The Sophists

Stranger: Of hunting on land there are two principal divisions 
Theaetetus: What are they?
Stranger: One is the hunting of tame, and the other of wild animals.
Theaetetus: But are tame animals ever hunted?
Stranger: Yes, if you include man under tame animals. But if you like you may say that there are no tame animals, or that, if there are, man is not among them; or you may say that man is a tame animal but is not hunted-you shall decide which of these alternatives you prefer.
Theaetetus: I should say, Stranger, that man is a tame animal, and I admit that he is hunted.

Plato, The Sophists

With the Republican convention this week American election season kicks into overdrive.
I am often hard-pressed to explain this peculiar species of collective insanity to my non-American students, but I think no better description can be found than one written 2,500 years ago in Plato’s Republic with his descriptions of Athenian democracy and the sophists.

Of course, Athenian direct democracy was much different from the representative type we have today. In Athens the gap between a decision made and a consequence felt was nothing like chasam we have today, and in the sense of choosing their future, the Athenians really were sovereign. When the Athenian Assembly fatefully voted for the Peloponnesian War, they were sending themselves, their sons, and their colleagues to their potential death in battle, and would bear ultimate responsibility for the conquest of their city and the destruction of its empire.

In perhaps no way but when they sit on juries are citizens of representative democracy sovereign in this sense, nor is the impact of the power we exercise in elections so immediate. The responsibility for political decisions is handed to representatives or the president, and our society is so large that it is often others, for instance soldiers and their families, that bear the brunt of decisions which are almost invisible to us.

In the sophists, however, we get a glimpse of features held in common between the Greek and our own form of democracy. The sophists were wandering teachers, who taught many things, but what they excelled in most, at least according to Plato, was the art of persuasion. It is hard to not see what we would call a “political consultant” in Plato’s description of the sophists that he puts in the mouth of Socrates in the Republic:

Why that all those mercenary individuals whom the many call Sophists and whom they deem to be their adversaries do in fact teach nothing but the opinion of the many that is to say the opinions of their assemblies and this is their wisdom I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him he would learn how to approach and handle him also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse and what is the meaning of his several cries and by what sounds when another utters them he is soothed or infuriated and you may suppose further that when by continually attending upon him he has become perfect in all this he calls his knowledge wisdom and makes of it a system or art which he proceeds to teach although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking but calls this honourable and that dishonourable or good or evil or just or unjust all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes and he can give no other account of them except that the just and noble are the necessary having never himself seen and having no power of explaining to others the nature of either or the difference between them which is immense.” (Republic 191-192)

What the sophist excel at, Plato seems to be saying, is the science of how to seduce the crowd, and you seduce the crowd by finding out what it wants, and giving it to it, or finding out what it hopes, and promising to deliver those hopes, or what it fears, and convincing them that you will protect them from those fears. To hell if what the crowd wants is foolish or unjust, or what it hopes for is an impossible fantasy, or what it fears an irrational paranoia.

I think nothing better sums up this years election and both the Democrats and Republicans are guilty here.

On the Democratic side, you have a campaign of micro-mobilization in which segments of the population are mobilized by fear. Something, I think, of the assumptions behind the political elites can be found in the comments of the former DNC Chair Howard Dean who said recently on an episode of This Week with George Stephanopoulos “Campaigns are not for educating”, (@39min).  The obvious assumptions here being both, that the public needs to be educated, and that the true purpose of campaigns is “mobilization”. What  we do not see here might be something we could learn from the ancient Greeks minus the sophists, that politics is about discussion and debate between adults around choosing the right course of action.

Republicans, of course, don’t escape this criticism. Not only was the micro-mobilization around fear, in this case homophobia, pioneered by Karl Rove , but Romney himself might be the best example we have had of Plato’s sophist, having given the liberal Massachusetts, while he was governor there,social goods such as publicly funded health care that he now wholly disowns to curry favor with the Republican base. Just the most prominent of his many flip-flops that include everything from abortion to global warming and then some.

In this atmosphere of politics as mass mobilization the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, declaring large portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, better known  Mccain-Feingold, unconstitutional is an unmitigated disaster.

