Plato had something against the sophists, those itinerant teachers of rhetoric who rose to prominence in the fifth century BC, mostly in Athens. The sophists claimed to be able to convince anyone of anything, whether true or false, and presumed to be able to teach the same – at significant cost, of course. They were relativists, eschewing truth and denying the natural order of things. I think we should have something against them, too.
According to Protagoras, one of the fathers of sophistry, “man is the measure of all things.” In other words, there is no objective, universal, and absolute standard of truth; truth is what humans say it is. Either God doesn’t exist or He has no command over truth. What passes as truth changes over time and across place; it depends on the contingencies of the human condition. This position defeats itself immediately, as it makes an objective, universal, and absolute claim about the invalidity of all such claims. Its patent illogic, however, doesn’t prevent the claim from being believed, even quite widely.
Gorgias, probably the most successful and famous sophist of all, claimed that “nothing exists; if something did exist, it couldn’t be known; and if it could be known, it couldn’t be communicated.” Gorgias is the quintessential nihilist, denying all existence, knowledge, and communication. He does not, however, deny that language is useful, specifically to persuade and manipulate. In the absence of a real and knowable world about which to speak meaningfully, humans may not be able communicate, but they can use words to gain personal or political advantage over each other. Gorgias, too, defeats his own position when he appears to knowingly communicate that knowledge and communication are impossible.
Thrasymachus, a relatively minor figure who was made famous by Plato in the Republic, said that “justice is the advantage of the stronger.” There is no justice itself, only whatever those with power say it is. If they say good is evil or evil good, then it is so. Put differently, there is nothing intrinsically good, except, it seems, power and its advantages. The position contradicts itself insofar as it makes power good in itself, and also makes the good wholly contingent on power. What’s more, this thesis is foolish on its face. Since the world is fickle, and power tenuous, neither offers anything like a reliable standard of goodness or justice, and, thus, neither provides any guidance whatsoever for living well, not for citizens, but not for rulers, either. Powerful people may enforce some theory of so-called justice for as long as they have power, but that doesn’t make the theory true, which also means it doesn’t make it beneficial for them or, obviously, for me. I may avoid persecution by doing what they tell me to do, but their theory cannot lead me to a good and meaningful life unless what I do is actually good and just.
These propositions are not just antiquated errors, long since overcome. Most of Plato’s dialogues address the sophists in some way; each dialogue that does so decimates them, either by exposing their lack of moral character or by decisively refuting their positions, and oftentimes both. But, despite having no ground to stand on, the sophists were not defeated – not then, not now. As Josef Pieper points out, sophistry is perennial, and, thus, its destructive claims resurface over and again, tempting anyone who is not properly committed to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Being a philosopher with a deep fondness for Plato, Pieper knew sophistry well; living through the Nazi reign, he experienced its evils directly. Sophists never go away; they just have more or less influence: they had some in fifth century Athens; they had much in the middle of the twentieth century; it seems evident to me that they have very much today, too. They have helped usher in, what Pope Benedict XVI called, the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, by which “relativism … becomes a dogmatism that believes itself in possession of the definitive knowledge of human reason, with the right to consider everything else merely as a stage in human history that is basically obsolete and deserves to be relativized.”
There are several definitions of sophists in Plato’s writing, but my favorite is that they are hunters of wealthy young men. Sophists hunt the youth because they are impressionable and, thus, easy to catch; of course, the wealthier the young victims are, the more the sophists stand to gain. But let’s not be too literal here. Even older people can be impressionable, and even the poorest can provide some advantage to the sophist, like increased power and control. Sophists will hunt us, whatever our age or socio-economic status, if they get the chance.
The sophist doesn’t hunt with weapons – not material ones, in any case. He hunts with words, particularly well-crafted and appealing words, including vague terms of art that look so profound that one accepts them without even noticing they are fundamentally meaningless. The power of jargon lies in its ability to make its user seem intelligent, when he is not; the person who accepts the jargon, in turn, takes pride in feeling “in the know”. The sophists invented weaponized ambiguity.
If sophists spoke badly, they wouldn’t convince anyone of anything, but they speak so beautifully that their deceptions go unnoticed. Pieper puts the problem thusly: “the possibility that something could well be superbly crafted – that it could be perfectly worded; brilliantly formulated; strikingly written, performed, staged, or put on screen – and at the same time, in its entire thrust and essence, be false; and not only false, but outright bad, inferior, contemptible, shameful, destructive, wretched – and still marvelously put together”. Sophists are vicious liars and manipulators whose ostensible beauty and elegance masks their fundamental ugliness.
