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May 24, 2016

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: The Challenge of the Sophists

Most of what we know of the Sophists comes from their enemies. Who were they, really?

The chief philosophical conflict of the Greek classical period (5th-4th centuries BCE) was waged between, on the one hand, Socrates and those mainly influenced by him (including Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle) and, on the other hand, those we know as “Sophists.”

Who Were the Sophists?

Nowadays the terms “sophist” and “sophistry” have a negative connotation, suggesting the practice of tricky and dishonest reasoning.  That this is so is largely due to the influence of their Socratic opponents.  For the Socratics won – in the sense that theirs was the dominant philosophical influence in the West for the next 2000 years (until the Sophist side of the debate was resuscitated by Hobbes) – and winners do tend to write the histories.  Xenophon, speaking for the Socratic side, neatly summarizes the standard judgment on the Sophists:

Now what astonishes me in the “sophists,” as they are called, is, that though they profess, the greater part of them, to lead the young to virtue, they really lead them in the opposite direction. … Nor do their writings contain anything calculated to make men good, but they have written volumes on vain and frivolous subjects …. [T]he wisdom [the sophist] professes consists in word-subtleties, not in ideas. …. [W]ords with him are for the sake of deception, writing for personal gain …. My advice then is to mistrust the sonorous catch-words of the sophist, and not to despise the reasoned conclusions of the philosopher; for the sophist is a hunter after the rich and young, the philosopher is the common friend of all; he neither honours nor despises the fortunes of men.1

Strictly speaking, however, “Sophist” refers to a profession, not to any particular argumentative style or doctrinal content, and the word was not originally contrasted with “philosopher.”2  The Sophists were, first and foremost, teachers of the art of persuasive speaking – an invaluable skill in a society without trial lawyers or elected representatives, where success depended on making one’s case personally in the jury courts or the democratic assembly.  But their interests ranged broadly over ethics, politics, sociology, mathematics, physics, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of action.  Such was the impact of these secular, skeptical, rhetorically ingenious, pragmatically-minded, brilliantly talented thinkers that many modern scholars speak of the classical period as a “Sophistic Enlightenment.”  And Socrates, for all his opposition to the Sophists, can be seen as in many ways a product of their intellectual milieu.

While some Sophists were native-born Athenians (Antiphon being the most notable), most of the best-known Sophists (e.g., Gorgias, Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus) were foreigners, hailing from Greek colonies as farflung as Sicily in the west and Chalcedon in the east, and traveling all over the Greek world, but drawn especially to Athens as that world’s intellectual center.  The Sophists essentially pioneered the provision of higher education among the Greeks; their fees could be expensive; but wealthy patrons, as we see in Plato’s Protagoras, would sometimes host soirées at which the sophists could be heard for free. 

Sophists As Shysters?

Much of the ancient prejudice against the Sophists resembles the modern prejudice against lawyers.  A forensic context tends to encourage arguments that focus on victory rather than truth; Protagoras and Gorgias, for example, both advertised that they could argue convincingly pro and con on any subject (including subjects they knew nothing about) and could teach this skill to others.  In the speeches that survive from Athenian courtrooms, we see the same speakers arguing for a given point in one case and against it in the other.  For example, it was customary for the testimony of slaves to be taken under torture; and we find the same advocate sometimes arguing that testimony so elicited is especially reliable, and at other times arguing that it’s especially unreliable, depending on which argument best supports his present case.  (The orator Lysias even manages to make both arguments in the same speech!)3  The idea that the Sophists were educators in dishonest trickery would only have been reinforced by Gorgias’s boast that the “effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies,” and can “drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.”4  This is the origin of the common charge that the Sophists “make the weaker argument the stronger,” i.e., enable the case for a false conclusion to win out over the case for a true one.

But of course the ability to argue for a false conclusion is not necessarily useful only in an unjust cause.  If one is being tried for breaking an unjust law (and one did indeed break it), and one has no hope of convincing the court that the law is unjust, one might best serve justice by convincing the court – falsely – that one did not break it.  (Socrates might not think so – but even he admits5 that lying can be justified in a good cause.)  The “tricky” arguments of lawyers are often our first line of defense against unjust oppression.  Better call Gorgias!

