In modern usage, the terms sophism and sophistry are used interchangeably with “inaccurate” or “deliberately misleading.” A sophist is someone who relies upon fallacious arguments or reasoning to win a debate. Someone can be accused of sophistry because they are too stupid to see the flaws in their reasoning. Other times they are accused of deliberately misleading arguments. The motivation is malice rather than stupidity or carelessness.
This negative view of sophistry was not always so. We get the word from the Greeks who used the word to mean teacher. A sophist hired himself out to rich families to instruct their sons in philosophy, math, rhetoric and music. The ability to debate in public was an important skill for an ambitious Athenian, so educating your children to be convincing orators was a primary goal of rich parents. A good sophist was one who was good at making convincing arguments.
Our negative view of this also comes from the Greeks. The reason we know about Socrates is we have the writings of Plato, who tells us Socrates was opposed to sophistry in his day. He thought arguments had to be logically sound and factually accurate, rather than just convincing. Of course, Socrates was forced to drink poison by the Athenians, because he was condemned for undermining public virtue. It turns out that the truth does not always set you free.
The reason any of this matters is that in democratic societies, there is a tension between these same two claims. On the one hand, winning the crowd is vital to democratic politics and the marketplace. This was true in ancient Athens and it is true on social media today. On the other hand, we are a society that believes deliberate deception is wrong, so factual accuracy is important. Winning the crowd through deceptive means is viewed as immoral.
This tension has been at the heart of mainstream conservative politics. One camp, the Straussians, think that winning the argument, which in politics means winning elections, is all that matters. The alternative camp insists that being right is what matters, even if it is not always popular. The former camp is correct that the goal of politics in a democratic system is to win elections, but the other side is also right that winning elections means nothing if the result is bad policy.
This conflict is at the heart of this back and forth between Michael Anton and Paul Gottfried over natural rights and traditionalism. Anton is a Straussian so he is therefore unencumbered by logic and factual accuracy. He simply wants to convince people that a society rooted in natural rights is the only choice, if America is going to hold together for much longer. Gottfried and others point out that natural rights do no exist and therefore they cannot be a foundation for anything.
What you see in the back and forth is that Gottfried in his short responses is describing things with as much accuracy as possible. He makes a descriptive claim, while Anton, in his lengthy responses, makes prescriptive claims. One side describes things as they are, while the other side argues for how they should be. Anton believes he is in the right because his proposition would solve the problem of governing a majority-minority society, while Gottfried is right because he is factually correct.
This conflict between the descriptive and the prescriptive is turning up in the dissident critique of the conservative movement. Conservatives argue that they are upholding the constitution and the natural rights tradition in America. Dissidents point out that no matter how elegant the arguments are in favor of conservatism and its natural rights foundation, the results, to this point, have been disastrous. In other words, the facts contradict the claims, no matter their intent.
The shadow over all of this, of course, is the purging of the paleocons from conservatism by the neocons and their Straussian enablers. Free from facts and reason, the winners in that struggle were able to conjure the history they needed to support their prescriptive claims, which solved a problem for conservatives. Like a python, they swallowed the Civil Rights Movement whole and digested it into their theories of the founding and their natural rights arguments.
That bit of history is what hangs over the back and forth between Gottfried and Anton and it is what hangs over the dissident critique of conservatism. The neocons and their Straussian enablers won the argument, but to what end? What was the point of winning the argument if the result was the present catastrophe? Anton would like to reframe this as the old neocon versus paleocon dispute, but no amount of words can conceal the elephant in the room. His side won the battle and lost the war.
In the end, this is the lesson of sophistry. It can only flourish in a culture that sees winning the argument as an end in itself. This is the curse of democracy, which brought down ancient Athens and is bringing down the New Athens. The truth is like a corpse in that it can never be truly concealed. The sophists think they can weigh the truth down with words, but like the body bobbing to the surface after the spring thaw, the truth eventually reemerges into the life of a society.
That truth in the current crisis is that the clever arguments and complex logical constructs of the last half century contained no truth value. The sophist of our age profited greatly from their arguments, but the result is the ungovernable mess that is modern America. Like Havel’s green grocer, we must now live in the truth which means shedding the sophistry that has led us to the present catastrophe. The truth may not set us free, but it will keep us from being erased from the book of life.
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