Shengren – Chapter 3.10 – Der Sophist (Sophist)

Sophist, sophistai, wisdom teacher: originally, tending the sciences and striving for wisdom; occurred first in Athens in the 5th century; later attracting teachers from other places who taught the sciences and philosophy, especially educating the youth in rhetoric. The fact that the sophists were entrepreneurs and coached oratory and the art of persuasion, their activities soon provoked opposition from the true seekers of truth…[1]

– Johannes Hoffmeister, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe

Since Plato and the philosophers, the word sophist has been used pejoratively to describe a charlatan, imposter, swindler, quack, and renegade scholar, and in modern times – a con artist, a fraud, a spiritual coach. For Karl Jaspers, the sophist was the unablässige Verkehrer—the unremitting manipulators: ‘In everything he does, he seizes every opportunity at once, one time this, one time that.’[2]

Sophisterei in Germany was synonymous with Neunmalklugerei (know-it-all), Rabulistik (pettifoggery), and Spitzfindigkeit (quibble). In the English language the adjective ‘sophisticated’ still felt neutral, as ‘in a sophisticated manner,’ but could also imply that something was unnecessary complicated, like simple ideas billowed out in long sentences [as opposed to ‘populist’ by which complicated ideas are pressed into short slogans]. Slang, fashion, and the pompous language of advertising and public relations were forms of ‘sophism,’ too. Since it was so ambivalent, ‘sophisticated’ could also mean ‘hochentwickelt’ (highly developed), ‘kultiviert’ and ‘elegant’ (cultivated and elegant), or merely ‘verfälscht’ (corrupted) and ‘gerissen’ (sly)—everything that languidly distorts.

The original sophists had been teachers and travelling scholars who offered their skills and wisdom for a fee. The idea of a travelling scholar without affiliation to a professional school, or the teachings of wisdom without having received philosophical and scientific training, had always evoked intense feelings of suspicion, contempt and even hatred on part of the ruling elites. The establishment’s disregard for independent teachers of wisdom prevailed through all those centuries till today, when ‘Privatgelehrte’ (private teachers) and ‘Autodidakten’ (autodidacts) open praxis or travel through Germany offering non- or semi-academic courses on rhetoric, time management, counseling, marriage and relationships, spiritual practices and much more. Most of them do not have a proper institutional appointment or Festeinstellung (tenure), and will in most cases never attain one—no matter how famous they become—for the simply reason that they self-promoted, self-advertised, and published their vanity. In his Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (1955), the historian Johannes Hoffmeister described the sophists as ‘pseudo scholars and word artists:’

Through the very mockery of Aristophanes, and because of the struggle that Socrates and Plato led against them, acquired this term, ‘sophists,’ its evil significance of pseudo scholars and word artists.[3]

Some of greatest Western philosophers had incited hatred for the sophists. Plato in his famous work Republic, described the sophists of Athens as the wicked antagonists of the truly honest philosophers [see Hoffmeister’s quote above: ‘the true seekers of truth.’] While the philosophers received philosophical training, passed key exams, possessed true virtue, and searched objectively for truth, the corrupted sophists were self-proclaimed teachers, actors, celebrities—deceitful, vain intellectuals who taught in public whatever paid in their pockets or served to their immediate advantage:

Do you really think, as people so often say, that our youth are corrupted by Sophists, or that private teachers of the art corrupt them in any degree worth speaking of? Are not the public who say these things the greatest of all Sophists? And do they not educate to perfection young and old, men and women alike, and fashion them after their own hearts?[4]

The student of Plato, Aristotle, who became the mentor of Alexander the Great, wrote in his Sophistical Refutations that:

The art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.[5]

