It is never difficult to show my students just how relevant the Greeks and Romans are to their own lives. But my job as a Classics professor has become, unfortunately, even easier with the current state of our world. It can be a bit disturbing nowadays to delve into ancient texts which wrestle with questions of human dignity, collective action, ethical leadership and the effects of widespread disinformation. It is downright depressing to see just how little distance we have traveled in 2,500 years. Sometimes you just want the Liberal Arts to offer cozy respite instead of prickly challenge! But that has never been their purpose. Our job as faculty is not to provide easy answers, but to explore nuance, complexity and ambiguity, all while insisting on a careful sifting of evidence and context.
Last semester I had a most excellent adventure in teaching a seminar devoted to Socrates. I think it is fair to say that both I and my students finished that course with far more questions than answers swimming around in our heads. That is as it should be. We all left happy in our appreciation that important ideas are shimmering and variegated things. Understanding them demands unwavering diligence, and a willingness to get frustrated over and over again. Socrates does that to you. He’s a rascal, a pest and a genius all rolled up into one homely little jerk. The ancient portraits of Socrates are so lively that he and his ideas just about jump off the page and grab you by the scruff of the neck. Sometimes, however, it can be kind of a chore to revivify his opponents, especially the Sophists. English translations of Sophistic treatises are inevitably pale echoes of their Greek originals, and as a result the Sophists themselves are difficult to grapple with.
Sophists were especially infamous for their skills in presentation and argument. They could weave such a web of bullshit that one would walk away from them questioning the truth value of anything and everything—including whether there is even such a thing as truth. Sophists were the original and the most skilled coaches for formal and informal debate. You take lessons from a Sophist so that you can spin your opponents around in verbal circles, no matter the merits of the case itself. Mistruths just need better framing! Facts don’t matter! Sophists also advertised themselves as the first professors of marketing. Sophists will teach you the language you need to sell a bicycle to a fish. Sophists bamboozle—making their audience think the worse argument is the better. Sophists know every rhetorical trick in the book in order to reshape a difficult and complex reality into a smooth and easy fantasy. Simple assertions, no matter how poorly they reflect what is real in the world, beat nuanced arguments every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Thus Sophists can turn disingenuity into strength, and truth-telling into weakness. You don’t have to argue your side honestly if you can make it seem from the outset as if things are so straightforward that there is nothing to argue about.
To be a professor of Classics, especially one specializing in the history of Democratic Athens, is to be a keen student of rhetoric and a long-time scholar of sophistic technique. Classics in general trains one in stripping texts down to their rhetorical studs in order to expose infestations of slippery logic and clever deflection. Studying the Sophists, in particular, refines such training even further. These tools find constant application in our daily lives. Wherever persuasion is deployed, close reading informed by technical expertise can defend. Advertisements, infomercials and political speeches, to name only a few, are all subject to such expert examination. But in order to tear down most effectively, one must also know how to build. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most lucrative careers for those trained in the taxonomy and deconstruction of classical rhetoric are found in the advertising and consulting industries. My closest friend from Princeton, who specializes in Ciceronian rhetoric, is now a principal at Deloitte, in charge of training hundreds of people a year how best to pitch their services to potential clients.
It is thus a fascinating experience to observe a living man fully trained in the arts of sophistry, no doubt at great expense to his billionaire patrons, walking around an institution designed to resist exactly his sorts of blandishments. The resulting dissonance is good evidence that his simplistic and specious assertions, although bathed in warm and fuzzy language, and clothed in a well-tailored suit and splashy socks, cannot find fertile ground here. That is as it should be. Bowdoin students know enough by now to be wary of anybody who studiously ignores his own history, gives no due consideration to the complicated nature of the problems he pretends to address and insists on narrowing and simplifying at every turn. They now also appreciate just how pointless it is to engage charitably with one who has no respect for the rules of scholarship. Arguing about evidence, and trying to properly contextualize that evidence, with somebody who shows no regard for relevant history, is much like playing chess with one’s cat. You win if you checkmate the tabby. The tabby wins if he can knock the pieces on the floor. Any bets on who is going to achieve their objective first?
Robert Sobak is an Associate Professor of Classics.