The Sophists were among the earliest philosophers of the Western world. Their name is now generally used as a term of intellectual abuse. ‘Sophist’ means a clever cheat, a casuist, a spin doctor, an insincere practitioner of misleading rhetoric. This is because what little we know about the Sophists comes from their opponents, especially Plato. Plato portrayed Socrates as a man of truth, seeking wisdom, as opposed to the quick-witted but superficial Sophists. They were also accused of being mercenary as they took payment for their teaching. Modern perceptions of the Sophists derive mostly from Plato’s depiction and Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds. In this play, an Athenian father sends his son to a parodic academy of unworldly philosophers so he can learn how to win law cases. However ultimately his son questions and overthrows (literally) paternal authority using the rhetorical skills he has learnt. It suggests that young men would be distracted from dutiful, honest dreams of martial glory by a world of, at best, useless speculation and, at worst, logical hair-splitting that would allow them, literally and figuratively, to beat their betters (Sommerstein, 1973). This negative image of the Sophists has passed into both general discourse and educational philosophy. In this article I wish to discuss what the Sophists actually thought, insofar as we can elucidate it, and draw parallels with modern medical education theory and practice. Some of the most fundamental principles of medical education theory have their origins in the work of the Sophists.
There are three main strands of Sophistic thought which find parallels in the modern discourse of medical educationalists. Firstly, the whole idea of education as a professional enterprise requiring structured attention and of monetary recognition. Secondly, the idea that what are often seen as innate qualities can in fact be taught. Thirdly, an empirical, evidence-based approach to receive opinion and practice.
Who were the Sophists? The word is derived from the Ancient Greek sophos
meaning ‘wise’, ‘skilful’, ‘clever’. In early Greek literature, a Sophist was a teacher, poet and wise man. This is how ‘Sophist’ is used by Homer and Hesiod in the seventh centuries BC (O’Grady 2008
). A laudatory meaning was attached to the word when used by Homer. In the works of Herodotus (c. 490–420 BC), ‘Sophist’ is employed neutrally to mean ‘teacher’. The ‘Sophists’, as a term, now generally refers to philosophers of the fifth and fourth century BC. They were freelancers, mostly non-Athenian, independent teachers who travelled from city to city throughout Ancient Greece, charging for their services and making their living from a demand for education (O’Grady 2008
). Kerferd (1981
) identified distinguishing attributes of Sophists – they were paid for teaching, they were patronised by the wealthy, were mainly non-Athenian as well as itinerant, claimed to teach political arête
(excellence) and how to be a good citizen, and emphasized the art of speaking. It was this focus on the art of speaking, and a delight in rhetorical innovation and, above all, a constantly questioning stance, which earned the Sophists their reputation. Although a later group of philosophers in the second century A.D. were also dubbed Sophists, ‘the Sophists’ generally refers to these fifth century B.C. intellectuals.
The Sophists brought tremendous intellectual excitement to Athens. This excitement brought with it anxiety, as is evident in The Clouds. All was up for grabs for the Sophists, from the nature of reality itself to the nature of the good to the existence of gods. For traditionally minded Athenians, this was a threatening stance.
The history of ideas is sometimes seen as a series of reactions and counter reactions — Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Romanticism and Neo Classicism, Postmodernism versus modernism. In educational theory, we see parallel dichotomies of behaviourist and constructivist paradigms. The Socratic movement and the Sophists can be seen as being in a similar opposition. Of course, all these developments derive from the other and each depends upon the other. Socrates and the Sophists were not mutually exclusive camps. Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, for instance, is very clearly of a Sophist. And the intellectual excitement which the Sophists kindled in Athens surely had much to do with Socrates setting himself up as a philosopher, and with Plato, at later date, writing his dialogues.
Later generations have been harsh to the Sophists. They were described by the classicist Henry Sidgwick in 1872 as ‘a set of charlatans who appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned an ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity; professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines’ (Sidgwick 1872
). Right up to the present day, ‘Sophist’ carries this meaning, as can be seen in the words of the contemporary Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft: ‘Socrates made a point that he never took a fee for his teaching. (Neither did Jesus.) This proved that he was not one of the Sophists, who sold their minds as a prostitute sells her body’ (Kreeft 2002
‘Sophistry’ in modern educational theory
In educational theory and philosophy, similar views prevail – Socratic and Sophistic approaches to education are often contrasted, usually unfavourably to Sophistic ones. For instance Furedy and Furedy (1982
) propose a Socratic-Sophistic continuum, positing that Socratic approaches are characterised by enquiry while the Sophistic approach is characterised by persuasion and a focus on rhetoric. Elsewhere, the same authors (1986) argue that Socratic approaches are conterminous with critical enquiry and that Sophistic influences have been mainly implicit and manifested in tendency towards instrumentalism and affective learning as well as in the choice of curricula and curricula development. The title of this latter paper — On Strengthening the Socratic Strain in Higher Education
— strongly suggests where the authors’ sympathies lie. As Furedy and Furedy acknowledge, the Sophistic–Socratic dichotomy, like all dichotomies, is overly simplistic, and in this ariticle I will argue that when we look at what the Sophists themselves thought and taught, we find a strong commitment to critical enquiry and the questioning of assumptions.
), writing from the perspective of teacher training, collapses the Socratic–Sophistic dichotomy in his analysis of the Socratic dialogue Meno
– but in a way unfavourable to both schools. He argues that Socratic dialogue is an example of coercive Sophistic rhetoric rather than disinterested enquiry. Hall (1996
) in his commentary on Boyles’ paper takes the view that ‘sophistry is deficient insofar as it panders to the desire of the unwise, untutored, and unreflective for quick acquisition of knowledge. If one had enough money, one could with great speed acquire knowledge about, for example, political affairs together with the ability to speak persuasively on virtually any subject’ (Hall 1996
) This statement, coming as it does within a sophisticated discussion of a Socratic dialogue, summarises the dominant view of the Sophists within educational philosophy. Stabile (2007
), in his analysis of the clash between ‘virtue’ and ‘Sophist’ trends in education, depicts Sophist approaches as synonymous with utilitarian ones. In educational discourse, ‘Sophist’ has become a pejorative term in a more specific way then the general pejorative usage. These negative views are counterbalanced by a modern awareness of the importance of the Sophists, and awareness that their thought was more subtle and less focused on persuasion by any means necessary than their critics wrote.