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In defence of sophistry

What does it mean to be wise? Does it mean the state of having acquired the singular, platonic truth of “wisdom”, or is it more about acting in a way that shows thought, measurement and deliberation? Or is it more than that: a way of living and thinking where you hold multiple wisdoms at once without reconciling them and reducing them down to one broad, generalized wisdom while also acting in a thoughtful way?

I think it’s more of the latter. I think that there is particular value to seeing every side of an argument, staying undecided even if you lean towards one option. For example, is abortion about the mother’s right to free choice or the child’s God-granted right to life? You can argue this way and that until the sun goes down and not reach a conclusion because the argument isn’t simply about the death of an unborn infant, it’s also about bodily autonomy and a sense of control over what your future looks like. You cannot make a teenage rape victim to give birth to a baby she cannot physically bear just as much as you cannot allow a woman to abort a fetus that’s one week away from delivery. There are other arguments for and against, but the point here is that when it comes to the abortion debate – like any other social issue with real consequences – it helps to have a sympathetic view of where each argument comes from.

Just to be clear here, I’m not saying that both arguments are equally valid or that they’re both entitled to state support. I personally think that complete choice should be the starting point and you then make concessions based on extenuating circumstances. Say the mother’s too old or too young to bear the child safely. Then, doctors should be able to recommend an abortion. Likewise, in the case of the mother opting for an abortion, if there’s real potential for damage to the mother – which seems to be the case for abortions in the late third trimester – then the surgeon should be required to counsel the mother about this. More importantly, there should be better sex education in schools and accessible prenatal counselling to forestall such unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

For me, the worth of an argument lies in the value of the action it produces. In normative ethics, I’d like to be classified as a “consequentialist“. In some situations, consequentialists are derisively reduced to being “hedonists”. I think that’s a bit of a misnomer because Western philosophers and ethicists overuse that word. I like the Sanskrit term charvaka instead. Apart from the geographical separation, the key distinction between the two shools of thought is that while hedonists believed in the doctrine of “eat, drink and be merry because pleasure is all that matters”, Charvaka philosophy is much broader in its precepts: it’s a mix of hedonism, moral relativism and materialism all packaged within a stoutly atheistic framework. It’s by far my favourite branch of Indian philosophy and you should definitely read this quick introduction to it – it’s like 4 pages long and takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.

Side note: Ancient Greek philosophy is fascinating and much more interesting than the Western European circlejerk post-Hegel. But even more fun than Ancient Greek philosophy is Ancient Indian philosophy.

But for all that, I don’t think consequentialism has much to do with hedonism. However, it does share some of the same moral relativism as sophists (link leads to a quick intro to sophism). The term has historically been a stand-in pejorative term for someone who has no real morals and can go about selling arguments and speaking to a public gathering about really anyone and anything. Yes, ‘sophists’ used to be separate from ‘rhetoricians’, but that was only for a brief period and nobody cares about that distinction anymore. Sophists were traditionally paid teachers and scholars who taught their students how to argue about a certain topic and how to hold their ground. They had no issues with crossing over to the other side when they saw a better argument, and they did not really care for the scorn society poured on them for this. Sophists were, depending on your standpoint, either “merchants of knowledge” or “tongues for hire”. Either way, they existed to educate, listen, argue and convince.

Of what use is wisdom if you’re going to hoard it and cling to it possessively? So, a wise person has to pass on their knowledge to someone else. If all you do is spout bits of knowledge, you’re not wise; you’re just a mouthpiece. A truly wise person listens more than he speaks. But what if your ideas come in direct conflict with someone else’s? Wisdom requires the willingness and humility to engage opponents and be prepared to concede to a better argument. So, a wise person is able to convince and be convinced in equal measure.

If wisdom is the ability to see everything, defend everything and argue for anything while still being able to defend and preach whatever is important to you, then true sophistry is a legitimate form of wisdom. I’m not saying it’s the ultimate form of it, or the best. Only that any good teacher, advocate and rhetorician is almost invariably a sophist.

Socrates, a sophist?

Here, I’m going to argue that Socrates, despite Plato’s protestations, is a sophist. If you’ve heard this one before, close the tab and go about you day.

Socrates and Protagoras walk into a bar …

There’s precious little we know about Socrates’ life, thoughts and beliefs. However, what little we have seems to make clear one thing: he really hated sophists. But the thing is, that ‘fact’ isn’t as clear-cut as we’ve been led to believe. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from his dear disciple Plato. Plato shits on sophists for their lack of moral fibre and often pits his mentor Socrates against them. In Protagoras (Plato’s work named after the sophist), for example, we have Socrates saying things like this:

If you are ignorant of [what a Sophist is], you cannot know to whom you are entrusting your soul—whether it is to something good or to something evil.

Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras

But if we peel away some of Plato’s own prejudices against sophists, we can start to see that actually, Socrates is indeed a sophist. Even more provocatively, he’s almost a textbook sophist. Briefly, here’s the crux of my argument:

  • In Protagoras and in other writings, Plato never speaks ill of Protagoras, who was a card-carrying sophist and a respected teacher. Socrates himself held favourable views of Protagoras and considered him a mentor.
  • Socrates’ famous “Socratic method” – a technique of inquiry whereby he asked a series of questions to better understand the other person and occasionally to trip them up – is a variant of the sophists’ own technique of using questions as part of their dialectical method. Diogenes Laertius went so far as to state that the Socratic method was actually invented by Protagoras. 2000 years ago, it may even have been a slam.
  • Socrates was known (even in Plato’s works) for being attention-seeking and a bit of a provocateur. While Plato characterised it as Socrates’ way of seeking truth, it’s actually very similar to the sophists, who liked to challenge people to a debate in front of a large crowd and then humiliate them using their own arguments.
  • Like other sophists, Socrates’ arguments and inquiries were not meant to end in any conclusive statement. They weren’t always meant to change anybody’s mind either. Rather, it was mostly an exercise in rhetoric and oratory designed to get a few laughs and make people think.
  • Aristophanes characterises Socrates as a sophist of the highest order. If there’s one thing I’m utterly confident of, it’s that writers of comedy are – by impulse and practice – astute judges of character. So, I’m willing to take his word for it. And it’s not just me: Plato writes that Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” was one reason that the public was convinced that Socrates was a sophist. If people then could be convinced he was, maybe Socrates really was (at some point) a sophist.

Even if you grant that he wasn’t a sophist through-and-through, it’s obvious that Socrates, the Western world’s greatest teacher, was a sophist to a great degree. So, to be a sophist is to be a true disciple of Socrates. To be a sophist is challenge the status quo and embrace the Socratic method for its original use: as a means to living a life of wisdom through argumentation.

If that’s so bad, slap me with a book and call me a sophist because I’m not convinced.

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