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Sophists

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Early Athenian Coin, an "owl"

Early Athenian Coin, an “owl” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sophists were independent Greek public speakers of the 5th century BCE, teaching for a fee about politics, philosophy and rhetoric.

Protagoras is usually regarded as the first with Gorgias being another prominent sophist. Wikipedia also lists Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus.

Plato portrays them in his dialogues as foils for the sober, sound argumentation of Socrates.

In the most general sense sophists are usually depicted as denying the existence of ultimate reality and morality in favor of worldly pleasures derived from the senses.

Likewise, they’re often said to reject the Greek gods and advocate the perfection of humanity.

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In actual fact, there is no single school of Sophist thought. Plato’s response to the leading Sophists is as complex as their various positions.

Generally slighted by Plato, the sophists were quick and intelligent, contributing to knowledge about linguistics, drama and a prototypical form of applied sociology. And they were instrumental in helping young men to “better” themselves in terms of learning how to win arguments—a skill set essential to upward mobility and entrance into political life not only in ancient Greece but also for men and women today.¹

¹ See, for instance, the excellent introductory discussion about ancient Greek philosophy in this DVD set: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/history-of-the-ancient-world-a-global-perspective.html

On the Web:

  • Video touching on some of the topics that the ancient Greeks debated, topics that continued through the Middle Ages, right up to contemporary debates.

Related Posts » Jean A. Baudrillard

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