Sophistical speech is not, however, necessarily untrue, even if it is always somehow false and dishonest. Sophists are flatterers. To flatter someone is not to tell them an untruth they want to hear. To flatter is to say something, whether true or false, to get something from the other person. I’m not flattering a friend who has prepared a meal for me when I tell him that I really enjoy his food, though I actually dislike it. I’m being polite. I’m trying to do some good for him, not for myself. I may be wrong to believe that my lie will benefit him, and my lying, white though it may be, might be bad for me, too, but I am not, in any case, flattering him. In contrast, it is flattery if I do it to get on his good side before asking him for an onerous favor, even if I actually like his food.
The difference is clear: unlike polite white lies, flattery includes an ulterior motive. As Pieper puts it, “the other, whom I try to influence with what he likes to hear, ceases to be my partner; he is no longer a fellow subject. Rather, he has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly even dominated, to be handled and controlled.” When practiced effectively, flattery is an excellent hunting technique.
But, recall, the sophist isn’t merely convincing; he purports to be able to teach others to be convincing, too. He doesn’t hunt once, but twice. He doesn’t just persuade an audience; he persuades it so decisively that some of the audience members will seek his company, becoming his disciples, literally or figuratively. In other words, the sophist isn’t just a clever speaker who gets his way often; his cleverness is magnetic, and, as such, he spreads his errors widely.
Not every one of the sophist’s students will become a clever speaker; even fewer will become practicing sophists. Nonetheless, the cunning sophist will fill the heads of even the unsuccessful students, the ones who just can’t manage to assimilate the tricks of the rhetorical trade. With what will these heads be filled? With the underlying framework of sophistry: that man is the measure of all things; that nothing exists; that knowledge and communication are impossible; that language is a tool for manipulation; and that justice is whatever people with power say it is. The student may emerge from his sophistical studies being inarticulate and intellectually clumsy, but he may also come out on the other side believing the most vile and evil junk possible. By spreading his errors, the sophist makes a false reality, an upside down world. We shouldn’t only have something against the sophist; we should have very much against him. We must love our enemies, but enemies they are, and their nonsense must be despised and rejected entirely.
Are there sophists today? Of course there are. Very many. But who are they? The professors? Yes and no. I don’t say this because I happen to be one, but most professors are not flattering hunters of young people, rich or poor. Some are genuine truth-seekers, and many others are, if anything, victims of sophistry, mostly clumsy in their repetition of popular sophisms. I have no doubt there are Protagorases and Gorgiases in colleges and universities, especially in the supposedly “elite” ones, but this only scratches the surface. The sophistical spirit is widespread.
There are hunters of wealthy young men wherever a paying audience is taught to speak well, which also means to speak “correctly”, using the fashionable cant of the day. In other words, we will find sophists wherever people are taught to believe that man is the measure of all things, that nothing exists, etc. Sophists are, accordingly, in the news media, in the entertainment industry, in the political establishment, in marketing, on and behind social media, and maybe, tragically, even in the Church. Their well-trained students will be found there, too, not calling the shots, but regurgitating the nonsense the sophists have fed them. Their less well-trained students will be found consuming it all gladly, buying it in both senses.
The historical enemy of the sophist is the philosopher, the lover of wisdom and seeker of truth at any cost, epitomized by Socrates, who was executed for philosophizing. Unfortunately, the philosopher and the sophist look alike to the uninitiated: they both speak well, both spend time with young impressionable people, and both try to convince their students of something, the one how improve their lives according to truth, the other how to get their way by denying truth. The difference is evident, but it may be difficult to discern, particularly for someone who has already been poisoned by the errors of sophistry. Sophists, who sometimes even have advanced degrees in “philosophy”, hide among the philosophers.
Thankfully, we don’t need philosophy to combat sophistry. Genuine philosophers, as well as other likeminded intellectuals, are valuable because they can refute the sophists and offer a truthful alternative to them on their own turf. But advanced degrees and close study of arcane arguments are not needed to know that there is truth and that, difficult as it oftentimes is to acquire, knowledge of it is possible. Indeed, advanced study can sometimes get in the way of such common sense. The best defense against sophistry is not philosophy, but truth.
We’ve all been hunted. Most, if not all, of us have even been caught a time or seven. Philosophy is a great prophylactic against sophistry; so are good art, good literature, and good old common sense. But, as Catholics, we have access to the greatest of all protections: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6). If we take His way, the sophist cannot follow, and, where he cannot follow, he cannot hunt. Or, maybe he can follow, in which case he can be converted. Let him, thus, hunt us down this path, so that he, too, may be trapped by the Truth.