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Oppositional World Views: Plato & The Sophists

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The Sophist views and beliefs originated in Ancient Greece around 400 B.C.E. The Sophists were known as wandering rhetoricians who gave speeches to those who could afford to listen. The Sophists deeply believed in the power of rhetoric and how it could improve one's life. Plato on the other hand was opposed to all Sophist beliefs. He viewed the Sophists as rhetorical manipulators who were only interested in how people could be persuaded that they learned the truth, regardless if it was in fact the truth. Plato basically opposed every view the Sophists held true and tried to disprove them throughout his many dialogues. The Sophists and Plato held two very contrasting views and this paper will attempt to sift through them all in hopes of illustrating each one. This paper will first focus on each group. It will begin by identifying both the Sophists and Plato and then citing the significant principles associated with each world view. This paper will then focus on how each component of their world views relate specifically to rhetoric. Finally, this paper will focus on illustrating each world view by way of current newspaper editorial.

As noted, the Sophists were rooted in ancient Greece but traveled to many places, giving speeches on rhetoric to those who could afford to listen. Within their teachings, the Sophists focused on rhetorical techniques and how they could be used to successfully argue any side of an argument. They harped on the idea that through their teachings, self improvement could be achieved because those who controlled language had the power. The Sophists were relativists, which means they believed that an individual or society's beliefs, while true for that particular individual or society, might be untrue for others. (Bizzell P. & Herzberg, B., 2001, pg. 6) The Sophists referred to this as kairos and said that because of it, there could be no absolute truth because the truth was dependent on that particular person's point of view. They believed that the only knowledge that humans could achieve is knowledge that is probable because absolute knowledge is unattainable. The Sophists feel that this probable knowledge can be boiled down through what they refer to as dissoi logoi. This technique, in which each opposing side of an argument is examined in order to identify the probable truth, was developed by Protagoris. (Bizzell P. & Herzberg, B., 2001, pg. 23) This is similar to a present day court room arguments where each side is argued and the jury has to distinguish between who made the best argument. There really can be no absolute truth then because the truth hinges solely on who presents a better argument.

Just as the opposite of up is down, the opposite of right is wrong, and the opposite of good is evil, the opposite of the Sophists was Plato. Plato and his philosophies were also rooted in ancient Greece at the same time as the Sophists. Plato studied under Socrates, another famous ancient philosopher, and started the very first center for learning which he called the Academy. Plato was not what you would call a relativist though. He was exactly the opposite. He was opposed to all the beliefs of the Sophists, believing them to be only concerned with the manipulative aspects of how humans attain knowledge. He argued that they taught people how to persuade people into believing they heard the truth, even if it wasn't in fact the truth. Plato believes that true rhetoric is where philosophers and their pupils become free from all worldly encumbrances and all conventional beliefs in the pursuit of a transcendent absolute truth. (Bizzell P. & Herzberg, B., 2001, pg. 29) Plato believes that there is in fact absolute truth and contends that discourse is necessary to uncover it. He feels that false rhetoric is Sophist rhetoric and that with their vast knowledge of rhetoric, they should be using it to find absolute truth, not teaching people how to convince people that probable truth is in fact absolute. Plato views rhetoric as a means for uncovering this absolute truth in two ways. First is by conveying the truth that person already knows to an ignorant audience by any means possible, or second by helping clear away the debris so that the truth can be clearly seen. (Bizzell P. & Herzberg, B., 2001, pg. 29) Either way, the rhetorician is helping the audience see the absolute truth through rhetoric.

Now that the Sophists and Plato have been identified and their world views have been laid out, the focus will shift to identifying how each component relates to rhetoric. For the Sophists, they deeply believed that there was no absolute truth because the truth was dependent upon kairos, or a specific point of view. Rhetoric then, was the basis for how probable truth was achieved. The idea was that since the truth was dependent on a person's point of view, the person that could be the most convincing created the truth. If a person could somehow convince the masses that pigs could fly, that would then be the truth because that is what's believed. If someone else came around and argued that pigs can't fly, and made a much more convincing argument, then that would become the truth. This is why the Sophists felt there wasn't absolute truth. Someone could come around and make a better argument and that would then be the truth. So then, the basis for their teachings were that rhetoric was powerful because you could create truth with it and whoever controlled rhetoric, had the power.

The Sophist's beliefs seem to make sense and many bought into it, but not Plato. He felt that this idea was absolutely bogus and argued that the Sophists were only trying to make money with their ideas. Plato believed that there was an absolute truth and that rhetoric was a key to uncovering it, but he disagreed totally with the idea that rhetoric was something that should be taught. Plato viewed rhetoric as something that you have a natural ability for. He called this a knack and said that while you can be taught tricks of how to manipulate rhetoric and use it to try to persuade people of probable truth, true rhetoric should be used to help people uncover absolute truth. Plato felt that was the job of the philosopher. They help people find absolute truth by teaching the ignorant through rhetoric

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