Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.15


Jacqueline de Romilly. The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens. Translated by J. Lloyd. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Pp. viii, 260. $75.00. ISBN 0-19-824234-4.


Reviewed by Matthew R. Christ, Indiana University.

Jacqueline de Romilly's Les Grands Sophistes dans l'Athènes de Périclès (1988), now available in this smooth and readable translation, is a lively and engaging introduction to the Sophistic movement. In her preface, de Romilly states, "it is perhaps not unreasonable for someone who has studied the Sophists' disciples and those who speak of them to try to assess their role" (p. xii). Indeed, de Romilly's earlier work on Thucydides, Greek rhetoric, and Greek legal thought puts her in an excellent position to examine the Sophists and their legacy. While Great Sophists is written primarily for a general educated audience, scholars will find much of interest in de Romilly's reconstruction of the age of the Sophists.

De Romilly is most successful in providing a lucid overview of how the Sophists revolutionized contemporary thinking about education, politics, ethics, and religion. The citation of representative texts followed by extensive exegesis allows the general reader to appreciate something of the flavor and complexity of Sophistic thought. A striking feature of Great Sophists is the effective way de Romilly draws her reader into the detective work required to interpret the chance fragments that have survived (often in hostile sources) and communicates a sense of the enduring significance of the questions the Sophists raised about human morality and society. The exceptional vitality of de Romilly's treatment may well make this a more successful text in undergraduate courses than, for example, W. K. C. Guthrie's The Sophists (1971) or G. B. Kerferd's The Sophistic Movement (1981).

Although one can appreciate why de Romilly avoids technical discussion and scholarly minutiae in a work designed to be accessible to the general reader, her attitude towards the secondary literature on the Sophists will strike the specialist as cavalier: "Having, as far as possible, read everything, I have decided to cite nothing. It is hard enough to reach the Sophists, without setting up screens of weighty erudition between us and them... "(p. xii). Specialists, particularly those attacked but not named in de Romilly's polemical digressions, may well object to this practice and feel that honest debate demands at least some concessions to the modern scholarly apparatus.

De Romilly's treatment of the Sophists and Sophistic thought can be challenged on several levels. De Romilly infers, for example, from the presence of "destructive" and "constructive" thinking in the fragments of individual Sophists that "the essential character of the Sophists' thought may be to have destroyed everything only to rebuild it upon different foundations" (p. 177). She goes so far as to assert, in fact, that "all [of the Sophists] were harshly critical of all kinds of transcendentalism, making a more or less clean sweep of the values of the past and replacing them, also more or less uncompromisingly, with new values founded on the needs of human life and city life" (p. 10). One wonders, however, if the Sophists were as systematic or as humanistic as this suggests. Utilitarian goals of the moment may have determined whether a Sophist applied "destructive" or "constructive" arguments, and the former did not give way inevitably to the latter.

Furthermore, de Romilly goes rather too far in presenting an apologia for the Sophists against the sharp criticisms of them found in Aristophanes, Plato, and elsewhere. Despite the clear hostility and bias of our sources, they raise legitimate questions about the motivations and integrity of these intellectuals and teachers. De Romilly, however, concedes very little to the Sophists' ancient critics: "Perhaps opportunistic motives did influence some of the Sophists..." (p.186), and "the Sophists may have become over-emphatic and, little by little allowed themselves to go too far" (p. 27). To place the blame for the Sophists' negative reputation entirely on their "self-satisfied disciples" (p. 14) and the fact that their ideas were "distorted by a superficially informed public opinion" (p. 139), as de Romilly does, is surely not right. We have good reason to believe that the Sophists themselves played rather recklessly with the intellectual fire they discovered and therefore deserved at least some of the criticism heaped upon them.

One should also be aware that Great Sophists is definitely, as de Romilly intends, a contribution to the history of ideas, and not to social history. While de Romilly notes repeatedly that the Sophists moved primarily in aristocratic circles in Athens, she does not pursue at any length how this may have shaped the character and dissemination of Sophistic teaching. Although Great Sophists argues with some success that the Sophists were instrumental in transforming the "mentality" of the Periclean Age, it might explore further how the public received and assimilated Sophistic thinking.

De Romilly deserves much credit for bringing a remarkable immediacy to the subject of the Sophists and their legacy. Classicists and the general public should appreciate this new and controversial assessment of the Sophistic movement.