1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sophists
SOPHISTS (from Gr. σοφιστής, literally, man of wisdom), the name given by the Greeks about the middle of the 5th century B.C. to certain teachers of a superior grade who, distinguishing themselves from philosophers on the one hand and from artists and craftsmen on the other, claimed to prepare their pupils, not for any particular study or profession, but for civic life. For nearly a hundred years the sophists held almost a monopoly of general or liberal education. Yet, within the limits of the profession, there was considerable diversity both of theory and of practice. Four principal varieties are distinguishable, and may be described as the sophistries of culture, of rhetoric, of politics, and of “eristic,” i.e. disputation. Each of these predominated in its turn, though not to the exclusion of others, the sophistry of culture beginning about 447, and leading to the sophistry of eristic, and the sophistry of rhetoric taking root in central Greece about 427, and merging in the sophistry of politics. Further, since Socrates and the Socratics were educators, they too might be, and in general were, regarded as sophists; but, as they conceived truth—so far as it was attainable—rather than success in life, in the law court, in the assembly, or in debate, to be the right end of intellectual effort, they were at variance with their rivals, and are commonly ranked by historians, not with the sophists, who confessedly despaired of knowledge, but with the philosophers, who, however unavailingly, continued to seek it. With the establishment of the great philosophical schools—first, of the Academy, next of the Lyceum—the philosophers took the place of the sophists as the educators of Greece. The sophistical movement was then, primarily, an attempt to provide a general or liberal education which should supplement the customary instruction in reading, writing, gymnastic and music. But, as the sophists of the first period chose for their instruments grammar, style, literature and oratory, while those of the second and third developments were professed rhetoricians, sophistry exercised an important influence upon literature. Then again, as the movement, taking its rise in the philosophical agnosticism which grew out of the early physical systems, was itself persistently sceptical, sophistry may be regarded as an interlude in the history of philosophy. Finally, the practice of rhetoric and eristic, which presently became prominent in sophistical teaching, had, or at any rate seemed to have, a mischievous effect upon conduct; and the charge of seeking, whether in exposition or in debate, not truth but victory—which charge was impressively urged against the sophists by Plato—grew into an accusation of holding and teaching immoral and unsocial doctrines, and in our own day has been the subject of eager controversy.
1. Genesis and Development of Sophistry.—Sophistry arose out of a crisis in philosophy. The earlier Ionian physicists, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, in their attempts to trace the Multiplicity of things to a single material element, had been troubled by no misgivings about the possibility of knowledge. But, when Heraclitus to the assumption of fire as the single material cause added the doctrine that all things are in perpetual flux, he found himself obliged to admit that things cannot be known. Thus, though, in so far as he asserted his fundamental doctrine without doubt or qualification, he was a dogmatist, in all else he was a sceptic. Again, the Eleatic Parmenides, deriving from the theologian Xenophanes the distinction between ἐπιστήμη and δόξα conceived that, whilst the One exists and is the object of knowledge, the Multiplicity of things becomes and is the object of opinion; but, when his successor Zeno provided the system with a logic, the consistent application of that logic resolved the fundamental doctrine into the single proposition “One is One,” or, more exactly, into the single identity “One One.” Thus Eleaticism, though professedly dogmatic, was inconsistent in its theory of the One and its attributes, and openly sceptical in regard to the world of nature. Lastly, the philosophers of the second physical succession—Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus—not directly attacking the great mystery of the One and the Many, but in virtue of a scientific instinct approaching it through the investigation of phenomena, were brought by their study of sensation to perceive and to proclaim the inadequacy of the organs of sense. Thus they too, despite their air of dogmatism, were in effect sceptics. In short, from different standpoints, the three philosophical successions had devised systems which were in reality sceptical, though they had none of them recognized the sceptical inference.
Towards the middle of the 5th century, however, Protagoras of Abdera, taking account of the teaching of the first, and possibly of the second, of the physical successions, and Gorgias of Leontini, starting from the teaching of the metaphysical succession of Elea, drew that sceptical inference from which the philosophers had shrunk. If, argued Protagoras in a treatise entitled Truth, all things are in flux, so that sensation is subjective, it follows that “Man is the measure of all things, of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not”; in other words, there is no such thing as objective truth. Similarly, Gorgias, in a work On Nature, or on the Nonent, maintained (a) that nothing is, (b) that, if anything is, it cannot be known, (c) that, if anything is and can be known, it cannot be expressed in speech; and the summaries which have been preserved by Sextus Empiricus (Adv. Math. vii. 65-87) and by the author of the De Melisso, &c. (chs. 5, 6), show that, in defending these propositions, Gorgias availed himself of the arguments which Zeno had used to discredit the popular belief in the existence of the Many; in other words, that Gorgias turned the destructive logic of Zeno against the constructive ontology of Parmenides, thereby not only reducing Eleaticism to nothingness, but also, until such time as a better logic than that of Zeno should be provided, precluding all philosophical inquiry whatsoever. Thus, whereas the representatives of the three successions had continued to regard themselves as philosophers or seekers after truth, Protagoras and Gorgias, plainly acknowledging their defeat, withdrew from the ungrateful struggle.
