The predominant view of the sophists comes to us from Plato’s dialogues, many of which are named after the most famous of the sophists: Protagoras, Gorgia, Hippias. It is not a complimentary depiction. The sophists are made out to be inferior thinkers, relativists, uninterested in truth, but teaching in order to enrich themselves. Gorgias is said to not care about truth but simply to teach students “to make the weaker argument the stronger” (a skill that is said to be taught, clearly not in the service of truth but to allow the masters of rhetoric to get whatever they would like). In one account Socrates is said to have compared the sophists to prostitutes since they were willing to sell their services to anyone willing to pay (Gottleib, 118).
The general depiction by Plato, largely mirrored by Aristotle, has tarnished our understanding of the sophists — that, as well as the fact that we do not have much in the way of original sources from them.
So, posterity has often simply accepted Aristotle’s view:
The art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom” (qtd. in Gottlieb, 119)
Yet a more sober examination of the sophists shows is that they were meeting a real educational need in 4th century Athens and in some cases had stronger ideas than acknowledged by Plato or Aristotle.
Athens of the fourth century is known for its unique experiment in direct democracy. This created a context for the exchange of views, particularly related to law, morality, and customs. Against this backdrop various thinkers from different parts of Greece moved to Athens and gained a livelihood as teachers. The formal instruction in Athens only trained students to about the age of 14. Yet the usefulness of the skills of rhetoric and communication for civic life was strong and was recognized by many as such. Here, the sophists found a way to help meet a social need and to support themselves.
Diversity was another aspect of the social life in Athens, which is at times considered an empire in everything but name. People of varying areas from within the colonies and with varying ideas and customs were interacting with one another in the city. Living in a teeming multicultural environment, many people questioned the local traditions and customs. The democracy provided an opportunity for thinking about questions of morality and law and for sharing those views.
The focus of the thought of the sophists was not on questions of natural philosophy. It was on social life. They are best known for their statements about morality. Yet they were also concerned about the role of religion in the public sphere and the truth of traditional religion. Though we do not have many texts from the sophists, as their method was more oriented to speech in the public square than writing, we can garner a few common views that are taken up in the next sections.
Proceed to the next section, On Protagoras