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Modern sophistry: how to debunk politicians and self-help books

Some intellectuals use charisma and deception to obscure the holes in their arguments. Here is how to see through their smokescreen.

Credit: Brian Wertheim via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • In Ancient Greece, sophists were philosophers who used their intellect for personal gain rather than the pursuit of knowledge.
  • Though the term is disappearing, sophists are not, especially in the fields of politics and self-help.
  • To recognize a sophist, you first have to understand their strategies. Plato, Orwell, Diderot, and Popper guide the way.

According to market research, U.S. self-help book sales have nearly doubled over the last five years. There are books offering advice on any aspect of our daily life, but the highest grossing tend to make bold claims like improving your sexual desirability in the eyes of others or helping you lose weight on a diet of soaked nuts. Self-help books are often criticized for exaggerating their own effectiveness, and while we often pick them up with some reserve, we keep reading because we are in need of assistance.

Before self-help books became a separate, mass-marketable literary genre, readers turned to philosophers for answers to life’s most burning questions. Though philosophical texts are typically constructed with greater scrutiny than your average assertiveness training guidebook, not all are equally reliable. In many cases, philosophers have also cherry-picked evidence or employed elevated language to get a certain point across more efficiently, usually at the cost of their followers.

By applying these lessons from great thinkers, we make life harder for modern sophists, often politicians and self-help gurus. That is a righteous thing to do.

While ideas evolve with each subsequent generation and differ from culture to culture, human emotions stay more or less the same across space and time. As such, it should come as no surprise that the practice of shuffling words around is as old as language is itself. In Ancient Greece, practitioners of this powerful but dangerous artform were called sophists. Sophists were rhetoricians who sold their service to politicians, helping them to persuade or deceive their colleagues and constituents.

Developing alongside the art of word shuffling was the science of detecting false premises in everyday discourse. This can be easy and straightforward if you are dealing with a short speech but difficult when analyzing academic writing, which often features long, complex arguments that offer more opportunities for the author to cloak their incorrect propositions. In today’s age of fake news, recognizing sophistry is more important than ever — and these thinkers show you exactly how to do it.

Plato and principles of logic

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates manages to score a one-on-one with the titular sophist. Getting it was not easy; Gorgias is one of the most eloquent — and, as a result, popular — speakers in all of Athens. But while most of his countrymen readily accept whatever proposition comes out of Gorgias’ mouth, Plato believes he has more in common with a magician or a snake oil salesman than he does with a thinker. Consequently, Socrates uses his own philosophical tactics to see through Gorgias’ elaborate act.

For starters, Socrates asks Gorgias to conduct their discussion in the form of a dialogue. Initially, Gorgias refuses. As an orator, he is used to delivering long and uninterrupted monologues to large crowds of anonymous onlookers. Up on his stage, Gorgias relies on charisma, pathos, and fancy world play to reinforce the weaker sections of his arguments. In dialogue, Socrates can pause Gorgias whenever he wants, forcing the orator to rely only on logic.

Consequently, Plato is able to plant several red flags regarding Gorgias’ credibility. Judging by his character alone, Gorgias hates to be proven wrong and never forfeits a debate until he achieves victory. The orator cannot be blamed for his insistence on winning; it is drilled into every sophist’s skull in school. Still, it stands in contrast to Socrates, who tells Gorgias that he would love nothing more than for his interlocutors to prove him wrong, thus bringing him closer to his ultimate objective: the truth.

Gorgias calls Socrates’ incessant questioning of society’s most basic and widely accepted concepts childlike and disruptive. The orator does not see his interest in the abstract as being in service to his community; truth and logic neither sway elections nor destroy invading armies. Socrates, for his part, serves the truth in the way that other men might serve the woman that they are in love with — hence, his famous statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates also points out flaws in Gorgias’ reasoning. Instead of using logic to build up propositions, orators reinforce their arguments with anecdotes. When discussing the importance of virtue, a follower of Gorgias recounts the life of a slave who, by immoral means, became a ruler. As moving as the stories of individual people can be, Socrates reminds us that they can never be perfect distillations of universal human experience, making them essentially worthless to the honest philosopher.

Orwell and simple language

Credit: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Unfortunately, recognizing a sophist is not as easy as it was in Ancient Greece. Across history, the term has not only become irrelevant to the general public, but within academic circles, it has actually acquired a negative connotation comparable to words like “populist” and “demagogue.” In other words, no self-respecting thinker (or self-help book writer) would ever call themselves a sophist. To make that link, we have to look even closer at their preferred rhetorical strategies.

Sophists are fond of strawmanning, which is when someone formulates a weak or imaginary version of their opponent’s argument to make their own appear stronger. In 2019, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson took on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in a heavily televised debate titled Happiness: Capitalism vs Marxism. The pro-capitalist Peterson, rather than tackle a substantial portion of the diverse literature on Marxism that is out there, limited himself to one short text: The Communist Manifesto.

