Rhetoric and Sophistry (Part 1): The Beef

The word rhetoric originates from the Greek “rhetorike techne”, meaning “art of an orator”. These days, “rhetoric” is often used to describe the wordy, exaggerated and tedious use of language in writing or speech, an ‘art’ preferred by politicians, philosophers, lawyers and the like.  Sophistry, according to dictionary.com, is “tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning” (even more commonly used by those shifty politicians). However, the word Sophist was initially derived from the Greek “Sophia” which meant “wise” or “clever”. It was first ascribed to a historical group of 7 teachers (“Sophistes”), c. 700-600 BC, who were esteemed for their wisdom:

Solon of Athens                “Know thyself”.

Chilon of Sparta                “Nothing in excess”.

Thales of Miletus              “To bring surety brings ruin”.

Bias of Priene                     “Too many workers spoil the work”.

Cleobulus of Lindos         “Moderation is the chief good”.

Pittacus of Mitylene        “Know thine opportunity”.

Myson of Chen


Periander of Corinth        “Forethought in all things”.

By the 5th century BC, the term Sophist referred to nomadic teachers of public speaking, culture and politics. They were the arbitrators of their day, as well as educators in what would soon come to be known as rhetoric. Most of their pupils were well-to do, political aspirants or both, so they were able to charge exorbitantly for their services. A few sophists claimed that they could teach one how to find the answers to everything. However, they were not a unified group or school, but as individuals with individual beliefs and principles, gained a reputation for being relativistic in their moral judgments and corrupting the youth (for example, by questioning the political and societal status quo and expressing atheistic or agnostic views).

Truth, morality and ethics was a big deal in Greek philosophy at the time, and for some philosophers, such as Plato, the last straw was when some Sophists criticized the teachings of their mentor Socrates (who was all about ‘truth’ but liked the Sophists all the same). Most of these sophists are known today primarily through the writings of their opponents (specifically Plato and Aristotle), which makes it difficult to assemble an unbiased view of their practices and beliefs. By mid 5th century BCE the term Sophist was so derogatory even Sophists themselves used it to dismiss their adversaries’ arguments as invalid or unsound.

courtesy: Google Street Views / jon rafman/9-eyes.com

We begin with Plato vs Isokrates, a student of many great Sophists including Prodicus, Gorgias and Tisias, and one of the greatest rhetoricians of his time. They championed the rap battle between Sophists and Rhetoricians. They had both established pioneering centers for higher education in Athens and are generally accepted as rivals in their views on morality, but they were also unwittingly united in their criticism of Sophists for their apparent unconcern for truth, as well as the informal and erratic methods employed by the wandering teachers.

Plato criticized Isokrates for his use of rhetorical proofs to convince others irrespective of truth.

Isokrates (and other Sophists) defended himself by stating he was not claiming, nor under any obligation, to be teaching truths, but rather how to win / convince an opponent, and therefore could not be held accountable for others’ actions.

And yet, they both shared three particularly important objections to Sophistry: the Sophists false pretenses of teaching virtue, their disregard for truth and their selfish interests.

And yet, they disagreed on what the uses of rhetoric should be.

Isokrates explained that reality was relative according to how one used rhetoric:

it is possible for discourse on the same subject in many different ways to represent the great as lowly or invest the little with grandeur to recount the things of old in a new manner or set forth events of recent date in an old fashion.

Plato dismissed this practice as manipulative:

he who possesses the art of doing this can make the same thing appear to the same people now just, now unjust, at will, and in public harangues, no doubt, he can make the same thing seem to the community now good, now the reverse of good.

And yet, they both asserted that rhetoric was a business purely for the purpose of persuasion.

And on, and on…

…In brief, if you could describe a famous modern rap line as Sophism or Rhetoric:


Since I’m in a position to talk to these kids and they listen
I ain’t no politician, but I’ll kick it with ’em a minute
‘Cause see they call me a menace, and if the shoe fits I’ll wear it
But if it don’t, then y’all swallow the truth, grin and bear it
Now who’s these king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics?
Who could inherit the title, put the youth in hysterics?
Usin’ his music to steer it, sharin’ his views and his merits
But there’s a huge interference
They’re sayin’ you shouldn’t hear it
Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it’s food for the spirit
Maybe it’s beautiful music I made for you to just cherish

P.S.: I may or may not have committed adultery with your wife.


Soul positionin’
Sole possession of poll position
Hold your breath and listen
While I resurrect these twenty-six letters
A lesson to beginners that tend to pale in comparison
You’re not ill
And if you are, my notepad’s full of medicine
Plus my freestyle is Excedrin
Take two hours and call me back with a new style
And show me you’re prepared for the final frontier

Or, is it the other way around? Hmmm.

This is exactly why I’ve always been a shy fan of ancient philosophy. I keep my distance. For example, about a year ago, somebody-that-I-used-to-know mentioned his plans to do a PhD on rhetoric. I distinctly remember skillfully changing the subject, secretly aware that the conversation would end up being a debate, whose defeat I would eventually have to concede for lack of practice. The closest I’ve come to studying the subject was when I bought a cute little book in my first year of university called Think: A compelling introduction to philosophy by Stephen Blackburn. It was a promising start until my housemate, who was a philosophy student, spotted it gathering dust on my shelf and borrowed it… I didn’t miss it until now – six years later.

Finally, as we shall see in part two, Aristotle gets on the scene and complicates things so as to clarify them.

To be continued…

A series of articles on the Sophists

Plato and other companions of Socrates 

Isocrates and Plato on Rhetoric and Rhetorical Education (sorry, full article removed)

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers

Plato’s dialogue Georgias,  (among other things, the first datable appearance of “rhetorike”) 


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