Meagre as were the results which the earlier thinkers had obtained, the extinction of philosophy just at the time when the liberal arts became more technical and consequently less available as employments of leisure, threatened to leave a blank in Hellenic life. Accordingly Protagoras, while with the one hand he put away philosophy, with the other offered a substitute. Emphasizing the function of the teacher, which with the philosophers had been subordinate, and proclaiming the right end of intellectual endeavour to be, not “truth” (ἀλήθεια) or “wisdom” (σοφία), which was unattainable, but “virtue” or “excellence” (ἀρετή), he sought to communicate, not a theory of the universe, but an aptitude for civic life. “The lesson which I have to teach,” Plato makes him say (Prot. 318 E), “is prudence or good counsel, both in respect of domestic matters that the man may manage his household aright, and in respect of public affairs, that he may be thoroughly qualified to take part, both by deed and by word, in the business of the state. In other words, I profess to make men good citizens.” As instruments of education Protagoras used grammar, style, poetry and oratory. Thus, whereas hitherto the young Greek, having completed his elementary training in the schools of the γραμματιστής, the κιθαριστής, and the παιδοτρίβης, was left to prepare himself for his life's work as best he might, by philosophical speculation, by artistic practice, or otherwise, one who passed from the elementary schools to the lecture-room of Protagoras received from him a “higher education.” The programme was exclusively literary, but for the moment it enabled Protagoras to satisfy the demand which he had discovered and evoked. Wherever he went, his lecture-room was crowded with admiring pupils, whose homage filled his purse and enhanced his reputation.
After Protagoras the most prominent of the literary sophists was Prodicus of Ceos. Establishing himself at Athens, he taught “virtue” or “excellence,” in the sense attached to the word by Protagoras, partly by means of literary subjects, partly in discourses upon practical ethics. It is plain that Prodicus was an affected pedant; yet his simple conventional morality found favour, and Plato (Rep. 600 C) couples him with Protagoras in his testimony to the popularity of the sophists and their teaching.
At Athens, the centre of the intellectual life of Greece, there was soon to be found a host of sophists; some of them strangers, others citizens; some of them bred under Protagoras and Prodicus, others self-taught. In the teaching of the sophists of this younger generation two points are observable. First, their independence of philosophy and the arts being assured, though they continued to regard “civic excellence” as their aim, it was no longer necessary for them to make the assertion of its claims a principal element in their exposition. Secondly, for the sake of novelty they extended their range, including scientific and technical subjects, but handling them, and teaching their pupils to handle them, in a popular way. In this stage of sophistry then, the sophist, though not a specialist, trenched upon the provinces of specialists; and accordingly Plato (Prot. 318 E) makes Protagoras pointedly refer to sophists who, “when young men have made their escape from the arts, plunge them once more into technical study, and teach them such subjects as arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music.” The sophist of whom the Platonic Protagoras is here thinking was Hippias of Elis, who gave popular lectures, not only upon the four subjects just mentioned, but also upon grammar, mythology, family history, archaeology, Homerology and the education of youth. In this polymath we see at once the degradation of the sophistry of culture and the link which connects Protagoras and Prodicus with the eristics, who at a later period taught, not, like Hippias, all branches of learning, but a universally applicable method of disputation.
