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  • Daniel Vargas

O.K. Sophist: Rise of the Sophists

“Your mind is your only strength, your reason is your only power” - Marcus Aurelius

Let's clear up the air real quick first before we begin today. Sophists, with capital S are professors or professional teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. Lowercase s, sophist, are individuals who reason fallaciously or manipulatively with information.

Today we will talk about the lowercase sophist. The rise of sophists, it feels like we can't get enough of them! Unfortunately, the reality is, they are in our modern media, they are celebrities, they can be us at times.

This rise in sophists seems to stem from the political climate of being righteous. Being correct, being the moral compass. Or simply, to sway you to a particular way of thinking in order for you to agree with them.

To understand modern day sophists, let's talk about their origin. Sophists were the original lawyers, the first formal teachers in the art of speaking. Early sophists charged money for their practice so many people who were taught by them were those of nobility and wealth. Those in nobility had heavy influence in politics, which a lot of time inevitably caused a stir in wars, policy and economics.

Early sophists weren’t necessarily people who tricked or swayed public opinion, the purpose of a sophist's teachings was to teach the art of speaking. But because it can be used wrongly, this teaching was heavily criticized. Cicero blames Plato for turning people against the sophists as he notes in his dialogues “sophists separate wisdom and eloquence”. Plato argued with many sophists, he goes on to say the beauty of their speech makes people believe without question. Socrates on many occasions warned of their rise since Democracy was flourishing in Athens. He went on to say that if sophists continue to grip public opinion, the unwise would follow and subsequently, power in Democracy would not be balanced.

The reality of their teachings was to persuade people. Now this can be a necessary skill when debating with people in power, or to inspire necessary war to protect one’s nation, or to pass necessary policy. But many philosophers saw the flaws in their practice, especially with those who did not have good intentions.

You see, philosophers wanted people to think for themselves, many philosophical debates are based on thought provoking conversation which involves necessary questioning. A sophist on the other hand would use wisdom and knowledge to not really provoke conversation, but to end it by swaying the person to agree with you. Whether or not what they are saying is right or wrong.

A sophist utilizes rhetorical speech to achieve their goal in any particular subject matter. Philosophers criticized this way of speech because it opened the window to deception. An example would be, if you were not knowledgeable of a subject matter but knew enough to get by, you would use keywords to show the other party that you were somewhat knowledgeable, thus you would trust that person. A philosopher on the other hand would generally not speak highly on a subject they know nothing about and make it known that they don’t, but still engage in conversation to gain new knowledge.

We see that in the modern day, a sophistical approach to conservation is necessary to build trust, a perfect example would be an interview for a position. Even if you are not a perfect fit for the position, you would use keywords to let the interviewers know that you are at least knowledgeable and capable. You're not lying but displaying your competence. The same goes for politics, many politicians are not experts in everything but they will speak on many topics to the public to gain trust.

The issue again, is using the little knowledge they have to manipulate people. So after hearing about sophists, as a stoic we cannot deny that it very much exists today. At the end of the day, in the modern world, how you speak and convey your knowledge and information is more important than what you know because as I’ve mentioned, it also builds trust, which is regarded highly in today’s society. As a matter of fact, I think it's completely normal and that we should have our best interest at heart when we want to convey information, or gain trust. That's the reality of being a human, and while I am not saying in any bit that it's ok to manipulate people. Proper communication is how we navigate the world, it is when we are using our communication skills to harm others or lie to have someone agree with us.

As a stoic, I think this should be relatively easy to do as we are constantly practicing and checking ourselves as far as the four virtues are concerned. However, something that is a bit more complicated to notice is when someone else is doing it to us. Early in this episode, I mentioned how only the elite, people in power, and politics really concern themselves with this kind of formal training and communication. Well, can we agree that this is happening today? If it is, how are we seeing this most often? Politics, media, and business. So this begs the question, am I being manipulated? Let's not get too hung up on whether or not we are, because we are. As a stoic, it is a reality we should accept, we are who we are because of our environment as we grew up, mixed with our personality, and let's add a dash of individual digestion of that knowledge. Now if we accept this as fact, we can navigate the world more wisely. I had gone into more detail in a previous podcast titled “challenge your thoughts”, but this is more important than ever with the amount of information out there.

Unfortunately a big reason for our division in the political world today is because we are being manipulated, I mean someone has an agenda, whatever that purpose should be. The difference that we as stoic should make is we are individuals with differing opinions. We are philosophers! Seekers of knowledge, the goal as Marcus Aurelius would say, is not to find yourself amongst the majority but in the ranks of the insane. He says this to say, do not follow the mob. It's ok if you have a different opinion, it's supposed to be different, you are an individual, not a bee. Marcus Aurelius also notes that we should not worry about agreeing or disagreeing with or against the majority, we should worry about taking up their irrational beliefs.

So question them, it is our duty as free humans to do so. Are you providing me with the most accurate and factual information? Why do I agree with you, am I agreeing with you from a place of emotional response? Or am I agreeing with you because it's rational and logical? Question yourself, ask more questions, challenge yourself. Early philosophers know the power of sophists, but it was the early philosophers who argued tirelessly with them to ensure people thought for themselves instead of being told what to think. The rise of the sophists have met their match with the rise of modern philosophers and modern stoics.

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