Hey, it’s us: the Sophists. If you’re asking “Who?” then you’re neither a professor of rhetoric nor one of those undergrads who took Philosophy 101 and won’t stop throwing around decontextualized philosophical quotes to seem intelligent—good for you!
If you don’t know about us, we bet you’re still familiar with our work. Ever heard of “both sides” or “the devil’s advocate”? That was us. It’s true that the term “sophist” comes up in some pretty unflattering situations nowadays, like every time politicians are being cleverly deceptive with their words—and okay, that one is fair. We were big fans of flashy wordplay in our day—but we heard you’ve started conflating us with that one guy in your graduate seminar, and that’s just a step too far. Even we hate that guy.
You know the one. He’s always playing “whataboutism” and monopolizing class time to hear himself talk—one time, he actually said how much he likes the sound of his own voice. Cringe. We’d know better than to ever admit that. And sure, as Plato noted in the Gorgias, we believe we can persuade anyone of anything regardless of the truth. But just because we can doesn’t mean we would.1 And if we did, we’d be strategic about it.
Because, unlike that one guy, we have standards. We despise arguments that are poorly constructed on the surface—with us, you have to put in some work to find the flaws. “Sophist” comes from the Greek word for “expert” or “wise man,” after all. And okay, sure, we’ve been known to employ a faulty analogy now and again. Still, we would never try to trick you into defending slavery or arguing against women’s rights just to humiliate you in front of your classmates.
Just because we teach people to be manipulators doesn’t mean we manipulate people.2 And if we did, there is something noble in a hard day’s work—even if that work is teaching manipulation. But manipulating solely as a pastime is a whole different story—there’s nothing noble about being the personification of an internet comments section. Don’t get us wrong, we think opinion is just as valuable as truth—if there is such a thing as truth—but that doesn’t mean we think everyone’s opinion is equal. That one guy in your graduate seminar, for instance, has some pretty jacked-up opinions.
So Isocrates thinks we make big promises we can’t possibly fulfill, like promising to instill our students with virtue and justice, and—well, he has a point. But at least we’re bold enough to make promises; that one guy backtracks as soon as he’s called out on saying something problematic. Where’s his backbone? He could at least pretend that he means what he says.
His deal is that he really thinks he’s the gods’ gift to man. Well, guess what: we’re atheists, so we think that entire premise is bullshit. And while we’re fine being compared to sketchy politicians and lawyers who have their picture splashed across the side of the city bus, we’re just not okay with being conflated with the guy who argues against human rights for sport. We wanted to challenge traditional ways of thinking and do it with some flare; he has no purpose beyond his own amusement, and, even worse, he’s clumsy about the whole thing.
So please, stop comparing us to that one guy in your graduate seminar. We know you hate him, but we hate him too—perhaps more than you do. We’ve been doing this way longer, doing it way better, and he’s giving us a bad name.
1 We absolutely would.
2 We definitely do.