Plato disliked oligarchy almost as much as he disliked democracy, and it’s easy to see why. In an oligarchy decisions are made on the basis of the interests of the rich, interest again, that more often than not bear little relationship with justice, or even the smart thing to do.

If the poll numbers actually reflect reality then this race really will come down to a matter of who had the best mobilization strategy and the differing strategies of the campaigns were dictated by their varied finances, which have largely been a reflection of their differing attitudes towards the super-rich.   Big money players, most notably George Soros, have largely soured on Obama this time around, something which has thinned the president’s war chest and forced him to follow a slow-and-steady ad-campaign strategy. Romney, on the other hand, flush with cash from mega-rich funders such as the casino magnate and Israel hawk Sheldon Adelson, intends to flood the airwaves with ads from the convention forward.

Surely, what these super-rich contributors hope to “buy” with their massive donations is some degree of influence on the president. Soros soured on Obama after the latter seemed uninterested in listening to the advice of the financial alchemist. Adelson wants lower taxes, and an aggressive stance towards Iran. Why American policy should be any more influenced by these men because they can fund political campaigns than by reasonable arguments about what is best for the country, arguments that can be made by experts and laymen alike, without a similar wherewithal to finance an untold number of television advertisements is beyond me.

Once you base your campaign on large donations from a select group of individuals whether they be what is typical- socially liberal Hollywood types on the left, or business tycoons on the right, what you profess is bound to the views of those paymasters, which is why the most interesting characters in American politics are often politicians with a very low level of support among the rich.  Here you find characters like, Ralph Nader, and on the totally other side of the political spectrum, Ron Paul, who despite his libertarian views is supported mostly by small donations from individuals.  Even, someone like, Ross Perot, was not so much supported by super- wealthy donors, as he was so rich himself that he was actually able to do that rare thing in politics- actually speak his mind.

For all that said, in this election, like all the others I will bite my tongue and vote, (though I can certainly understand why others, out of principle, will not)  for it is the only small piece of influence I have to exercise over the direction of my country, but there has to be a better way; there has to be a way to have more nuanced conversations, for citizens to actually deliberate on the questions at hand and decide on the course of the future for ourselves and our children. There has to be a way to break the spell of sycophants and regain the sovereignty of democracy, for how many more elections will we have to go through run by the logic of sophists?

7 comments on “The Sophists

  1. jjhiii24 says:


    This is an enormously interesting and timely post regarding our current state of affairs as the national election approaches, and the frame of reference you lay out to include Plato and the Sophists is an excellent vehicle for framing a discussion of our current form of government.

    There seems to be no shortage of opinions regarding what is best for the country, and these days, while representative democracy still seems like the best option currently available to govern in our increasingly global society, the advantages are shrinking with the narrowing of the field of potential candidates to only include the rich or those who can raise millions of dollars in some way. Even though there are still checks and balances in our current system, we can be fairly certain that anyone who actually speaks their own mind, or who doesn’t cater to the masses, or to the rich donors, or special interests, will very likely not be elected without divine intervention of some sort.

    Whatever one’s inclinations might be toward a particular candidate or political party or special interest, what gets lost in all the rhetoric is what it actually takes to be an effective president or senator or member of congress, not to mention governor of large states, or mayors of large cities. Balancing what is RIGHT against what is NECESSARY almost never constitutes a satisfactory solution for the majority, and saying what is NECESSARY to say in order to get elected can also make a candidate who wins an election seem less appealing once they spend time facing the everyday realities of the political scene and attending to the actual governing of the nation. Obama’s main appeal in the previous election was that his candidacy represented a new hope for some kind of change in the way things were done in Washington. His appeal was clearly based upon the hopes of an electorate completely disenfranchised with the status quo.

    No matter how you one may feel about Obama’s performance generally, there can be little doubt that he WANTED to affect change, and was somewhat successful in at least demonstrating his DESIRE to make things better. I remember listening to an interview with former President Bill Clinton, where he was describing his own belief as a candidate that his rival in that election, the former President Bush, Sr., was not a good choice for America at that time, but after he had spent a year or so as President himself, he began to appreciate his rival a great deal more, recognizing that actually BEING the president, is a whole other matter than RUNNING for president.

