In the context of a modern debate, you may have heard one side say to the other, “You’re just engaging in sophistry.” By this, the accusing side means that their opponents are using superficial, uninformed, and simplistic reasoning, a reasoning that doesn’t ascend to the higher principles. The word sophistry comes from what we know about the Sophists, who emphasized instruction in rhetoric, which has to do with public speaking. Now, it is perfectly legitimate for people to master the craft of vocabulary and the use of words properly in public speech. But remember, the Sophists believed that truth itself is unknowable, so they created a disjunction between proof and persuasion. Proof involves the presentation of solid evidence by cogent reasoning whereby the premises are demonstrated by their logical conclusions. Persuasion, on the other hand, has to do with emotional response. A person can be persuaded without ever really thinking things through. In other words, instead of responding to carefully conceived and constructed arguments, people can respond to slick forms of persuasion. For the Sophists, it didn’t matter whether their speech was true. What mattered is whether it worked. Would the speech persuade? If it persuaded people, it did not matter whether it was true. The argument did not have to be sound as long as it was convincing. Sadly, this philosophy lives on in so much of modern advertising and political discourse.
Socrates came into this environment and said that if Sophism triumphs in our culture, it will be the end of civilization because this kind of skepticism and superficial persuasion rips life out of the context of truth. If nothing can be discerned as true, then what will be destroyed are the norms by which people determine what is good and what is evil. And if we cannot know the good, Socrates said, ethics will disintegrate and civilization will return to barbarianism.
When our educational system is ruled by skepticism, we are on the fast track to civilizational suicide. We’re seeing it all around us as so many people in our culture are committed to a philosophy of relativism, which foundationally is no different from the assumptions brought to the realm of education by the ancient Sophists. This relativism is reinforced in much of our educational system, which has been shaped by the philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatism says that we cannot know anything of ultimate truth, and so our task is to learn what works. That’s Sophism all over again.
The crisis we face today is the revival of the skepticism that fueled Sophism. This skepticism drives education, ethics, business, and even the political decisions that emanate out of Washington. And we need a Socrates who is willing to go into the streets to engage people in serious discussion to probe their thinking, to show them that this approach makes knowledge itself impossible and can only end in ignorance.