If they had met with him, would Plato and Aristotle have considered Confucius a wandering teacher of morals, a sophist? By their own definition, yes: To the Greek philosophers, any teaching of wisdom without applying scientific methods that demonstrably rooted in logic and rationality was evidently sophism. In the east, Confucius did not belong to any particular school but traveled and taught those dukes and princelings of China not science but instead flattered them on their nobility and instructed them politically and morally exactly the way they loved to hear it. This way, Confucius would have fallen into the Greek category of a sophist—today: sage, from sophos, all the same. In fact, Confucius perfectly matched any other definition of a sophist or sage in Western dictionaries:

From its original sense of ‘sage’ and ‘expert’ the word came to be applied in the 5th century BC to a number of men who travelled through the Greek world, given popular lectures and specialized instruction in a wide range of topics.[6]

The philosophers’ political agitation against the sophists was fierce and remarkably one-sided, so one-sided in fact that European culture ever since thought about the sophists as the charlatans in world history and thought, and used words like sophistry and sophism in manipulative ways to slander and slur the opposition. The verb ‘to sophisticate’ in German translation amounts to verfälschen (to falsify), verkünsteln (to tamper with), verbilden (to bastardize), or verdrehen (to warp)—suggesting the handling of an object. And while the manipulation of human beings (or, better, to falsify, tamper with, bastardize, or warp their minds) is ethically condemnable, doing it with an object, however abstract, is… well, is engineering. Hence the industrial world’s conquest of mechanized processes, praising its meticulously planned strategies, computer machines, or software programs as technologically advanced or ‘sophisticated.’

How about a ‘sophisticated philosopher?’ There rings a certain nonchalant, dismissive tone; a mockery in calling someone’s philosophy ‘sophisticated.’ In analytical philosophy, an argument is valid (the conclusion follows from the premises), or invalid; and an argument is sound (if it is valid and the premises are true), or unsound. And that’s about it. Everything else is rhetorical devices, persuasion, style, facts, originality, relevance, finding a publisher. Most philosophies, because they are systems, have a say on about everything under heaven (if their authors understood the game); and then we the jury pick up on elements of it and assign those elements to its author—forever. So, Descartes is the guy with the demon deceiving us. Kant is the guy with the moral imperative. Rousseau: social contract. Hume: skepticism. Satre: existentialism. Kierkegaard: also existentialism. Dewey: education and pragmatism. Husserl: phenomenology.

In fact, who gets selected to represent which school [or movement, or epoch] in our history books is not a level playing field, but rather a bitter game of chance, luck, and lottery. Chance, because resourcefulness, connections, and family wealth cannot guarantee one gets picked by the jury (although incredible wealth does help, see the rise of Ludwig Wittgenstein). Then, there is politics. Whether it is state governments (or imperial powers) or corporate media, political parties or university departments, they all generously boost their own local heroes or national champions [even Goethe was state-employed], be they writers, poets, or philosophers. Call it unnatural selection. Luck, because thinkers need to be of the right gender, ethnicity, and nationality, and have the right book, of the right quality, at the right time, and find the right audiences. Lottery, because the winner takes it all, and the rest… get nothing; they even lose their investment (the price of the ticket), as thousands of qualified experts work in the field really only to feature the one who gets to represent it, and takes all the credits [see Great Man Theory].

Therefore, there can be little doubt that overtly sophisticated philosophical work does exist, but that it doesn’t beat a factor—spare the ‘sophisticated philosopher.’ No sophistication in any great work of philosophy could ever possibly match the sophistication of the processes that brought it to us.