To be sure, it’s true that tricky legal arguments can be used on the side of injustice too, and often are; and the Sophists had the reputation of being advocates of injustice.  How far this reputation is justified is difficult to assess; the Sophists’ few surviving works are mainly fragmentary, and we cannot always tell whether a dubious-looking position is being put forward sincerely as the author’s own opinion, or only as a demonstration of the art of argument.6

Much of our information about the Sophists comes from hostile sources – such as Plato’s dialogues, in which prominent Sophists often figure as Socrates’ adversaries.  (Imagine what our view of Socrates would be if the only surviving source for his views were Aristophanes’ Clouds!)  What we do find in the Sophists’ writings is often sensible and valuable – including one of the earliest statements of the principle that one can’t be asked to prove a negative.7

Sophists v. Socratics: Dawn of Injustice?

All the same, there is considerable evidence, as we’ll see, that some Sophists did argue for a kind of amoral self-assertion that could justify running roughshod over the rights and interests of others.  Such a position may have been drawn from a widespread assumption that human interests are, at bottom, in conflict with one another.  The anonymous Sophistic treatise titled Dissoi Logoi (“Twofold Arguments”), for example, notes that “illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors,” that “if a pot gets smashed, this is good for the potters but bad for everyone else,” that “in a race in the stadium … victory is good for the winner but bad for the losers,” and that “the victory of the Spartans which they won over the Athenians … was good for the Spartans but bad for the Athenians.”8  After all, if one has to choose between one’s own interests and those of another, some Sophists seem to have concluded, doesn’t it make most sense to choose one’s own?  Such is the view that we see reflected in the might-makes-right arguments of the Athenian ambassadors in Thucydides’ portrayal of the Melian massacre.9  And even those Sophists who didn’t draw this conclusion often held views that could make such an inference difficult to resist.

Socrates and his followers, as we’ll likewise see, reject the central assumption of a conflictual model of human interests, holding up instead a harmony-of-interests thesis which, while partly anticipating the harmony-of-interests thesis of modern classical liberals, is importantly, even radically, different.


  1. Xenophon, On Hunting With Dogs 13.1-8; in H. G. Dakyns, trans., The Works of Xenophon (Macmillan, 1897).
  2. For examples of early uses of “sophist” as non-pejorative, and as more or less equivalent to “philosopher,” see Rosamond Kent Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), p. 1.
  3. When his opponent refuses to allow one of his slaves to be interrogated under torture, Lysias accuses him of “evading this sure test.”  Then only a few sentences later he dismisses his opponent’s offer to have his other slaves tortured by saying that “if we had taken his slaves … and had put them to the torture, they would, in an unreasoning attempt to oblige their master, have given me the lie in contradiction to the truth.”  The “sure test” seems to have become rather less sure rather quickly.  (Lysias, “Wounding With Intent to Kill:  Quarrel Over a Slave-girl,” p. 110; in Kathleen Freeman, ed., The Murder of Herodes; and Other Trials From the Athenian Law Courts (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), pp. 107-113.)
  4. Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, p. 53; in Sprague, op. cit., pp. 50-54.
  5. Plato, Republic I, 351b-d.
  6. Gorgias famously argued that nothing exists; but his arguments are easily, if not obligatorily, read as a reductio ad absurdum of Eleatic philosophers like Parmenides, Zeno, and Melissus rather than as an assertion of metaphysical nihilism in propria voce.
  7. “You will say perhaps that it is equitable for you not to furnish witnesses of what you allege to have happened, but that I should furnish witnesses of what has not happened.  But this is not equitable.  For it is quite impossible for what has not happened to be testified to by witnesses, but on the subject of what has happened, not only is it not impossible, but it is even easy ….”  (Gorgias, Defense on Behalf of Palamedes, p. 59; in Sprague, op. cit., pp. 54-63.)
  8. Dissoi Logoi 1, pp. 279-280; in Sprague, op. cit., pp. 279-293.
  9. See part 23 of this series.

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