30 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | BCE

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Philosophical Context: The Sophists

The reigning philosophers of Socrates’s time, the Sophists, trained young men in many subjects, but mainly they taught rhetoric and debate, so that the men would be able to hold their own in political contests.

Socrates was widely considered to be one of the Sophists—the “soph” in Sophist means “wisdom,” while “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”—and in ancient times all forms of wisdom and knowledge were the purview of philosophers. (Until the late 19th century, scientists were called “natural philosophers.”) Socrates’s student Plato and his student Aristotle began a tradition of separating philosophy from rhetoric and debate. Plato went so far as to use the term “sophist” in a mocking and demeaning manner; ever since, “sophistry” has meant fancy talk meant to dazzle and deceive.

In dialoging with Meno, Socrates copies Meno’s teacher Gorgias, a Sophist, by answering one question specifically in Gorgias’s rhetorical style. This greatly pleases Meno, who completely misses the irony of Socrates’s demonstration, which flatters the young man while slyly criticizing the Sophists.

Unlike the Sophists, who weaponize ideas to help politicians win arguments, Socrates’s ultimate purpose is to discover the truth.