On the Dangers of Sophistry

In a world where the concept of ‘truth’ is being questioned daily to the point that it is regarded, by some, as a flexible commodity to be abused in the name of short-sighted self-interest, it is to be wondered whether philosophy is still of any use in an intellectual landscape blurred by so many claims and counterclaims. Socrates found himself in the same situation as ours when he could only deplore the lack of rigour and clarity of his philosophical opponents with the important difference that his interlocutors were, until his farcical trial, prepared to listen to is arguments and hopefully learn from them and change their well-entrenched viewpoints.

The Socratic thinking revolution paved the way to Plato’s doctrine and perhaps more crucially, to Aristotle’s theories on ethics and politics but also to his scientifically driven forays into a better understanding of the natural world. Inspired by the biologist Theophrastus, he drew conclusions applying not only to himself and his times but still relevant to our general knowledge of natural phenomena. His pragmatic approach, free of high-faluting or mythical interpretations made Aristotle a pioneer of the scientific method, centred on the acquisition of raw first-hand data. Charles Darwin himself admitted, on reading Aristotle’s Parts of Animals that Linnaeus and Cuvier, his two previous ‘gods’, were actually ‘mere schoolboys to old Aristotle’.

Plato’s distinguished student acknowledged his mentor’s world of pure ideas but he believed that we could never attain this noumenal realm and should, instead, focus on the reality of our more immediate physical environment. Along with the Sophists, the Stagirite considered rhetoric or the art of persuasive speaking as a major tool in the transmission of ideas. However, when Aristotle valued the content of his teaching as paramount, Sophists would use rhetoric to their own advantage and build half-baked arguments to construct false realities: their medium simply became their message just as fake news spread through social media pass themselves as unbiased, bona fide truths. Socrates and Plato derided and condemned their rivals as charlatans, prepared to propose quick fixes to their gullible pupils when their mission should have been to educate them into thinking on their feet. 

In this respect, the present popular literature dedicated to self-help and how to find happiness in an age of anxiety reflects what Eva Illouz calls the intensification of our emotional life and the deeply felt constant need to align our desires with the latest sociological fads and economic trends. Emotional management could become a new form of alienation in a society more fascinated by the opposing pulls of conformity and individualism than the attraction of the pleasures and enrichment to be gained though a selfless Socratic interaction with our contemporaries. 

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