Plato’s Counterfeit Sophists

  Tell, Håkan. 2011. Plato's Counterfeit Sophists. Hellenic Studies Series 44. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

1. The Many and Conflicting Meanings of Σοφιστής

For the moment, however, I hope to show only that the almost universal modern adoption of the definitions of “sophist” and “sophistry” advocated by the Platonic tradition has been instrumental in balkanizing a number of practitioners of wisdom as fundamentally different—frequently with a derogatory subtext. [7] By the Platonic tradition, I mean to imply two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) groups of writers: those who for the most part agree with Plato’s characterization of the sophists, such as Xenophon and Aristotle; and those whose accounts of the sophists seem for the most part to be derived directly from the first group, such as Philostratus, Olympiodorus, and Themistius. In contrast to the wide-ranging use of the term “sophist” in antiquity, the modern employment of the label seems to perpetuate a particular point of view at the expense of other applications. As a result, the historical validity of the term as an intellectual category is deeply problematic. To make this point more compelling, however, it is necessary first to examine in greater detail the ancient uses of the label “sophist.” Next, we shall turn to Plato to scrutinize the intellectual genealogy he proposes for the sophists and the role he assigns them in the Greek wisdom tradition. In the final part of the chapter, we shall consider Isocrates’ alternative understanding of the label “sophist.” This exploration will help us appreciate the rival views of sophists in antiquity and simultaneously caution us against assuming a uniform meaning that consistently referred to a specific set of individuals.

The Ancient Use of Σοφιστής

Herodotus, a contemporary of many sophists but whose area of interest lay in past events, seems to express well the older, general meaning of the word. He refers to a number of different people as σοφισταί: Solon and the sages who visited Croesus at Sardis (1.29.1), Pythagoras (4.95.2), and Melampus and his followers, who are said to have introduced Dionysus to the Greeks (2.49.1). Indeed, σοφιστής is a fairly common attribute of the early Greek sages, especially of the Seven Sages. But it was in no way limited to this group. Starting out from Kerferd’s classification of the earlier uses of the word σοφιστής (that is, with reference to figures that predated the sophists), we can see that in addition to the Seven Sages and early wise men it was frequently used to refer to poets, musicians, soothsayers and other religious experts, and Presocratic philosophers. [11] Kerferd concludes that, as opposed to the more open-ended application of σοφία and σοφός, “the term σοφιστής is confined to those who in one way or another function as the Sages, the exponents of knowledge in early communities.” [12] Elsewhere he appears to link the notion of function as crucial to the sophists by emphasizing that their most distinguishable feature was professionalism. [13] Both George Grote and Alexander Grant had anticipated him in stressing function and professionalism: “they had nothing in common except their profession, as paid teachers,” writes Grote, who, on the grounds that there was no doctrinal cohesion among the sophists, rejects the use of the descriptive term “die Sophistik” and instead restricts his discussion to a “community of profession.” [14] Grant follows suit: “At first the word σοφιστής was used in an intermediate sense to denote any one ‘who by profession practiced or exhibited some kind of wisdom or cleverness;’ thus it was applicable to philosopher, artist, musician, and even poet.” [15] According to this view, the sophists inherited the functional aspects of their predecessors and developed them towards a purer form of professionalism. This process is the crucial link between them: the sophists did not necessarily share in the content of their predecessors’ teaching, but they extended their functional roles as exponents of wisdom. And it was the hyper-professionalism of the sophists that helped cause the term’s subsequent depreciatory tinge.

But all these conclusions rest on the assumption that there is a clear break in the use of the term σοφιστής in the second half of the fifth century BCE, when the sophists established themselves as a new kind of practitioner of wisdom, and that only the pre-sophistic uses are illustrative of its wider range of connotations. It is my contention that this is an artificial demarcation, and that the time limit imposed on the examples considered is problematic. Instead, I would like to reconsider the use of σοφιστής well into the second half of the fifth century and beyond, without making any a priori assumptions about its application. We must thus be open to the possibility that the sophists did not constitute the end stage of the semantic development of the word σοφιστής, but that it could continue to be used—even after the emergence of the “sophistic movement”—to refer to a broad group of people. More specifically, we shall focus on its continued use in respect to “philosophers,” that is, to those practitioners of wisdom we traditionally refer to as Presocratics, Socratics, Aristotelians, etc.

