Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies
If one were to look for a Platonic definition of a sophist, it would seem that there could be no better place than Plato’s Sophist, in which the Stranger and Theaetetus lay out a series of definitions in an attempt to articulate what makes a sophist. The Stranger’s definition of a sophist as a persuasive teacher of ἀρετή for pay, combined with the clear bias of Plato against these competitors of Socrates, has often led scholars to read these characteristics as the target of Plato’s critique and as markers of Socrates’ superiority.
However, by looking at Plato’s characterization of the sophists in ‘sophistic dialogues,’ such as the Gorgias, Protagoras, Euthydemus, Hippias Major and Hippias Minor, where they perform within a competitive context alongside Socrates, we see that the behavior of both is strikingly similar. Both Socrates and the sophists use the speech practices of dialectic and rhetoric, and both appear to attempt to lead others toward excellence. Even the characteristics which mark a clear difference between Socrates and the sophists, from the sophists’ receipt of payment to their foreign origin in contrast to the Athenian Socrates who refused a fee, are not emphasized by Plato as inherently blameworthy.
Instead, Socrates’ famous disavowal of wisdom, when placed in contrast with the sophists whose professional standing requires that they claim to possess knowledge, is at the root of Plato’s differentiation between Socrates and the sophists. Plato reveals the sophists’ ignorance of their own ignorance through their failed attempts to define and demonstrate their teaching, and this failing both attaches dangerous stakes to their use of rhetoric as well as precludes their capacity to understand and teach excellence. Unlike the Stranger’s sophists, who are characterized by action, Plato’s sophists are doomed more by their self-perception as experts than their methods.
Wallace, A. 2023. "The Platonic Sophists Against the Sophist: Complicating the Socratic Divide." PhD Diss., Bryn Mawr College.
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