The common view of ‘Sophistry’, is an argument for its own sake; an argument without regard to the truth (Quid est veritas?). The subject matter is of little consequence or value to the accomplished sophist. And a valid and convincing argument for a particular proposition should be able to be overturned with equal validity. This is an extreme standpoint, perhaps, that few sophists strictly adhere to. But truth is often elusive and dependant on perspective and stance.
Sophistry was a system first introduced by the ancient Greeks and is today best demonstrated in the High Court by Advocates well versed in the technique. Western politicians were once polished adherents but this is rarely the case, these days. Winston Churchill’s rhetoric was at its most edifying and obscure when he gave full rein to the methodology.
To the ancient Greek mind, sophistry was allied to the philosophy of scepticism. Sophistry and scepticism are natural kinsfolk, on the distaff side, as true sceptic philosophers maintain that true knowledge is unobtainable . A truly ridiculous doctrine if taken to extreme, as denial of knowledge implies a knowledge of negation. Like many ridiculous doctrines (see solipsism) it shouldn’t be judged at face value but recognised as a severe scourge for higher mental effort.
Sophistry had negative connotations to the ancient Greeks and to us moderns also, although I suspect for different reasons. While it is true that the subtle arguments vented could be specious, they were often subtle and cleverly constructed; this is admirable regardless of the century you were born. There was a snobbery amongst the Greek intellectual elite typified by Plato and Aristotle. They thought that a philosopher should provide a free tutoring service to the noble and ignoble rich, alike. Sophists on the other hand were notorious for having the temerity for charging a fee for their work. Many became rich peddling their intellectual wares. Plato was a nobleman of means and enjoyed a living from his lands. He could afford high principles. Socrates was not a wealthy man and seemed to genuinely eschew wealth and provision for his family. I’m sure his wife and children would not have minded the rewards of the odd tuition fee. However, Socrates had rich friends and admirers who made sure that he did not starve in spite of his unconventional ways. But both men were humbugs, although Socrates to a lesser degree. All must have a means of support, even the hermit must come out of his shell and ask for alms, now and again. High principles can only exist in a rich society. A society which produces an excess of goods and food. All Greek thinkers extorted a fee from the working populace if only they were honest enough to recognise the fact. The otherworldliness of gifted savants is often a pale pretence. Deny them three meals and watch them sing for their supper.
Have I digressed?
The power of the rhetoric and the power of politics sailed together in ancient
. A versatile and clever
speaker could charm his way into public life given powerful friends and a
modicum of good luck. His skills would also act as an anodyne from ills foisted
by powerful enemy lawsuits. Greece
As an Anecdote
Carneades was a great exponent of the Sophist’s art and had learnt his trade well. An art it must be, as sophists of the pure kind have an altogether different intellectual temper to the scientist or true philosopher. We can express admiration for their work but must treat their conclusions, wherever they may take us, with contempt. Carneades was part of the Greek diplomatic mission sent to
in 156BC. Rome Rome
had prospered much from the two Punic wars with . With conquered lands came, Empire,
fantastic wealth and transcendent power in the Carthage Mediterranean.
While in ,
and as a matter ingrained habit, Carneades meant to profit and launched a
series of lectures for the edification of young and exclusively rich Roman, Noblemen.
Like many nations, before and after, which have achieved rapid military success
thrusting them into contact with people of a more advanced cultural
progression, the Romans felt intellectually and developmentally inferior to the
Greeks in everything except politics and war. Young Roman Noblemen were quick
to ape Greek mannerisms and customs. Rome
As was Carneades custom, he first delivered a lecture on the notion of ‘Justice’ as espoused by Plato and Aristotle. The lecture was morally and spiritually uplifting. The young Romans were mightily impressed. Next day however, the wily Greek gave a lecture completely contradicting the edifying sentiments of the previous lecture; the Romans got the point. The first lecture appealed to high virtue, while the second promoted a realistic, prosaic view of this imperfect world. The prominent Roman of the day, Cato the Elder, who may not have been present at the lectures, was less impressed. Cato represented the old virtues of
; bucolic; obstinate;
stupid and brutal. Cato would have nothing to do with sophistry even if he
could have understood it. It smacked of un-manly and certainly un-Roman virtue
of highly dubious, foreign provenance. Cato’s austerity was notorious as was
his unwavering patriotic devotion to duty. He wanted a Rome unsullied by Greek guile and
intellectual duplicity. Of course, Rome
went on to cultivate all of the Greek vices without any of the equalising Greek
|Cato: a true reflection of 'Old Rome'|