The word “sophist” has an entirely negative connotation today, owing mostly to Plato, who had Socrates debate the sophists in his dialogue Gorgias. In that dialogue, Socrates revealed the flaws of the sophistic oratory popular in Athens. The art of persuasion was popular with the Greeks of that age, as it was the key to success in politics and law. Socrates argued that rhetoric without philosophy, is just an effort to persuade for personal gain. Worse, it could justify falsehood over truth.
In ancient Greece, however, to be a sophist was something different than what we think today. They were teachers, often highly esteemed. They were hired by the wealthy to educate their children and prepare them for a public life. They also had a great deal of influence on the development of the law and political theory. Despite this, what has come down to us is a generally negative view of the sophists. That’s because we have little of their writings, but we have a lot from their critics like Plato and Aristotle.
Despite this incomplete record, we can get some sense of what the sophists were about by looking around the current age for people we could describe as public philosophers for hire. We don’t have men walking the streets in togas, offering to persuade us of something for a fee, but we do have plenty of public intellectuals. The ones we see on television are not really philosophers for hire, as they work in universities, think tanks and media companies. They are not hiring themselves out on-demand.
We do have people on-line, however, who make a living selling books, videos and public appearances, in order to support themselves. Stefan Molyneux is probably the best example, as he actually calls himself a philosopher. He’s also written a book on persuasion. Scott Adams is another guy, who has carved out a career on-line, where he offers arguments you can use on friends and family. Coincidentally, he has written a book on persuasion too. Amusingly, he claims to be a hypnotist, not a philosopher.
Molyneux and Adams are a good starting place as both are explicit in their goals and they are both heavily invested in the personal presentation. Molyneux stands in front of a camera and talks to you as if you’re two guys at a party. It’s intended to relax the viewers and make them receptive. Similarly, Adams does his act from his kitchen table. The desired effect is that the viewer feels like he is sitting across from his old buddy Scott Adams, talking about the issues of the day. Relaxed people are more persuadable.
The other thing you see with both is they put that camera right up on their face, so the viewer is then up close and personal. This makes it possible to communicate with facial expressions, rather than just words. Adams puts the camera so close to his face at times it is a bit uncomfortable. His dentists does not get that close. Molyneux is more subtle and polished than Adams, owing to his theater training. He did a video touring his new studio and the sophisticated tools he uses to achieve the desired effect.
In fact, Molyneux’s performance cannot work without his exaggerated facial expressions to compliment the audio. This recent video he did, addressing criticism of his book, is incomprehensible without Molyneux’s exaggerated facial tics. If you just listen to it, it sounds like gibberish. Adams is a little less reliant on the facial cues, but as you see in this recent video, he needs them to make it work. Notice the ridiculously large coffee mug he uses in the welcoming phase of his performance.
The use of props and exaggerated facial expressions is not new. Jon Stewart got rich using exaggerated irony face on Comedy Central. Without the over-the-top clown face stuff, his jokes don’t work. His faces are cues to the audience. You laugh, because you are smart and get the joke. The joke is always about how the people outside the hive are dumb and mean, unlike the people inside laughing at Jon Stewart doing exaggerated irony face, while watching clips of the bad people.
This is something Plato observed. Sophistry is a form of flattery. The sophist first establishes himself as a wise man. He then convinces you of something through his clever rhetoric. Once you agree, you become a wise man too. It’s why some people reading this will react negatively at what they view as criticism of their favorite guy. The teacher becomes a projection of the student’s sense of self, therefore, any focus on or criticism of the teacher is viewed as a personal affront to the student.
What this tells us is the sophist of ancient Athens were probably very charismatic people, who had very loyal followings. Socrates could easily be hated, because his criticism of the sophists was, in effect, a criticism of Athens. It also might explain why they left behind little in the way of writing. Their presentation was mostly visual. Writing it down not only would have made it easy to analyze, it would not have made much sense. The scribe taking notes could not capture the facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice.
Tone of voice is another aspect we can examine. The guy Molyneux addresses in that video is someone calling himself Rationality Rules. Again, a big part of his presentation is the visual. He stands in front of a camera doing the hipster douche bag act. You’ll also note the over-the-top sense of urgency in his voice. He’s almost pleading with the viewer to listen to him. Up-talking, emotive tones and so forth are highly effective on the millennials, so it is a persuasive tactic that compliments the rhetoric.
A fellow calling himself The Alternative Hypothesis combines the visual and the audio to create a sense of urgency. Instead of standing in front of the camera, like the other sophists on YouTube, he weaves in clips from movies and still shots from cool paintings, to complement his audio. It is extremely clever and quite effective. Seeing an excited Kevin Branagh, playing Henry V, as the narrator lowers the boom on JF Gariepy, is both flattering, exhilarating and convincing. It is a very clever presentation.
