Plato was obsessed with the Sophists. Numerous Sophists make appearances or are mentioned in the Platonic dialogues. And Plato even named many dialogues (Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, etc.) after Sophists. We know the names and at least a few details of some twenty-six Sophists. Although various fragments and writings and biographies and other works by and about the Sophists exist, it is because of the scale of their appearance in Plato, and Plato’s characterisation of them, that the Sophists live on in our popular imagination. And this characterisation is not at all favourable.
Plato speaks of the Sophists as predators upon rich young men, as men who commodify virtue, as mere “retailers” of virtue. They are presented as those who profit off of the difficulties of distinguishing right from wrong. And, of course, there is the impression that lives on to this day that the Sophists are counterfeit philosophers, fakes, wise-guys who deal in the duplicates of opinion, rather than in the real goods of truth.
The way Plato puts it, these scoundrels — mostly foreigners — came to prosperous Athens, the cultural and intellectual centre of Greece, as parasites upon its wealth, prestige, its beautiful boys, and vibrant and diverse public life. He seems to suggest that, had there not been a glorious Athens, there would not have been the plague of Sophists.
In recent decades, the grip of Plato’s depiction has begun to loosen, in large part due to feminism. For example, Susan Jarratt published a book entitled Rereading the Sophists wherein she analogised the marginalisation of Sophists by mainstream, conservative philosophy with the marginalisation of women by mainstream, patriarchal philosophy. They were disruptive, anti-logical, relativist, and so forth. She also highlights the manner by which the teachings offered by the Sophists — specifically, training in rhetoric and the art of persuasion — were of value to the success of democracy, always under siege by oligarchic and tyrannical forces. More striking, Jarratt posits that we might see the Sophist Gorgias as a proto-feminist.
Gorgias, one of the most celebrated Sophists, had a demonstrative piece of his skill in rhetoric entitled Encomium of Helen. This went quite against the grain of social norms, specifically, of the widely acceptable misogyny built into collective consciousness on account of the Trojan war. The Helen whom Gorgias praises is the infamous Helen of Troy, whose mythic beauty was the cause of the heinous war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Helen was universally blamed for the carnage. In a culture of patriarchy and a social environment of misogyny, Gorgias exculpates Helen of any blame, and on the contrary, moves from defending her to praising her.
In other ways too, Sophists laid the foundation for social change. Nearly all of the Sophists critiqued customary norms and belittled human laws for introducing arbitrary social distinctions (aristocracy, nobility, etc.) when nature herself made none. Among these was the institution of slavery, against which the first known outspoken ancient Greek abolitionist was a Sophist.
Another social phenomenon that kept people chained were the guilds and castes, that sons must carry out the work of their fathers. Social reform against guilds and castes, whose foundations were shaken by the Sophists, was obviously a kind of license for sons to disrespect — that is, disobey — their fathers. This may have been where the exaggeration arose that Sophists teach sons to beat their fathers, for, that would be exactly the kind of uncharitable, reactionary propaganda we might expect to hear from forces opposed to innovation and social reform.
Consider in this light the frequently-cited expression of the aristocratic playwright Aristophanes, that the Sophists seek to make the weaker argument stronger. The implication is that the weaker argument is the false argument, and thus the Sophists specialise in the art of deception. But there is also a social rendition of this phrase. That is, the Sophists make the arguments of the weak stronger; Sophists make stronger the arguments of the weaker. It would not surprise me, given the swift and overwhelming negative reaction that social reform tends to evoke in conservative, casteist, patriarchal societies, if what some Sophists originally aimed to do was to train the weaker sections of Athenian society into the art of rhetoric and persuasion, so that they might stand up for themselves in courts, assemblies, or other social, legal, or political forums.