    What is needed, in my view, is a greater appreciation of Athenian democracy, and Plato’s Republic, and the lessons of the past to educate our future generations about what has already been attempted in governing, and putting it to them to figure out ways of correcting and adjusting to the point where you don’t have to be a multimillionaire or end up beholding to special interests.

    What we also sometimes fail to realize is that the President of the USA is not a man alone in a room trying to figure out what to do most of the time. There are obviously some decisions that a president must make that are his responsibility alone, like sending in special forces guys to get a war criminal, or giving executive orders within his job description, but by and large, presidents have an ARMY of experts and staff assisting him and advising him, and the electorate is very far removed from most of that process. Managing a superpower is not for the wimpy, nor is it ever going to be as egalitarian as we would hope, until we discover a way to include candidates who are neither wealthy nor beholding to special interests of any sort.

    Great post! Regards……..John H.

  2. Charles says:

    As someone who is not an American but who has followed and tried to understand its politics, I have always found exasperating. But just to comment on a particular point made by Rick, especially on big money politics, I doubt the system can be reformed from within which seems to be what a lot of people (Americans and non-Americans alike) think can happen.

    I remember the lead-up to the 2008 Presidential Elections Campaign when many people I knew, furtively argued that Obama’s victory in the ballot box would fundamentally change the world. I suppose for people on the left, a two term Republican president was too much for them. The sceptic in me however refused to go along with the majority of public opinion because I could literally see the flaws of such an argument.

    Perhaps for some Americans, things have changed. However, to the outside world, I think it is fair to suggest that America’s foreign policy have pretty much remained the status quo.

    But just to come back to Rick’s question, I seriously doubt the form of representative voting that is present within the US can be reformed from within (e.g. through changes in law such as prohibiting corporate donations). If there is any hope, it would probably come from the grassroots such as the Occupy movement.

  3. Rick Searle says:

    Largely agreed, Charles. Reform is going to be a long hard struggle and will never be won with just one election. America’s overall bearing towards the rest of the world might be the last thing to change.

  4. I’m not American either, but I have just had the brief thought: maybe if the Founding Fathers had foreseen the rise of the super-rich and corporations, they would have placed not only a separation of the church and state, but also a separation of business and state. After a Google search it turns out that idea isn’t new. But at any rate, the system of government that exists in many powerful countries is well and truly entrenched. And the above comments are probably right is asserting that achieving major political reform from the inside is probably highly unlikely until the external pressure applied by society becomes too much (i.e., protest or revolution). I’m pretty sure something like this will happen in my natural lifetime.

  5. Rick Searle says:

    I lay my hopes on the young, for there I think there is widespread acknowledgement that the problems with the current system are systematic- think, the Occupy Movement, or on the other end of the political spectrum, the supporters of Ron Paul. I see the young today as somewhat akin to the young of the 1960s. Here I think the fact that a return to economic growth and “normalcy” might be a longtime in coming will, in the long run, favor the forces of deep reform.

    The 60s generation achieved enormous social goods in the forms of civil rights, women’s rights,
    and environmental regulation, but largely left untouched economic or geopolitical questions. I think this was because a) the economy for the baby boom generation was almost a golden age, or at least for the boomers whose stocks and home values steadily increased, even if their wages did not, gave the false impression of being one. b) Geopolitical questions were really a non-issue because the West had won the Cold War and America was in a position of seemingly permanent preeminence. The latter condition changed with Sept 11, and the wars that followed. The former became an issue beginning with the financial crisis of 2008- a crisis that has been particularly hard on the young. I do not see either of these issue moving towards a place where they disappear from public concern for a longtime to come, a condition that would likely sustain efforts in the direction of systematic reform, reforms which will no doubt take a great deal of time and effort to achieve.

  6. […] targeted communication to mobilize voters. Many of these trends I found somewhat disturbing, namely, the practice of micro-mobilization through fear,  the application of manipulative techniques created in commercial advertising and behavioral […]

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