Again, what we can learn about the sophists of ancient Greece, by observing their modern analogs, is that the old guys were probably quite charming. A guy like Molyneux is impossible to hate, even if you hate what he says. It’s how he can be a race realist on Twitter and speak in public. The videos from The Alternative Hypothesis are a lot of fun and they are informative. Scott Adams makes people laugh with his observations and cartoons. Odds are, the ancient sophists were every bit as likable and charming.
Of course, there is that old charge of speciousness and dishonestly, with regards to the sophists of ancient Athens. Any comparison between our moderns and the ancients has to address it. Our modern sophists are prone to logical fallacies and they can be quite prickly about criticisms. We know the ancients were prone to logical fallacies and they did help condemn Socrates, so that is a useful comparison. It suggests our moderns are just as prone to placing rhetoric ahead of truth as the sophists of ancient Greece.
It also suggests that the range of quality among the ancient sophists was quite broad and they had their good days and bad days. Scott Adams is unlikely to argue that Molyneux should drink hemlock. The Alternative Hypothesis is not going to argue that it is an advantage of his profession that a man can be considered above specialists without having to learn anything of substance. For many of our modern sophists, the truth is important, so it is fair to assume the same was true in ancient Greece.
Still, there is the nagging issue of persuasion versus truth. The one thing we know about the sophists is they thought all knowledge is opinion. Therefore, if everyone believes X to be true, then X is true. That means there can be no rational or irrational arguments, because human beliefs are situational. It is simply what people believe at any moment in time. This is why persuasion was so important to the sophists. To be correct was simply a process whereby you convinced your fellows you have the correct opinion.
This is probably a symptom of democracy and another insight we can draw by comparing our modern sophists with those of ancient Greece. In a democracy, there is no arbiter of truth other than fifty percent plus one. In a monarchy, the king is the truth, so there is no need for debate, outside of his advisers. In a theocracy, dogma is the truth and the clergy are those who apply it to policy. What little debate required is not about the truth, but about the application of truth. Again, there is no need to persuade.
In a democracy the truth is what the majority says it is. There is no central authority to arbitrate and there’s no written text that cannot be debated. The law itself becomes a source of dispute and contention in order to bring the dispute to the people for a vote between opposing opinions. Similarly, the market place is about winning market share by convincing customers you have the best product. There’s no right product or service, just arguments and competition between them to win the crowd.
This is a good time to mention something the Persian King Cyrus the Great observed about the Greeks. Herodotus describes Cyrus’s meeting with the Spartan envoy Lacrines, who warns the Persian king against destroying a Greek city. Cyrus’s replied that he feared no people who cheated one another on the Agora. In other words, at the heart of the market place is a lie. The seller tries to deceive the buyer and the buyer tries to deceive the seller. The same can be said for debate in a democracy.
This suggests sophistry is a naturally occurring product of democracy. Sophistry is to a democracy what marketing is to the free market. When there is a product to be sold, a pitch man arrives to sell it. As soon as there is the first vote, a debater arrives to plead the case, on behalf of the highest bidder. If cheating is the true currency of the market, sophistry and deception are the currency of every democracy. There is no truth in the market place and there is no truth in public debate. There is only equilibria.
Finally, one unmistakable feature of itinerant YouTube philosophers is they have very thin skins, taking all criticism as an offense to their honor. A big part of the YouTube philosopher world is these guys doing videos attacking one another and responding to these attacks. Part of it is attention seeking. Most likely, the ancients relied on the same tactic to get noticed. People like drama and the best sort of drama is when two people get into a heated dispute in public. Again, it is safe to assume this was true in Athens.
Another part of it though is the fact that status within the sophist community is determined by how one’s persuasion game is judged. If other sophists are picking you apart, you have to defend yourself, as they are literally trying to harm you. Criticizing the argument is the same as criticizing the man. When rhetoric is the coin of the realm, someone appearing to diminish your rhetoric game is stealing money from your pocket. It’s why a Molyneux feels the need to respond to a two year old video ripping his book.
Spengler observed that there is a cosmopolitan condition both at the beginning and at the end of every Culture. The one at the beginning is the flowering of that culture that comes from the work of those who built it. The one at the end is more like a funeral march for the death of those who made the culture possible. The sophist flourished in the golden age of Greece. It was the full becoming of Greek culture. Perhaps we are experiencing something similar. Our explosion of sophistry is our denouement as well.