The term sophists originally meant “wise men” in Ancient Greece. By the fifth century B.C.E., the term designated a profession in or a group of teachers of rhetoric. Rhetoricians do not necessary hold particular philosophical views and arts of rhetoric in themselves do not have any associated philosophical positions. A number of rhetoricians, however, appeared and promoted particular philosophical views mainly in Athens, and it was their philosophical positions against which both Socrates and Plato addressed severe criticisms. Socrates and Plato challenged sophist ideas of replacing rhetorical skills to genuine knowledge, moral relativism, epistemological skepticism, and their secularist concept of happiness. Both Socrates and Plato saw endangerment of the moral foundation of society in their philosophical views. Some of the Sophist's ideas have been compared to Machiavellianism and Hobbesianism.
The meaning of the word sophist (greek sophistes meaning "wise-ist," or one who 'does' wisdom, i.e. who makes a business out of wisdom; cf. sophós, "wise man", cf. also wizard) has changed greatly over time. Initially, a sophist was someone who gave sophia to his disciples, that is, wisdom made from knowledge. It was a highly complimentary term, applied to early philosophers such as the Seven Wise Men of Greece.
In the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., and especially at Athens, "sophist" came to be applied to an unorganized group of thinkers who employed debate and rhetoric to teach and disseminate their ideas and offered to teach these skills to others. Due to the importance of such skills in the litigious social life and the democratic political system of Athens, practitioners of such skills often commanded high fees. The practice of taking fees, coupled with the willingness of many practitioners to use their rhetorical skills to pursue unjust lawsuits and political power eventually led to a decline in respect for practitioners of this form of teaching and the ideas and writings associated with it.
Protagoras is generally regarded as the first sophist. Other leading sophists included Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus. Socrates was perhaps the first philosopher to significantly challenge the Sophists, and Plato addressed his criticisms by depicting Socrates’ debates with them in his works.
Socrates was also misconceived as a sophist. To avoid this misconception and clearly distinguish Socrates from sophists, Plato described the difference of their philosophical positions.
Some sophists held a relativistic view on ethics and knowledge. Their philosophy contains criticism of religion, law and ethics. Though some sophists were as religious as their contemporaries, some held atheistic or agnostic views. Both Socrates and Plato challenged not sophistry as rhetorical technique but their philosophical foundations: moral relativism, secular conception of happiness, and epistemological skepticism.
Unfortunately most of the original texts written by the sophists have been lost, and modern understanding of the sophistic movement comes from analysis of Plato's writings, which also became the source for the modern view of the "sophist" as someone who uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning.
In the Roman Empire, sophists were just professors of rhetoric. For instance, Libanius, Himerius, Aelius Aristides and Fronto were considered sophists in this sense.
While a particular bad and insincere argument is likely to be labeled a sophism the practice of using such arguments is known as sophistry. In its modern meaning, "sophistry" is a derogatory term for rhetoric that is designed to appeal to the listener on grounds other than the strict logical cogency of the statements being made.
In traditional logical argument, a set of premises are connected together according to the rules of logic and lead therefore to some conclusion. When someone criticizes the argument, they do so by pointing out either falsehoods among the premises or logical fallacies, flaws in the logical scaffolding. These criticisms may be subject to counter-criticisms, which in turn may be subject to counter-counter-criticisms, etc. Generally, some judge or audience eventually either concurs with or rejects the position of one side and thus a consensus opinion of the truth is arrived upon.
The essential claim of sophistry is that the actual logical validity of an argument is irrelevant (if not non-existent); it is only the ruling of the audience that ultimately determines whether a conclusion is considered "true" or not. By appealing to the prejudices and emotions of the judges, one can garner favorable treatment for one's side of the argument and cause a factually false position to be ruled true.
The philosophical Sophist goes one step beyond that and claims that since it was traditionally accepted that the position ruled valid by the judges was literally true, any position ruled true by the judges must be considered literally true, even if it was arrived at by naked pandering to the judges' prejudices — or even by bribery.
Critics would argue that this claim relies on a straw man caricature of logical discourse and is, in fact, a self-justifying act of sophistry.
Philosophical perspectives of sophists were critically exposed and analyzed by Plato. Although all sophists may not have shared the same view, Plato depicted their general perspective.
Sophists traveled and witnessed diverse views of god and customs, and developed relativistic or antagonistic views for religious faith, morality, and values. They presented a skeptical or critical or antagonistic view to the existence of an absolute, permanent, and objective standard of truth. They viewed truth or a standard of good and evil as a matter of interpretation. A major sophist, Protagoras’ phrase, “man is the measure of all things” indicates this relativistic view of truth.
If there is no objective standard of truth we can appeal to or can determine the validity of claims, arguments become like a game or a battle where winning or losing is at stake and rhetorical skills become a definitive universal tool.
In the absence of the objective standard of truth or right and wrong, the perspective of “might is right” emerged. Thrasymachus, another prominent sophist, developed this view. Citing historical cases, he challenged Socrates, and explained how winners in fact defined and determined justice and judged losers according to the standard they set. Thrasymachus held a view that power determines and defines good and evil. Even deceptive measures were justified as far as they serve for winning over opponents. This power based value perspective entails a nihilistic view of life. One may also find an incipient idea of Machiavellianism.
In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles explained that: the original state of society was a chaotic state of “war by all against all” (see Thomas Hobbes); domination by power is a natural (physis) state of human life; the masses and the weak invent laws "(nomos)" to protect themselves; the powerful can break the laws and establish their rule.
The ancient notion of nomos as divine laws that dominated both gods and humans were no longer present in Callicles’ thought. There was no permanent or absolute principle such as divine justice that abided human society.
If winning or losing is the essential matter, how one appears or looks to others becomes far more important than how one in fact is. Due to the denial of the existence of unchanging, permanent truth or reality, the world is dissolved and reduced to only appearance or phenomena. In Plato’s terms, Sophists stressed the importance of “appearance” over “reality,” “opinion” over “knowledge,” or eradicated their distinction since the world is theoretically limited to appearance in sophist worldview.
Sophists often identified happiness with pleasure and promoted secular materialistic social success. In their view, happiness can be achieved and joy can be experienced without moral goodness. Plato challenged and argued that human beings cannot experience genuine joy and happiness without being morally good. Kant also argued that moral goodness was the condition for happiness.
While sophists defined joy as all forms of pleasure in general, Plato distinguished joy, pleasure, and happiness in two modes: authentic and inauthentic, or genuine and false. Sophists missed this distinction in their analyses of human nature and life.
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