The term “sophist” is derived from the Greek word “sophistes”, which means wise or skilled.

Sophism, commonly associated with epistemic and moral relativism, is an umbrella term to designate the intellectual framework of the wondering instructors who taught the art of rhetoric – that is, argumentation and persuasion – in ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE.

The Sophists, known for their expertise in persuasive speech and argumentation, were in fact a diverse group of intellectuals whose viewpoints and contributions to philosophy cannot be boiled down to a single unifying belief, or set of shared beliefs. That said, it can be unequivocally stated that Sophism’s defining characteristic is rhetoric, and the Sophists defining practice was teaching the art rhetoric.

The Sophists, who contended that effective communication is an essential skill for success in public life, especially in the legal and political realms of the Athenian democratic city-state, taught their students persuasive argumentation, for practical purposes.

Nowadays, and in no small part on account of Plato, Sophism is associated with contentious beliefs and practices, encapsulated in the derogatory term “sophistry”. Plato, throughout his dialogues, accuses the Sophists of epistemic skepticism and moral relativism, believing that they taught persuasive argumentation over objective truth and valued sway over morality and ethics. In this, Plato contended, they posed a threat to both philosophy and society.

Brief History of Sophism

Sophism played a significant role in the cultural landscape of ancient Greece, as it became an influential intellectual movement, which contributed to discussions on epistemology, rhetoric, politics and ethics. The tension between objective truth, on the one hand, and relativism and rhetoric on the other, has remained a central concern throughout human history.

Emergence in the 5th Century BCE

Sophism arose during the Golden Age of Greece, a period known for the establishment of democracy, the flourishing of culture and widespread intellectual progress. Sophists were itinerant teachers who offered instruction to individuals, often from wealthy or aristocratic backgrounds, in various subjects.

Protagoras and Relativism

Protagoras, one of the most famous Sophists, is often credited as the founding figure of the movement. He is known for the assertion, still quoted in popular culture, that “man is the measure of all things”, which encapsulates the belief that truth and morality are subjective, ultimately dependent on the individual. Protagoras’ relativistic viewpoint was controversial and contributed to the negative perception of Sophism.

Gorgias and Rhetoric

Gorgias, another prominent Sophist, focused on the art of persuasive speech and rhetoric, believing that skilled orators could sway public opinion and achieve success in various areas of life. Gorgias’s advocacy for persuasion as an essential skill led to the criticism that Sophists value the style of argumentation over truth and ethics.

Criticisms from Plato

Plato, the famous philosopher and student of Socrates, was highly critical of the Sophists. Throughout his dialogues, and through the character of Socrates, he accuses them of teaching relativism, skepticism, and promoting manipulation for self-serving, immoral and detrimental purposes. Plato’s criticism of sophism is succinctly illustrated in the dialogues entitled Gorgias, Theaetetus and Sophist.

Influence on Greek Culture

Despite the controversies and criticisms, the Sophists were individuals of renown in ancient Greek society, and in Athens in particular, for they provided valuable instruction in rhetoric and argumentation, skills that were sought for success in legal and political affairs.

The debates and ideas surrounding Sophism influenced subsequent philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle. While Plato was invariably critical of Sophism, Aristotle recognized their contributions to the study of rhetoric, and even wrote a treatise of his own on the subject. Aristotle’s Rhetoric is still considered, to this day, the definitive text on persuasive argumentation.

In the realms of philosophy and philosophy of language, notably, the Sophists contributed to the development of a formal and systemic approach to communication.


The term “Sophist” has endured in Western culture, often used pejoratively to describe individuals who employ clever arguments and emotional appeals for self-serving purposes. However, it’s important to recognize that the Sophists were a diverse group of thinkers with varying beliefs, and their influence on Western thought cannot be reduced, simply, to immoral relativism.

Most Illustrious Sophists

The Sophists, collectively, had a significant impact on the emergence and development of Western philosophy.

The term Sophist is associated with a diverse group of thinkers, and their ideas and teachings are equally diverse. Not all proponents of Sophism were in agreement with one another. While some were famous for their relativistic views, others focused on different areas of knowledge and communication.

The most famous historical Sophists, whose teachings are known from sources beyond Plato’s dialogues, are:


Protagoras, best known for the memorable statement “man is the measure of all things”, is recognized as the founder of Sophism and considered a pioneer of relativism and subjectivism in Western philosophy, whose historical significance lies in his skepticism about absolute knowledge.


Gorgias, renowned for his expertise in persuasive speech and rhetoric, was an influential Sophist whose views on the the power of language and the art of persuasion gained him acclaim in his time and reverberated through the work of subsequent thinkers. His teachings on rhetoric, aimed at influencing decision-making and public opinion, made him a known figure not only among Sophists but in the broader intellectual landscape of ancient Greece.

