By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
My recent venture into the world of car sales caused me to realize that sophistry, in its most shameful guise, is still alive and well today. I am speaking of the sophistry that seeks to deceive in order to profit… either in sales or politics.
During the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., sophistry began to gain its reputation as a means of rhetorical persuasion. It was, and still is, used in politics, and speaks to the emotions, often leaving logic out of the conversation. Plato and Aristotle regarded sophistry with disgust because for them, the term signified the “deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism, and moral unscrupulousness.”
Illustration of Plato Gorgias

Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC. The dialogue depicts a conversation between Socrates and a small group of sophists at a dinner gathering.

Is this starting to sound like your last car salesman?
Although the term sophist is derived from the word sophia, meaning wisdom, “sophia” was often used, long before the rise of the Sophists, to describe “disingenuous cleverness.” To be fair, in other circles the Sophists were known for their poetic ability, and were paid to teach the youth how to speak with authority and persuasion. The distinction between sophistry and philosophy wasn’t quite as distinct as one might imagine, and in Aristophanes’ play titled The Clouds, Socrates is depicted as a Sophist. Some of the prominent Sophists of Ancient Greece included Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, Hippias, Prodicus, and Thrasymachus.
Illustration of Socrates and Gorgias

The Philosopher Socrates with the Sophist Gorgias

Whatever controversy there might be regarding sophistry then, today I am interested in the type of sophistry that seeks to poke and prod at your emotions in order to persuade you to make a decision that logic might not permit… The kind that Plato and Aristotle characterized as fallacious, charlatanistic, and immoral…. The kind that gets politicians elected and car salesmen sales.
As noted above, the Sophists were paid teachers of rhetoric. They would teach someone how to speak to the emotions, and how to profit from this persuasive speech. In short, it is the same sort of training in rhetoric that I have received since becoming a car salesman. These teachers of rhetoric aren’t stupid, but they aren’t intelligent in the formal sense, either. They have an insight into human nature. They understand the power of the emotions, and they know how to invoke the passions. It is both impressive and frightening at the same time.
Mosaic of Men discussing

The Philosopher’s Mosaic, villa at Torre Annunziata near Pompeii

In clear opposition to Plato, the Sophists claimed that truth was relative, and they didn’t seem very interested in defending that claim. They were more interested in winning an argument or debate without much regard for the truth of the matter. In Plato’s dialogue titled Euthydemus, Euthydemus and his brother Dionysiodorous “deliberately use egregiously fallacious arguments for the purpose of contradicting and prevailing over their opponent.”
This was a deceitful method of argumentation used by many Sophists, in which they would force their opponents to abandon their position or accept both positions by establishing a contradicting argument. This is the confusing art of deceitful speech. Yes, in a way it is an art. It takes practice, skill, and a bit of natural ability to wield words that not only breakdown logic, but cause one to forgo logic in favor of the emotions.
Socrates teaching

Crop of Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, by Marcello Bacciarelli c. 1776

I have seen such a Sophist single handedly disarm a defensive consumer with such language. I have witnessed logic leave the conversation in such a profound manner that an unaware customer signed to purchase a vehicle without even knowing the final price! These are modern Sophists with decades of practice in the skill of deceitful speech, and for many of us, we will encounter them at some point during our lives.
I might suggest a few preparations if you find yourself in this situation… and for the sake of brevity, I will generalize. Write down your questions, stipulations, and requirements, and then write the answers and responses in the appropriate place. Don’t accept vague answers, demand the specifics. Follow these guidelines and you may survive the Sophist’s onslaught of slimy speech.
picture of a car salesman

Know how to talk to a car salesman/sophist…

Appealing to the emotions, removing logic from the conversation, and profiting from rhetoric… is it all bad? I don’t think so. Just like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. Our emotions and passions are integral to life. They help us navigate the world, and help us make decisions. If we can learn something positive from the Sophists, it is that sometimes we must appeal to the emotions in order to succeed within a conversation. But we must do this with a guiding moral principle, else we may find ourselves deceiving our fellow man for personal gain.