The frequent application of the word σοφιστής continues in reference to figures who were contemporaries of the sophists, like Socrates and Isocrates, and in reference to figures who succeeded them, like Aeschines the Socratic and Aristotle. In Aristophanes’ Clouds (360–361), the chorus professes that Prodicus and Socrates are the foremost of the astrological sophists (μετεωροσοφισταί). But it is not only Aristophanes who refers to Socrates as a sophist; Androtion [22] and the orator Aeschines (1.173)—only some fifty years after Socrates’ death—also call him by that name. [23] A number of Socrates’ disciples (the so-called Socratics) were categorized as sophists: Lysias thus designates Aeschines, Aristotle uses the term in reference to Aristippus, and Xenophon in reference to Antisthenes. [24] Isocrates is called a sophist by Plutarch (Quaestiones Convivales 1.1); and to judge from Isocrates’ defensive attitude against his detractors in the Antidosis, it seems reasonable to assume that Plutarch had many predecessors in that practice. [25] Isocrates, in turn, delivers an attack against what seem to be Plato’s Laws and Republic in To Philip (12), where he dismisses them as sophistic works. [26] Lysias also calls Plato a sophist. [27] Timon is less discriminating in his use of the term: he labels all philosophers—Plato and Aristotle included—sophists. [28] Finally, Timaeus in his abuse of Aristotle refers to him as a pedantic sophist (σοφιστὴς ὀψιμαθής). [29]

Plato’s Sophistic Genealogy

In the same spirit we should re-examine the historical validity of Plato’s claim that Thales, Pittacus, and Bias shunned politics. [38] Herodotus tells how Thales advised the Ionians to set up a council (βουλευτήριον) common for all the Ionians to avert the impending Persian threat (1.170), and Diogenes Laertius mentions that he practiced politics before turning to the study of nature (1.23). Diogenes (1.25) goes on to say that Thales had proven himself a prudent advisor in political matters: he convinced the Milesians to reject Croesus’ proposal for an alliance, thus saving the city after Cyrus’ ascent to power. The traditional accounts surrounding Pittacus depict him as a politically active and respected figure: he held command in the war against Athens over Sigeum, and he is said to have collaborated with Alcaeus’ brother to overthrow Melanchrus, the tyrant of Lesbos. [39] Later, he was elected aisymnetes (arbitrator with supreme command during a period of domestic crisis) [40] for ten years in his native Mytilene, during which time he is said to have brought about reform and introduced new laws. Alcaeus, a hostile—and contemporary—witness to Pittacus’ power, accuses him of being a tyrant, but other sources assert that he indeed gave up his power after his allotted ten-year period of rule. [41] As for Bias, Herodotus (1.170) relates that after the Ionian defeat by the Persians he advised the Ionians to leave and go to Sardinia to found a new colony there to escape Persian rule. In other sources, Bias is consistently praised for his legal expertise. As early as Hipponax, Bias had become the touchstone against whom any successful speaker was measured, something the sixth-century BCE elegiac poet Demodocus seems to be alluding to in one fragment. [42] Plutarch tells us that Bias was sent as an ambassador from Priene to Samos during the war against the Milesians, and that he was held in great honor for his diplomatic accomplishments during that mission. [43] Finally, Diogenes Laertius, who provides the quotes from both Hipponax and Demodocus, illustrates Bias’ effectiveness in court by relating how Bias, after successfully pleading his case, leaned against his grandson and died. Unaware of his fate, the opposing party delivered its speech, the jury voted, and Bias won a posthumous victory. [44]

Isocrates’ Sophists

We have thus seen that there appears to have been no consensus in antiquity, either before or after the fourth century BCE, as to the precise nature and definition of σοφιστής, [77] or as to which individuals should be so labeled—and the same holds true for “philosophy,” one might add. The sharp discrepancy between Plato’s and Isocrates’ views seems particularly helpful in expounding how contentious and multifaceted its application was, as Sidgwick observes:

We should thus be sufficiently warned neither to reify the term σοφιστής nor even to assume that it applies to specific individuals. It is true that Plato and Isocrates are in agreement that both Protagoras and Gorgias should be counted among the sophists, but the disagreement—particularly with regard to Solon, Empedocles, and Parmenides—is significant enough to underscore their widely different positions on sophistry and philosophy. I have focused on the difference between Plato and Isocrates in their understanding and application of “sophist” and “philosopher.” One could of course argue that an exploration of how Xenophon and Aristotle use these terms might give more weight to the Platonic evidence in favor of Isocrates. But both Xenophon and Aristotle are heavily indebted to the Platonic position and add surprisingly little by way of new or dissenting material on the sophists. One might equally complain over the lack of consideration of later evidence from, say, Philostratus and the rest, but here the difficulty is both the strong echoes of Plato, on the one hand, and the distance in time, on the other. What makes Isocrates so relevant is precisely his position as a contemporary of Plato—and one with a dissenting view on philosophy and sophistry.

In conjunction with his elaborate double attempt at disassociating the sophists from the tradition of the Seven Sages and the “legitimate” philosophical tradition, Plato remarks that the sophists were the first to charge money (Hippias Major 282c6). Given the contentious nature of Plato’s history of philosophy just outlined, we need to reevaluate his statement of the sophists’ habit of teaching for pay with this context in mind. To this we turn next.


[ back ] 1. See, for example, Guthrie 1971:3–26 and Romilly 1992:vii–xv. This balkanization of the sophists has been challenged, mainly through Lloyd’s influential contributions to Greek philosophy (e. g. Lloyd 1979:81, esp. n112; 1987:92–93). See also Ford 1993; Wallace 1998 and 2007; Nightingale 2000; Thomas 2000:10 and 21. For the most part, however, this challenge to the validity of “sophist” as a useful category has been voiced without reexamination of its use in antiquity. Ultimately, the decision to abandon “sophist” as an intellectual and historical category has to rest upon such an investigation. See introduction, esp. 9–10.

[ back ] 2. E.g. Guthrie 1971:27–34. But see Edmunds 2006, who argues that no such narrowing of the use of σοφιστής had taken place in the fifth century, but only later, mainly through Plato’s establishment of philosophy as a distinct and specialized activity.

[ back ] 3. “Presocratic” is a modern coinage, notably adopted by Diels in his Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Surprisingly, this neologism has become almost universally adopted and is frequently used alongside the term sophist, which, in contrast, was in general circulation in antiquity. The modern adoption of clear and consistent taxonomies can sometimes make us oblivious to a term’s original polyvalence and contested status. For a more complete discussion of “Presocratic” as a historical category, see Laks 2006.

[ back ] 4. For a discussion of early contestations over philosophia and philosophos, see Ford 1993:41; Nightingale 1995, esp. chapter 1. See also Lloyd 2005, who points out that some of the earliest attested uses of philosophia and philosophos appear to carry derogatory connotations (12).

[ back ] 5. Cf. Nehamas (1990:5), who, in respect to the contrasting views of Plato and Isocrates on philosophy, writes: “It is not my purpose here to argue that either Plato or Isocrates was correct in his conception of the nature of philosophy, especially since I believe, on independent grounds, that this is not a question that can ever be answered. Indeed, I might say that this is precisely the point I am trying to make in historical terms in this essay.”

[ back ] 6. My theoretical orientation owes much to the cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. For the implications of his method to my analysis, see introduction, 19–21.

[ back ] 7. There are good reasons to focus on the many areas of intellectual overlap and continuity among the various groups of sophoi rather than exclusively seeking to separate and compartmentalize them. This is the ambition with the discussion in chapters three to six.

[ back ] 8. Cf. Photius Lexicon 528 Naber: τὸ δὲ παλαιὸν σοφιστὴς ὁ σοφὸς ἐκαλεῖτο.

[ back ] 9. For this view, see Nestle 1942:249. Kerferd 1950:8, on the other hand, following Grote 1872, distinguishes between an originally more general use of σοφός and σοφία and the restricted application of σοφιστής.