Gorgias’ most famous treatise, “Encomium of Helen”, explores the persuasive power of speech and the role it plays in shaping people’s beliefs and actions.


Hippias of Elis was known for his extensive knowledge across various subjects, including mathematics, astronomy and poetry. He was a polymath, and his intellectual versatility allowed him to converse with a wide range of individuals on a variety of topics. His eclectic expertise made him a respected figure in ancient Greece, and his instruction attracted students seeking a broad education.

Hippias’ historical significance lies in his contributions to multiple fields of knowledge.


Prodicus of Ceos made advanced the study of language and semantics, and delineated the significance of precise terminology. He is known for his work on the meanings and distinctions of words, which had a formative effect on linguistic philosophy. Prodicus, in short, made notable contributions to the study of language and meaning, which inspired later philosophers to develop the discipline further.


Antiphon, known for his expertise in legal and political matters, was a prominent figure in ancient Athens who taught the art of rhetoric. He is, in fact, often credited with being one of the earliest theorists of rhetoric.

Antiphon’s teachings were sought after by those looking to enhance their ability to speak and debate convincingly in the legal and political arena. His work on persuasive speech and argumentation gained him widespread recognition in ancient Greece and made him an influential figure in the Sophist tradition.

Fundamental Tenets of Sophism

Sophism, although often referred to as a School of Thought, is not one in the traditional sense.

Sophism, as an intellectual movement, is not characterized by a single set of defining philosophical tenets, as it encompasses a varied group of thinkers with diverse beliefs, practices and teachings. Therefore, it’s more accurate to describe Sophism as a loose intellectual tradition defined by its pragmatic focus on the art of rhetoric.

Nonetheless, there are some common themes often associated with Sophism:


Rhetoric was a cornerstone of the Sophist tradition. Sophists taught techniques for effective public speaking, including the use of persuasive language and arguments to influence the opinions and decisions of others. These skills were highly valuable in ancient Greece, where the ability speak convincing was crucial for public success.


Many Sophists, most famous among whom is Protagoras, are known for their relativistic paradigm, contending that knowledge, morality and truth are subjective and ultimately dependent on the individual. Protagoras’s statement, “Man is the measure of all things”, is emblematic of this relativistic viewpoint, challenges the idea of objective, universal truths and underscores the importance of individual perception in understanding the world.


Some Sophists were known for their skeptical stance towards absolute, objective knowledge, stemming from their relativistic views. Recognizing that certainty might be elusive and that different perspectives could coexist, Sophists invited and promoted doubt regarding established beliefs. The connection between relativism and skepticism had a significant impact on the intellectual climate of ancient Greece, and proved foundational, as an antagonistic viewpoint, for Platonic philosophy.


Sophists adopted a pragmatic approach to knowledge, focusing on practical skills that could be used to achieve success in various areas of life. Their teachings were oriented toward imparting applicable skills that could lead to personal advancement.


Sophists taught, and emphasized the importance of, the development of personal skills in order to succeed in public affairs. In its advocacy of rhetoric, Sophism inherently prioritized the individual’s capacity to prosper through persuasion. This individualistic orientation stood in contrast to the communal values prevalent in ancient Greece’s city-states.

Ethical Controversy

The intellectual tradition of Sophism, time proved, engendered important ethical controversies, particularly regarding the value of practical knowledge and the importance of moral objectivity.

Nowadays, the term “Sophist” is often used pejoratively, as Plato’s portrayal of Sophism brought forth concerns about relativism and the use of rhetoric for immoral purposes that threaten the communal interest. According to Plato, the Sophist tradition of rhetoric undermines morality, ethics and the pursuit of objective truth.

Plato’s Critique of Sophism

Plato’s criticism of Sophism is a recurrent theme throughout his dialogues. The Allegory of the Chariot, for instance, presented in The Phaedrus, describes a hierarchy of individuals according to their perception and subsequent recollection of the Forms. In this hierarchy, Sophists and demagogues are second to last, above tyrants only. This association is not coincidental, for Plato draws numerous parallels between Sophists and tyrants throughout the dialogue. In The Republic, moreover, Socrates argues that Sophism leads towards tyranny.

Plato’s disdain for Sophists is only surpassed by his hatred of tyrants, and he considered the two to be similar in their nature and effect on society.

Plato’s pervasive critique of Sophism is woven throughout his dialogues, but there are three dialogues in particular in which his views are clearly elaborated and, in this regard, succinctly exemplified: Gorgias, Theaetetus and Sophist.

