Against the Sophists
by R.C. Sproul
If anyone is a shoo-in for the hall of fame of educators historically, it is Socrates. Socrates stands as a giant in the history of educational philosophy, and the importance of Socrates and of his ideas is not only for ancient history but also for today. Socrates was a man with a passion and a profound concern for salvation. Socrates was trying to save Greek civilization. The reason he was concerned about saving Greek civilization is because in his day a dreadful crisis had emerged that was a clear and present danger to the ongoing stability of Greece. It was an educational crisis that arose as a result of Sophism.
To understand that crisis, we have to back up a little bit. We have to go back to the sixth century BC to the beginning years of the science of Western philosophy in the pre-Socratic era. The earliest Greek philosophers were not simply abstract dreamers or speculative thinkers, but they were at the same time the leading scientists of the period. They were concerned about questions of biology, chemistry, astronomy, and questions of physics. Unlike us, they didn’t make an absolute distinction between the study of physics and the study of metaphysics, which is the study of things above and beyond the realm of the physical. The pre-Socratic philosophers were looking for ultimate reality, the reality behind the physical world.
However, an impasse came when the best thinkers, people such as Parmenides and Heraclitus, failed to agree on what is ultimate truth. As a result of that impasse in philosophical and scientific inquiry, a new school of thought emerged in Athens. This school of thought embraced skepticism, believing that if the greatest minds of the culture couldn’t agree on what ultimate truth is, then it must mean that ultimate truth is beyond the scope of human learning. The conclusion that this new school came to was not only that we cannot know ultimate truth, but that even to search for ultimate truth is a fool’s errand. The only knowledge we can possess is the knowledge of what we can see, taste, smell, touch, and hear. All we can attain is knowledge of this realm, knowledge of the immediate context in which we live. We don’t know if there are absolute truths. What really matters is the day-to-day experience of living, and so we have to direct our attention away from this quest for ultimate truth and toward an understanding of practical living. So, Greek education shifted away from a pursuit of truth for truth’s sake to a pursuit of technique, methodology, and ways in which the person’s practical concerns could be considered. The name of this school of thought was Sophism, and its adherents were known as Sophists.
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
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.