Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Håkan Tell, Plato's Counterfeit Sophists. Cambridge, MA: Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, 2011. Pp. 186. ISBN 9780674055919. $24.95.

Reviewed by Hans-Peder Hanson, University of New Mexico, Los Alamos (hhanson@unm.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


As Håkan Tell states in his introduction, there is no shortage of scholarship that supports a reappraisal of the ancient Greek sophists and their ideas. However, Tell proposes a re-examination of the sophists' place within the Greek wisdom tradition, a topic he sees as somewhat neglected since G.B. Kerferd's 1981 The Sophistic Movement. Tell persuasively argues against many of the ways in which the sophists have been distinguished from their predecessors, demonstrating that many of their activities and ideas do indeed fit into a larger Greek wisdom tradition. Although readers will find points on which to disagree, his work represents an important and much needed contribution to this area of scholarship.

Since studies of the sophists depend to a large extent on scholars' view and treatment of the sources, it is convenient to note Tell's methodology here. In an appendix, he outlines the difficulties with sources on the sophists, such as the hostility of the Platonic tradition, the chronological diversity of testimonia, and their doxographical nature. He states that his guiding principle has been to strive for a conceptual consistency of themes and to corroborate these themes by examining their presence in sources that are chronologically and qualitatively diverse. He observes that conceptual consistency might not always correspond to factual reality, but does provide insight into cultural self- perception.

In the introduction, Tell ties the sophists' intellectual ostracism to Plato's and Aristotle's misrepresentation and suppression of competing articulations of philosophy. In defining philosophy for their own enterprises, Plato and Aristotle misleadingly characterized the sophists as a unique and intellectually homogeneous group. Tell identifies six central criteria of "sophistic otherness" that have emerged as a result of this characterization: the term "sophist" itself; the sophists' peddling of their knowledge; the claim that the sophists' itinerant lifestyles were motivated by this trade; the claim that the sophists were predominantly concerned with rhetoric, not philosophy; the claim that they subscribed to relativism and denied the existence of objective judgments; and the claim that the sophistic movement developed in response to specific Athenian social forces and was thus centered in Athens. Tell outlines his argument against all of these criteria here and signals which chapters will contain more detailed discussion. However, it is worth noting that two of his six criteria, namely the sophists' alleged rhetorical focus and epistemological beliefs, he addresses only here, relying to some extent on other scholars' work.

In chapter one, Tell rejects a fixed, uniform meaning for the word σοφιστής, arguing that the term cannot be removed from its original, contentious context. He argues that σοφιστής was used in reference to a wide category of sophoi both during and after Plato's lifetime and that the Platonic use of the term was "neither in general use nor universally accepted" (26). He then shows that Plato and Isocrates contested the term, seeking to appropriate it in support of their own different intellectual agendas. This rivalry and the wide application of the term in the fifth and fourth centuries, he argues, should caution us against reifying the term σοφιστής or even assuming that it applies to specific individuals (36).

Chapter two closely reproduces Tell's earlier 2009 article,1 which argued that allegations regarding the sophists' purported fees fit into a more general invective discourse that does not necessarily reflect historical reality. In short, Tell challenges the Platonic view of the sophists and money and rejects testimonia that are derived from it or that reproduce standardized exaggerations. He also shows that charges of venality were raised against other sophoi, such as doctors and seers. Thus he sees the sophists' reputation for marketing their expertise as a result more of invective than of the sophists' actual historical practice.

In chapter three, Tell argues that the sophists' interest in concord or homonoia connects them to a broader wisdom tradition going back to the Seven Sages. He reviews the earliest instances of homonoia, which can be firmly attested only in the late fifth century. However, he convincingly argues that the concept and theme of concord, denoted in earlier texts by words with the root ὁμοφρον-, figures into a larger tradition. He identifies recurring themes in this tradition that are particularly interesting and provocative, such as economic moderation or redistribution (67, 71, 74) and a link between legislative reforms and the practical realization of concord (74).

Chapters four and five represent a reworked and expanded version of Tell's 2007 article.2 In chapter four, he shows that travel and the institutional framework within which it occurred were also long-standing aspects of the Greek wisdom tradition, not characteristics that uniquely distinguish the sophists. He first reviews the travels of both sophists and the Presocratics, effectively challenging the view that the sophists' travels were targeted toward Athens and other democratic cities (97). He then shows how such travelling occurred within the institutional framework of xenia and aristocratic gift-exchange.

In chapter five, Tell builds on the preceding analysis to argue for a thematic association between sophoi, xenia, and Panhellenic centers, particularly Delphi. He begins by analyzing testimonia regarding appearances by various sophoi at the festivals. He shows that the Panhellenic centers were places for both intellectual presentation and exchange and that such a tradition stretches back to the Seven Sages. He then explores the connection between Delphi and the sophoi's supposed Orphic power of attraction or enchantment. He intriguingly concludes that sophoi tried to align their authority and charismatic or enchanting speech with these centers.

In his final chapter, Tell argues that the agonistic nature of the sophists' writing and activities also fits into a tradition of competition in wisdom. He begins by reviewing the evidence for this tradition, paying special attention to recurring comparisons with and contrasts to athletic competition. Ultimately, he sees a long pattern of competitive contests in which a variety of forms of wisdom or sophia were highly valued and rewarded (142). He argues that it is in this context that we should view Protagoras' Overthrowing and Contradictory Arguments, Hippias' and Gorgias' boasts that they could speak about any subject whatsoever, Gorgias' golden statue at Delphi, and Hippias' various presentations at Olympia.

