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The Sophists: Ancient Texts and Post-Classical Interpretations

ENGL 705.401
crosslisted as: GREK602, COML606
M 7-10

The teachers, rhetoricians, and philosophers of 5th-century Athens known collectively as the Sophists were controversial in their own time, and they have occupied a controversial place in intellectual and cultural history ever since.  Plato polemicized against them, Aristophanes satirized them, Aristotle refuted them, and generations of rhetorical theorists in Greek and Latin attempted to differentiate their art from the supposedly debased model of sophistic rhetoric. All this despite the fact that in their day many of them could be considered foundational thinkers in areas we would call anthropology, linguistics, psychology and cultural studies. Sophistic thought found its way indirectly but powerfully into the Middle Ages, where it represented both a despised falsification of philosophical argument and a dangerously attractive logic of paradoxes and insolubilia.  Culturally the (spectral) figure of the Sophist served as image of both the familiar and the outsider, linked intimately with academic identity but also with the falsifier and heretic.  As in Antiquity, so in later periods the Sophist came to embody anxieties about persuasive discourse and negation.  But in the thought of Hegel and then Nietzsche, the Sophists were recovered and “rehabilitated” as a crucial moment in the history of philosophy, and among modern intellectual historians (Untersteiner, Jaeger, de Romilly) as well as philosophers (Heidegger, Derrida) their contributions have been reevaluated.

In this course, taught jointly by medievalist Rita Copeland and classicist Ralph Rosen, we study the Sophists in classical antiquity and in and their post-classical reception.  We will begin by getting as close as possible to them through the fragmentary records that remain of their own ideas and arguments, and then we will look at how they were represented philosophically by Plato and Aristotle as well as culturally by Aristophanes.  We will study their afterlife in Late Antiquity and especially the Middle Ages, in both Latin and vernacular contexts, with special attention to the seductions of “sophistic” as a form of logic and to the ways that the Sophist defined heresy debates in England.  We will consider the central role that they came to play in Hegel’s understanding of the history of philosophy and in Nietzsche’s antifoundationalist thought.  Throughout the semester we will also be considering twentieth-century philosophical and historical reassessments of their importance.

The readings for the course will all be available in English for students who do not read Greek or Latin.

Primary Course Number for this course is GREK602:401. Graduates will need permission from the instructor or the CLST Dept. coordinator before registering for this course.