Plato himself seemed to hold them in low esteem. Aristotle denigrated them for their lack of interest in pure knowledge. Later, self-professed Sophists seemed to pervert the basic tenets of the movement for personal gain. Because these itinerate teachers made money off what many perceived as deception and devaluation, the Sophist's reputation has been viewed with distrust and scorn. Even today, their full contribution is not understood.
The question is, "Did the Sophists deserve their bad reputation" The answer lies in the examination of several areas. First, the emergence of the Sophists threatened the status quo and the reigning aristocracy. Because the word itself means clever, people were instantly suspicious of someone who might be too tricky or too smart, especially the wealthy and ruling classes. Because they were teachers that received fees for their educational services, the traditional Greeks were afraid that the lessons taught might conflict with their definition of virtuous and necessary education.
They did, in a way. The idea of teaching virtue, for money, incensed the people of the time. They felt that the education of young men to be of wise judgment and upstanding character should be left to the church, not to traveling teachers who expected to be paid! Already the occupations of these mysterious travelers cause suspicion and anger among the people who had become very stable in their beliefs.
Another area of teaching that ...
Yet, the Sophists also claimed to be great rhetoricians with a flair for disagreeing with current thought and encouraging cynicism in others. While the rhetoric of the senators had always been in supporting what is right and virtuous for individuals and societies, the Sophists were implying that rhetoric could be employed for any purpose, even those that were antithetical to common belief.. People were highly disturbed to realize that someone could use rhetoric to convince them of something untrue. After all, the Sophists were gaining a following of young men who were drawn to their ideas.
Basically, the Sophists forced the question "What is right" into the wide open public sphere. Instead of just accepting that right and virtue are always obvious and will always prevail, people could not avoid the new interpretations offered by the Sophists. Those that stood the most to lose, the wealthy and powerful, cried out against the heresy, but those that had little to lose could afford to listen with interest. The revolutionary new teachings spanned education, religion, politics and ethics, challenging the established beliefs held for centuries.
This belief purported that people act in certain ways because that is how they ought to act. This prescribed action was based upon the will of the god or gods, or upon some other moral order. People generally believed that these moral tenets were a fixed and unchanging part of nature itself. The Sophists interjected that morals and ethics were not fixed by nature at all but were a dynamic part of society; codes of behaviors changed by the views of society. This conventionality meant that some people, some societies, might believe