[ back ] 10. The terms “limited” and “indeterminate” are Grant’s, 1885, 1:110. On page 113 he writes: “We see, then, that the word ‘Sophist,’ having first had a merely general signification, denoting ‘philosopher,’ ‘man of letters,’ ‘artist,’ &c., acquired a special meaning after the middle of the fifth century, as the designation of a particular class of teachers. And then men began to talk of ‘the Sophists,’—referring to this class.”

[ back ] 11. See Kerferd 1950.

[ back ] 12. Kerferd 1950:8.

[ back ] 13. Kerferd 1981:25. Cf. Grant 1885, 1:106.

[ back ] 14. Grote 1872:53. He further elaborates this point by saying that it “is impossible therefore to predicate anything concerning doctrines, methods, or tendencies, common and peculiar to all the sophists. There were none such; nor has the abstract word, ‘Die Sophistik’, any real meaning, except such qualities, whatever they may be, as are inseparable from the profession or occupation of public teaching,” 53.

[ back ] 15. Grant 1885, 1:106.

[ back ] 16. Jaeger 1965:296; Morrison 1949:57–59; Diogenes Laertius 1.12 (Homer and Hesiod); Isocrates Antidosis 313 and Herodotus 1.29 (Solon); Plato Protagoras 316c5–e5 (Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides). Nestle 1942:253–254, shares the same view, but he does not emphasize their shared epithet, rather their shared educational vocation.

[ back ] 17. Guthrie 1971:30.

[ back ] 18. I have found the discussions in the following works very useful for this section: Grote 1872:32–80; Grant 1885, 1:106–116; Nestle 1940:250–259; Kerferd 1950; Guthrie 1971:27–34; Imperio 1998:43–130; Edmunds 2006:414–425; Wallace 2007:215–237.

[ back ] 19. Diogenes of Apollonia apud Simplicius Physica 151.20 = DK 64A4.

[ back ] 20. See Kerferd 1950:8, who also understands this in reference to the Presocratics.

[ back ] 21. Isocrates Antidosis 235 and 268.

[ back ] 22. Jacoby FGrH 324 F 69 = Aristides 46.311.

[ back ] 23. See Nehamas 1990, who discusses the application of the label sophist to Socrates, and Plato’s intense attempts to rid him of this epithet. See also Taylor 2006:157, who interestingly argues that Plato “presents Socrates, not merely by implication but avowedly, as sharing some of the characteristics which define a sophist.” Plato does this to emphasize that Socrates’ own profession merely to detect and eliminate false beliefs does not qualify him as a “systematic philosopher” but as “a magician, an individual with an unaccountable power of divining the truths and leading others to it, and by the same token no longer, by Platonic standards, a philosopher, but a very special, and very noble, sophist” (168). See Edmunds 2006 for a discussion of the various epithets associated with Socrates.

[ back ] 24. Aristides 46.311; cf. Athenaeus 13.611d–612f (Lysias); Aristotle Metaphysics 996a (Aristippus); Xenophon Symposium 4.4 (Antisthenes).

[ back ] 25. Isocrates Antidosis 166, 196, 213, and 231.

[ back ] 26. Cf. Grote 1872:33; Sidgwick 1872:293; Grant 1885:112–113.

[ back ] 27. Fr. 281 Baiter-Sauppe = Aristides 46.311.

[ back ] 28. Timon apud Diogenes Laertius 9.65 and 112. Cf. Grote 1872:33.

[ back ] 29. Timaeus apud Polybius 12.8.4 = FGrH 566 F 156.

[ back ] 30. This is a sentiment already expressed by Grote 1872:35, although he does not discuss its post-Platonic use: “Moreover, 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.”

[ back ] 31. Although the word σοφιστής was still in wide application during and after Plato’s lifetime and did not crystallize in its meaning at any given point in time, it nevertheless appears to have acquired a more pejorative tinge in its later use. But this is far from absolute: Xenophon, for example, in the Cyropaedia (3.1.14 and 38) relates the tragic fate of a sophist (σοφιστής) who was unjustly put to death by the Armenian king on charges of corrupting (διαφθείρειν) his son Tigranes. When he was about to die, the sophist sent after Tigranes and asked him not to feel any anger towards his father, since he was acting out of ignorance (ἄγνοια) and not malice (κακόνοια), and, since he was acting out of ignorance, he was acting against his own will. This story is surely meant to allude to the fate of Socrates, and it would be particularly odd if Xenophon chose to use a strictly pejorative epithet in such a context.

