What are the differences between philosophers and sophists?

The sophists were a group of thinkers from ancient Greece, strongly criticized by the philosophers of the time, due to their teaching method and theoretical principles. Let’s see their differences.

Last update: 09 March, 2022

Anyone who is interested in the history of philosophy must know the differences between philosophers and sophists; two intellectual groups of ancient Greece who were in a fight over the irreconcilable disparity between their theoretical and methodological precepts.

In this sense, we can say that the sophists were enemies of the philosophers of the time. Well, according to the latter, the sophists only used their persuasive ability to teach fallacious arguments to society, distancing it from true knowledge.

The Greek philosophers who most opposed the Sophists were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose criticisms fostered a negative understanding of them throughout history. Let’s see, then, what their main differences were.

sophists in history

First of all, it is pertinent to know that the term sophist comes from greek sophos, what does ‘wise’ mean. Therefore, at first it referred to the great thinkers and teachers of ancient Greece.

However, from the 5th century BC. C., the term begins to acquire a pejorative and degrading tint. Well, their detractors (philosophers of nature) accused them of not knowing the true origin of things.

From there, the sophists went from being teachers of wisdom or connoisseurs of life to charlatan masters, tricksters or false sages. In fact, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle began to accuse them of cheating for using rhetoric and dialectics to deceive people:

The sophist appears to be a philosopher, but he is not, since he abandons the path of truth and cultivates mistrust regarding the possibility of reaching universal knowledge and the existence of political and ethical principles that govern relations between men.

~Aristotle~

But who were the sophists really? And why did some renowned philosophers accuse them of being charlatans?

sophists they were travelers who knew different cultures very different from the Greek. For this reason they came to question whether laws and customs were the result of a simple agreement, a social convention or nature.

Thus, they advocated a relativistic interpretation of reality. The objective truth did not exist, but was constructed from what the majority believed.

Therefore, instead of looking for the true knowledge (like the philosophers of the time), they focused on teaching oratory, so that citizens would succeed in society and in politics. Among the most prominent sophists we find Protagoras, Gorgias, Thrasymachus and Critias.

Plato and Aristotle were very critical of the sophists, to the point of calling them charlatans.


5 differences between philosophers and sophists

Now, the main differences between philosophers and sophists can be summarized as follows. Let’s see.

1. The position around the truth

As we said, the sophists adopted a relativistic and skeptical position regarding the truth. They believed that there were no universal laws nor objective truths that governed the universe. And if there were, they defended that they could not be known.

Instead, the Greek philosophers believed in the existence of an objective truth that governed the entire universe. Therefore, they criticized the sophists, claiming that they taught false knowledge.

2. Imposition versus exposure

Another difference between philosophers and sophists refers to the use of knowledge. In this case, the sophists taught that anyone who wanted to be successful in public life would have to know how to impose and convince in the town assemblies. That is to say, everything that it affirms has to be shown as true, even if it is not.

For this you must have a good eloquence and rhetoric, because the only way to seduce the ignorant masses is through the word. For his part, the philosopher does not intend to impose any knowledge. Instead, he seeks to present arguments based on logical reasoning.

In fact, the philosopher presents his knowledge and is open to analyze any counterargument refute your position. He, then, does not believe he is creditor of the absolute truth.

I just know that I know nothing.

~Socrates~

3. Lucrative activity versus love of knowledge

The sophists were the first thinkers who they paid money for their teachings. An issue that was quite criticized by the philosophers of ancient Greece.

In this sense, the sophists demanded that they be paid before imparting something. Instead, philosophers could teach even if they were not paid. Since what mattered to them was the production of knowledge and access to the only truth.



4. The goal of teaching

The sophists, believing that truth was constructed by man, they focused on oratory and eristics to guarantee success of citizens in the public affairs of society. Instead, the philosophers went after true knowledge.

For this they taught to think logically and coherently. In addition, they invited questioning and constant reflection, since they considered them the only way to access the truth.

The positions of both groups make us think about our consideration of the truth, as objective or subjective.

5. The ethics behind the teachings

We close the differences between philosophers and sophists with an ethical question. In this case, it has been claimed that the sophist did not care whether what he taught was good or not; because what mattered to him was that they paid him for his work.

In contrast, pay is said to take a backseat in the case of philosophers. What really mattered was the teaching itself and the acquisition of knowledge.

Not everything is critical

It is pertinent to note that not all philosophers have criticized the work of the sophists in ancient Greece. From the 19th and 20th century, some thinkers such as Nietzsche and Grote tried to claim the philosophical importance of this group of intellectuals.

According to these authors, the sophists were authentic philosophers, whose doctrines must be analyzed as serious positions.

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