A general problem for many studies of the sophists, including Tell's, is that one can often read the evidence in contradictory ways. Demonstrating the contested, imprecise nature of the term σοφιστής or the hostile distortion of the Platonic tradition does not necessarily support the sophists' reintegration into the Greek wisdom tradition. In fact, one might argue the exact opposite, namely that the semantic development of and contest over σοφιστής, Plato's notice of and hostile attention toward the sophists, Isocrates' defensive counter-arguments, and their shared focus on venality reflect the fifth century emergence of a new, distinct group of intellectuals with provocative interests, ideas, and practices.

One's decision largely depends on one's view of Plato. Few would deny Plato's hostility, distortion, or enduring legacy. Nevertheless, many believe that Plato's critique of the sophists is well-founded and that while his portrayal is narrow and distorted, it remains insightful, not false. Another very recent study of the sophists, for example, asserts Plato's reliability as a source, emphasizing his philosophical interest in portraying the sophists accurately.3 Here lies an intractable bind: either Plato is guilty of gross, perverse distortion or the sophists were a group of intellectuals indeed distinguished by their high fees, a strong interest in rhetoric, and perhaps associated relativistic or skeptical epistemological ideas. I would also point out that intellectual legacies are at stake: if Plato's sophists are largely his own invention, he deserves much of the credit for their important, enduring position within the western philosophical tradition.

That said, Tell's analysis can accommodate differing views on Plato better than most. One can often agree with Tell on Plato's distortion of the sophists while taking a more charitable view of his motivations and intellectual agenda. Moreover, Plato's portrayal of the sophists sometimes resonates with and supports Tell's analysis,4 which promises fruitful areas for further research.

The most innovative and interesting parts of Tell's analysis are his discussions of the theme of concord, the sophists' itinerant lifestyles, their connection to Panhellenic centers, and competitions in wisdom (chs. 3-6). In general, most studies of the sophists have focused on their teaching and their supporting epistemological, moral, or rhetorical theories. Scholars have tended to treat other sophistic interests and activities only in passing or in loose connection to the sophists' teaching and philosophical positions. Tell, in contrast, shows that these other interests and activities are of equal, if not greater, importance and relatively independent of the sophists' better known ideas and practices. His analysis corroborates and better explains certain aspects of the movement (e.g. the sophists' political and legislative activities), while persuasively challenging some common assumptions (e.g. that the sophistic movement was centered in Athens or around democratic city-states).

Overall, Tell offers a new framework within which one can fruitfully reevaluate and better synthesize the sophists' wide-ranging ideas and activities. Although readers will find points on which to disagree, Tell's cautious formulation of his position invites critics to qualify and build upon his thesis rather than reject it.

Tell's work will find a place in three areas of scholarship on the sophists. He situates it squarely within the field of classical philology, with which BMCR readers are likely to be most familiar. However, he also aims to position his analysis "in dialogue" with works supporting a rehabilitation of the sophists (20). The most recent works of this type, which represent the latest scholarship on the sophists, come not from classicists, but from literary theorists and scholars in English, Rhetoric, and Communication departments.5 Here a robust debate has occurred over historical reconstruction versus modern appropriation of the sophists and their ideas.6 Although Tell does not directly engage with these works, his analysis, particularly his view of Plato and Platonic evidence, represents a much needed, professional philological contribution to this area of scholarship. A third strand of sophistic scholarship belongs to philosophers, who tend to hold a more negative view of the sophists and sometimes push back against the rehabilitation of their ideas.7 Tell's work may not overturn their skepticism, but he does offer them a more comprehensive, complex, and perhaps intriguing picture of these thinkers.

The presentation and editing of the book is generally of high quality. I noticed only one misprint and Tell's clear writing and regular previews of his argument ensure ease of reading. A more serious editorial oversight was the omission of a conclusion or concluding paragraph; the book ends abruptly on the subject of Gorgias' and Hippias' competitive activities at Panhellenic games. A short conclusion might have recapped Tell's arguments, discussed their possible ramifications, and/or outlined areas for further research.


1.   Tell, H. P. 2009. "Wisdom for Sale? The Sophists and Money." Classical Philology 104: 13-33.
2.   Tell, H. P. 2007. "Sages at the Games: Intellectual Displays and Dissemination of Wisdom in Ancient Greece." Classical Antiquity 26: 249-275.
3.   Tindale, C. 2010. Reason's Dark Champions. Univ. of South Carolina Press: Columbia, 39-43. BMCR 2011.05.35.
4.   Tell's discussions of the institutions of aristocratic gift-exchange, Isocrates' conception of his profession (e.g. 50), and the sophoi's legislative activities (ch. 3) fit nicely with Protagoras' claims in his eponymous dialogue (328b-c) and Theateteus 166e-167d.
5.   E.g., John Poulakos' 1995 Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece; Susan Jarratt's 1998 Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured; Scott Consigny's 2001 Gorgias: Sophist and Artist; Bruce McComiskey's 2002 Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric; these and other scholars in Blackwell's 2007 Companion to Greek Rhetoric (edited by Ian Worthington).
6.   See, e.g., Edward Schiappa's debates with Poulakos and Consigny (Philosophy and Rhetoric 23.3-4, 1990; Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25, 1995; Rhetoric Review 14.2, 1996).
7.   See, e.g., David Roochnik's 1991 articles "In Defense of Plato: A Short Polemic" and "Stanley Fish and the Old Quarrel Between Rhetoric and Philosophy" (Philosophy and Rhetoric 24.2 and Critical Review 5.2).

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