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How Ancient Greece Resembles Today

Have we not learned anything?

As part of my studies into philosophy, I bought a used textbook, Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (seventh edition), by Douglas J. Soccio. I’m about 150 pages into it, and, not surprisingly, the interesting parallels between ancient Greece and today are both obvious and disheartening.

Based on this early reading, I’m feeling strongly that humanity still has a lot to learn.

This feeling is bolstered by current politics. The same arguments we had with each other about what’s right and what’s wrong more than 2,500 years ago still exist in full-force today. It’s uncanny. When you come right down to it, these are timeless philosophical issues. The Greeks offered some of the first recorded political debates we had as intelligent human beings, grappling with moral dilemmas and notions concerning what’s best for the overall good of society. Their thinking holds deep meaning during these strange political times.

The passing of Senator McCain, whom I was never a big fan of because of his hawkish views on war but had a certain level of respect for him because he was able to publicly admit when he was wrong, has proven to be a kind of replay of ancient Greece. We saw this in the eulogies, such as former VP Biden’s exhibition of anger and frustration as he emotionally talked about how once-common, human-respect-oriented virtues, values, and civic duties have gradually diminished since the middle 1990s, resulting in the horrible conditions we have today in Congress.

What we are seeing today resembles the fifth century B.C.E. with the rise of Sophists, known as the first socially scientific thinkers to depart from then-prevalent beliefs in the mythological powers of Greek gods and goddesses. They are known as the first educators to promote themselves and charge fees for their lectures. They came from far and wide, arriving in Athens, the center of the Western intellectual world back then. Their travels made them seem “sophist-icated, or worldly wise,” and they ultimately became a threat to the ruling Athenian elite and were notable precursors of democracy. However, in the final analysis, a lot of their thinking was horribly flawed.

As explained in “Archetypes of Wisdom”:

As the Sophists became expert debaters and advertisers, they learned to use emotional appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to sell their particular point of view. These characteristics have led to the modern meaning of “a sophistry” as an example of overly subtle, superficially plausible, but ultimately fallacious reasoning.

Isn’t that an apt description of our current state of affairs, especially when we start talking about what truth is or isn’t, fake news (ad nauseum), and the numerous lies that repeatedly come out of the president’s mouth?

By looking a bit deeper into what the Sophists were all about, it’s easy to see more disturbing patterns of thinking running parallel to what’s happening today. For example, some Sophists were extreme relativists who believed there was no such thing as absolute or ultimate truth; that “moral and social values are matters of individual taste,” Soccio wrote. This kind of thinking leads to many unsavory aspects of humanity, such as white supremacy, diversity intolerance, etc. Sophists also believed in “might makes right,” so to speak. They bestowed power to their personal versions of superior individuals, giving such people permission to dominate those who may be weaker or less fortunate.

The Sophists were the forerunners of today’s how-to-succeed, you-can-have-it-all books, courses, and techniques. Freed of any moral anchor, the most ruthless Sophists were often deadly and effective. They took no responsibility for the ways people might use their ideas. Although they were attacked by Plato and others on moral grounds, most Sophists were actually amoral (non-moral) rather than immoral. Like the caricature of a mob attorney who uses all his persuasive skills to vigorously and lucratively defend drug dealers and crime bosses, the Sophists made no moral judgments. They were concerned only with what worked.

Isn’t it obvious that our current president is very much non-moral? This conclusion comes from recognizing his compulsive penchant for spreading misinformation, over-the-top philandering, and quickness to pardon criminal behavior. Additionally, it’s plain to see how the president is mostly concerned with what works for him. Moreover, he is not a teacher, and he is the leader of our country. How depressing!

Socrates and Plato would have lambasted him to no end.

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