By Tom Ribitzky
After Trump’s recent address to Congress, Dan Rather wrote, “Everyone who normalizes Mr. Trump now, or has in the past, will have to answer to future generations for their acquiescence, silence or sophistry—if, indeed, not outright cowardice.” It’s not the first time that Trump, his followers, and his enablers, have been accused of sophistry. This is an administration, after all, that hides behind “alternative facts” while attacking verified reports as “fake news.”
Academia ostensibly has a commitment to the truth (even with all the postmetaphysical backlash against that term), as opposed to the “sophistry” of this administration. There’s a reason why we have Philosophy departments instead of Sophistry departments. But we also know that philosophers have a history of being ineffective in politics (see: the execution of Socrates, the exile of Anaxagoras, the murder of Cicero, etc.). If we are to imagine the classroom as a site of resistance to this current regime, then maybe it is precisely sophistry itself that we ought to be teaching.
Last week, the quiz I gave on Medea had two questions: 1) Explain why Medea is justified in her actions; 2) Explain why she isn’t. To an anti-sophist like Socrates, the premise of a quiz like this is indefensible. Either she is or is not justified, and the singular notion of justice must be settled once and for all, as in a court of law. But what Euripides shows us is that, in tragedy, justice is neither singular nor stable. “Everything present is just and unjust,” writes Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “and equally justified in both.”
But Nietzsche has a revisionist history wherein Socrates helped Euripides write his plays, making them more theoretical and less theatrical. If anything, the opposite is true: Socrates’ arch-nemesis, the sophist Gorgias, was behind the persuasive tactics of Medea’s lines. Euripides also lifted Gorgias’ “Encomium of Helen” almost word for word in Trojan Women.
I teach Gorgias alongside Plato and the tragedians for the purpose of articulating ethical ambiguity, of assessing any given situation from a panoramic perspective. The term “sophist” has been passively accepted as an insult to anyone who isn’t being intellectually rigorous enough, who may lie or twist the truth to accommodate one’s own ideology. This prejudice comes from Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, but I haven’t read anything more intellectually rigorous than Gorgias’ own “On Non-Being,” a genre-defying piece that could be classified as anything from a mathematical proof to an absurd joke, demonstrating the paradox at the core of existence: to be is not to be. The logic is so tight that one of my students even confessed to having come close to tears of frustration after reading and preparing for a quiz on it. “But that’s not true! But… it is,” they told me, in the same breath. Sophistry in action.
Sophistry should not be confused with lying. It has nothing to do with “alternative facts.” Trump and his ilk are not sophists; they have little to no power when it comes to persuading anyone who can actually think. Sophists like Gorgias took facts that every side could verify as true, and used them in order to arrive at counterintuitive interpretations that often undermined the ruling order—a tactic especially evident in his defense of Palamedes against Odysseus, the revered epic hero of the Greeks, or Helen, who had been slut-shamed for centuries and used to justify belligerent foreign policies. His goal was not to ignore the truth, but to expose its contradictory facets. His assertion that being and non-being are the same gives us the grounds to understand characters like Medea and Oedipus as both victims and perpetrators. Oedipus, for instance, calls himself “king no king,” just as his daughter Antigone later calls herself “bride no bride.”
What I’m doing in my classroom is trying to train my students to think like sophists, to articulate multiple—and even conflicting—interpretations of the same texts. Sophistry is a method of stepping outside of one’s narcissism, of inhabiting uncomfortable positions in order to question the premises of one’s own thought. When Socrates banned the tragedians from his ideal Republic ruled by a quasi-tyrannical philosopher-king, what he was really doing was banning sophistry for challenging his authority, his own claim to Truth.
The regime we are now living in looks a lot like Socrates’ fantasy and the sophists’ nightmare. Our republic is considering the eradication of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, among other essential government programs. The Department of Education is run by people who are actively undermining it. Between the assaults on immigration, health care, education, women’s rights, and LGBT rights, we are facing a national tragedy. Tragedy is something the sophists understood, which is why they helped craft the genre. And their articulation itself was a form of political resistance, offering different models of undermining oppression, such as the grief we see in Hecuba, the dance of Cassandra, and the persistence of Antigone. If it’s any consolation, the immigrant Gorgias continued to flourish in Athens long after Socrates’ demise. So maybe sophistry is what will help us get through this. Or maybe it won’t.
Tom Ribitzky is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center and a Contributing Writer to Visible Pedagogy.