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PostEngineer_Joseph on Tue 13 Dec 2016, 10:43 am

The word ‘sophist’ means a wise person, and is from the Greek word ‘soph’, meaning wisdom. Realising that the word ‘philosophy’ contains this word ‘soph’, i.e. ‘wisdom’, and other Greek word, ‘philo’. The latter word, ‘philo’ means ‘lover of; so the word ‘philosophy’ actually means ‘lover of wisdom’. So, what or who were the sophists and what significant role did they play in the education of Athenians?

The Sophists were itinerant teachers, mostly from outside Athens, who went about dispensing their knowledge to whoever was it that cared to listen and pay for such. In most cases, however, these were the nobles who had the time to listen, money to pay, and the knowledge to engage such itinerant teachers in discussions. Many authorities claim that the Sophists were few, but there are evidences that they numbered more than 30. For about 70 years, they until about 380 BC, ‘they were the sole source of higher education in the more advanced Greek cities. Thereafter, at least in Athens, they were largely replaced by the new philosophic schools, such as those of Plato and Socrates.’

Looking back, most authorities would tend to deride the type of education given by the Sophists, since these were like ‘hungry authors’ going about to sell knowledge. The exception of course is Socrates, of whom we shall learn more later, since this great philosopher did not sell his knowledge and taught out of genuine interest in the truth and knowledge. There is also the question of how these Sophists were trained, to start with. There are some evidences that some of them really underwent rigorous and genuine training, but there are also enough reasons to regard some of them as self trained and perhaps ‘fake’.
As most of the Sophists were not Athenians, how come they made Athens their centre of activities? There are three major reasons for this. First, Athens served as a geographic central point, through which most of the routes passed. It was thus a commercial focal point.

Second, Athens was the most liberal of the city-states, the place where you could express your views without let or hinder. In other places, trying to express an opinion might land one in trouble. Third, there were many nobles there who were prepared to listen to, and engage in philosophical arguments and pay for these.

The Sophists taught men how to speak and what arguments to use in public debate. Most people, especially youths who needed skills of public speaking, increasingly sought after a Sophistic education. This was mainly because the changing pattern of Athenian society made merely traditional attitudes in many cases to be no longer adequate. Criticizing such attitudes and replacing them by rational arguments held special attraction for the young. Plato admitted that he learned at least one thing from the Sophists: that if the older values were to be defended, it must be by reasoned argument, not by appeals to tradition and unreflecting faith.

The Sophists left an enduring mark on the education of youths. It was the Sophists, for instance, who pointed attention to the grammar of the language. They taught such items as genders, tenses, moods and the like. In short, they established the fact that the language has structure which has to be mastered in order to speak, write, and think well. Besides, they
improved the study of prose and thus helped the use of rhetoric as an art of public speaking.

Remember that because of the development of democracy, public speaking was getting more and more essential to intending politicians and practitioners in the courts. Thirdly, they developed the use of logic, the science of proper reasoning. When you think of these three contributions – grammar, rhetoric, and logic – you would realize that these early lovers of
wisdom perhaps deserve their name.

This is not to say that they did not delve into some other areas. Of course, they engaged in the nature of vietue (arête) and the bases of morality; in the history of society and the arts; in poetry, music, and mathematics; and also in astronomy and the physical sciences, even though individual Sophists may specialize in one area and not in the other. In general, it is
the general view today that these itinerant teachers initiated a method of higher education that in range and method anticipated the modern humanistic approach.

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