Meanwhile, Gorgias of Leontini, who, as has been seen, had studied and rejected the philosophy of western Greece, gave to sophistry a new direction by bringing to the mother country the technical study of rhetoric—especially forensic rhetoric (Plato, Gorg. 454 B; cf. Aristotle, Rhet. 1354, b 26)—which study had begun in Sicily with Corax and Tisias nearly forty years before. Gorgias was already advanced in years and rich in honours when, in 427, he visited Athens as the head of an embassy sent to solicit aid against Syracuse. Received with acclamation, he spent the rest of his long life in central Greece, winning applause by the display of his oratorical gifts and acquiring wealth by the teaching of rhetoric. There is no evidence to show that at any period of his life he called himself a sophist; and, as Plato (Gorg. 449 A) makes him describe himself as a ῥήτωρ, it is reasonable to suppose that he preferred that title. That he should do so was only natural, since his position as a teacher of rhetoric was already secure when Protagoras made his first appearance in the character of a sophist; and, as Protagoras, Prodicus and the rest of the sophists of culture offered a comprehensive education, of which oratory formed only a part, whilst Gorgias made no pretence of teaching “civic excellence” (Plato, Meno, 95 C), and found a substitute for philosophy, not in literature generally, but in the professional study of rhetoric alone, it would have been convenient if the distinction between sophistry and rhetoric had been maintained. But though, as will be seen hereafter, these two sorts of education were sometimes distinguished, Gorgias and those who succeeded him as teachers of rhetoric, such as Thrasymachus of Chalcedon and Polus of Agrigentum, were commonly called by the title which Protagoras had assumed and brought into familiar use.
Rhetorical sophistry, as taught by Gorgias with special reference to the requirements of the law courts, led by an easy transition to political sophistry. During the century which had elapsed since the expulsion of the Peisistratids and the establishment of the democracy, the Athenian constitution had developed with a rapidity which produced an oligarchical reaction, and the discussion of constitutional principles and precedents, always familiar to the citizen of Athens, was thus abnormally stimulated. The Peloponnesian War, too, not only added a deeper interest to ordinary questions of policy, but also caused the relations of dissentient parties, of allied and belligerent states, of citizens and aliens, of bond and free, of Greeks and barbarians, to be eagerly debated in the light of present experience. It was only natural then that some of those who professed to prepare young Athenians for public life should give to their teaching a distinctively political direction; and accordingly we find Isocrates recognizing teachers of politics, and discriminating them at once from those earlier sophists who gave popular instruction in the arts and from the contemporary eristics. To this class, that of the political sophists, may be assigned Lycophron, Alcidamas and Isocrates himself. For, though that celebrated personage would have liked to be called, not “sophist” but “political philosopher,” and tried to fasten the name of “sophist” upon his opponents the Socratics, it is clear from his own statement that he was commonly ranked with the sophists, and that he had no claim, except on the score of superior popularity and success, to be dissociated from the other teachers of political rhetoric. It is true that he was not a political sophist of the vulgar type, that as a theorist he was honest and patriotic, and that, in addition to his fame as a teacher, he had a distinct reputation as a man of letters; but he was a professor of political rhetoric, and, as such, in the phraseology of the day, a sophist. He had already reached the height of his fame when Plato opened a rival school at the Academy, and pointedly attacked him in the Gorgias, the Phaedrus and the Republic. Thenceforward, there was a perpetual controversy between the rhetorician and the philosopher, and the struggle of educational systems continued until, in the next generation, the philosophers were left in possession of the field.
While the sophistry of rhetoric led to the sophistry of politics, the sophistry of culture led to the sophistry of disputation. It has been seen that the range of subjects recognized by Protagoras and Prodicus gradually extended itself, until Hippias professed himself a teacher of all branches of learning, including in his list subjects taught by artists and professional men, but handling them from a popular or non-professional point of view. The successors of the polymath claimed to possess and to communicate, not the knowledge of all branches of learning, but an aptitude for dealing with all subjects, which aptitude should make the knowledge of any subject superfluous. In other words, they cultivated skill in disputation. Now skill in disputation is plainly a valuable accomplishment; and, as the Aristotelian logic grew out of the regulated discussions of the eristics and their pupils, the disputant sophistry of the 4th century deserves more attention and more respect than it usually receives from historians of Greek thought. But when men set themselves to cultivate skill in disputation, regarding the matter discussed not as a serious issue, but as a thesis upon which to practise their powers of controversy, they learn to pursue, not truth, but victory; and, their criterion of excellence having been thus perverted, they presently prefer ingenious fallacy to solid reasoning and the applause of bystanders to the consciousness of honest effort. Indeed, the sophists generally had a special predisposition to error of this sort, not only because sophistry was from the beginning a substitute for the pursuit of truth, but also because the successful professor, travelling from city to city, or settling abroad, could take no part in public affairs, and thus was not at every step reminded of the importance of the “material” element of exposition and reasoning. Paradox, however, soon becomes stale, and fallacy wearisome. Hence, despite its original popularity, eristical sophistry could not hold its ground. The man of the world who had cultivated it in his youth regarded it in riper years as a foolish pedantry, or at best as a propaedeutic exercise; while the serious student, necessarily preferring that form of disputation which recognized truth as the end of this, as of other intellectual processes, betook himself to one or other of the philosophies of the revival.
