An Apology for Sophism
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco Invictus
When one hears "sophism", one thinks of pompous rhetors, indulging in hedonistic decadence; amoral or immoral lawyers turning black into white with words; and intellectuals who use their minds to mislead their audience. However, this image, as frequently happens with other philosophies in periods where they are challenged and dominated by another one (for example, epicurism in Rome), is partially wrong.
The first to be labelled as "sophists", which is derived from the Greek word "sofow / sophos", meaning "wise", were travelling rhetors and teachers, usually from Magna Graeca (southern Italy), in the 6th and 5th century BC. Most of these have remained famous because at one stage or another in their life, they visited Athens, which was at that time the Greek cultural superpower. Sophists taught young students - for a considerable sum of money - how to write, read and speak. This system of education would form the foundation fo later education principles in Hellas and the later Imperium Romanum. They were also paid to write speeches on occasion, or at the request of people. They were considered linguistic genuises, and formed the second wave of important western philosophers, after the so-called nature philosophers, who were mainly interested in metaphysical questions, and laid the foundation for modern mathematics.
The sophists, on the other hand, were the first to claim (moral) relativism, which was new in the classical world. Although the later schools of thought would deny this, the sophists had a considerable influence on Sokrates - his fictional dialogues with the sophists probably have true basis - Plato, and Aristoteles, who both wrote about rhetoric (or used rhetorical elements, such as Plato), and borrowed heavily from their experiences with the sophists. Protagoras, probably being one of the most important philosophers in that movement, was one of the first to put forward anthropocentrism, which was quite daring at that time. Far from being a poor idealist, however, he was sure to have enough money to afford himself such statements.
Of course, since a vivid anthropocentrism was promoted at the expense of the gods, other sources of morality were found. It would be wrong to claim that sophists were immoral hedonists, as moral philosophy was rather marginal at that time, and would only develop after the sophists, with Sokrates, who was a reactionary against the revolutionary, "bourgeois"-ideals of his predecessors and teachers. For some sophists, such as Gorgias, striving for fame and success was the natural and good thing to do, which of course had rather hedonistic consequences for they way of life, but no one can claim that they did not live up to their own ideals. Other sophists tend to nihilism, or absolute relativism.
In any case, due to their uncanny ability to master the art of speaking, and possessing the abilities to pass that knowledge on to students, they stood at the cradle of what would later grow out to be linguistic sciences, a slumbering element in science and philosophy until it was taken up again by the Renaissance.
On a closing note, it is worth noting that the movement of the sophists perpetuated itself as a part of later philosophies and/or individuals, all the way through the classical era, up until today. Political rhetors such as Cicero exhibit a virtuosity the ancient sophist teachers would be proud of, and the writer Machiavelli explores their moral tendencies. Also, sophists had a considerable influence on the later cyrenaics, and their art of debate would also be picked up again in the literary "salons" of the 18th century, when Europe was glowing under the brightness of the Enlightment. It is considered natural for a statesman, today, to at least have a basic "media training", and being able to make a reasonable speech. Of course, caricatural politicians or jurists, who only have attention for this detail, only perpetuate the evil caricature that has been drawn of sophists through the ages.