[ back ] 32. For the authenticity of Hippias Major, see chapter two, 40n5.

[ back ] 33. Kerferd 1981:25.

[ back ] 38. For a fuller discussion of the sage tradition, see Martin 1993. See also Nightingale 2000 and 2004.

[ back ] 39. For the ancient sources of the Sigean War, see Herodotus 5.95; Strabo 13.1.38; Diodorus Siculus 9.12; Diogenes Laertius 1.74. See also Page 1955:152–161; cf. Andrewes 1974:92–99.

[ back ] 40. Aristotle explains the office of aisymnetes as elective tyranny (αἱρετὴ τυραννίς), Politics 1285a. For the meaning of αἰσυμνήτης and Mytilene’s political situation, see Page 1955:149–161 and 239–240; Andrewes 1974:96–99; Romer 1982; Gagarin 1986:59–60.

[ back ] 41. Alcaeus fr. 348 Lobel and Page; Aristotle Politics 1274b, 1285a; Diodorus Siculus 9.11–12; Strabo 13.1.38–39, 13.2.3; Diogenes Laertius 1.74–76.

[ back ] 42. Hipponax fr. 123 West; Demodocus fr. 6 West. For Demodocus’ date, see Campbell 1982:343.

[ back ] 43. Aetia Romana et Graeca 296a.

[ back ] 44. Plutarch Quaestiones Graecae 20; Diogenes Laertius 1.84.

[ back ] 45. Politics 1274b, 1285a; Nichomachean Ethics 1167a; Rhetoric 1402b.

[ back ] 46. Nichomachean Ethics 1130a.

[ back ] 47. In the case of Thales, however, Aristotle seems more receptive to Plato’s characterization. Indeed, he retells the story of Thales’ practical genius in the Politics (1259a) only to reinforce his position as a disinterested (and poor) philosopher. See also Nichomachean Ethics 1141b, where Thales is said to be engaged in knowledge that is useless (ἄχρηστα), since he does not pursue human goods (τὰ ἀνθρώπινα ἀγαθά). Perhaps this portrayal is related to Thales’ generally privileged position in Greek culture. He is often invoked as the archetypical philosopher and is never poked fun at in old comedy (Dover 1968:xxxvi).

[ back ] 48. In Meno 91e–92a, however, Socrates says that Protagoras was not the first sophist. Grant 1885:115 points out that Aristotle seems to juxtapose and distance Protagoras from the sophists in the Nicomachean Ethics 1164a23–26.

[ back ] 49. One could of course object that there is a difference between being called a sophist by others, as in the case of Solon, and calling oneself a sophist, as in the case of Protagoras. Isocrates also limits his application of the term to the Athenians, whereas Plato considers its application throughout Greece. Still, the contrast between Isocrates and Plato is significant in two ways. First, even if Solon was an Athenian, he lived long before Protagoras. Isocrates thus gives the term a much older pedigree than that found in Plato. Second, and related to the first point, whereas the Protagoras passage states that there existed people even before Protagoras who should be considered sophists but who refrained from using the title out of fear of its pejorative connotations, Isocrates explicitly states that the Athenians considered the label honorific. Especially significant for my analysis is the term’s association with the Seven Sages in Isocrates.

[ back ] 50. Antidosis 313 and 235, where Solon is included among the Seven Sophists (οἱ ἑπτὰ σοφισταί); cf. 231–232. Hegel is a testament to the power and long-lasting effects of Plato’s introduction of the apolitical sage/philosopher. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1:52), he writes: “Thus the Greek philosophers held themselves far removed from the business of the State and were called by the people idlers, because they withdrew themselves within the world of thought.” But cf. what he says on 157, where he describes the Seven Sages as men of affairs.

[ back ] 51. For the most recent and significant treatment of Plato’s and Isocrates’ differing views on φιλοσοφία, see Nightingale 1995 with bibliography. For philosophy as a contested term, see, in addition to Nightingale 1995, Ford 1993:45; Wardy 1996:94–96; and Ober 2004:26–27.

