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The Sophists


The Sophists have always been controversial figures. They were vilified in Aristophanes' play The Clouds for teaching students to evade moral responsibility through argument. In Plato they are criticized chiefly for accepting pay when they have failed to think deeply and rigorously about the virtues they teach. Since the nineteenth century, however, the Sophists have been evaluated more favorably, beginning especially with George Grote's History of Greece (1850), which casts them as effective teachers of invaluable political skills. Grote's view that the Sophists contributed substantially to democratic theory, practice, and education was developed in the twentieth century by Werner Jaeger, Eric Havelock, Karl Popper, and Cynthia Farrar.

Other scholars, beginning with Hegel, have emphasized the Sophists' importance in the history of philosophy. This is usually described as a rejection of both Ionian and Eleatic accounts of reality for a greater emphasis upon sensory experience, where the Ionians had stressed a single causal substance at work in the universe (for example, fire or air), and the Eleatics (particularly Parmenides) had described being as one, the Sophists are said to have emphasized the phenomenal world with all its variety and contradictions. Though this philosophical-historical approach to the study of the Sophists has led to masterful studies by W. K. C. Guthrie and G. B. Kerferd, it often involves speculation beyond what the fragments can bear, as it did in Hegel's Philosophy of History and Mario Untersteiner's The Sophists. Most recently, the Sophists have been studied for their seminal role in the history of rhetoric. In this context the so-called "second Sophistic" movement is also important; this was a vast movement of the second century C.E. that attempted to recover and to develop the rhetorical techniques of the classical age.



Diels, Herman, and Walther Kranz, eds. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, griechisch und deutsch. Berlin: Weidmann, 1951–1952.

Sprague, Rosamond Kent, ed. The Older Sophists: A Complete Translation by Several Hands of the Fragments in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, edited by Diels-Kranz. With a New Edition of Antiphon and Euthydemus. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.


Farrar, Cynthia. The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The Invention of Politics in Classical Athens. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Grote, George. History of Greece. Vol. 8. London: J. Murray, 1846–1856.

Guthrie, W. K. C. The Sophists. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Havelock, Eric Alfred. The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover, 1956.

Jaeger, Werner. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Vol. 1. Translated by Gilbert Highet. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1945.

Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Kerferd, G. B. The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Popper, Karl Raimund. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 1, The Spell of Plato. 4th ed.; rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Romilly, Jacqueline de. The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Less scholarly, but helpful for understanding the Sophists' political significance.

Untersteiner, Mario. The Sophists. Translated by Kathleen Freeman. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954.

David D. Corey

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binaryThe Sophists - Sophistic Speeches, Pedagogy, Doctrines, Historiography, Bibliography