In order to complete this sketch of the development of sophistry in the latter half of the 5th century and the earlier half of the 4th, it is necessary next to take account of Socrates and the Socratics. A foe to philosophy and a renegade from art, Socrates took his departure from the same point as Protagoras, and moved in the same direction, that of the education of youth. Finding in the cultivation of “virtue” or “excellence” a substitute for the pursuit of scientific truth, and in disputation the sole means by which “virtue” or “excellence” could be attained, he resembled at once the sophists of culture and the sophists of eristic. But, inasmuch as the “virtue” or “excellence” which he sought was that of the man rather than that of the official, while the disputation which he practised had for its aim, not victory, but the elimination of error, the differences which separated him from the sophists of culture and the sophists of eristic were only less considerable than the resemblances which he bore to both; and further, though his whole time and attention were bestowed upon the education of young Athenians, his theory of the relations of teacher and pupil differed from that of the recognized professors of education, inasmuch as the taking of fees seemed to him to entail a base surrender of the teacher's independence. The principal characteristics of Socrates's theory of education were accepted, mutatis mutandis, by the leading Socratics. With these resemblances to the contemporary professors of education, and with these differences, were Socrates and the Socratics sophists or not? To this question there is no simple answer, yes or no. It is certain that Socrates's contemporaries regarded him as a sophist; and it was only reasonable that they should so regard him, because in opposition to the physicists of the past and the artists of the present he asserted the claims of higher education. But, though according to the phraseology of the time he was a sophist, he was not a typical sophist—his principle that, while scientific truth is unattainable by man, right opinion is the only basis of right action, clearly differentiating him from all the other professors of “virtue.” Again, as the Socratics—Plato himself, when he established himself at the Academy, being no exception—were, like their master, educators rather than philosophers, and in their teaching laid especial stress upon discussion, they, too, were doubtless regarded as sophists, not by Isocrates only, but by their contemporaries in general; and it may be conjectured that the disputatious tendencies of the Megarian school made it all the more difficult for Plato and others to secure a proper appreciation of the difference between dialectic, or discussion with a view to the discovery of truth, and eristic, or discussion with a view to victory. Changing circumstances, however, carry with them changes in the meaning and application of words. Whereas, so long as philosophy was in abeyance Socrates and the Socratics were regarded as sophists of an abnormal sort, as soon as philosophy revived it was dimly perceived that, in so far as Socrates and the Socratics dissented from sophistry, they preserved the philosophical tradition. This being so, it was found convenient to revise the terminology of the past, and to include in the philosophical succession those who, though not philosophers, had cherished the sacred spark. As for Socrates, he ranked himself neither with the philosophers, who professed to know, nor with the sophists, who professed to teach; and, if he sometimes described himself as a φιλόσοφος he was careful to indicate that he pretended to no other knowledge than that of his own limitations.
It would seem then, (1) that popular nomenclature included under the term “sophist” all teachers—whether professors, or like Socrates, amateurs—who communicated, not artistic skill, nor philosophical theory, but a general or liberal education; (2) that, of those who were commonly accounted sophists, some professed culture, some forensic rhetoric, some political rhetoric, some eristic, some (i.e. the Socratics) dialectic; (3) that the differences between the different groups of sophists were not inconsiderable, and that in particular the teaching of the rhetoricians was distinct in origin, and, in so far as its aim was success in a special walk of life, distinct in character, from the more general teaching of the sophists of culture, the eristics, and the dialecticians, while the teaching of the dialecticians was discriminated from that of the rest, in so far as the aim of the dialecticians was truth, or at least the bettering of opinion; and, consequently, (4) that, in awarding praise and blame to sophistry and its representatives, the distinctive characteristics of the groups above enumerated must be studiously kept in view.
Lapse of time and change of circumstances brought with them not merely changes in the subjects taught, but also changes in the popular estimate of sophistry and sophists. The first and most obvious sentiment which sophistry evoked was an enthusiastic and admiring interest. The sophist seemed to his youthful hearers to open a new field of intellectual activity and thereby to add a fresh zest to existence. But in proportion to the fascination which he exercised upon the young was the distrust which he inspired in their less pliable elders. Not only were they dismayed by the novelty of the sophistical teaching, but also they vaguely perceived that it was subversive of authority, of the authority of the parent over the child as well as of the authority of the state over the citizen. Of the two conflicting sentiments, the favour of the young, gaining as years passed away, naturally prevailed; sophistry ceased to be novel, and attendance in the lecture-rooms of the sophists came to be thought not less necessary for the youth than attendance in the elementary schools for the boy. The lively enthusiasm and the furious opposition which greeted Protagoras had now burnt themselves out, and before long the sophist was treated by the man of the world as a harmless, necessary pedagogue.