Despite reinvigorating socialist movements around the globe, The Communist Manifesto cannot be considered representative of the communist nations that arose during the last century. Written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, it was conceived as a political pamphlet, making it incomparable to true academic works such as Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. By refusing to acknowledge any text other than the manifesto, Peterson hinted at his inability to debate Žižek head-on. This is not to label Peterson a “sophist,” but to indicate that he was debating a strawman.

Sophists frequently use high-brow language to distract from any discrepancies in their logic and appear more authoritative than they are. Within academia, this practice got so out of hand that the British writer George Orwell decided to write an essay about it. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” he wrote in Politics and the English Language. “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

That, however, is not to say that simplicity is always better. Inspired by the same sentiment that moved Orwell, a number of public intellectuals have built entire careers out of simplifying complex social, cultural, and economic phenomena. Like the aforementioned cuttlefish, these individuals are ostracized by the academic communities in which they were trained for leaving out crucial but contradictory details in their efforts to construct big pictures.

Diderot and characteristics of true genius

Even with all these methods in mind, recognizing a sophist remains challenging because of the way certain ideas grow and take root. For an easy-to-understand explanation, look no further than Denis Diderot’s 1805 novella Rameau’s Nephew. Set in Paris during the dawn of the French Enlightenment, it describes the conversation between an unnamed philosopher and the embittered, cynical, hedonistic nephew of a famous composer named Jean-François Rameau.

The French Enlightenment revived European interest in ancient Greek culture and ideas. Democracy, metaphysics, and the belief that reason leads to happiness and progress were all back in swing, but the nephew refused to join the party. “People praise virtue,” he tells the narrator. “But they hate it. They run away from it, because it makes them freezing cold, and in this world one has to have warm feet. Why else do we so often see devout people so hard, so angry, so unsociable?”

While favoring the easy way over the hard one has always been a telling characteristic of demagogues, Diderot implies that there is more to the nephew than meets the eye. “Talent hits a target no one can reach,” Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in his book The World as Will and Representation, “but genius hits a target no one can see.” Academic and artistic breakthroughs are rarely appreciated in their own time; neither Socrates nor Schopenhauer became well-known until after their deaths.

Applying this parable to Rameau’s Nephew, we find a quintessential man of talent in the form of Rameau himself, a composer who — according to his own family members — found quick success catering to contemporary tastes but whose music would surely be forgotten in the future. Though the nephew will not refer to himself as the genius of this story, he has a few things going for him. Like Socrates, he has repeatedly clashed against the established order over his unpopular, anachronistic values.

Given how familiar the nephew’s cynicism and existential dread are to us today after they were further developed by the likes of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, this is likely no coincidence. Rameau’s Nephew teaches us that, while we should always be skeptical of people claiming to have knowledge that could change our lives for the better, we should not ignore them just because they are being criticized by the academic community. Years from now, their ideas may well become commonplace.

Karl Popper and empirical falsification

Sophists are not defined by any lack of skill or intellect so much as their motivations. Writing or speaking for personal gain rather than the gratification of philosophic inquiry alone, they sell their soul to the highest bidder, claiming one thing one day, only to advocate for its exact opposite the next. A reliable philosopher does not just make arguments that are consistent across their career, but they also tend to argue against things rather than for them.

Dissatisfied with the amount of personal bias that influenced studies in the academic community, Karl Popper set out to formulate a new code of ethics for his colleagues. Popper, a philosopher, claimed researchers were better off trying to reject their hypotheses rather than affirm them. Since many public figures have a personal stake in trying to convince others they are right, empirical falsification — as Popper called it in The Logic of Scientific Discovery — tended to produce more accurate results.

While writing his book, Popper developed an almost religious trust in this idea. “What characterizes the empirical method,” he claimed, “is its manner of exposing to falsification, in every conceivable way, the system to be tested. Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems but to select the fittest one by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle of survival.” The Logic of Scientific Discovery left a strong impact on academics, establishing the philosophy of science as an independent discipline.

Knowing what we do now, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Popper was greatly influenced by the character of Socrates, who in Plato’s earliest dialogues never produced any ideas of his own but only occupied himself by questioning the beliefs of others. Not until later dialogues like Republic and Symposium did Plato begin to use his protagonist as a mouthpiece for his own all-encompassing worldview. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper called this act of Plato’s a “betrayal.”

“Not even to himself did he fully admit that he was combating the freedom of thought for which Socrates had died,” Popper wrote of the Greek thinker, “and by making Socrates his champion he persuaded others he was fighting for it. Plato became, unconsciously, the pioneer of many propagandists who, often in good faith, developed the technique of appealing to moral, humanitarian sentiments, for anti-humanitarian, immoral purposes.”

By applying these lessons from great thinkers, we make life harder for modern sophists, often politicians and self-help gurus. That is a righteous thing to do.

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