Trinity College Dublin

Skip to main content.

Top Level TCD Links

CL7021 Curiosity and Crisis in the Late Fifth Century

Bust of Antisthenes

Module Organiser: Dr Ashley Clements
Duration: One Term (2018-19: Jan-April)
Contact hours: 22 (1 x 2-hour seminar p.w.)
Weighting: 10 ECTS
Assessment: Written assignment


This course examines some of the key intellectual figures that challenged traditional values and received wisdom in Athens during the late fifth century BC and traces the popular reception of their ideas against the backdrop of the events of the last decades of the fifth century. It aims to provide students with a broad survey of the main themes of sophistic debate and to present them as a crucial intellectual context for our understanding both of our major literary sources for this period, and of the social and political phenomena to which they allude. From those writers who vilified the new intellectuals, to those who exploited the issues that they raised, receptions of the sophists during the late fifth century were made in dialogue with the political events of Athens' history. By exploring that dialogue, this course situates key works of Greek literature in their crucial intellectual context and considers how intellectual trends and political history may elaborate each other.


  • to introduce students to the surviving work of the key intellectual figures influential during the late fifth century, and an understanding of the broad themes of sophistic debate in which they participated
  • to develop an understanding of the intellectual context of our main historical sources for the last decades of the fifth century and of their interaction with sophistic ideas
  • to assess the role of intellectual inquiry as a catalyst of social change during the fifth century BC

Working Methods

The course will be taught as a series of student-led discussion seminars. Guidance for reading and topics will be given in class.


This module requires the completion of assignments as directed by the lecturer. All assignments are compulsory.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the course students will be able to:

  • Understand and evaluate ancient and modern, popular, philosophical and literary, receptions of the sophists.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in evaluating our fragmentary evidence for sophistic thought and reconstruct historically and philosophically plausible positions for the sophists studied.
  • Evaluate the relationship between intellectual history and political events by relating particular receptions of sophistic thought to specific historical moments.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in oral presentation and discussion.
  • Analyse and assess the arguments of research papers, articles or books.


Topics covered include:

  • The surviving work of, and/or testimonia for, Protagoras, Antiphon, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Prodicus and Gorgias.
  • Sophistic debate on the relation of nomos to phusis; relativism; justice; the nature of language; the origins of human society; the nature of the gods; ontology; epistemology.
  • Greek tragedy the sophists
  • The early historians and sophistic thought
  • Plato and the sophists

Introductory Reading

  • Waterfield, R. (2000) The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists. Oxford.
  • Romilly, J. (1992) The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens. Oxford.
  • Kerferd, G. B. (1981) The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge.
  • Untersteiner, M. (1954) The Sophists. Oxford.

Last updated 17 May 2018