Aug 19, 2011

Sophistry in Ancient Athens

By Robin Phillips | Published Date: August 15, 2011

“...for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, who forsake the paths of uprightness  to walk in the ways of darkness...” Proverbs 2:10-13
The ancient city of Athens didn’t have a police force. Thus, if somebody committed a crime against you – if, for example, they embezzled your money or stole your property – the only way you could achieve justice was by taking them to court.
Ancient Athens also didn’t have any lawyers. Thus, anyone who found himself in court had to be prepared to argue the case himself.
One thing that ancient Athens did possess was plenty of unscrupulous characters. Many of these less-than principled folk discovered that if you were clever enough you could persuade the court to agree with you even if you were in the wrong (especially if your opponent was not very bright).
In the latter half of the fifth century BC, a group of teachers arose in Athens called Sophists. The Sophists claimed to be able to teach students how to prove impossible propositions, such as that nothing exists or that motion is impossible.
The Greek playwright, Aristophanes, poked fun at the Sophists in his comedy The Clouds. In his play, an elderly farmer named Strepsiades goes to a special school called “The Thinkery” where Socrates (caricatured here as a Sophist) promises to teach him how to use persuasive rhetoric to prove that right is wrong and wrong is right. Overjoyed at the power he will wield once Socrates has taught him the secret to proving anything, the unscrupulous Strepsiades breaks forth into this refrain (taken from Alan H. Sommerstein’s wonderful Penguin Classics translation)
“So I give myself entirely to the school – I’ll let it beat me,
It can starve me, freeze me, parch me, it can generally ill-treat me,
If it teaches me to dodge my debts and get the reputation
Of the cleverest, slyest fox that ever baffled litigation.
Let men hate me, let men call me names, and over and above it
Let them chase me through each court, and I assure you that I’ll love it.
Yes, if Socrates can make of me a real forensic winner,
I don’t mind if he takes out my guts and has them for his dinner.”
Although The Clouds was a work of dramatic fiction, it isn’t far off from the truth of what actually went on in Athens. Though it is unlikely that the historical Socrates was anything like Aristophanes’ portrayal, the Sophists were just as unscrupulous. Many of the youth flocked to them to learn how to be clever enough to persuade courts and other audiences, even if what they were saying was false.
Enter Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). In the fourth century BC, this brilliant teacher took an interest in helping people identify whether an argument was actually sound rather than just clever and persuasive-sounding. Although Aristotle was not the first teacher to do this, his contribution was that he systematized the laws of logic. In so doing, he gave educated people the tools for analyzing the structure of basic arguments like the syllogism. A syllogism is an argument with two premises and a conclusion. Here is an example:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Aristotle explained that in order for a syllogism like this one to be valid, the conclusion had to be the logical result of the premises which precede it. While the above syllogism is fairly straight-forward, in hisPrior Analytics, Aristotle explained the rules for assessing more tricky syllogisms as well as other forms of argumentation.
Aristotle and philosophers like him did the Western tradition an enormous service. They gave educated people the tools for assessing the logical structure of an argument to tell whether it was valid.
Of course, not everyone is educated in critical thinking. Even today, clever people often succeed in bamboozling naive audiences with persuasive-sounding – yet ultimately illogical - rhetoric. Elsewhere I have explained how the homosexual lobby has been doing just that. Like the Sophists, they have been employing arguments which may sound convincing on the surface, yet upon closer examination are just as faulty as the arguments Strepsiades used to try to dodge his debts.



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