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«Sophistic Method and Practice David Wolfsdorf 1. Problems with the Sophists The term “sophists” refers to certain Greeks active in the latter ...»

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CHAPTer 3

Sophistic Method and Practice

David Wolfsdorf

1. Problems with the Sophists

The term “sophists” refers to certain Greeks active in the latter half of the fifth and early

fourth centuries bce. Beyond this, the phrase is problematic. Much of the difficulty

relates to Plato’s influential appropriation of the term and criticisms of the men to whom

he applies it. Hence, in order to make headway in an inquiry into sophistic method and

practice, we need to engage with Plato’s treatment and attempt to transcend it.

Before turning to Plato, let us briefly note what I will call the “general sense” of the word “sophist.” “Sophistês” derives from the noun “Sophia,” which means “knowledge, wisdom, expertise, specialized skill or craft.” The suffix “‐tês” indicates a practitioner or participant in a sphere of activity designated by the nominal root. A sophist is, therefore, someone who engages in or practices wisdom, knowledge, expertise, or a specialized skill or craft. As such, “sophist” has very broad application. It includes, among others, politi- cians, poets, philosophers, craftsmen, soothsayers, and diviners. This is too broad to permit a meaningful inquiry into sophistic method and practice.

By contrast, in Plato’s hands “sophist” acquires a narrow Athena‐centric sense and also, crucially, a pejorative one. The following conditions are essential to this Platonic conception. The sophists are foreigners. They travel to Athens offering instruction or cultivation in aretê (excellence). But they are incapable of providing what they claim to.

Hence, the sophists are pseudo‐practitioners of sophia. Furthermore, they offer their instruction for fees. Their motive is to make money, and they target wealthy and naive Athenian youths. In short, the sophists are unethical as well as incompetent.

The opening scene of Plato’s Protagoras—arguably the most important ancient text in which the sophists are represented—well conveys this critical, indeed, hostile attitude.

An aristocratic Athenian youth Hippocrates approaches Socrates in great excitement after learning that the famous Protagoras of Abdera has recently arrived in Athens and is staying at the house of his wealthy patron Callias. Hippocrates claims that he will pay A Companion to Ancient Education, First Edition. Edited by W. Martin Bloomer.

© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

64 David Wolfsdorf whatever he can to acquire Protagoras’ sophia. Socrates warns Hippocrates against submitting his soul or mind to such men. He compares the sophist to an itinerant huck- ster who touts his wares regardless of their value.

In Plato’s sense, the sophists are, then, not even a subset of the sophists in the general sense. Moreover, as pseudo‐wise men, Plato’s sophists either lack methods and practices or employ duplicitous ones. Giving an account of such sophistic method and practice would be analogous to giving an account of either blundering or stealing. Indeed, Aristotle’s logical treatise Sophistic Refutations is devoted to exposing and clarifying argumentative fallacies.

Since neither Plato’s nor the general sense of “sophist” encourages an account of sophistic method and practice, it is questionable whether there is an alternative approach. The following discussion offers a sort of middle course by suggesting alterations to Plato’s sense of “sophist” that in turn yield a subset of sophists in the general sense. What is ultimately important here, however, is not to decisively lay claim to a revamped use of “sophist”; it is to clarify why and how Plato appropriated and distorted the term as he did, to consider to what extent those he branded “sophists” were guilty of his charges, and to situate their actual contributions within the cultural and intellectual currents of their day. By this means, we may offer a sensible account of sophistic method and practice.

