History Of Persuasion: Sophistry in Traditional and Contemporary Society
Athenians in ancient Greek loved public speech. Sophists, people with skills in oratory, were awarded trophies and accorded great respect. They were associated with wisdom and sophistry was taken to mean the ability to use language or rhetoric to persuade people to accept one's point-of-view. Athenians admired the sophists' skill for their ability to influence court rulings and assemblies, but the same was not the case for critiques such as Plato and Aristotle. In his famous title 'Gorgias', for instance, Plato denounced the sophists, arguing that they focused on persuading and moving the masses at the expense of the truth. For Plato and Aristotle, the sophists were not interested in advancing laborious and rational arguments that led to the discovery of the truth; rather, they were only after using their language prowess to win immediate approval. In ancient Greek, therefore, sophistry was more about manipulation and less about truth and justice; it was more about winning arguments for arguments sake. Modern day sophistry is, however, less about winning arguments just for the sake of persuading and winning the masses; rather, it is more about building communities and inducing cooperation. This text examines sophistry in ancient Greece as taught by Aristotle Aristotle's, and compares it with that of modern theorist Kenneth Burke to examine exactly how the two differ in relation to sophistry.
Aristotle's View of Persuasion and Sophistry
Aristotle, unlike his teacher, Plato, viewed the use of communication and persuasion from both a positive and a negative perspective. He argued that to some extent, language or rhetoric could make truth and justice prevail, especially if the orator made use of regular terms and words that...
According to him, the truth could prevail if people were willing to discuss both sides of the coin and evaluate different points-of-views. Rhetoric, therefore, provided a means for persuasive defense. He put forth a persuasive argument that:
if it is a disgrace to a man when he cannot defend himself in a bodily way, it would be odd not to think him disgraced when he cannot defend himself with reason" (Reinard, 1997, n.pag).
Rhetoric was, therefore, supposed to be used as a means of obtaining justice and discovering the truth. However, the sophists were not using it for this purpose. In book III of the Rhetoric, Aristotle expresses that the sophists preferred to use strange, compound words of ambiguous meaning so as to mislead their hearers (Morella, n.d.). In fact they themselves admit that they were not out to teach people how to use the art of persuasion to obtain justice or the truth; rather, their focus was on how language or rhetoric could be used to win arguments. As Perloff (2003) points out, the sophists were out to "rock the foundation of the educational establishment by giving people practical knowledge rather than highfalutin truth" (p. 21). This is why the sophists fell out with philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who felt that sophism "was a fraud; the probability it handled was not genuine, but spurious, and had a place in no art" (Morella, n.d., n.pag).
According to Aristotle, persuasion was not supposed to be based on rhetoric, but on art -- one's ability to use artistic (legitimate evidence including contracts, laws, and witnesses) and non-artistic (logos, pathos, and ethos) proofs to convince people to accept their point-of-view (Reinard, 1997). As long as sophism was not relying on these, but on their language prowess alone to…
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