  • In The Gorgias, Socrates confronts Gorgias, an accomplished rhetorician, on the value and morality of rhetoric by bringing attention to the agreed-upon fact that rhetoric is predominantly employed in legal and political affairs, thereby influencing the justice and decision-making organisms of the city-state, with no regard for what is right nor truthful.
  • In The Theaetetus, Plato criticizes the relativism associated with Sophism when Theaetetus mentions Protagoras’s statement that “man is the measure of all things”, which Socrates confronts. Socrates questions the notion of subjective truth and whether it is possible to attain practical, applicable and beneficial knowledge in the face of Protagorean relativism.
  • In The Sophist, Plato distinguishes between the sophist’s persuasive techniques, which rely on the manipulation of language, and the philosopher’s pursuit of truth and wisdom. Ultimately, he asserts that Sophists prioritize appearance over reality and are primarily concerned with “making the worse argument appear the better”.

Plato’s extensive critique of Sophism encompasses concerns about relativism, skepticism, manipulative rhetoric, and the consequences of such practices, both for the individual and society at large. He drew a sharp contrast between philosophy – the genuine pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and virtue – and Sophism, which he considered self serving, inherently immoral and ultimately detrimental. Platonic philosophy advocates for the importance of attaining certain knowledge and understanding universal ethical principles, in the belief that these are intertwined and benefit humanity; as knowledge leads to virtue and virtue, in turn, leads to individual and communal well-being.

Wisdom, according to Plato, elevates humankind, whereas Sophism undermines this intellectual endeavor and, in so doing, compromises the well-being of all.

Pertinent Alternative Perspectives

The most pertinent alternative to Sophism, being an antagonistic intellectual paradigm of its time, is Classical Philosophy, known for the pursuit of objective truth and applicable ethical understanding. The most iconic figures from classical philosophy are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The intellectual landscape of ancient Greece, however, was diverse, and several noteworthy schools of thought that aligned with, or complemented, Sophist teachings also emerged.

The most relevant alternatives to Sophism include:

  • Socratic philosophy, as depicted by Plato and Xenophon, is characterized by the dialectical method of questioning and the pursuit of intellectual and moral virtue.
  • Plato advocated for a philosophy that seeks to discover objective truth and values, with a strong focus on knowledge, virtue, justice, ethics, communal values, and the development of the philosopher’s character.
  • Aristotle, a student of Plato, developed a systematic approach to philosophy that values reason, empirical observation and comprehensive classification. For this, he is regarded as a natural philosopher, although his works extend to the study of ethics, politics and rhetoric also.
  • Skepticism, as a philosophical tradition, encompasses various schools and approaches that originated in ancient Greece. Skeptics deny the possibility of certain knowledge, promoting doubt and encouraging the suspension of judgment. This tradition includes Academic Skepticism, associated with thinkers like Carneades, and Pyrrhonian Skepticism, founded by Pyrrho.
  • Cynicism, founded by Diogenes of Sinope, advocates for living a simple and virtuous life in accordance with nature. Cynics rejected societal norms, material possessions and the pursuit of wealth or fame, seeking harmony instead. The central goal of Cynicism is to achieve personal virtue and self-sufficiency, often through renunciation of material comfort and wealth.
  • Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE, is a school of thought that values wisdom, virtue, acceptance and self-control. Stoicism advocates for living in harmony with nature, and seeks eudaimonia (flourishing or happiness) through ethical living.
  • Neoplatonism, a philosophical school that flourished in the 3rd century CE and is most commonly associated with Pltonius, expanded upon Platonic philosophy, focusing on the ascent of the soul to the realm of the One. Neoplatonists were concerned with understanding the nature of reality and the ultimate source of all existence. They posited a hierarchical structure of reality, with the One at the pinnacle, emanating divine principles that gradually descend to the material world.

These alternatives to Sophism, pertaining to various philosophical traditions, provide complementary perspectives on the nature of truth, reality, the purpose of philosophy and the highest ideals in human life.

Final Thoughts

Sophism is alive and well in this day and age, evident in the sophisticated techniques of modern rhetoric, where the art of persuasion often takes precedence over objective truth, shaping public discourse and influencing opinions.

Sophistic persuasion tactics are evident in various arenas, from political speeches and advertising to social media and news outlets. Language is wielded not merely as a tool for conveying facts but as a means of constructing narratives, creating engagement and influencing public opinion. The focus on gaining support can and often does overshadow the commitment to sincere dialogue, for the sake of addressing a mutual concern. While not every form of persuasive communication corresponds with the negative connotations historically associated with Sophism, the practice of utilizing rhetoric to achieve a desired outcome remains.

In this contemporary context, the legacy of Sophism lives on, raising important questions about the appropriate balance between rhetoric and the need for objective truth in our profoundly intertwined, information-driven society.

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