2. Relations of Sophistry to Education, Literature and Philosophy.—If then the sophists, from Protagoras to Isocrates, were before everything educators, it becomes necessary to inquire whether their labours marked or promoted an advance in educational theory and method. At the beginning of the 5th century B.C. every young Greek of the better sort already received rudimentary instruction, not only in music and gymnastics, but also in reading and writing. Further, in the colonies, and especially the colonies of the West, philosophy and art had done something for higher education. Thus in Italy the Pythagorean school was, in the fullest sense of the term, an educational institution; and in Sicily the rhetorical teaching of Corax and Tisias was presumably educational in the same sense as the teaching of Gorgias. But in central Greece, where, at any rate down to the Persian Wars, politics, domestic and foreign, were all-engrossing, and left the citizen little leisure for self-cultivation, the need of a higher education had hardly made itself felt. The overthrow of the Persian invaders changed all this. Henceforward the best of Greek art, philosophy, and literature gravitated to Athens, and with their concentration and consequent development came a general and growing demand for teaching. As has been seen, it was just at this period that philosophy and art ceased to be available for educational purposes, and accordingly the literary sophists were popular precisely because they offered advanced teaching which was neither philosophical nor artistic. Their recognition of the demand and their attempt to satisfy it are no small claims to distinction. That, whereas before the time of Protagoras there was little higher education in the colonies and less in central Greece, after his time attendance in the lecture-rooms of the sophists was the customary sequel to attendance in the elementary schools, is a fact which speaks for itself.
But this is not all. The education provided by the sophists of culture had positive merits. When Protagoras included in his course grammar, style, interpretation of the poets, and oratory, supplementing his own continuous expositions by disputations in which he and his pupils took part, he showed a not inadequate appreciation of the requisites of a literary education; and it may be conjectured that his comprehensive programme, which Prodicus and others extended, had something to do with the development of that versatility which was the most notable element in the Athenian character.
There is less to be said for the teachers of rhetoric, politics and eristic, who, in limiting themselves each to a single subject—the rhetoricians proper or forensic rhetoricians to one branch of oratory, the politicians or political rhetoricians to another, and the eristics to disputation—ceased to be educators and became instructors. Nevertheless, rhetoric and disputation, though at the present day strangely neglected in English schools and universities, are, within their limits, valuable instruments; and, as specialization in teaching does not necessarily imply specialization in learning, many of those who attended the lectures and the classes of a rhetorician or an eristic sought and found other instruction elsewhere. It would seem then that even in its decline sophistry had its educational use. But in any case it may be claimed for its professors, that in the course of a century they discovered and turned to account most of the instruments of literary education.
With these considerable merits, normal sophistry had one defect, its indifference to truth. Despairing of philosophy—that is to say, of physical science—the sophists were prepared to go all lengths in scepticism. Accordingly the epideictic sophists in exposition, and the argumentative sophists in debate, one and all, studied, not matter but style, not accuracy but effect, not proof but persuasion. In short, in their hostility to science they refused to handle literature in a scientific spirit. That this defect was serious was dimly apprehended even by those who frequented and admired the lectures of the earlier sophists; that it was fatal was clearly seen by Socrates, who, himself commonly regarded as a sophist, emphatically reprehended, not only the taking of fees, which was after all a mere incident, objectionable because it seemed to preclude independence of thought, but also the fundamental disregard of truth which infected every part and every phase of sophistical teaching. To these contemporary censures the modern critic cannot refuse his assent.
To literature and to oratory the sophists rendered good service. Themselves of necessity stylists, because their professional success largely depended upon skilful and effective exposition, the sophists both of culture and of rhetoric were professedly teachers of the rules of grammar and the principles of written and spoken discourse. Thus, by example as well as by precept, they not only taught their hearers to value literary and oratorical excellence, but also took the lead in fashioning the style of their time. Their influence in these respects was weighty and important. Whereas, when sophistry began, prose composition was hardly practised in central Greece, the sophists were still the leaders in literature and oratory when Plato wrote the Republic, and they had hardly lost their position when Demosthenes delivered the Philippics. In fact, it is not too much to say that it was the sophists who provided those great masters with their consummate instrument, and it detracts but little from the merit of the makers if they were themselves unable to draw from it its finer tones.
