In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Sophists

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographical Resources
  • Collections of Essays
  • Who Were the Sophists?
  • Sophistic Education
  • Logos, Language, and Rhetoric
  • Sophistic Argumentation
  • The Nomos-Phusis Antithesis
  • Aristotle and the Sophists

Classics The Sophists
Richard D. McKirahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0297


Sophistês (from sophos, “wise”) originally designated epic poets, prophets, sages, Presocratic philosophers and others with wisdom beneficial to society. Sometime after c. 450 BCE it was applied to a new kind of wise people. These men were professional showmen and teachers, the first to provide education beyond the traditional basic subjects—music, poetry, physical training, and arithmetic. They were entrepreneurs, rivals, and competitors who expected to be paid. They traveled from city to city, charging fees for teaching and for their public performances. Each Sophist taught whatever subjects he wished, subjects ranging from mathematics and astronomy to grammar and literary criticism. Many Sophists had interests in language and taught techniques of reasoning, argument, and public speaking that could be useful in public and private life. They came from different cities in the Greek world. They were regarded as attractive and fascinating, but suspicious and dangerous, attitudes reflected in literature, most prominently in Plato’s writings. Plato contrasts individual Sophists with Socrates and sophistry with philosophy. The negative connotations of “sophistry,” “sophism,” and “sophist” are due ultimately to Plato’s influence and should not lead us to suppose that the Sophists engaged in and taught nothing but how to reason badly and construct misleading arguments. They were important in many areas. To them is due the beginnings of the study of language and speech, which stands at the origins of grammar and rhetoric. Others puzzled about the gods and the origins of religion. Some contributed to mathematics. Most importantly, they stand at the origins of moral, political and social philosophy, anthropology, and political theory. Plato’s negative portrayal dominated until the 20th century and the few exceptions interpreted the Sophists uncritically as forerunners of their own philosophical views. Study of the Sophists requires access to information about them, not just to the interpretations of others. This information falls into three sorts: (1) Actual words of the Sophists—complete works and excerpts from works that do not survive in their entirety; (2) summaries and paraphrases of their works; (3) reports in ancient authors of their views and other information about them; and (4) interpretations by ancient and modern authors. The first three sorts form the basis of valid research. They were collected for the first time in 1903 by Diels—Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed. (1952)—which remains the basic reference point. The Sophists have been viewed from many angles which cannot all be represented adequately in this bibliography, which is intended as a guide to books and articles useful for understanding who the Sophists were, their methods, aims, and achievements, how they were viewed in antiquity, and their contributions to philosophical thought.

General Overviews

Most works on the Sophists contain chapters on individual Sophists and on topics concerning the Sophists in general, some works emphasizing the former (Kerferd and Flashar 1998), others the latter (Bonazzi 2010, Guthrie 1969, Kerferd 1981, and de Romilly 1988). The Sophists treated standardly include Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus, Thrasymachus, Antiphon, Critias, and Euthydemus. Alcidamas, Lycophron and Xeniades, and other figures are treated less frequently, either because their credentials as Sophists are weak or because the information on them is too scanty. Other books (including most of the works in the section Collections of Source Materials) consist mainly of texts in the original languages (Greek or Latin) and/or translations of relevant texts and offer brief accounts of the individual Sophists. Shorter general treatments, typically found in general histories of philosophy (Kerferd 1997), and in series of “guides” or “companions” (Barney 2006 and Gibert 2002), tend to discuss only a few topics.

  • Barney, R. 2006. The Sophistic movement. In A companion to ancient philosophy. Edited by M. L. Gill and P. Pellegrin, 77–97. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631210610.2006.00010.x

    After a brief introduction to the history of interpretations of the Sophists and connected problems, Barney focuses on two questions: (1) To what extent were the Sophists engaged in offering what would later be termed doctrines or theories? (2) Did the Sophists share a common intellectual project?

  • Bonazzi, M. 2010. I Sofisti. Rome: Carocci.

    (The Sophists). This important but hard to find book, which is being revised and translated into English, gives intelligent and innovative treatments to basic issues concerning the Sophists: existence and truth, man and reality, speech, grammar, rhetoric, politics, poetry and philosophy, justice and the laws, teaching virtue, religion, and the gods.

  • Gibert, J. 2002. The Sophists. In The Blackwell guide to ancient philosophy. Edited by C. Shields, 27–50. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631222156.2002.00005.x

    This survey treats four issues. “Background and Sources” discusses the limitations in our information on the Sophists and the question of who were Sophists. “Language and Rhetoric” focuses on Gorgias after briefly treating antilogic and dialectic. “Justice and Morality” takes up themes from Protagoras and Antiphon, and “Relativism” surveys interpretations of Protagorean relativism.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1969. The world of the Sophists. In A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 3, The fifth-century enlightenment. By W. K. C. Guthrie, 3–319. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A full and comprehensive treatment of the intellectual context of the Sophists, the topics they treated, and the individual Sophists, this has been the standard English-language reference work since its publication. Although superseded in ways by more recent work, this remains an excellent source of information and sensible interpretations. Republished 1971 in a single volume, The Sophists (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press).

  • Kerferd, G. B. 1981. The Sophistic movement. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    In this revolutionary book whose influence is present in much recent discussion about the Sophists, Kerferd presents a historically based and philosophically informed interpretation of the Sophists, displaying their importance in their own time and establishing their importance as genuine philosophers dealing with issues relevant to contemporary philosophy.

  • Kerferd, G. B. 1997. The Sophists. In The Routledge history of philosophy. Vol. 1, From the beginning to Plato. Edited by C. Taylor, 244–270. London: Routledge.

    Kerferd presents a brief statement of his last thoughts on the main topics of controversy. Much of this article follows Kerferd 1981, but many of his views have changed. The discussion of Antiphon in the light of the fragment first published in 1984 is particularly interesting.

  • Kerferd, G. B., and H. Flashar. 1998. Die Sophistik. In Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie. Die Philosophie der Antike. Vol. 2.1, Sophistik, Sokrates, Sokratik, Mathematik, Medizin. Edited by F. Ueberweg and H. Flashar, 1–137. Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe.

    (Sophistic). Discussion of the origin and essence of Sophistic and of the most important topics treated by the Sophists, followed by brief but useful treatments of individual Sophists (including “Minor Sophists”) and anonymous texts related to Sophistic themes. Contains an extensive bibliography.

  • Romilly, J. de. 1988. Les grands sophistes dans l’Athènes de Périklès. Paris: Fallois.

    This book places the Sophists in their social, political, literary, and intellectual context and discusses their fundamental contributions to Greek education, thought, and culture. De Romilly argues that the Sophists contributed vitally to the transformation of Athenian culture and deserve a place among the most important thinkers of antiquity. English translation: The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.

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