The Sophists – PhilFri #3

Have you ever known someone who can argue with you about anything? And win? It’s so frustrating when someone can defeat you in an argument using words! You know you’re right and they’re wrong, but they’re just better at articulating their thoughts than you. Philosophy’s genesis in the West came when people began to challenge the words they had been told. But challenging myths and national narratives comes with a cost.

Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, discussed the collective imagination that bonds us together as groups. Imagine the power Greek mythology had over ancient Spartans, Athenians, and Trojans. Hell, even Cretans. When you challenge those myths, effectively, there’s a vacuum needing to be filled.

When your cup runneth over, where does the wine end up?

If it’s not the gods who determine what happens, we can’t look to them for truth. If we can’t look to them, the pre-Socratics, those natural philosophers and proto-scientists, would say we look to the world. We use our senses to figure it out. Sounds good until you realize they disagree. Are we water? Are we air? Are we Planeteers? If the smartest people can’t agree on what’s what, what are we normies to do?

If there’s no way we can come to an agreement, then it’s possible there’s no such thing as truth. Enter the Sophists.

Peak sophistry: signs, podiums, and gestures captured in a selfie

The Sophists were, collectively, a group of people who decided they could start making money teaching the elite what they needed to know in order to maintain their coffers and their influence. What did you need in ancient Greece to be rich and influential? Not Dale Carnegie. You needed rhetoric. Why? The court of public opinion. If you wanted to be powerful, power was found in the agora and you had to be able to defend yourself and your honor with words.

Heretiq, Tyre, Lebanon – Roman Agora (believed to be) at Al Mina excavation area, 2005

Think of the people on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (maybe even bloggers on WordPress) who do things with words and you’re like, “No. They’re wrong. That’s wrong.” Think about the girl who gained notoriety on Dr. Phil by telling the audience to catch her outside. People with public platforms who profit from less-than-substantive performances are like modern-day Sophists. Except . . . they’re not.

When you’re taught about the Sophists in college courses, they’ll tell you that the Sophists were simply people who:

  • made money teaching
  • cared only about winning arguments
  • were uninterested in the truth

Why? Because the Sophists were able to do all of those things. They were tutors, teachers, and akin to something like today’s motivational speakers and attorneys–perhaps even megachurch prosperity pastors. They used their words to reach audiences and influence them to act on their behalf. But that doesn’t mean they were uninterested in truth or evil people. This legacy of theirs, perhaps unearned, comes because of the Sophists’ main enemies — the most influential philosophers in history: Socrates (who some say was a Sophist), Plato, and Aristotle.

Let’s look at an example of sophistry in action using Socrates and Thrasymacus.

Behold, [Thrasymacus] said, the wisdom of Socrates; he refuses to teach himself and goes about learning of others, to whom he never even says Thank you.

That I learn of others, [Socrates] replied, is quite true; but that I am ungrateful I wholly deny. Money I have none, and therefore, I pay in praise, which is all I have; and how ready I am to praise any one who appears to me to speak well you will very soon find out when you answer; for I expect that you will answer well.

The Republic by Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Book I

Now, you should know Plato wrote this and Plato, being a loyal student of Socrates, had issues with the Sophists, with democracy, and with telling things without using poetic license. Still, notice what both of these speakers do in this dialogue. Thrasymachus is playing to the crowd. Who says “Behold?” without trying to get a crowd behind them? It’s like a rapper in a battle asking everyone from the 3-1-3, you get the point.

Sophist Playbook Rule Number One: Get the crowd behind you (aka, B-Rabbit Rule)

When you tell people to behold, they behold. There’s no longer a choice. They’re like, “Okay, I’m beholding now.” When you’re beholden, they be holding you and your attention.

Next, he attacks Socrates to point out his vicious behavior.

Sophist Playbook Rule Number Two: Attack the person (aka, I’m With Stupid Rule)

What Thrasymachus is doing is pointing out to the wealthy young Athenians in his audience how Socrates is a moocher. He strolls around waxing philosophical but really, he just asks people questions to find out what they know and then has the gall to not even pay them. We hate freeloaders (they didn’t have Google AdWords back then). Especially critical freeloaders.

Socrates is not one to be outdone, but his approach is to elicit in his audience a sort of sympathy. Socrates tricks people using irony and self-deprecation. He pretends to be weak and his interlocutors strong, building them up to, later, tear them down if their arguments run counter to truth and justice.

Notice the gauntlet he’s laid for Thrasymachus. He’s just told him, in so few words, “That ass gonna have to cash those checks you’re mouth’s writing.” Or, more appropriately, he’s veiled his criticism. Thrasymachus, boastful and aggressive, has just been told he’s not a great speaker and doesn’t deserve any money.

Imagine you’re a teacher in a high school classroom and you’re giving a lecture. You’re into it, man! Gestures flying, feet stomping, voice arising, then a student looks at you and tells you to your one good eye, “You’re really good at this. I’m sure my grades will reflect your effort.”


Cash me outside.

This is how Sophists can operate when arguing. They can use your emotions against you, use fallacious reasoning most people won’t catch, and be unconcerned with truth and justice. Sometimes it’s necessary to win. Ask any trial lawyer who has defended a guilty client. Do you think that’s ethical?

The Sophists could also use their knowledge and skills for good. They did teach others how to question conventional wisdom, argue for justice, and consider other possibilities. They were able to look past tradition and geography and see what other cultures and peoples believed. There’s value in that.

Additionally, they didn’t just try to win arguments, they also studied mathematics, natural science, language, history, and art then shared that knowledge. Sure, they demanded a fee and we can argue the merits of paying for information when societies need to have it to function. But their legacy, much like many thinkers who influence history, has been marred by later practitioners and louder criticism. Who do you think are the modern day Sophists? Is what they do bad? Leave me a comment or send a message. If I’m wrong, let me know.

And, I didn’t “teach” for free.

Teaching for money? Sophistry? Thanks, Syd!


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