The relation of sophistry to philosophy was throughout one of pronounced hostility. From the days of Protagoras, when this hostility was triumphant and contemptuous, to the days of Isocrates, when it was jealous and bitter, the sophists were declared and consistent sceptics. But, although Protagoras and Gorgias had examined the teaching of their predecessors so far as to satisfy themselves of its futility and to draw the sceptical inference, their study of the great problem of the day was preliminary to their sophistry rather than a part of it; and, as the overthrow of philosophy was complete and the attractions of sophistry were all-powerful, the question “What is knowledge?” ceased for a time to claim or to receive attention. There is, then, no such thing as a “sophistical theory of knowledge.” Similarly, the recognition of a “sophistical ethic” is, to say the least, misleading. It may have been that the sophists' preference of seeming to reality, of success to truth, had a mischievous effect upon the morality of the time; but it is clear that they had no common theory of ethics, and there is no warrant for the assumption that a sophist, as such, specially interested himself in ethical questions. When Protagoras asserted “civic excellence” or “virtue” to be the end of education, he neither expressed nor implied a theory of morality. Prodicus in his platitudes reflected the customary morality of the time. Gorgias said plainly that he did not teach “virtue.” If Hippias, Polus and Thrasymachus defied conventional morality, they did so independently of one another, and in this, as in other matters, they were disputants maintaining paradoxical theses, rather than thinkers announcing heretical convictions. The morality of Isocrates bore a certain resemblance to that of Socrates. In short, the attitude of the sophists towards inquiry in general precluded them, collectively and individually, from attachment to any particular theory. Yet among the so-called sophists there were two who had philosophical leanings, as appears in their willingness to be called by the title of philosopher. First, Socrates, whilst he conceived that the physicists had mistaken the field of inquiry, absolute truth being unattainable, maintained, as has been seen, that one opinion was better than another, and that consistency of opinion, resulting in consistency of action, was the end which the human intellect properly proposes to itself. Hence, though an agnostic, he was not unwilling to be called a philosopher, in so far as he pursued such truth as was attainable by man. Secondly, when sophistry had begun to fall into contempt, the political rhetorician Isocrates claimed for himself the time-honoured designation of philosopher, “herein,” says Plato, “resembling some tinker, bald-pated and short of stature, who, having made money, knocks off his chains, goes to the bath, buys a new suit, and then takes advantage of the poverty and desolation of his master's daughter to urge upon her his odious addresses” (Rep. vi. 495 E). It will be seen, however, that neither Socrates nor Isocrates was philosopher in any strict sense of the word, the speculative aims of physicists and metaphysicians being foreign to the practical theories both of the one and of the other.
3. The Theory of Grote.—The post-Platonic historians and critics, who, while they knew the earlier sophistry only through tradition, were eyewitnesses of the sophistry of the decadence, were more alive to the faults than to the virtues of the movement. Overlooking the differences which separated the humanists from the eristics, and both of these from the rhetoricians, and taking no account of Socrates, whom they regarded as a philosopher, they forgot the services which Protagoras and Prodicus, Gorgias and Isocrates had rendered to education and to literature, and included the whole profession in an indiscriminate and contemptuous censure. This prejudice, establishing itself in familiar speech, has descended from antiquity to modern times, colouring, when it does not distort, the narratives of biographers and the criticisms of commentators. “The sophists,” says Grote, “are spoken of as a new class of men, or sometimes in language which implies a new doctrinal sect or school, as if they then sprang up in Greece for the first time—ostentatious impostors, flattering and duping the rich youth for their own personal gain, undermining the morality of Athens, public and private, and encouraging their pupils to the unscrupulous prosecution of ambition and cupidity. They are even affirmed to have succeeded in corrupting the general morality, so that Athens had become miserably degenerated and vicious in the latter years of the Peloponnesian War, as compared with what she was in the time of Miltiades and Aristeides;” and, although amongst the pre-Grotian scholars there were some who saw as clearly as Grote himself that “the sophists are a much-calumniated race” (G. H. Lewes), it is certain that historians of philosophy, and editors of Plato, especially the “acumen plumbeum Stallbaumii,” had given ample occasion for the energetic protest contained in the famous sixty-seventh chapter of Grote's History of Greece. Amongst the many merits of that admirable scholar, it is one of the greatest that he has laid “the fiend called die Sophistik,” that is to say, the theory that sophistry was an organized conspiracy against law and morals. Nevertheless, in this matter he is always an advocate; and it may be thought that, while he successfully disposes of the current slander, his description of his clients needs correction in some important particulars. Hence the following paragraphs, while they will resume and affirm his principal results, will qualify and impugn some of his positions.
