Beginning the Sophists

The English words “sophist,” “sophisticated,” and “sophomore” all stem from the the Greek word for the Sophists, who in turn received their moniker as a result of their claim to teach sophia, which has been conventionally translated into English for many years as the word “wisdom.” The Sophists were above all teachers of rhetoric in the ancient Greek world, and they developed a reputation for being a bit shady due to the enormous fees they collected for the disbursement of their “wisdom”–hence, beginning with Plato’s Socrates and continuing down to the present, many have had a negative view of them, a view embodied in the decidedly negative connotations of the words “sophist” and “sophomore” (in one usage) today. Think “New Age guru” or “Health and Wealth Gospel Preacher” to come up with a similar sense of power and sleaziness.

By the way, those fees the Sophists charged were considerable. Both Protagoras and Gorgias were reputed to have charged the equivalent of $160,000 USD for a single course.

But as I have found out, the negative reputation of the Sophists is at least as much a product of Plato’s dogmatism as it was of the high fees they charged, and their reputation as shady characters seems undeserved. For the Sophists as true practitioners of wisdom, far removed from today’s New Age gurus and Health and Weath gospel preachers, stay tuned for the next two (at least) posts!

I am reading the Sophists in the Penguin Classics volume The Greek Sophists, which features translations by John Dillon and Tania Gergel. This particular edition of the Sophists is very well done, and I’m pleased to be reading it.