus) collectively known as the Older Sophists, a group of traveling teachers or intellectuals who were experts in rhetoric (the science of oratory) and related subjects. Protagoras is known primarily for three claims (1) that man is the measure of all things (which is often interpreted as a sort of radical relativism) (2) that he could make the “worse (or weaker) argument appear the better (or stronger)” and (3) that one could not tell if the gods existed or not. While some ancient sources claim that these positions led to his having been tried for impiety in Athens and his books burned, these stories may well have been later legends. Protagoras’ notion that judgments and knowledge are in some way relative to the person judging or knowing has been very influential, and is still widely discussed in contemporary philosophy. Download 


          Gorgias was a Sicilian philosopher, orator, and rhetorician. He is considered by many scholars to be one of the founders of sophism, a movement traditionally associated with philosophy, that emphasizes the practical application of rhetoric toward civic and political life. The sophists were itinerant teachers who accepted fees in return for instruction in oratory and rhetoric, and many claimed they could teach anything and its opposite (thesis and antithesis). Another aspect of their method was the ability to make the weaker argument the stronger. The term sophist in classical Greek was a general appellation denoting a “wise man.” They were important figures in Greece in the 4th and 5th centuries, and their social success was great. Plato was the first to use the term rhêtorikê, while the sophists termed their “art” logos . Nevertheless, Gorgias is commonly associated with the development of rhetoric in classical Greece. The democratic process in Athens supplied the need for instruction in both rhetoric and philosophy. Download 

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