The wisdom of the sophist cannot match the complexities of reality and therefore is lofty make-belief. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World (2005) said about it: ‘Plato […] depicts the sophists predominantly as charlatans, in contrast to Socrates, the true philosopher.’ Benjamin Jowett, who translated Plato’s Republic into English, in accordance with Plato’s views, described the sophists ‘as tyrants who are the false teachers and evil rulers of mankind.’[7] The comparison of the sophists to tyrants, false teachers and evil rulers of mankind here was significant, because it genuinely described the Western view on rulers and teachers in Eastern sage cultures, be them the Chinese tianhuang, Japanese tennos, or Indian maharajas, let alone the spiritual leaders of the Chinese tradition of our concern—Confucianists, Taoists, and Buddhists. In the absent of the Christian God (the source of highest wisdom) and philosophy (institutionalized truth-seeking), those Eastern individuals who claimed to be wiser and better than the rest of us and humanity were thought to have evil intentions: ‘I am so special.’ The despotic and tyrannical rulers: sophists and sages were suspected of enriching and empowering themselves at the expenses of their followers and the masses. The wisemen in the West, especially in the German lands, could only walk peacefully under the correct ‘Heaven,’ had to veil all their good intentions as ‘Christian,’ and had to show all their formal education as having been ‘philosophical.’ Only in complete disguise would sagacious beings find social and political space to maneuver; yet inevitably we—philosophically correct—had to call them either saints or philosophers.

The dislike for the sophists, sages, and their wisdom is now inbuilt into Western society, and to change the European attitude toward sages and sage culture would require the Western thinkers to bring charges against their own civilization, even to denounce Plato and the philosophers and later Christianity as the sources for their great ignorance, prejudices, and violence. That of course, is not going to happen. Here’s a rather remarkable take-down by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on why wisdom is so ‘disgusting’:

There is a point of so-called wisdom, to which I’m totally opposed. […] I think wisdom is the most disgusting thing you can image. Wisdom is the most conformist thing you can imagine. Wisdom is, you know, whatever you do… the wise man will come and justify it! Like… you do something risky and you succeed. Then there will come a wiseman and say something like ‘Only those who risk, will profit…,’ and so on. Let’s say you do the same thing but fail. The wiseman will come and he will say something like […] ‘You cannot urinate against the wind…,’ or something like that. This is wisdom. Whatever you do the wise guy will come and…[8]

A sophist, this word, would make a bad translation for shengren in any of the European languages, because the term is—as amply demonstrated—culturally loaded and hopelessly biased. The Germans would think about Sophisterei or Weismacherei (lit: wise-making), which is slightly more demeaning than calling someone a wisecrack in English—a person who dared to outsmart others by way of argument about a thing that is of such spectacular low importance that the speaker becomes the target of loathing and disrespect.

We’ve said that Greek philosophers applied the term sophists to their political enemies and educators they disapproved of such as the sages Protagoras, Gorgia, Thrasymachus, and Hippias of Elis.[9] That ancient Western attitude had not changed much today. Everyone who disagrees with Western philosophy and Christianity can be accused:

Such kind of philosophizing that is deprived of its assignment to a true theology can not really be called philosophiia {sic} any more; it is no longer the loving search for wisdom.[10]

Philosophy and Christianity were decisively European. Asia had its own traditions. But the less the European public knew the better. The sages died in Europe – they will die in Asia.

[1] Hoffmeister, 1955: ‘Sophisten, gr. sophistai, Weisheitslehrer; ursprünglich alle die Wissenschaft Pflegenden und nach Weisheit strebenden, im 5. Jh. die in Athen auftretenden und dorthin zugewanderten Lehrer, die den Unterricht in den Wissenschaften und der Philosophie, besonders die Ausbildung der Jugend zu Rednern betrieben. Dass sie aus ihrer Tätigkeit ein Gewerbe, aus der Ausbildung zur Beredsamkeit eine formale Űberredungskunst machten, forderte bald die Gegnerschaft der echten Wahrheitssuchenden heraus.”

[2] Jaspers, 1931, p. 155

[3] Hoffmeister, 1955

[4] Plato, The Republic, in Classics Archive, 2000

[5] Aristotle, 2010, The Internet Classics Archive

[6] The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, 2005

[7] Jowett, 2000

[8] Zizek, 2014

[9] Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2005

[10] Pieper, 2008: ‘Solcherart Philosophieren, das der Zuordnung zu einer wahren Theologie beraubt ist, kann nicht eigentlich mehr philosophiia [sic] heißen; es ist nicht mehr liebende Suche nach der Weisheit.”

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York