As we all know, sophism is regarded as the immoral, malformed twin of philosophy in Plato's dialogues. Socrates sees a fundamental distinction here:

However, as I put it, cookery is flattery disguised as medicine; and in just the same manner self-adornment personates gymnastic: with its rascally, deceitful, ignoble, and illiberal nature it deceives men by forms and colors, polish and dress so as to make them, in the effort of assuming an extraneous beauty, neglect the native sort that comes through gymnastic. Well, to avoid prolixity, I am willing to put it to you like a geometer—for by this time I expect you can follow me: as self-adornment is to gymnastic, so is sophistry to legislation; and as cookery is to medicine, so is rhetoric to justice. But although, as I say, there is this natural distinction between them, they are so nearly related that sophists and orators are jumbled up as having the same field and dealing with the same subjects, and neither can they tell what to make of each other, nor the world at large what to make of them.

Gorgias, 465b-c

But how is this compatible with the sophists that Socrates actually meets?

Sure, Euthydemos and his brother Dionysodoros are pretty ridiculous. But they don't seem dangerous, or able to corrupt people's minds - they only stump the audience with their tricks but hardly influence it. They are of advanced age, so we know that they dedicated their whole lives to be basically professional clowns while not attaining any wisdom. They're just tragic figures.

Protagoras is one of the few conversational partners who are on the same intellectual level as Socrates. In the dialogue of the same name, he doesn't seem to be overly manipulative and despite some flaws (his ego), he comes across as a sympathetic and insightful man. In the Theaetetus he holds extreme views about the nature of knowledge, but are they really more extreme than many Platonic ideas (e.g. anamnesis, the utopia in The Republic)?

Gorgias is perhaps the most problematic (he identifies as an orator, but Socrates sees not much difference to a Sophist - see quote above). He treats Socrates mostly fair and remains polite (despite Socrates' harsh words), but he is morally uneven and tries to weasel himself out of any responsibility for the bad effects of rhetorical art. And his student Callicles, a kind of proto-Nietzsche, is the best example of how bad those effects can be.

The overall picture is very mixed. So how is this condemnation of sophism without exception and this binary dichotomy of sophism vs. philosophy compatible with the actual sophists in the dialogues?

In the dialogues, which supposedly show us the real world, the binary distinction does not exist and sophism and philosophy seem to rather exist on a spectrum.

Every philosopher is a sophist to some degree (in the Sophist dialogue, we learn that Parmenides has unintentionally supplied the foundation for sophism), and the other way around.

  • 1
    What we call 'philosopher' was called in ancient Athens 'sophist'. A modern re-rendering of the distinction is 'philosophology' of Robert Pirsig
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 2:44
  • 1
    @Rusi Pirsig's ideas are trenchant and thought-provoking. But, like many binary distinctions, over-simplified. In philosophy and all the other activities he mentions, what is produced now is produced in dialogue with the past and the present - including his post. That remark is over-simplified, of course.. That also applies to Plato's relationship with the sophists.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 8:36
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    @LudwigV To speak is to simplify; to speak clearly is to over-simplify. Thats the human condition. The alternative is to wave the hands and be a silent mystic or make some tautologous statement like "What is is!" Vide the closing chord of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. [In my view that Ludwig was a crypto mystic] Whether it is Socrates to the sophists, Jesus to Sanhedrin, Schopenhauer to Hegel or Pirsig to philosophology, the need to criticize widespread reputable bad philosophy remains ever
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 8:41
  • @Rusi "To speak is to simplify; to speak clearly is to over-simplify." Yes and no. Subject to clarification. "the need to criticize widespread reputable bad philosophy remains ever" Again yes, though perhaps disreputable bad philosophy should be included? I'll see if I have time to produce an answer, which might clarify what I think.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 9:05
  • 1
    In this answer I relate cultivation of wisdom to avoiding what Harry Frankfurt's philosophy calls 'bullshit': pursuasion without regard to truth philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/82325/… Sophists now are advertising executives, & lawyers, & pro-tobacco & oil lobbyists, pursuing narrow short-term aims, at the (probable) neglect of a holistic view of their life's impacts. Socrates at his trial took pride in not having been paid to teach, & listening to the guidance of his conscience implacably.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


I spent some time with a Greek lexicon. I can add a summary of what I found to this answer if you want to see it. Conclusions:-

There’s no reason to suppose that he regarded people who spoke in public assemblies (i.e. rhetores) with any particular principled venom.

Philosophos is not restricted to philosophy, but applies to wisdom, education, learning in general. It doesn’t mean “philosopher” in our sense of the word.

Plato mostly speaks of sophists in a neutral way, and more rarely in a bad way. In addition, as you point out, some of the philosophical opponents in the dialogues are sophists and are treated with respect. There’s no reason to suppose that he regarded the sophists as such as evil.

The Clouds is a satire on Socrates, who is represented as a typical member of what we call the “Pre-Socratics”. It is possible that Aristophanes coined the “bad” use of sophists in this play. Plato did use it in that sense but he also uses it in a neutral sense. However, there’s some ground for saying that the concept of sophistry existed and that he expressed disapproval of that, as distinct from sophists.

What we need to do is to identify his target more precisely.

The Gorgias gives us an answer. But first, notice that after messing about with the problem that rhetoric doesn’t have any subject matter of its own, he identifies the unique feature of rhetoric as persuasion and it seems at first sight that that’s his target. But that would mean rejecting his own teaching of philosophy and undermines much of his writing, notably the rhetoric of the Apology, the Republic, the Phaedrus and the Symposium. (He was a brilliant literary stylist and didn’t have the concept of logic to distinguish what he did from what rhetoric does).

The argument you quote identifies exactly what he objects to and that is pretending to be what you are not – mimicry. Some forms of persuasion seem to be what they are not. It eventually emerges that what is missing from the bad forms of persuasion is that they may convince, but they do not provide “understanding” (epistēmē). That’s what makes the difference.

But there’s another objection, also articulated in the Gorgias. Persuasion is a technology, capable of being used for good ends or bad. Gorgias defends rhetoric with an argument that is still used to defend various contested technologies:- (Gorgias is speaking, at 456d) “…our use of rhetoric should be like our use of any other sort of exercise. For other exercises are not to be used against all and sundry …. it is not the teachers who are wicked, nor is the art either guilty or wicked on this account, but rather, to my thinking, those who do not use it properly. Now the same argument applies also to rhetoric….”

Socrates takes this argument apart, but it is not his real target. His real target is Callicles’ defence of ”might is right”. Admittedly, Callicles is pupil of Gorgias, which is why he makes the speech I quoted from. Note also that the dialogue with Alcibiades puts Socrates in exactly Gorgias' situation, and Plato will have known that, even though the point is not mentioned here. Whether that affects Plato's handling of this argument is an interesting question.

Socrates believes that doing injustice is worse than being treated unjustly (this is of course, a major feature of the Apology); that being good is more important than seeming to be good; that discipline is good and indulgence is bad; and that rhetoric should only be used in support of what’s just. By the time we get to the end of the dialogue, we can see that although Polus came at the question in the wrong way, the topic of the value of rhetoric dominates the dialogue; Polus’ instinct was right.

Socrates’ mission, you will recall, was not specifically to discomfit the sophists; it was to discomfit all those who pretended to know but didn’t, including generals, lawyers, orators and so on. In fact, his practice extends beyond that; in many of the dialogues, such as the Crito, the Meno, the Phaedo, the Republic, the Symposium, and the Phaedrus, his interlocutors are not even opponents. Plato represents Socrates as a teacher at least as much as a warrior.

  • We should use good things to do good things. I can get behind that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 11:22

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