Sophists in the Midst

Between Detienne’s book and Sprague’s collection, this week’s reading seems poised around questions of definition, to whit: What is a sophist? What is sophistic rhetoric? How are the sophists and their work related to earlier Greek traditions? (Next week’s reading picks up these questions and starts pointing to the sophistic legacy in Greece–but that’s for next week’s post.)

  • What is a sophist?

On the basis of Sprague’s collection, the label sophist hardly seems justifiable, at least to the extent that a label implies categorization. The work of the sophists in Sprague’s collection defies categorization on two counts. First, several of the sophists collected here produced work that, in today’s terms, might kindly be described as interdisciplinary. Antiphon is a typical example. While the majority of his extant work is legal discourse and court speeches, he also produced a treatise On Truth, encompasses concerns about the body, geometry, and epistemology. As Sprague notes (226), Antiphon’s Concord encompasses concerns of pedagogy, psychology, and sociology in what seems (from the available fragments and references from ancient commentators) to have been both political treatise and ethical manual (although as we see from next week, Jaeger reveals politics and ethics were indissociable for the Greek mind). Finally, Antiphon preceded Freud himself in producing a guide to the Interpretation of Dreams.

But even if an individual sophist’s work (here using Antiphon as an examplar) was itself difficult to categorize, the question is even more complicated when we seek some pattern across Sprague’s collection. While themes and topics do repeat across the work of this collection–rhetoric and pedagogy, yes, but also a repeated emphasis on the contingent nature of epistemology–it is important to note that the sophists (at least from these samples) were never dogmatic or programmatic about their approach; there was never a “Sophistic Manifesto.” The sophists are marked most significantly, perhaps, by our own scholarship’s inability to heap them together within a Platonic or Aristotelian (or any other established) tradition. The sophists are marked, as Detienne notes, by ambiguity: “Both sophistry and rhetoric … were forms of thought founded on ambiguity. … [T]hey defined themselves as instruments that formulated the theory and logic of ambiguity and made effective action on that same level of ambiguity possible” (116). In cultivating ambiguity, sophists produced work that resented categorical modes of epistemology, working to refute an aboslutism that limited the generative power of rhetoric.

  • What is sophistic rhetoric?

In a word, inconsistent. As above, the label “sophistic rhetoric” might be a trope contemporary scholarship has used to group together the disparate work of those ancients who don’t easily fit into another tradition. Not that there aren’t some things we point to as indicative of sophistic rhetoric, but these points seem to be more meta-level points than based in any one sophist’s claims about the way rhetoric works. For example, it seems clear that one thing the sophists had in common was that, for them, rhetoric and oratory could be taught, could be learned; their mercenary approach to these practices (as clearly attested by Xenophon at Sprague 2), suggests a realization of rhetoric as above all a practical art (or techne). Although Detienne doesn’t make the point explicit, this mercenary approach can perhaps be understood as a consequence of the secularization of speech and oratory that he attributes to the sophists; de-sanctified, removed from the divine speech of poets, prophets, and kings, oratorical speech was reabsorbed into the realm of commerce and commodity. Perhaps then, what most marks sophistic rhetoric is not a style or epistemology, but rather the assertion that speech itself (and the promise of efficacy held by persuasive speech in particular) can be taught and sold.

  • How are the sophists and their work related to earlier Greek traditions?

Detienne argues that, by desacralizing the categories of efficacious speech, the sophists introduced the notion of contradictory argument (as opposed to complementary qualities). Likewise, sophistic practice made speech an instrument of political action, rather than a mode of efficaciousness as it had been under the earlier masters of Alethia/alethia. This question is somewhat harder to answer for, honestly, given my own ignorance of pre-socratic Greek work (perhaps this could be a topic for discussion when we next meet?).

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2 Responses to “Sophists in the Midst”

  1. Kim Lacey Says:

    Kiss ass.

  2. Ha ha. Mike is a sneaky warlock.

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