Wise Guys, B-S Artists or Sophists? It’s Your Call

Immoral truth-benders or imparters of wisdom? I've been thinking about the word "sophist." I’m sure anti-Hillary-ites don't mean "imparter of wisdom" when they accuse our potential first female president of being a sophist. Likewise, when my hero Henry Quantum bemoans the fact that he himself has become a sophist, he certainly intends it to have the same negative connotation.  

The standard definition of a sophist is “a paid teacher of rhetoric and philosophy in ancient Greece, associated in popular thought with moral skepticism and specious reasoning,” or – definition #2 in the Oxford English Dictionary and the one typically applied to Mrs. Clinton – “a person who reasons with clever but fallacious arguments.” Both these definitions were used by Socrates when he taught the difference between philosophy (seeking truth) and sophistry (winning an argument). 

In other words, when it comes to Mrs. Clinton (or just about any politician), the name-callers are often just as much, or more, sophistic than the object of their derision. I only have to mention the name Trump for you to get my point ...

But let's leave politics to the politicians, and turn our attention to how sophism relates to a parallel topic – desire. Which is what drives all of us all the time and accounts for the gazzillions of dollars spent on Henry Quantum's chosen occupation: advertising. (If you think you're immune, guess again!)

“All my brainpower," Henry laments, "all my persuasive talents, all of me, in the service of a laxative!” In a moment of clarity he realizes that he’s a sophist. And that, in fact, all of us may be sophists! Playing fast and loose with the truth.  Arguing for argument's sake. Proving a point. Being the smartest one in the room.

 But let us do a bit word archaeology before we cut out our own tongues. 

Back in the day – we're talking, like, back in the 5th century B.C.E. – sophists were really just wise guys. Not the Goodfellas-type of wise guys, but wise men – poets like Homer were called sophists, thinkers like Pythagorus and Zeno, teachers and even prophets. Maybe these real wise guys should be showcased at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas (yes, this is a real place) right next to Meyer Lansky and Al Capone!

These sophists of yore would likely have had a plethora of justifications as to why their way of life was honorable and legitimate (kind of like the mafia men and their honor-based killings in The Godfather, to continue with my mobster theme). But they started getting a bad rap in the 4th century BC because they began accepting payment for their skills. In exchange for a fee, early sophists would offer an education to young, wealthy Greek men seeking the rhetorical ability to influence others through their speech.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – yes, there is such a thing! – “Due in large part to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, the term sophistry has come to signify the deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism and moral unscrupulousness." However it's an oversimplification to think of the historical sophists in these terms because they made genuine and original contributions to Western thought. Plato and Aristotle (who, by the way, also got paid for their services) distinguished their own activity – and that of Socrates – from the sophists by calling it "philosophy." A brilliant marketing ploy if ever there was one. Sophistic? You decide.

Of course Plato and Aristotle were brilliant and their quest for truth was sincere and has rightly influenced all of Western Civilization -- I still love to read and learn from them. (You'll even find bits and pieces in Henry's musings).  

As for modern sophists and Hillary haters, or any haters, look at their objectives. Are they after truth or self-aggrandizement or just want to win? With my character Henry, he is only accusing himself as he struggles with the contradictions and ironies of being a human being. 

So to get to the heart of the matter: Is the philosopher all that different from the sophist?

I think this scene from Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part 1, which came out in 1981, might give us a clue:

Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.

Dole Office Clerk: What?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.

Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a bullshit artist!

Indeed, philosophy can come from any corner. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mobster film “Goodfellas,” features philosophers who just happen to be wielding weapons while doling out useful tidbits such as “never bust a wise guy’s balls.”

Actually, there is a bit of synergy between my book and Goodfellas. Both star a fellow named Henry!  The film was adapted from a 1986 non-fiction book called Wiseguy, written by Nicolas Pileggi, and both are told from the point of view Henry Hill, a real-life mobster who ended up ratting out his friends. Mobster Henry ended up being an author himself many years later – after getting booted out of the witness protection program. It was titled -- no lie or sophist twist here - The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes From My Life As A Goodfella To Cooking On The Run.

You might want to put the two Henry books on your reading list … The Heart of Henry Quantum and the cookbook. Hill writes that his last meal on the day he was busted for drugs included rolled veal cutlets, a sauce with pork butt, veal shanks, ziti, and green beans with olive oil and garlic. Who could eat so much? A sophist’s embellishment, or a truthful account?

Alas ... in the world of sophistry in which we currently live, only the teller knows the tale.