In so far as he is critical, Grote leaves little to be desired. That the persons styled sophists “were not a sect or school, with common doctrines or method,” is clear. Common doctrine, that is to say, common doctrine of a positive sort, they could not have, because, being sceptics, they had nothing which could be called positive doctrine; while there was a period when even their scepticism was in no wise distinctive, because they shared it with all or nearly all their contemporaries. Neither were they united by a common educational method, the end and the instruments of education being diversely conceived by Protagoras, Gorgias and Isocrates, to say nothing of the wider differences which separate these three from the eristics, and all the four normal types from the abnormal type represented by Socrates.
Again, it is certain that the theoretical and practical morality of the sophists, regarded as a class, was “neither above nor below the standard of the age.” The taking of fees, the pride of professional success, and the teaching of rhetoric are no proofs either of conscious charlatanism or of ingrained depravity. Indeed, we have evidence of sound, if conventional, principle in Prodicus's apologue of the “Choice of Heracles,” and of honourable, though eccentric, practice in the story of Protagoras's treatment of defaulting pupils. But, above all, it is antecedently certain that defection from the ordinary standard of morality would have precluded the success which the sophists unquestionably sought and won. In fact, public opinion made the morality of the sophists, rather than the sophists the morality of public opinion. Hence, even if we demur to the judgment of Grote that “Athens at the close of the Peloponnesian War was not more corrupt than Athens in the days of Miltiades and Aristeides,” we shall not “consider the sophists as the corrupters of Athenian morality,” but rather with Plato lay the blame upon society itself, which, “in popular meetings, law courts, theatres, armies and other great gatherings, with uproarious censure and clamorous applause” (Rep. vi. 492), educates young and old, and fashions them according to its pleasure.
Nor can we regard “Plato and his followers as the authorized teachers of the Greek nation and the sophists as the dissenters.” On the contrary, the sophists were in quiet possession of the field when Plato, returning to Athens, opened the rival school of the Academy; and, while their teaching in all respects accommodated itself to current opinion, his, in many matters, ran directly counter to it.
But if thus far Grote's protest against prevalent assumptions carries an immediate and unhesitating conviction, it may be doubted whether his positive statement can be accounted final. “The appearance of the sophists,” he says, “was no new fact. . . . The paid teachers—whom modern writers set down as the sophists, and denounce as the modern pestilence of their age—were not distinguished in any marked or generic way from their predecessors.” Now it is true that before 447 B.C., besides the teachers of writing, gymnastics and music, to whom the young Greek resorted for elementary instruction, there were artists and artisans who not only practised their crafts, but also communicated them to apprentices and pupils, and that accordingly the Platonic Protagoras recognizes in the gymnast Iccus, the physician Herodicus, and the musicians Agathocles and Pythoclides, forerunners of the sophists. But the forerunners of the sophists are not to be confounded with the sophists themselves, and the difference between them is not far to seek. Though some of those who resorted to the gymnasts, physicians and musicians derived from them such substitute for “higher education” as was before 447 generally obtainable, it was only incidentally that professional men and artists communicated anything which could be called by that name. Contrariwise, the sophists were always and essentially professors of the higher education; and, although in process of time specialization assimilated sophistry to the arts, at the outset at any rate, its declared aim—the cultivation of the civic character—sufficiently distinguished sophistical education both from professional instruction and from artistic training: It is true too that in some of the colonies philosophy had busied itself with higher education; but here again the forerunners of the sophists are easily distinguished from the sophists, since the sophists condemned not only the scientific speculations of their predecessors, but also their philosophical aims, and offered to the Greek world a new employment for leisure, a new intellectual ambition.
Nor is it altogether correct to say that “the persons styled sophists had no principles common to them all and distinguishing them from others.” Various as were the phases through which sophistry passed between the middle of the 5th century and the middle of the 4th, the sophists—Socrates himself being no exception—had in their declared antagonism to philosophy a common characteristic; and, if in the interval, philosophical speculation being temporarily suspended, scepticism ceased for the time to be peculiar, at the outset, when Protagoras and Gorgias broke with the physicists, and in the sequel, when Plato raised the cry of “back to Parmenides,” this common characteristic was distinctive.
