I read from Lazlo Versenyi's Socratic Humanism (p. 1-72, 1963). "The first part of this book offers a thoughtful and provocative defense of the Sophists" (D. A. Hyland, The Origin of Philosophy: Its Rise in Myth and the Pre-Socratics [1973], p. 382). But, Versenyi's defense leaves me guessing. "How can Sophism be defended?" My though is, "It cannot!" It's more like throat gargling or, "...something else even dirtier." After coming to an understanding of Versenyi's 'defense', my question is: "...should our descriptions, explanations, presentations regarding life and living, science, history, learning in general, be made more or less 'Sophistic'?" "Is Sophistry useful?" "Is Sophism ever useful?"


3 Answers 3


Funny you should ask…

Heh. This was the topic of an abandoned thesis in grad school. I thought i could make the case for sophism, but as I accumulated evidence, it became exceedingly apparent that the reverse case was stronger.

I am familiar with the works you cite. Part of the attraction of "The Case for Sophism" was that body of scholarship was sufficiently small to be encompassed in a few months time, and the dialog had been ongoing.

We mainly hear of sophism from its detractors. There is precious little work by the sophists themselves; and, while their work does paint a different picture, its just not enough to justify what was merely a hunch on my part.

However, all that research did pay off in the form of another cosmic realization; that is, Athenian democracy, indeed, Greek democracy was deeply rooted in an intensely agrarian tradition, and well, if you know farmers, they are generally suspicious of flowery language and crafty arguments.

Irony of ironies, Socrates was routinely portrayed—via thin disguises—in the works of Aristophanes as a sophist! (Socrates attributed the beginning of his troubles to Aristophanes' plays.) In another example of the rhetorical power and representation of popular perception via theatre, Sophocles used the character of Oedipus to portray Pericles. Again, the kind of guy who could not leave well enough alone, who HAD to KNOW! And, who was famous for entertaining intelligencia from all around the world. He in particular was blamed for leading the Athenians into the disastrous Peloponnesian War through his fantastic powers of persuasion.

Having grown up in a farm town in the Central California valley, I was well acquainted with the farmer's perspective. Like the Spartan he admired, "Deeds, not words" were the measure of a man. Their pride, power, and prejudices permeate Greek literature. Americans, in general, will be familiar with a similar bias, I think most would agree. Also, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Farmers build great public spaces, and they are generally trustworthy, capable neighbors.

But the topic of sophism is ever renascent. Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance brought the topic back to the public eyes, yet, as the protagonist himself admits, he's a poor scholar. The words were not backed by deeds.

At least any that I could find to a sufficient degree to "win" the case.

And so, we are left with an opinion. Maybe they weren't so bad. Maybe they were onto a more scientific (as in bottom up, starting with observations rather than top down, beginning with postulates) form of inquiry.

Unless some new text emerges from the sands of Egypt, it is not likely we can resolve this, the pejorative meaning of "sophist" in modern usage is like to stand.

[What's wrong with this little essay: Sorry, I'm not citing things in a scholarly way at all. Any criticism of that is justified. I am away from my notes, and typing on an iPhone is tedious, so, excuse the incompleteness of this response, if you will.]

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    Your's is the answer. Stay humble, but absolutely brilliant. "Fair-thee-well" in your studies and in your profession. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 18:59
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    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Darcy. Being new, I did not have the voting privilege. But now I do! I think the ancient Greeks would have approved of a system in which one had to earn the right to vote, so +1 back at your question. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 19:45

You've confused the modern use of the term, which, like rhetoric, is now used almost exclusively pejoratively, with its use in Socrates' era (i.e., the era of the people we generally refer to as that of "the Sophists"), when it meant the teaching of wisdom.

A major aspect of Sophistry was the elaboration of persuasive techniques. We might hear this now and cynically assume this means the art of lying, however, it ideally means the art of telling the truth. Formal logic might be considered a persuasive technique in this sense.

The truth is not always something everyone wants to hear and to be believed you might need to, e.g., know something about your audience and how to lead them to a particular conclusion. Not everyone is going to be moved by formal logic. I believe people like Protagoras were concerned with things like this.

Today the Sophists probably do get a decent amount of respect in academic circles, but there was perhaps a long period post Enlightenment (particularly in the English speaking world) when this was less so, hence your 1968 book requiring a "proactive defence". The mainstream bias maybe remains because of a modern insecurity: that a lot of our foundations for various social practices which are supposed to be sound and reasonable are perhaps really B.S. (i.e., products of negative rhetoric and sophistry). E.g., Once upon a time it was socially acceptable to spout all kinds of absurd rhetoric and hyperbole (a very false spreading of wisdom) about Jews and homosexuals, but it is less so now. What happened? Was't our culture all about absolute reason? Or maybe it is more about (a poor sort of) sophistry that we'd like to deny?

So, today good politicians deride rhetoric and (small s) sophistry in others, and deny it in themselves, despite the fact that by any objective standard they all (or at least, all the successful ones) practice it wholesale. Likewise, we disdain criminal defence lawyers for their sophistry in defending criminals, but admire it in prosecutors.

Perhaps the modern age would benefit to a return to the value of (capital S) Sophism as an art and means to the truth, rather than just an excuse to say whatever you want. We've thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

  • It's still pretty acceptable to spout absurd rhetoric and hyperbole; you just have to target a group that most everyone dislikes anyway. Witness what Republicans and Democrats get away with saying about each other when talking to their own constituents, for instance.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 2:42

As with the Biblical Pharisees, we mainly remember the sophists from the perspective of their fiercest critic (in this case Plato/Socrates). I haven't read Versenyi but I assume he's defending the historical sophists (I use the lowercase "s" because the term is more a general description than the identifier of a defined group with a specific philosophy), and not the Socratic estimation of them as people who prostituted their intelligence.

In terms of the history of philosophy, the sophists definitely helped shape the intellectual environment that produced Socrates and Plato, but outside of that, their lasting influence has been limited.

In terms of modern equivalents, business consultants and motivational speakers are perhaps their closest analog. Whether you think that means they play a positive or negative role in today's society is a matter of opinion.

  • Are you sure that the modern equivalents are just "business consultants and motivational speakers"? AFAICT the Sophists invented the professionalization of philosophy. Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 23:01
  • @goldilocks And are there professional philosophers today who are the equivalent of the sophists? These days, philosophy might be a calling, but it's not much in the way of a profession. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 4:55
  • Last I checked being a tenured professor at most schools would put you above the median income. Consider the social role of the ivy league philosophy prof, who may do her own work of whatever sort, but whose job also importantly includes teaching future movers and shakers of society how to reason and argue. You can go to school, pick your argument, and then find someone to teach you how to make it better. Wasn't this exactly the role of the original sophists? Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 13:09
  • Apparently the Sophists haven't left us with much in the way of writings, but the Pharisees actually did. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 19:15
  • @elliotsvensson - There isn't much, but there is some: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Socratic_philosophy Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 19:45

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