Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The sophists and their rehabilitation - they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers

I have been pursuing the sophists, the great antagonists of Socrates and Plato.  Minimized for centuries in the history of philosophy as, following Plato (but not Socrates), hucksters, they, or some of them, are now taken seriously as an intermediate step between the cosmological pre-Socratics and the purely ethical Socrates.

The rise of the sophists looks almost necessary to me.  After a century of bold new ways of thinking about the biggest subjects, it was inevitable that someone would begin to set aside the contents of the arguments and begin to work on how the arguments functioned.  Meaning logic, the movement through an argument, and rhetoric, the devices, often not so logical, used to persuade.

Aware of Wittgenstein, it seems normal to me for a period of innovations in ideas to be followed by a period of investigation of the language of the ideas.  What was less inevitable is that the rise of Greek democracy, especially in Athens, created a substantial, wealthy audience in the market for rhetorical and argumentative tools useful for suing your neighbor and convincing your fellow citizens to expel or execute your enemies.

Thus the horror of Plato and the bad reputation of the sophists.  What began as a search for Truth turns into a bag of tricks, sold for money.

The rehabilitation of the sophists was recent.  I read one of the central books, G. B. Kerferd’s The Sophistic Movement (1981), “still, I think, the finest book on the subject” according to Prof. Hobbs.  It is not even 180 pages and a highly readable, clear and non-technical, mostly, although the chapter titled “The nomos-physis controversy” was awfully rough going.

Since almost no writing by the sophists has survived, the great mass of evidence about them comes from Plato’s dialogues.  Kerferd’s book is a triumph of close reading, almost a deconstructionist exercise, as he searches for the real sophists behind Plato’s massive unreliability.  He does not, in the end, claim that any of them, even Protagoras or Gorgias, were great philosophers, just that some of them made genuine contributions to philosophy, small steps in the decades before Plato and Aristotle swept the field.

Reading around in the dialogues, and under the influence of Kerferd, Plato seems quite fair to a few of the sophists (Protagoras, Gorgias) while others are monsters, like the pair in Euthydemus who recruit students by simultaneously arguing that everyone knows everything already and that nobody knows anything or ever will.  The idea, the way this recruits pupils, is that these sophists will teach you how to argue anything no matter how outrageous or even stupid.  You’ll be invincible, as long as you do not so enrage your opponent that he murders you on the spot.

It is curious that the most brutal anti-sophist prejudice I have come across so far is delivered in Meno not by Socrates but by a character named Amynta:

May no one of my household or friends, whether citizen or stranger, be mad enough to go to these people and be harmed by them, for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers.  (91c, tr. G. M. A. Grube)

Amynta was one of the lead accusers – murders – of Socrates.  You did not have to be trained by the sophists, it turns out, to be dangerous.  I am learning to see some of Plato’s ironies.


  1. Euthydemus sounds a lot like Aristophanes' Clouds.

  2. Yes, the most Clouds-like dialogue I have encountered or expect to.

  3. I'm not sure I think even the Meno is more brutally anti-Sophist than the Clouds. (Which really doesn't have much to do with Socrates, I think.)

  4. Yes, but Meno hints at tragedy while Euthydemus is pure comedy. The latter even ends with Socrates exhorting his friends to not take the clowns so seriously.

    I agree that the Socrates of The Clouds resembles Plato's only in the name.