2. Plato’s Sophists Let us begin with the principal figures Plato identifies as sophists. For now I will call them “Plato’s sophists.” In Protagoras, Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490– 420), Hippias of elis (c. 470–400), and Prodicus of Ceos (c. 460–390) are the sophists Hippocrates and Socrates encounter when they arrive at Callias’ house. In addition, scholars consistently include Gorgias of Leontini (c. 483–375) and Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (c. 459–400) among prominent sophists Plato features in his dialogues, specifically in Gorgias and Republic, book 1. In Plato’s corpus, Thrasymachus is, in fact, nowhere called a “sophist.” However, he satisfies Plato’s conditions for being one. A significant part of Plato’s Gorgias is devoted to a discussion of rhetoric, Gorgias’ special so‐called craft (technê). Within the discussion, Socrates initially, carefully distinguishes sophistry from rhetoric (464b–465d). He maintains that both are debased forms of politics in that they seek to please rather than to improve citizens. rhetoric is a debased form of legislation; sophistry, a debased form of judicial administration. According to this passage, Gorgias is not a sophist. On the other hand, later in the dialogue, Socrates overturns his earlier distinction and asserts that rhetoricians are sophists (520a–b). Moreover, in several other dialogues, Gorgias is mentioned, in passing, among others as a sophist. Finally, Gorgias also satisfies Plato’s conditions for being a sophist. Consequently, I will include Gorgias among Plato’s sophists and return to the relation between rhetoric and sophistry later.





Plato’s view that the sophists were foreigners in Athens is misleading. When they were in Athens, Plato’s sophists were foreigners. But none of them spent most or even much of their lives in Athens. Protagoras, who was an associate of Pericles and Callias, probably spent the most time in Athens of any of Plato’s sophists. We know of at least two visits he made. We know of only one visit Gorgias made to Athens. He seems to have been particularly active in Sicily. Given elis’ alliance with Sparta during the Peloponnesian 65 Sophistic Method and Practice War, it is unlikely that Hippias spent much time in Athens in the last decades of the fifth century. Plato, of course, focused on the sophists in Athens because he was especially concerned with their influence on the young men of his city‐state. Generally speaking, however, Plato’s sophists traveled throughout the Greek Mediterranean, wherever opportunities existed, and they were welcomed.

Plato’s sophists sought fees and were paid. As such, they were itinerant professionals— at least, they engaged in itinerant professionalism. But itinerant professionalism had a long history in the Greek world, extending as far back as the epic‐singer Demodocus in Homer’s Iliad. Between the eighth and fifth centuries bce, there were itinerants professionals of Greek and non‐Greek origin working throughout the Mediterranean; for example, in the fields of poetry, music, painting, and sculpture; architecture and engineering, medicine, athletics, soldiery, soothsaying and divination; and in crafts of all kinds: ceramics, masonry, metallurgy, and smithery. Such figures traveled to courts, city‐states, and festivals. They were paid or otherwise remunerated for their labor, works, and compositions; for public performances, readings, or displays, as well as for private instruction.

Plato’s sophists were not even especially distinctive insofar as the activities for which they were paid principally involved speech or writing in prose form. For example, the historian Herodotus was paid for public readings; Stesimbrotus of Thasos was paid for lectures on Homer’s poetry; and there is evidence that the philosopher Zeno of elea was paid for instruction.

I assume that cultivating aretê or making (young) men good or better was one among several of Plato’s sophists’ objectives. Such a good‐making objective is compatible with other objectives, for example, making money, entertaining or giving pleasure, fostering diplomacy, and self‐aggrandizement or self‐perfection. Furthermore, the concept of a good‐making objective need not be construed narrowly as an ethical or moral one. When he uses the term “aretê,” to mean “excellence” or “goodness,” Plato specifically means “human” excellence or the goodness “of a man.” But according to traditional Greek views, physical health, beauty, or strength are also constitutive of the excellence or goodness of a human or man, as are so‐called external and relational goods such as wealth, political power, social status, and glory.

Plato himself is principally interested in the cultivation of the psychê. Accordingly, he focuses on his sophists as cultivators of the psychê. Certainly, Plato’s sophists did— once again, among other things—contribute to the cultivation of the psychê. But Plato’s distorting influence operates here too. The theoretical dichotomy of body (sôma) and psychê was achieved in the latter half of the fifth century. Socrates seems to have been a key figure in the process, and Plato and his philosophical heirs concretize this distinction.

