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SOPHISTS
Form: Gr. sophistai.
Properly a name given by the Greeks to all those who professed knowledge, or a particular knowledge or a particular art. Hence the Seven Wise Men are often thus called; but the name was especially applied to the educated men of ready speech, who, from about the year 450 B.C., used to travel through Greece from place to place, and imparted what they knew for money. They have the merit of having popularized the interest in knowledge which had up to that time been confined within narrow circles, and especially of having contributed to the formation of eloquence. For they were the first to make style an object of study, and to institute serious investigations into the art of rhetorical expression. Their teaching was chiefly intended to give their pupils versatility in the use of speech, and thus to fit them for taking part in public life. As the subject of their discourses, they chose by preference questions of public interest to persons of general education. The expression, however, always remained the important thing, while positive knowledge fell more and more into the background. Some of them even started from the position, that virtue and knowledge were only subjective notions. Protagoras of Abdera, who appeared about 445 B.C., is named as the first Sophist; after him the most important is Gorgias of Leontini; Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Elis are contemporaries of the other two. Wherever they appeared, especially in Athens, they were received with the greatest enthusiasm, and many flocked to hear them. Even such men as Pericles, Euripides, and Socrates sought their society; and Socrates owed to them much that was suggestive in his own pursuit of practical philosophy, though, on the other hand, he persistently attacked the principles underlying their public teaching. These principles became further exaggerated under their successors who did not think they needed even knowledge of fact to talk as they pleased about everything. Accordingly the skill of the Sophist degenerated into mere technicalities and complete absence of reason, and became absolutely contemptible. (<italisc>See Grote's History of Greece, chap. lxvii, and Dr. H. Sidgwick's essay in the Journal of Philology, iv 288.) With the revival of Greek eloquence, from about the beginning of the 2nd century A.D., the name of Sophist attained a now distinction. At that time the name was given to the professional orators, who appeared in public with great pomp and delivered declamations either prepared beforehand or improvised on the spot. Like the earlier Sophists, they went generally from place to place, and were overwhelmed with applause and with marks of distinction by their contemporaries, including even the Roman emperors. Dion Chrysostom, Herodes Atticus, Aristides, Lucian, and Philostratus the elder, belong to the flourishing period of this second school of Sophists, a period which extends over the whole of the 2nd century. They appear afresh about the middle of the 4th century devoting their philosophic culture to the zealous but unavailing defence of paganism. Among them was the emperor Julian and his contemporaries Libanius, Himerius, and Themistius. Synesius may be considered as the last Sophist of importance.
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