A sophist (Greek: σοφιστής, sophistes) was a specific kind of teacher in Ancient Greece, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Many sophists specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric, though other sophists taught subjects such as music, athletics, and mathematics. In general, they claimed to teach arete ("excellence" or "virtue", applied to various subject areas), predominantly to young statesmen and nobility.
The term originated from Greek σόφισμα, sophisma, from σοφίζω, sophizo "I am wise"; confer σοφιστής, sophistēs, meaning "wise-ist, one who does wisdom," and σοφός, sophós means "wise man".
There are not many writings from and about the first sophists. The early sophists' practice of charging money, often employed by rich people, for education and providing wisdom only to those who could pay resulted in the condemnations made by Socrates through Plato in his Dialogues, as well as by Xenophon in his Memorabilia and, somewhat controversially, by Aristotle who, being paid to tutor Alexander the Great, could be accused of being a Sophist (although Aristotle did not actually accept payment from Philip, Alexander's father, but requested that, in lieu of payment, Philip reconstruct Aristotle's home town of Stagira, which Philip had destroyed in a previous campaign, terms which Philip accepted). Author of The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction James A. Herrick wrote, "In De Oratore, Cicero blames Plato for separating wisdom and eloquence in the philosopher's famous attack on the Sophists in Gorgias." Through works such as these, Sophists were portrayed as "specious" or "deceptive", hence the modern meaning of the term.
The classical tradition of rhetoric and composition refers more to philosophers like Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian than to the sophists. Owing largely to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, philosophy came to be regarded as distinct from sophistry, the latter being regarded as specious and rhetorical, a practical discipline. Thus, by the time of the Roman Empire, a sophist was simply a teacher of rhetoric and a popular public speaker. For instance, Libanius, Himerius, Aelius Aristides, and Fronto were sophists in this sense. However, despite the opposition from philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, it is clear that Sophists had a vast influence on a number of spheres, including the growth of knowledge and on ethical political theory. Their teachings, although controversial, had a huge influence on thought in the fifth century B.C. The Sophists turned away from the theoretical natural science to the more sensible examination of human affairs and the betterment and success of human life. They argued that divine deities could no longer be the explanation of human action.
From the late 1st century AD the Second Sophistic, a philosophical and rhetorical movement, was the chief expression of intellectual life. The term "Second Sophistic" comes from Philostratos, who rejecting the term "New Sophistic" traced the beginnings of the movement to the orator Aeschines in the 4th century BC. But its earliest representative was really Nicetas of Smyrna, in the late 1st century AD. Unlike the original Sophistic movement of the 5th century BC, the Second Sophistic was little concerned with politics. But it was, to a large degree, to meet the everyday needs and respond to the practical problems of Greco-Roman society. It came to dominate higher education and left its mark on many forms of literature. Lucian, himself a writer of the Second Sophistic, even calls Jesus Christ "that crucified sophist". This article, however, only discusses the Sophists of Classical Greece.