The word “psychê,” which they employ and which may be rendered as “soul” or “mind,” can cover the animating or vital force of a living being, its emotionality, motivation, and character, as well as its intellect and cognitive capacities. It is unclear, however, whether all of Plato’s sophists subscribed to the distinction between body and psychê so conceived or employed the term “psyche” to refer to the substance, faculty, or complex of faculties responsible for all of the psychological or living functions just enumerated. Furthermore, even when their activity did involve cultivation of the psychê, Plato’s sophists still might not have viewed this as their goal. For example, some might have viewed their goal as facilitating the attainment of political power or honor, in which case cultivation of the psychê would be instrumental.

66 David Wolfsdorf Translators of Plato often render the word “arête” not as “excellence,” but as “virtue,” meaning “ethical or moral virtue.” In doing so, however, they obscure something momentous: the distinctiveness of Socrates’ claim that ethical virtue constitutes the value of a human being. Furthermore, Socrates maintains that ethical virtue is knowledge of a certain kind, namely, knowledge of good and bad. It is precisely this that Socrates and Plato conceive as sophia. Consequently, in denying that the sophists possess sophia, Plato and Socrates are precisely denying that they possess ethical knowledge. Of course, Socrates himself lacks sophia. But in contrast to the sophists, as Plato portrays them, Socrates is made to acknowledge this lack, indeed, to highlight it.

Now, if human or manly cultivation solely consisted in the acquisition of ethical knowledge or ethical virtue, Plato might have some grounds for disqualifying his sophists as cultivators of the psychê. But, momentous as Socrates’ conception of sophia and cultivation is, why should we accept such a narrow view? Setting aside the controversial claim that ethical virtue is a kind of knowledge, there are various ways of cultivating humans and citizens aside from improving their virtue. The smooth functioning of societies requires from their members more than ethical virtue, however crucially it requires that.

Contra Plato, I assume, then, that incompetence or lack of integrity is not a distinctive feature of his sophists. In this respect, Plato’s sophists do not differ from other philosophers, cultivators, educators, specialists, or consultants. rather, it is Socrates’ and Plato’s conception of “sophia” as ethical virtue, conceived as ethical knowledge, their view of themselves as “philosophoi,” lovers of sophia, and of their intellectual activity as “philosophia,” the desire for and pursuit of sophia, that is anomalous. Later I will consider the extent to which Plato’s sophists were, in fact, concerned with ethics. Presently, granting that they possessed sophia, at least in a sense that does not entail ethical virtue or knowledge, the modified Platonic sense of “sophist” refers to a set of late fifth‐ and early fourth‐century Greek men who engaged in itinerant professionalism and whose activity principally involved speech and writing in prose form, one of whose objectives was to impart aretê to (young) men or to make them good or better.

Because of their success and, of course, the negative impression it made on Plato, we have more information regarding Plato’s sophists than others. Hence, I will continue to focus on the method and practice of these men and hereafter simply refer to them as “sophists.” In the next section, I discuss the wide range of their activity and, more briefly, the roles of rhetoric and ethics within that activity. Toward the end of the discussion, I briefly touch on some lesser‐known sophists and their works.

3. The Sophists’ Activities It is helpful to distinguish what I will call “kinds” of sophistic activity from contents of sophistic activity. Among kinds, we may distinguish three: first, presentations, performances, or displays to audiences; second, composition and dissemination of written works; and third, private instruction. These kinds may be conceived more succinctly as public oral, public written, and private activities. One might also distinguish public from private written works, at least, written works for general audiences and written works for specialized audiences. But I will stick with the trifold distinction. One may also distinguish sub‐kinds of public oral activity. For example, it is one thing to give a presentation at a Hellenic festival 67 Sophistic Method and Practice such as the Olympic games or a state‐sponsored civic occasion such as a military funeral; it is another to present before a smaller and narrower assembly of guests at the home of a patron or in an athletic training ground, that is, a gymnasium or palaistra.



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