Who Are The Sophists & Why Do They Still Matter?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a sophist as, “a paid teacher of philosophy and rhetoric in Greece in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.” For us to have a proper understanding of who they were we have to understand who a philosopher is first and then work backwards. When most people are asked to imagine a philosopher they usually visualize an old bearded man giving university lectures about enlightened absolutism, democratic trans-humanism and other stuff like that. This is an elitist view of philosophy that Socrates wouldn’t like very much.

Socrates wouldn’t keep his ideas locked up in a lecture theater or academic journals. He’d walk into marketplaces and talk to the ‘average Joe’, asking him questions like: What is justice? What is morality? Is the soul immortal? And so on. To him philosophy was not something to be studied. It was something to be lived. The word philosophy comes from the Greek words phylos, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom. A philosopher is just a lover of wisdom. If you have this love in your heart, if you want to know how to live a good life and if you want to understand the workings of the universe, then you’re already a philosopher.

The word sophism comes from the word sophia, wisdom. No phylos, love, is present. It was used to refer to traveling intellectuals who would educate, those willing to pay them, in the arts of excellence, virtue and morality. The sophists believed that truth was relative. Their main weapon was their use of charisma and rhetoric to win arguments. They were influential in ancient Greece and wealthy due to the high fees they demanded. The early sophists claimed to have an answer to every question that they were asked. They managed to gain the trust of those they consulted with because of the eloquence of their answers and not because of their truthfulness.

The philosopher seeks truth above all else. To understand how a philosopher should act when they don’t know something, let us take the example of the 8th century Islamic scholar Malik ibn Anas. A man traveled a long distance to ask him forty questions. Malik only answered four. To the rest he said, “I do not know.” The man asked the scholar on what he should tell people concerning the other thirty-six questions. To this he replied, “Tell them that I do not know.” In the same situation, the sophist would answer these questions convincingly but not truthfully. The philosopher is aware of their limitations.

What makes sophism still relevant today is the fact that their tactics of circumventing the truth are more prevalent today than ever. The prevalence of modern sophists was best described in a Financial Times article by Janan Ganesh, “What unites the elite professions in any international city is their command of sophistry. Barristers and management consultants, political advisers and advertising executives, public-relations strategists and even certain types of investment banker: all trade on the same skill. It is the ability to frame any given problem on your own terms so that your conclusion is irresistible to the client (or jury, or investor, or politician, or reader). To be clear, this is not the same thing as being right. What matters is being persuasive.”

In today’s high-tech world, the tools at the sophists’ disposal can seem limitless. Television and the Internet are filled with sources that look reputable and honest but simply are not. This is most apparent in the rise of fake news websites, which are aimed specifically at spreading misinformation with the end goal of propagating a certain viewpoint, political agenda or just to increase their web traffic. Often these sites are designed to look like the spinoffs of reputable sources such as CNN, BBC and the Washington Post.

The sophists show us the problem with our attraction to charisma. There seems to be a direct correlation between a person’s charisma and their perceived abilities as a leader. If we take a look at the 1960 United States presidential election we can see the mechanics of this at work. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat senator from Massachusetts, was facing the incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon. JFK was young, inexperienced and Catholic. None of this was good for him. When the two candidates debated on the 26th of September those who tuned in on radio thought of the debate as a draw (evidence that ‘Nixon won radio’ is anecdotal). Those who watched the debate on television saw something else entirely.

“Handsome, dapper, poised, and articulate, Kennedy dispelled with his appearance any nagging worries that he might be too callow for the presidency. Clammy-faced, awkward, and plagued by his gloomy five-o'clock shadow, Nixon reinforced what he called "the Herblock image," in reference to his nemesis, the Washington Post cartoonist, who had already immortalized Nixon's menacing mug.” I’m guessing most of you know who went on to win that election.

While charisma is a nice thing for a leader to have it’s far from necessary. To prove this point let’s look at Angela Merkel. Since 2005 she has been the Chancellor of Germany, being elected three times as of the writing of this essay. Rather then jump in headfirst, she demonstrates her patience and takes her time before making a decision. She is firm to her beliefs and has demonstrated her moral integrity and conviction many times throughout her political career. She possesses all the attributes of a great leader (something I must say despite disagreeing with many of her policies and opinions). Her lack of charisma has had absolutely no observable effect on her success.

We should aim to look past charisma and learn to look at, analyze and dissect an idea or argument based on the facts and theories that it is built upon. Perhaps if we looked past a man’s charisma and looked at what he represents, our admiration might turn to revulsion. Perhaps if we looked past a man’s lack of charm and looked at what he represents, our revulsion might turn to admiration. Charisma is only the veneer and not the essence. Truth is.