Sophism is dead! Long live Sophism!!
The original Sophists may have lived in 5th century BCE but it will be a great mistake to suppose that Sophism is dead. On the contrary, today, the popular modern culture reeks with the ideas of the Sophists, more than ever.
In 5th century Greek-speaking world, particularly at Athens, Sophists were travelling intellectuals who taught ‘Arête’ (excellence or virtue) to anyone who could pay the right fee. They were not a school of philosophers and they did not invent or follow any system of philosophy but they excelled in the art of logical argument : ‘Dialectic’ and the art of persuasive speaking : ‘Rhetoric’.
The Sophists were splendid orators, public speakers and mouths for hire!
Completely ignorant of any morality or ethics, these charismatic men dazzled everyone with their clever reasoning but usually fallacious arguments. They earned reputations as the crowd pullers who could convince anyone that good could be bad or vice versa or even that day was night!
The famous case of ‘Corax and Tisias’ …
Corax, a teacher of Rhetoric in Syracuse, Sicily around 476 BCE sued his pupil, Tisias, for not paying his tuition.
In court, Tisias argued that he should not have to pay, regardless of outcome, because:
Either he will prove his case, and therefore not have to pay as the result of winning the suit; or he will lose the suit and that will be proof that Corax did not teach him well enough to deserve being paid his tuition.
Corax argued that he should be paid, regardless of outcome, because:
If he wins the suit, then the court will require him to be paid, and if he loses the suit, that will be proof that he taught Tisias well enough to beat him and therefore he deserves to be paid his fee.
Who is right?
The judge shook his head in disdain and ruled, “Mali corvi, mali ovum.” — One bad thing (the bad crow, malus corvus) can only gives rise to something else bad (the bad egg, malum ovum).
Eventually, their attitude, coupled with unscrupulous pursuit of wealth, led to popular resentment against sophists and their ideas. With the rise of the philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, they slowly sank into oblivion and faded away.
1st century CE witnessed a very short lived resurgence of Sophism known as the ‘Second Sophistic’.
And so it was presumed that Sophism died an unceremonious death after that. But to everyone’s astonishment, fed by a capitalist society and market driven higher education, Sophistry has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.
As described in a Financial Times article by Janan Ganesh, the elite professions in a modern society - lawyers and management consultants, political advisers and advertising executives, public-relations strategists and even certain types of investment banker: all trade on the same skill of Sophistry!
In today’s society, lawyers are the true modern Sophists — arguers for hire. And the court is their battleground where they try to outshine each other in a dazzling show of Sophistry! An attorney is even legally obligated to argue as persuasively as they can for their client’s best interests, irrespective of his or her innocence!
As we all know, our politicians spend most of their time performing Sophistry by ‘selling themselves.’ More often than not, every politician has to resort to launching verbal attacks with wild accusations, rumors and innuendo against their rivals, persuasive ads, spin doctors, and damage control in his or her carrier.
Advertising world excels in Sophistry! An advertiser’s job is to convince the public to spend money on their products. While a few advertisers even rely on blatant lies and fraud, most of them simply rely on persuasion like a true sophist.
Modern history is full of examples where a sect maligns a rival group through rhetoric and propaganda. Even today, many religious groups gain power and even cultural approval through false propaganda to kill or torture someone who offends their religious sensibilities.
“Freedom of speech is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth. It is Sophistry, which is used today unabashedly for propaganda, lobbying, and salesmanship, to deceive a fellow man, to swindle, to cheat, or to pick pockets.” (Walter Lippmann, Essays in the Public Philosophy, 1955)
‘Edward Louis Bernays’ an Austrian-American sophist, referred to as “the father of public relations” was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine. The new age Sophist succeeded in manipulating public opinion worldwide. He renamed the practice of sophistry “propaganda,” and then “public relations,”. Hitler’s minister of propaganda, used Bernays book as a primary reference to built a personality cult around the Führer for molding the public mind!
He created many successful ad campaigns using fallacious arguments and helped to shape many major events of the 20th century through sophistry; making the illusory appear to be what it wasn’t and selling people their own death and undoing.
In today’s high-tech world, the sophists’ influence has reached dazzling heights; they now have limitless tools at their disposal. Media is the most powerful of them! Television and the Internet are filled with dubious sources which appear to be honest and trustworthy at the first glance but usually have a hidden agenda. ‘Fake news’ websites, are aimed specifically at spreading misinformation with the end goal of propagating a certain viewpoint or political agenda.
Political parties, Presidents, police, Corporates and even religious groups employ agents to arrange press conferences for the media giving a favorable account of their actions and policies. These ‘spin doctors’ practice Sophistry to fool the public because persuading people to accept your version of truth is at the very heart of ‘Dialectic’ and ‘Rhetoric’.
Evil that everyone thought was defeated and destroyed has risen again: stronger and fiercer than before.
A good argument cannot rest on untrue premises! The society should wake up and recognize the new age Sophists and treat them as liars. Because, these men are nothing but conmen and liars, infesting our thoughts with ideas to make us to act in ways from which their clients could benefit.
May be the ‘persuasion’ and the ‘rhetoric’ or even the core idea of ‘argument’ of the original Sophism were not bad but the Sophists have long misused their ability to speak persuasively to manipulate the people and have their way at the expense of reality and truth!
Let us chose carefully! We have to change as a society and accept the fact that flowery language and Charisma is only the covering and not the essence. Perhaps if we could learn to look past this attractive covering of propaganda and persuasion and search a bit deeper into the moral and ethical essence of things, then may be in doing so we will escape a Sophist’s charms!