Historical Rhetorics/Sophists Old and New

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Chapter Five: Sophists Old and New[edit]

  • From ed. Sprague, The Older Sophists, Protagoras and Gorgias
  • From Vitanza, Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, "The Sophists"
  • Isocrates, "Against the Sophists"


  • Longinus, "On the Sublime"
  • Ulmer, Hueretics 61-78
  • Schiappa, Protagoras and Logos 3-16, 64-85, 117-133

Historiographic Debates[edit]

A number of the secondary sources below as well as the chapter "Toward an Understanding of Sophistic Theories of Rhetoric" above are either direct or indirect responses to the interpretive approach laid out by Vitanza in Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric. Leff (below) warns us that Vitanza's critique of negation itself (ironically) relies on negation. Consigny argues that Schiappa's interpretation of Protagoras as a foundationalist relies on a predilection for foundationalism.

The historiographical debates are themselves emerging as academic culture confronts/acknowledges/struggles with/incorporates postmodern critiques. Here I would stress that the University is the institution of the Modern Enlightenment, planned in part by one of the Enlightenment's chief parents, Immanuel Kant (see particularly Bill Readings, The University in Ruins 54-69). The debates between Vitanza, Poulakos, Jarratt, Schiappa, and Leff illustrate the complex and political disciplinary relationships between theory and practice.

Schiappa recognizes the foundations of postmodern and poststructuralist critique of Modern historiography, however he remains confident in the possibility, and necessity, of "historical reconstruction." He writes:

[...] it is important for students of rhetoric to differentiate between two approaches to the study of the Sophists in ancient Greece. Those approaches can be described as the construction of neosophistic rhetorical theory and criticism, and the historical reconstruction of sophistic doctrines. (65)

He notes that both enterprises are matters of interpretation, and that "since the goal of historical reconstruction is to recapture the past insofar as possible on its own terms, the methods of the historian and, in classical work, the philologist, are appropriate" (66). He also concludes:

I am not suggesting that historical reconstruction should be done to the exclusion of contemporary appropriation. With Rorty I believe that both ought to be done, but done separately. Otherwise, historical accounts tend to become self-affirming discoveries of early anticipations of voguish philosophical theories. (68)

In light of this passage, I would ironically highlight Consigny's critique of Schiappa, that he finds in Protagoras precisely what he hopes to find. But, in his afterword to the 2003 edition of Protagoras and Logos, Schiappa addresses, if implicitly, this irony. Given the sophistication of the passage (every pun intended), it is worth attending to Schiappa at length:

Although I have opinions on the relative merits of different assumptions about reading classical texts, at the moment I do not intend to argue that some theories are right and some are wrong. Rather, my point is that when we engage texts, we are looking for something, and what we are looking for--and what we notice--is guided by beliefs that can be called theoretical. These beliefs create what I call rhetorical salience for specific features of a text. For nineteenth-century pragmatists, for example, what was rhetorically salient about Protagoras was his explicit humanism, his religious agnosticism, and what I have described previously as his "objective realism." What was salient for me was how he took Heraclitean insights and advanced new modes of description that Moravcsik calls "second stage compositional explanations (see chapters 5 and 6 of this book). As few and far between as Protagoras's fragments are, there has never been a shortage of alternative readings, each guided by what the scholar finds salient.
That our readings are informed by our particular views and interests is hardly news, but it is my hope that the notion of rhetorical salience can help us better understand and make sense of competing interpretations. It may help us recognize that some readings rely on the salience of too little of a text (such as when Gorgias's whole career is reduced to his use of the term paignion) and it may help distinguish the values and interests informing historical reconstructions and contemporary appropriations. My examples, I confess, are a bit self-serving, but they may prove useful.
For better or for worse, I learned early to expect a certain amount of veal and vehemence from my critics. For years I thought no one could top the ad hominem assault that met my earliest work, but since that time I have been likened twice to those Holocaust revisionists typically pilloried for their callous anti-Semitism. Aside from the pain such a description evoked, what I find significant about these two readings is that they came from opposite ends of the academic ideological continuum.

Schiappa details how for poststructuralist critics such as Vitanza (see Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric 32-34) he represents an insistence upon "an essentializing Aristotelian worldview" (209), yet for traditionalist, objectivist historians, Schiappa's acceptance of social construction "brand[s] [him] as a dangerous postmodernist" (209).

No doubt that Vitanza's description of Schiappa's project is violent, even if it is not "vengeful" (see Vitanza 33). And, certainly, Vitanza's comparison of Schiappa to a Holocaust denier goes too far.

But I would also argue that Schiappa either misrepresents, or fails to grasp, the extent of Vitanza's critique. Underlying Vitanza's neologisms is a calling into question of the entire epistemological project encompassing Modernity--(including, of course, recovering knowledge of the past). It is not simply an argument that the past cannot be recovered (which both scholars seem to note), but rather that the past should not be recovered--that the desire to recover the past "has or will have created for human beings dangerous situations" (Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric 157).

Recall that Vitanza isn't interested in producing knowledge (nor, he tells us, accurate history in the foundationalist-positivist-modernist notion of the term). Vitanza argues, channeling Derrida, that the future comes before the past (or, via Heidegger, we might say that all time extends outward, in both directions, from the present, see N, S, HoR 142). As such, for Vitanza, there is no access to past events as they transpired. Rather than attempting to search for such "holy" (Ideal, transcendental, divine) grounds, we are better off acknowledging and living within the "limitations" of our human, kairotic existence (an existence, Protagoras reminds us, that is exceedingly short).