Further, it may be doubted whether Grote is sufficiently careful to distinguish between the charges brought against the sophists personally and the criticism of their educational methods. When the sophists are represented as conscious imposters who “poisoned and demoralized by corrupt teaching the Athenian moral character,” he has, as has been seen, an easy and complete reply. But the question still remains—Was the education provided by Protagoras, by Gorgias, by Isocrates, by the eristics and by Socrates, good, bad or indifferent? And, though the modern critic will not be prepared with Plato to deny the name of education to all teaching which is not based upon an ontology, it may nevertheless be thought that normal sophistry—as opposed to the sophistry of Socrates—was in various degrees unsatisfactory, in so far as it tacitly or confessedly ignored the “material” element of exposition by reasoning.
And if Grote overlooks important agreements he seems also to understate important differences. Regarding Protagoras, Gorgias and Isocrates as types of one and the same sophistry (pp. 487, 493, 495, 499, 544, 2nd ed.), and neglecting as slander or exaggeration all the evidence in regard to the sophistry of eristic (p. 540), he conceives that the sophists undertook “to educate young men so as to make them better qualified for statesmen or ministers,” and that “that which stood most prominent in the teaching of Gorgias and the other sophists was, that they cultivated and improved the powers of public speaking in their pupils.” Excellent as a statement of the aim and method of Isocrates, and tolerable as a statement of those of Gorgias, these phrases are inexact if applied to Protagoras, who, making “civic virtue” his aim, regarded statesmanship and administration as parts of “civic virtue”, and consequently assigned to oratory no more than a subordinate place in his programme, while to the eristics - whose existence is attested not only by Plato, but also by Isocrates and Aristotle—and to Socrates—whom Grote himself accounts a sophist—the description is plainly and palpably inappropriate.
Nor is it possible to accept the statements that “the splendid genius, the lasting influence, and the reiterated polemics of Plato have stamped the name sophist upon the men against whom he wrote as if it were their recognized, legitimate and peculiar designation,” and that “Plato not only stole the name out of general circulation, in order to fasten it specially upon his opponents the paid teachers, but also connected with it express discreditable attributes which formed no part of its primitive and recognized meaning and were altogether distinct from, though grafted upon, the vague sentiment of dislike associated with it.” That is to say, Grote supposes that for at least eight and forty years, from 447 to 399, the paid professors had no professional title; that, this period having elapsed, a youthful opponent succeeded in fastening an uncomplimentary title not only upon the contemporary teachers, but also, retrospectively, upon their predecessors; and that, artfully enhancing the indignity of the title affixed, he thus obscured, perverted and effaced the records and the memories of the past. Manifestly all three propositions are antecedently improbable. But more than this: whereas in the nomenclature of Plato's contemporaries Protagoras, Gorgias, Socrates, Dionysodorus and Isocrates were all of them sophists, Plato himself, in his careful investigation summarized above, limits the meaning of the term so that it shall include the humanists and the eristics only. Now, if his use of the term was stricter than the customary use, he can hardly be held answerable for the latter.
Nor is Grote altogether just in his account of Plato's attitude towards the several sophists, or altogether judicious in his appreciation of Plato's testimony. However contemptuous in his portraiture of Hippias and Dionysodorus, however severe in his polemic against Isocrates, Plato regards Protagoras with admiration and Gorgias with respect. While he emphasizes in the later sophists the consequences of the fundamental error of sophistry—its indifference to truth—he does honour to the genius and the originality of the leaders of the movement. Indeed, the author of this article finds in the writings of Plato a grave and discriminating study of the several forms of sophistry, and no trace whatsoever of that blind hostility which should warrant us in neglecting his clear and precise evidence.
In a word, the present writer agrees with Grote that the sophists were not a sect or school with common doctrine or method; that their theoretical and practical morality was neither above nor below that of their age, being, in fact, determined by it; and that Plato and his followers are not to be regarded as the authorized teachers of the Greek nation, nor the sophists as the dissenters, but vice versa. At the same time, in opposition to Grote, he maintains that the appearance of the sophists marked a new departure, in so far as they were the first professors of “higher education” as such; that they agreed in the rejection of “philosophy”; that the education which they severally gave was open to criticism, inasmuch as, with the exception of Socrates, they attached too much importance to the form, too little to the matter, of their discourses and arguments; that humanism, rhetoric, politic and disputation were characteristic not of all sophists collectively, but of sections of the profession; that Plato was not the first to give a special meaning to the term “sophist” and to affix it upon the professors of education; and, finally, that Plato's evidence is in all essentials trustworthy.