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Are activists the modern-day Sophists?

The rise of activism, but is it all rhetoric?


One of my favourite sayings is, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, because if there’s one thing history has taught us is that so many of humanity’s wrongs were committed by people seeking to do right. Alas, the bad side of doing good tends to be examined in retrospect with a post hoc adjustment towards the negative. Essentially, the view by many is that “good” does not have a bad side, it merely becomes bad after the fact.


“Always be wary of those who portray something to only be a good thing.”

So, what does this have to do with activism and a group of Greeks from 2,500 years ago? Well, I’ve never been a “means to an end” person. To me, it matters greatly HOW you do things and HOW you reach intended outcomes. Sophists were masters of rhetoric, “the art of persuasion”, and claimed to be educators to the Athenian people (particularly the youth) with their methods used to win and hold onto political/legal and economic advantages.


Now, you have to ask yourself do you want persuasion or do you want conviction? (Note: persuasion is about influencing a person’s behaviour i.e. their will, conviction is about understanding and the person’s attitudes) Do you want belief or do you want knowledge? Do you want pleasure or do you want health? This is the difference between advice from a rhetorician versus that from a philosopher (like Socrates, for example). I mention Socrates, poignantly, because it was the Sophists who persuaded the Athenian people to sentence him to death for corrupting the youth of Athens.


The Gorgias is probably the best of the Platonic Dialogues in defining rhetoric through a discussion between Socrates and a group of Sophists. Socrates argues that rhetoric can be used justly, but in practice is more pandering and flattery to its listeners. Socrates manages to get the Sophists to agree that because of their mastery of the tools of persuasion they stood a better chance at “swaying the room” than an expert/specialist, using this to their advantage by not having to learn anything of substance. The Sophists were incredibly popular at the time, but this did not break Socrates in his unwavering search for the truth.


Modern activists are usually concerned with some sort of freedom that is currently being restricted or removed. This is where the understanding of the “freedom as liberty vs freedom as autonomy” argument is crucial – and sadly lacking I feel (autonomy originally comes from the Greek word autonomos; auto meaning self and nomos meaning law). So, who is really free in this case? The person who can do anything (liberty) or the self-regulated (autonomy)?


So, what is modern activism really concerned with? Liberty? Autonomy? Both? Neither?


It saddens me the way I see most activism carried out in the world; people who only know what they’re opposed to and how to tear down and destroy. Through a combination of nihilism, postmodernism and intellectual vandalism – none of which can build a good system, only tear one down – a lot of the activism we see today is all about the negative; there is no affirmative doctrine. What we’re left with is just persuasion – sometimes through language games deliberately designed to manipulate, confuse and give the appearance of knowledge. It’s not that activism is inherently bad, but there’s a number of “bad actors”, and it’s primarily how it's currently done that I take issue with (which is my main take home point of this whole article really). It’s like starting with the answer and retro-fitting your working out.


Think of it this way, if life is meaningless and morality is relative then it doesn’t matter if you’re hypocritical, contradictory or illogical – you’re just trying to win/persuade to gain advantage – or as the Sophist Thrasymachus would say, “justice is the advantage of the stronger”, and this way of thinking becomes incredibly appealing; for appraising your actions and the actions of others.


In a sense, activism has become a secular religion (filling the God-sized hole with politics – which is an ever losing battle that doesn’t completely satisfy the human condition and part of the reason why most struggle to get on board). The religious void – and no, I’m not making the case that we can’t be moral without religion – along with people’s increased fear of abandonment and more importantly their rage at their irrelevancy has led to an increase in activism. Here we see the Sacred vs Profane argument come to life with the desecration of the world and the butchering and defiling of the sacred/divine i.e. what connects us to the transcendent.


I feel we’re living in an increasingly profane society that desperately wants to forget/escape itself. Socrates was a doctor of souls, essentially, and I try my best to emulate this for not only my benefit, but those I interact with. However, what’s the point in a progressively soulless society? I can’t help but feel that this is a false sense of liberation, we’re breaking free of the shackles, but we don’t really understand why or what we’re really breaking free from and that the light at the end of the tunnel is merely a train coming the other way.


I wish activists were more like Socrates and less like Sophists, but then they would be philosophers. However, I would take a world with less activists and more philosophers.


P.S. I want to clarify/reiterate that the main point of this article is about HOW we do things and HOW we obtain the results we would like. I care greatly about the direction of humanity and it matters greatly HOW we continue to progress in time and as a species. Activism plays an essential part in a functioning democracy which is why I’m concerned with HOW it is being done currently. As I explored in another article, it’s not just distribution we need to be concerned about, it’s production as well, although most activists will focus on the former.

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