Sophists, a group of Greek teachers who flourished at the end of the fifth century B.C. They claimed to be purveyors of wisdom—hence the name Greek: sophistai, which originally meant one who possesses wisdom—but in reality undertook to show that all true certitude is unattainable, and that culture and preparation for the business of public life are to be acquired, not by profound thinking, but by discussion and debate. In accordance with this principle, they gathered around them the young men of Athens, and professed to prepare them for their career as citizens and as men by teaching them the art of public speaking and the theory and practice of argumentation. They did not pretend to teach how the truth is to be attained. They did not care whether it could be attained or not. They aimed to impart to their pupils the ability to make the better cause seem the worse, and the worse the better. If we are to believe their opponents, Plato and Aristotle, they affected all kinds of refinement, in dress, speech, gesture, etc., and carried their love of argumentation to the point where all seriousness of purpose ceased and quibbling and sophistry began.
The principal Sophists were: Protagoras of Abdera, called the Individualist; Gorgias of Leontini, surnamed the Nihilist; Hippias of Elis, the Polymathist; and Prodicus of Ceos, the Moralist. Gorgias was called the Nihilist because of his doctrine “nothing exists: even if anything existed, we could know nothing about it, and, even if we knew anything about anything, we could not communicate our knowledge”. Hippias was called the Polymathist because he laid claim to knowledge of many out-of-the-way subjects, such as archaeology, and used this knowledge for the sophistical purpose of dazzling and embarrassing his opponent in argument. Prodicus, called the Moralist because in his discourses, especially in that which he entitled “Hercules at the Cross-roads”, he strove to inculcate moral lessons, although he did not attempt to reduce conduct to principles, but taught rather by proverb, epigram, and illustration. The most important of all the Sophists was Protagoras, the Individualist, so called because he held that the individual is the test of all truth. “Man is the measure of all things” is a saying attributed to him by Plato, which sums up the Sophists’ doctrine in regard to the value of knowledge.
The Sophists may be said to be the first Greek sceptics. The materialism of the Atomists, the idealism of the Eleatics, and the doctrine of universal change which was a tenet of the School of Heraclitus—all these tendencies resulted in a condition of unrest, out of which philosophy could not advance to a more satisfactory state until an enquiry was made into the problem of the value of knowledge. The Sophists did not undertake that enquiry—a task reserved for Socrates (q.v.)—however, they called attention to the existence of the problem, and in that way, and in that way only, they contributed to the progress of philosophy in Greece. The absurdities to which the Sophistic method was carried by the later Sophists was due in part to the Megarians, who made common cause with them, and substituted the method of strife (Eristic method) for the Socratic method of discovery (Heuristic method). It was inevitable, therefore, that the name Sophist should lose its primitive meaning, and come to designate, not a man of wisdom, but a quibbler, and one who uses fallacious arguments. The Sophists represent a phase of Greek thought which, while it had no constructive value, and is, indeed, a step backward and not forward, in the course of Greek speculation is nevertheless of great importance historically, because it was the evil influence of the Sophists that inspired Socrates with the idea of refuting them by showing the conditions of true knowledge. It was, no doubt, their methods, too, that Aristotle had in mind when he wrote his treatise of the fallacies, and entitled it “De Sophisticis Elenchis”.