The Sophists were fifth-century B.C. wise men of Greece who traveled from area to area offering their wisdom, often for a fee. The Sophists were a loose-knit group, not identified with any single school or movement, who addressed a wide range of philosophical, social, and ethical issues. They also offered instruction on persuasion and winning arguments.
The Sophists were particularly influential in Athens. Leading fifth-century Sophists include Gorgias, Hippias of Elis, and Prodicus of Ceos. The most famous Sophist was Protagoras. He taught techniques of argument and was especially known for promoting moral relativism. He rejected absolute universal truth asserting that morality was relative and created by communities. He made the famous statement, “Man is the measure of all things.”
The original writings of the Sophists are lost. The primary source for knowledge about them is Plato who was very negative about their ideas and their methods. Plato considered the Sophists to be dishonest since they were more interested in winning arguments than establishing truth and justice. In his writings, Plato depicts Socrates as an example of wisdom and virtue who defeats the Sophists and their arguments. Aristotle, also, was critical of the relativism of the Sophists. The term “Sophist” eventually came to have negative overtones. Today, the word “sophistry” refers to false and deceptive reasoning.