While an extensive exploration of rhetorical historiography might seem an odd way to introduce Protagoras, Gorgias, and the sophits, I hope to show that there is a method to my madness.

Negative Portrayals of the Sophists[edit]

Schiappa opens his study of Protagoras by tracing the etymology of the term sophist--paying particular attention to Plato's dissociative rhetorical strategy; Plato conceptualizes and promotes philosophy by distinguishing it from (a rather hollow) notion of mere sophia: sophistry. Schiappa:

The fact that the term sophistês was used disparagingly prior to Plato's writings does not, however, decrease the significance of his role in reconceptualizing the word. Plato's dialogue Sophist is the first recorded attempt to provide a systematic definition to the question "What is a Sophist?" Plato's interlocutors agree that a sophist is 1) a paid hunter after the young and wealthy, 2) a kind of merchant of knowledge of the soul, 3) a retailer of these same wares (perhaps implying that the knowledge is sold in small qualities), 4) a seller of his own productions of knowledge, 5) an athlete in contests of words--specifically disputation (eristikê), and, though the speakers are dubious, 6) a purger of souls ,who removes opinions that obstruct learning through elenchus (231d-e). [Link to Wikipedia discussion of Elenchus]

Schiappa also notes that sophistry was a foil for Aristotle as well, and that ultimately "Aristotle considered a Sophist as one who "misuses" the art of dialectic in order "to deceive" (7).

Schiappa on Protagoras[edit]

Schiappa dedicates a chapter to each of Protagoras' major fragments: the two-logoi, the stronger and weaker, the human-measure, the impossible to contradict, and the concerning the gods.


two-logoi can be interpreted as either "one every question there are two speeches, which stand in opposition to one another" (Gomperz) or "In every experience there are two logoi in opposition to each other" (Untersteiner) (90-91, see 93 for Schiappa's explication of logoi). [the question "where does it come from" transforms into the more abstract "what is it made up of"? 95, Schiappa notes that Protagoras follows Heraclitus in thinking that things come from unities, and break into pairs--thus, for Schiappa, Protagoras sets up what will be Aristotelian and Platonic metaphysical abstraction 95-97]

the stronger and weaker[edit]

the stronger and weaker fragment can be interpreted pejoratively or positively. The perverse, pejorative interpretation (credited primarily to Aristotle) frames Protagoras as teaching an unscrupulous form of manipulation (103-105). The positivist interpretation "was the strengthening of a preferred (but weaker) logos for a less preferable (but temporarily dominant) logos of the same "experience" (109). Schiappa Points to Plato's positive depiction of Protagoras and a key passage from Theaetetus 166-167a).

the human-measure[edit]

the human-measure passage is often interpreted as "of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are; and the of the things that are not, that they are not" (118). Schiappa:

The pivotal issue is: Was Protagoras contending that humans are the measure of "how" things are (essence), or that humans are the measure that determines "that" they are (existence)? Schiappa aims for a interpretation of "that" (existence) without existential (subjective) baggage; such: "I translate the human-measure fragment as: 'Of everything and anything the measure [truly-is] human(ity): of what which is, that it is the case; of that which is not, that is not the case" (121).

Schiappa positions Protagoras's statement as a response to Parmenides and the Eleatics (Wikipedia page on Eleatics):

Parmenides' reasoning was either/or oriented. One could talk either about that which is or that which is not. The latter led to contradiction and incoherence, so only the first option was acceptable. Protagoras' reasoning was both/and oriented. Humans measure both what is and what is not. (125, see also 127 for an interpretation of Protagoras as a bridge from Parmenides to Plato). What is ultimately interesting regarding Schiappa's reading of Protagoras, in distinction to the work of Jarratt, Consigny and McComiskey with Gorgias, is that he doesn't believe Protagoras endorses what we might call a subjectivist metaphysic:
If a choice has to be made, the arguments I have offered regarding the probability of Heraclitus' influence on Protagoras suggest that the "objective" label is superior. However, it is important to note the respects in which the subject/object dichotomy is inappropriate. There are no clear fifth-century terms equivalent to modern notions of subjective and objective. The well-known "sophistic" dichotomy between nomos and physis cannot be reduced to a subjective/objective dualism; even if it could, there is no clear evidence linking Protagoras to the nomos/physis controversy. Even in modern times "subjective" can imply a host of meanings with different philosophical implications. If the subject/object pair is reduced to the more concrete concepts of people and things, then Protagoras' answer is clear: the two are "bound," "things," can be "measured" by people in constrasting ways (logoi), and a dominant experience (logos) of a thing is potentially alterable as an interchange or swapping of opposites. (130)

Impossible to Contradict[edit]

As to the "Impossible to Contradict" fragment, Schiappa argues that the fragment is likely an alternative translation, extension, and commentary upon Protagoras's other fragments (139); it is a precursor to Aristotle's law of noncontradiction.

Concerning the Gods[edit]

According to Schiappa, the final fragment "concerning the Gods" can be read either existentially or veridically (talk about a binary!). The existential view reads the line as introducing a work on agnosticism. The veridical view reads the line in context of Plato's Protagoras and sees it as opening an anthropological defense of religious practice (146).

Relevant Secondary Sources

Professor Margaret D. Zulick has compiled a collection of sources dedicated to Sophistic Rhetoric.