Modern Sophists, Ancient Trade

As the scandals surrounding the Obama administration continue to brew and spread, certain apologists for the president are once again accusing Obama's critics of indulging in conspiracy mongering in order to torpedo Obama's presidency. The president's accusers, for their part, claim that the facts back up their suspicions of foul play with regard to Obama's goals, activities, and his disdain for the Constitution. Such a charge against a president is a serious matter. Are these critics of Obama justified in their suspicions, or are they suffering from some type of delusion?

The dilemma of distinguishing opinion, including opinion leading to delusion or false suspicion, from reality has its roots in the ancient Greek metaphysical debate concerning the existence of a fixed independent reality versus a changing or relative reality based upon individual sensory perception. Are there fixed truths by which human virtue and events can be defined, judged and fully understood in a way relevant to all human beings, or do no fixed standards exist, and is "man the measure of all things," as declared by the sophist Protagoras (as reported by Plato), because truth and virtue in human society have only relative value and are judged to be valid based solely upon a particular person's choosing or perceiving them to be so?

Since we live in an age that credits extreme relativism, rather than in an age that strives to understand eternal truths, it should come as no surprise that confusion or even outright denial will occur when someone declares or tries to ascertain the facts of the truth, since for too many people these days the truth  -- any truth -- is regarded to be strictly subject to one's point of view and preferences, just as they were taught in the public schools; a very advantageous state of affairs for our modern sophists who, like their ancient counterparts, use every means at their disposal to buttress their efforts to cloud the truth in order to win the public debate. In doing so, the relativist resorts to two major subterfuges: abuse of information and abuse of language.

Abuse of information includes the distortion, the misrepresentation, the false correlation, and the willful and willing ignorance of facts, of logic, of common sense, and of preceding events and known patterns of human behavior. Presentations of statistics are a prime example of how data can be cleverly distorted to create a false reality. A selective presentation of only certain historical events can similarly distort the actual historical reality, via what might be termed intentional acts of omission. Ignorance or dismissal of known historical precedents of behavior is another way to distort the narrative or deny reality. If, for example, a politician has a long paper trail and well-established pattern of behavior concerning his sympathies, opinions, or goals, to ignore such a paper trail and behavior is to deny evidence before your eyes and represents an act of folly. Marcus Aurelius stated the maxim best:

It is a shameful and reproachful thing to be surprised when a fig tree produces figs. (Meditations 8.15)

For example, in Mein Kampf and in numerous public statements Hitler made very clear what he intended to do if elected chancellor of Germany, for which reason any opponent of Hitler who brought Hitler's plans to the German public's attention in 1933 could not have been rightly accused of engaging in fabricating a conspiracy concerning Hitler's intentions. Yet to many Germans in 1933 talk of concentration camps, mass exterminations, and the other subsequent vile excesses of the Nazi regime could have appeared (or could have been made to appear) to represent the near lunatic ravings of Germans determined to oppose Hitler's assumption of power; ravings which then easily could have been ascribed to a conspiracy to undermine Hitler's promises to transform Germany for the better.

By analogy, when a presidential candidate runs on a platform of hope and change, it is reasonable to look at his paper trail (books he wrote and read, his public voting record, his previous activities and statements) and background (who raised and educated him, his personal and professional friends and associates, his pastor and church) in order to determine what hope and change will mean once he ascends to the presidency, and then not be surprised when that candidate proceeds to implement his program as soon as he is empowered to do so. Not to credit all this evidence represents a foolish abuse of information.

Since language is our medium of communication, abuse of language represents an exceedingly powerful tool with which to cloud reality, direct the parameters of the public debate and sway public sentiment. As the saying goes, he who defines the terms has already won half the battle. Because the left controls so much of the public square these days, opponents of the left must exert constant vigilance with regard to the terms and underlying assumptions of public debate, in order that their conservative message not be undermined by being defined and characterized in terms favorable to the left.

Complaints about the abuse of language on the part of rhetoricians and politicians were nearly ubiquitous in antiquity, starting with the revolution in language usage by the sophists in fifth century BC Greece. The traveling Greek sophist Gorgias of Leontini created a sensation in Athens upon his first visit there in 427 BC by his novel use (and abuse) of language, and while some sophists like Prodicus of Ceos pioneered the accurate use of language and the study of linguistics, many others shamelessly exploited the Greek language, an activity which, in conjunction with their ability to "make the lesser argument the greater," gave many sophists a bad name, and often rightly so, as can be seen in the dialogues of Plato or the Clouds of Aristophanes. The innovations of the sophists were hand-made for usage in the assemblies and law courts of Athens and other Greek cities, whence those innovations for better or worse passed into the hands of the rhetoricians and became part of the curriculum of rhetoric which persisted as an integral part of higher education until late antiquity. It should come as no surprise that these linguistic and rhetorical devices have had their greatest applications in politics, diplomacy, and the law courts over the centuries.
It is Thucydides who, while describing the civil war on the island of Corcyra during the early part of the Peloponnesian War, gives the most gripping description of how political expediency can change the meaning of words:

The affairs of the cities were rent by civil discord, and in those cities, where civil discord arrived later and where news became known of how such civil discord had been handled previously in other cities, matters were carried to an even greater degree of excess by the devising of new concepts and ideas, as seen in the great cunning of the participants' undertakings and the inappropriateness of their forms of revenge. And men changed the accustomed meaning of words to conform to the nature of their present deeds as they judged them. Thoughtless daring was judged to be courage in support of one's allies, prudent delay was termed veiled cowardice, moderation was considered the cloak of the unmanly, the ability to comprehend the whole issue was seen as the ability to do nothing, rash and sharp action was considered the proper portion of a man, to take counsel in safety was called a well-reasoned excuse for desertion. The man who advocated violence was considered in all ways trustworthy, the man speaking against violence was suspected. He who succeeded in plotting was considered intelligent, he who anticipated a plot was considered even more clever, but whoever contrived ahead of time to do neither was called a destroyer of his party and frightened of his enemies; simply put, whoever preceded another in doing evil was praised, as was the man who encouraged another to commit evil who previously had not considered it... (Book 3, Chapter 82).

Similarly, nowadays government spending is termed investment, illegal racial preferences are called affirmative action, abortion is about reproductive justice and the right to privacy, stealing from one person and giving to another is justified as public welfare or redistribution of income, brainwashing is called sensitivity training, leadership is from behind, wanting to improve your own lot and that of your family is selfish greed, amongst an endless parade of Orwellian nonsense that assaults us on a daily basis.

Thus I do not think that it is a matter of delusion or conspiracy for citizens to harbor serious concerns about Obama's intentions toward our country. By the sophistic manipulation of facts, information and language a great deal of sleight of hand has taken place in order to endow Obama with the patina of an exceptional intelligence conjoined to a squeaky clean and "cool" public persona, while at the same time suppressing the very real evidence of his paper trail and his close friends and associates. The very perception of all that sleight of hand is alone enough to justify a fear of foul play.

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