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The Sophists

Sophistic Speeches, Pedagogy, Doctrines, Historiography, Bibliography

The word sophist (Greek: ho sophistês) can be traced as far back as the early fifth century B.C.E. and means literally someone who engages in or teaches wisdom (sophia). Thus Homer, Hesiod, the Seven Sages, Pythagoras, and other preeminent poets, musicians, philosophers, and statesmen are referred to as "sophists" by ancient writers. However, the word acquired a technical meaning by the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. to describe a number of itinerant teacher-intellectuals who, visiting Athens from time to time, displayed their wisdom in virtuosic speeches (epideixeis) and claimed to be able to teach human excellence or virtue (aretê) for large fees.

The principal source of information about the Sophists is Plato (427?–347 B.C.E.), whose dialogues portray them as occasional interlocutors of Socrates. Since their own works exist only in fragmentary form, there is uncertainty about their philosophical views and the precise impact of their thought on the history of rhetoric, philosophy, political theory, and pedagogy. If we follow Plato, the list of major fifth-century Sophists should include Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490–c. 421 B.C.E.), Prodicus of Ceos (c. 465–after 399 B.C.E.), Hippias of Elis (fl. after 460 B.C.E.), and the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus from Chios (fifth century B.C.E.), all of whom teach virtue for pay. It is customary, however, to include a number of other figures on the list, such as Gorgias (c. 485–c. 380 B.C.E.), Polus (fifth century B.C.E.), and Thrasymachus (fifth century B.C.E.), who appear in Plato's dialogues as teachers of rhetoric but not of virtue; as well as Xeniades (fifth century B.C.E.), Lycophron (late fifth or possibly early fourth century B.C.E.), Critias (c. 460–403), and Antiphon (c. 479–411), whom we know of from other sources.

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