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The Sophists: The Origin of Western Philosophical Ethics



Greek sophistēs: (1) Originally and generally, anyone highly skilled in a particular craft or art, an expert or master (Homer). This sense easily expands into anyone generally knowledgeable or prudent. Hence, someone wise, a sage, teacher, or professor. It was used originally in a positive, complimentary sense, as a synonym of phronimos, one clever in practical matters of life, a prudent person; and as a synonym of sophos, a wise man or sage.

(2) The term evolved into a specifically negative meaning in the 5th century BCE. It referred to a loosely knit group of itinerant teachers of grammar, rhetoric, logic, law, political affairs, music, mathematics, literary criticism and astronomy. As such, they were highly regarded at first. They were innovative educators concerned with human affairs, conduct, and success. Later, toward the middle to end of the 5th century BCE, the term sophists and the group it designated became a term of disrepute, disapproval, and dismissal. It signified a cheat or charlatan, a fraud, a pretender to wisdom only, someone interested in personal success rather than truth and ethical principle; a verbal trickster who plays games with language and argument, arming demagogues with powerful rhetorical weapons; a philosophical relativist, skeptic, and atheist. They claimed to teach aretē (excellence, virtue), but their claim was viewed as pretentious, pompous, and ill founded.


  • Protagoras (c.490—c.420 BCE)
  • Gorgias (c.485—c.380 BCE)
  • Prodicus (c.465—after 399 BCE)
  • Hippias (probably born before 460 BCE, death date unknown)
  • Aniphon (c.480—411 BCE)
  • Thrasymachus (dates unknown but a contemporary of Socrates)


1. Professionalization and commercialization of education: first and only Greek educators, philosophers, etc., to charge a fee for their services. Harshly criticized by philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) and the conservative Athenian aristocracy (Aristophanes, for example) for exploiting the ambitious young and prostituting their own minds, i.e., selling one’s mind to anyone indiscriminately, as long as they could pay the fee. Hitherto, wisdom (sophia) had been viewed by the philosophical tradition and society generally as something that should be shared between citizens, friends, and loved ones.

2. Itinerant or inter-city status: The Sophists were foreigners to Athens, originally from minor or provincial cities, who wandered from city to city in order to find suitable students for their services. As such, they were not Athenian citizens. Consequently, they were considered suspicious outsiders by the aristocratic Athenian establishment.

3. Teaching methods: The Sophists gave instruction to small, private circles or provided public lectures to larger audiences. These lectures or ‘displays’ (epideixeis) might take the form of inviting questions from the audience (question and answer technique), or displays of rhetorical eloquence on a particular, prepared theme, often from a written text. Hence, the Sophists practiced two, complementary types of teaching method (pedagogy): elaborate speeches of rhetorical eloquence, and the interactive technique of question and answer. They taught in private homes, public places, and at the great festivals of Olympia and elsewhere.

4. Common interest and orientation:

a) rhetoric, the art of the logos (speech), the art of persuasion and argumentation

  • Agonistic or competitive
  • Oriented toward success or pragmatic expediency
  • Power
  • Skeptical, relativist intellectual framework

b) epistemology (theory of knowledge): skepticism, relativism

  • Appearance and being
  • Equipollence of opposite arguments or positions
  • Convention (nomos) versus nature (physis)
  • Religious agnosticism or atheism
  • Ethical conventionalism and subjectivism
  • Political pragmatism


1. Philosophical or theoretical interest in human affairs:
The earlier pre-Socratic philosophers were predominately interested in the law and primary element (archē) of nature (physis) or the universe (kosmos). In contrast, the Sophists turned their attention to the world of human affairs: ethics, politics, rhetoric, language, argument, statesmanship, business, law, etc. As such, they effect a reflective turn in the history of Greek philosophy and culture, a problematization of the human world in general.

2. The nomos-physis antithesis in the Sophists:

a) General Usage: In the intellectual climate of the fifth century BCE, the terms nomos (custom, convention, tradition, law) and physis (nature, reality) were considered strictly opposed, antithetical, or mutually exclusive concepts. In this context, nomos exhibits two primary senses:

  • Custom based upon conventional beliefs regarding what is right and true
  • Formal laws that codify obligatory norms founded upon the authority of the state

b) Questions framed in terms of the nomos-physis antithesis:

1) Religion: do the gods exist by nature (physis), in reality, or merely by convention (nomos)?
2) Political organization: do states emerge from divine declaration, natural necessity? Or from local custom? 
3) Humanity: are divisions within the human race natural or merely a matter of custom?
4) Power and equality: is the rule of one person over another (slavery), or one nation over other nations (empire), a matter of natural necessity or inevitability? Or is it simply a human convention?
5) Morality: are moral standards based on nature, particularly human nature, or are they merely local conventions?