The first beef in the history of rhetoric went down with the Sophists on one side and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lined up on the other. Before we get in to why they were fighting, let’s talk about each group.
You might’ve heard of the Sophists, which is cool because we don’t have many written records of the things they taught. In fact most of what we know about the Sophists is pulled from the work of Plato and Aristotle, who led the charge against the Sophists.
Sophistry is commonly defined as being willing to say anything to win an argument, and is most often used today as a put down ad hominem on cable news.
Except most Sophists were more like modern debate coaches who gave the occasional TED-style talk as they moved around Ancient Greece. Isocrates, one of the few Sophists we know by name, was famous for entering a room, asking for someone to shout out a topic or question, and then improvise a response on the spot.
Like Second City improv class with out playing for laughs.
This feels a little bit like debate club, but the opponents of the Sophists were right in pointing out this training brought out the worst in opportunistic leaders. Alcibiades is held up as one student of Sophistry who rose to prominence with a shrewd ability to play to the desires of a mob.
Here’s the thing about Alcibiades, the short term success of his sophistic ability never gave him the long term success that he craved. It’s difficult to ascribe too much to such an ancient figure, but the impression I get is he wanted to be Pericles, one of the heroes of Athens.
Instead, he ended his life on the run, hiding across the sea from Greece after suffering a crushing defeat in battle.
Plato and Aristotle
If the Sophists were on one side of this feud, the other side was stacked with two of the most influential people in the history of our planet: Plato and Aristotle. Socrates was probably opposed to the Sophists too, but it’s hard to say for sure because nothing Socrates wrote directly survives today. It could be argued modern thought really started to emerge from this group.
And they hated the Sophists.
This hatred generally boiled down to the idea the conviction of the Sophists were for sale. As itinerant teachers, the Sophists accepted money from their students. Plato placed ultimate value on the study and pursuit of truth, and he believed the Sophists only taught people to manipulate people with arguments to win them favor instead of only pursuing truth at all times.
Aristotle, a student of Plato, ends up giving us the three keys to persuasion: logic(logos), ethics(ethos), and emotions(pathos).
I plan on digging into each one of these in detail later, but the building blocks of Aristotelean persuasion are the same things the Sophists wrapped up in a different package.
Instead of dismissing either school of thought, we can learn important lessons from both of these groups.
The Sophists teach us empathy, to put ourselves in the place of another person and imagine how they see the world. My friend Matt Stauffer recently gave a talk, and I agree with him: empathy gives you superpowers.
Empathy is important, but we also need to be able to make decisions and determine a course of action based on our convictions.
There’s a rule in improv where you take what you’re given and build on it. A shorthand way to explain this is to say “yes and…” When you’re on stage with someone and they talk about their pet cat that thinks it’s a dragon, you don’t insist they’ve never owned a cat.
We get the most out of the Sophists and Plato, et. al. when we build on the things both groups teach us. Use logic to inform your thoughts and decisions, but remember empathy can be your superpower.