[ back ] 52. For examples of such practice, see Guthrie 1971:36 and Blank 1985:2 and 4n15.

[ back ] 53. Antidosis 266–268.

[ back ] 54. For the link between geometry and philosophy, see, e.g. Republic 510c–511a, 526c–528e, and 533b–c. See also, e.g. Penner 1987:126–127n19; Kraut 1992b:6n24; and Mueller 1992:170–199.

[ back ] 55. Xenophon (Memorabilia 1.1.11) also attributes physical speculation to the sophists—normally a distinguishing characteristic of the Presocratics—and appears less concerned than Plato to maintain the rigorous division between sophists and philosophers (cf. Sidgwick 1872:293). When talking about Socrates, Xenophon writes: “He did not discuss the nature of all things in the same manner as most of the others, nor did he examine the nature of the so-called cosmos of the sophists (ὁ καλούμενος ὑπὸ τῶν σοφιστῶν κόσμος) or the laws that govern the heavenly phenomena.”

[ back ] 69. The label seems to have an equally broad application in Panegyricus 3, where Isocrates remarks that he is aware that many who profess to be sophists (πολλοὶ τῶν προσποιησαμένων εἶναι σοφιστῶν) have eagerly taken up the topic that he is about to address.

[ back ] 70. Solon is labeled sophist (Antidosis 313), and he is also mentioned as one of the seven sophists (Antidosis 235). Isocrates thus seems to have envisioned the Seven Sages, in general, and Solon, in particular, as the functional predecessors of the subsequent practitioners of wisdom.

[ back ] 71. Cf. To Philip 29, where Isocrates reiterates how unjustified the opprobrium directed toward the sophists is (δυσχερείας τὰς περὶ τοὺς σοφιστάς).

[ back ] 72. Cf. Panathenaicus 5, where he complains that he is a victim of prejudiced misrepresentations at the hands of the discredited and worthless sophists (ὑπὸ μὲν τῶν σοφιστῶν τῶν ἀδοκίμων καὶ πονηρῶν διαβαλλόμενος).

[ back ] 73. For the Apology as a subtext to Isocrates’ Antidosis, see Nightingale 1995, especially chapter one.

[ back ] 74. There is a similar conflation of sophistry and philosophy in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (1.2.31), where we hear that Critias after coming to power as part of the Thirty passed a law against the teaching of rhetoric (λόγων τέχνην μὴ διδάσκειν) in an attempt to take revenge on Socrates for an old insult. Critias thereby sought, writes Xenophon, to impute the common censure against the philosophers to Socrates (τὸ κοινῇ τοῖς φιλοσόφοις ὑπὸ τῶν πολλῶν ἐπιτιμώμενον ἐπιφέρων αὐτῷ), and so misrepresented (διαβάλλων) him before the people. By predicating the common censure against the philosophers on the teaching of rhetoric Xenophon effectively obliterates the sharp distinction between sophists and philosophers, so carefully maintained in Plato (cf. Sidgwick 1872:291). Xenophon’s choice of the verb διαβάλλω implies that the prejudice is undeserved, and this is similar to the Isocratean use.

[ back ] 75. But even Plato acknowledges in the Statesman (299b) that σοφιστής could be used as a derogatory label against anyone undertaking clever speculations (σοφιζόμενος ὁτιοῦν) that go beyond the accepted norms. Cf. Sidgwick 1872:293.

[ back ] 76. Cf. Nehamas 1990:5, who has called attention to this agonistic process: “In the fourth century B.C. terms like ‘philosophy,’ ‘dialectic,’ and ‘sophistry’ do not seem to have had a widely agreed-upon application. On the contrary, different authors seem to have fought with one another with the purpose of appropriating the term ‘philosophy,’ each for his own practice and educational scheme.” See also Nightingale 1995, esp. 13–60, for the conflicting views on philosophy in Plato and Isocrates.

[ back ] 77. The present discussion is limited to the so-called “first sophistic.” The situation is different in respect to the “second sophistic.” For this intellectual current, see Whitmarsh 2005.

[ back ] 78. Sidgwick 1872:293.