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The Sophists

ENGL 229.001

In this course we will study the Sophists in Antiquity and in their post-
classical reception. 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
culture ever since. Plato polemicized against them, Aristophanes satirized
them mercilessly, 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. Sophistic thought found its
way indirectly but powerfully into the Middle Ages and later periods, where it
represented both a despised falsification of philosophical argument and a
dangerously attractive logic of paradox. Culturally the (spectral) figure of
the Sophist served as image of both the familiar and the outsider. As in
Antiquity, so in later periods the Sophist came to embody anxieties about
persuasive discourse and negation. But in modern period, the Sophists were
recovered and "rehabilitated" as a crucial moment in the history of
philosophy,and among modern thinkers their contributions have been

In this course we will begin by getting as close as possible to the Sophists
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. Then we will study their
afterlife in later periods, paying special attention to their reception in
medieval literature and in modern thought. Course requirements: several short
papers, one final research assignment, no final exam.