Reason s Dark Champions
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Recent decades have witnessed a major restoration of the Sophists' reputation, revising the Platonic and Aristotelian "orthodoxies" that have dominated the tradition. Still lacking is a full appraisal of the Sophists' strategies of argumentation. Christopher W. Tindale corrects that omission in Reason's Dark Champions. Viewing the Sophists as a group linked by shared strategies rather than by common epistemological beliefs, Tindale illustrates that the Sophists engaged in a range of argumentative practices in manners wholly different from the principal ways in which Plato and Aristotle employed reason. By examining extant fifth-century texts and the ways in which Sophistic reasoning is mirrored by historians, playwrights, and philosophers of the classical world, Tindale builds a robust understanding of Sophistic argument with relevance to contemporary studies of rhetoric and communication.

Beginning with the reception of the Sophists in their own culture, Tindale explores depictions of the Sophists in Plato's dialogues and the argumentative strategies attributed to them as a means of understanding the threat Sophism posed to Platonic philosophical ambitions of truth seeking. He also considers the nature of the "sophistical refutation" and its place in the tradition of fallacy. Tindale then turns to textual examples of specific argumentative practices, mapping how Sophists employed the argument from likelihood, reversal arguments, arguments on each side of a position, and commonplace reasoning. What emerges is a complex reappraisal of Sophism that reorients criticism of this mode of argumentation, expands understanding of Sophistic contributions to classical rhetoric, and opens avenues for further scholarship.



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Date de parution 15 octobre 2012
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EAN13 9781611172331
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Constructive Strategies of Sophistic Argument
© 2010 University of South Carolina
Cloth edition published by the University of South Carolina Press, 2010 Ebook edition published in Columbia, South Carolina, by the University of South Carolina Press, 2012
21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
The Library of Congress has cataloged the cloth edition as follows:
Tindale, Christopher W. (Christopher William)
Reason’s dark champions : constructive strategies of Sophistic
argument / Christopher W. Tindale.
p. cm. (Studies in rhetoric/communication)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-57003-878-5 (cloth : alk. paper)
1. Sophists (Greek philosophy) 2. Reasoning. I. Title.
B288.T56 2010
183'.1 dc22
ISBN 978-1-61117-233-1 (ebook)
For my former colleagues in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Ancient History and Classics at Trent University, in appreciation of many years of collegial support
The Sophist runs away into the darkness of that which is not, which he has had practice dealing with, and he is hard to see because the place is so dark.
Plato’s Sophist 254a
Series Editor’s Preface
The Category Sophist: Who Counts?
The Figure of Socrates
1 Sophistic Argument: Contrasting Views
Against the Sophists
Figures of Influence
Positive Views of Sophistic Argument
Resistance to Revision
2 Making the Weak Argument the Stronger
A Problem of Translation
Eristics and the Euthydemus
Antiphon the Sophist
Protagorean Rhetoric
3 Plato’s Sophists
Platonic and Sophistic Argument and the “Sophist Dialogues”
Public and Private Argument
Plato’s View of Argument
A Question of Method
Imitation and Method: Eristic and the Peritrope
The Veracity of Plato’s Testimony
4 The Sophists and Fallacious Argument: Aristotle’s Legacy
The Sophists and Fallacy
The Sophistical Refutations
Fallacy in the Euthydemus
Lessons from the Euthydemus
Contrasting Refutations
Rhetoric and Argumentation
Rhetoric and Sophistry
Extending Sophistic Argument: Alcidamas and Isocrates
5 What Is Eikos? The Argument from Likelihood
The Meaning of Likelihood
Examples from Antiphon
The Range of Eikos Arguments
Evaluating Eikos Arguments
Contemporary Appearances: Walton and the Plausibility Argument
6 Turning Tables: Roots and Varieties of the Peritrope
What Trope Is the Peritrope?
Defining the Peritrope
Reversal Arguments in Gorgias and Antiphon
Socratic and Sophistic Refutations Again
Contemporary Reversals
7 Contrasting Arguments: Antilogoi or Antithesis
The Concepts of Antilogoi and Antithesis
History of the Antilogoi
The Dissoi Logoi
Antithesis and the Counterfactual
Examples of Antilogoi: Gorgias, Antiphon, Prodicus, Thucydides, and Antisthenes
Purpose and Evaluation
Contemporary Echoes
8 Signs, Commonplaces, and Allusions
Modes of Proof
Arguing from Signs
More Recent Echoes
9 Ethotic Argument: Witness Testimony and the Appeal to Character
The Appeal to One’s Own Character
Funeral Speeches
Promotion of Character
Attacking Character
The Use of Ethotic Argument and the Modern Ad Hominem
10 Justice and the Value of Sophistic Argument
Truth and Morality: Reasoning in the Dark
A Human Justice
Sophistic Argument and Justice
Two Kinds of Sophist
Sophistic Argument in the Present
In Reason’s Dark Champions , Christopher W. Tindale traces the reputation, the theory, and the practice of the Sophists and of sophistic argument from the Greeks of the fifth century B.C.E . to the present. Professor Tindale seeks to advance the rehabilitation of the Sophists, especially by examining their actual modes of arguing in their own works, in those they influenced, and in the reports of others about their argumentation. Sophistic argument has suffered from the charge that it is merely eristic speech undertaken to win at all costs or simply to elicit admiration. Similarly sophistic argument has been charged, since Plato and Aristotle, with developing skills to make the weaker argument appear to be the stronger. But, argues Tindale, the Sophists would not acknowledge the assumption behind this charge that in the sorts of matters that sophistic argument is designed to treat, such as jury trials, there is a knowable, absolute truth, access to which sophistic argument is designed to obscure. The Sophists, claims Tindale, developed their argumentative methods to weigh probabilities and likelihoods in a world of argument where probability is the best we can hope for. Hence the skill of turning arguments about is at least worthy of serious consideration on its own terms. Even Plato, who was in search of the truth of the Forms, observes Tindale, wrote “in a letter that no serious philosopher will attempt to put the truth into words. The nature of the medium, the subject, and the audience all render such an effort pointless.”
Professor Tindale traces in detail sophistic strategies of argumentation as they are used by the Sophists themselves, with extended development of argument based on likelihood, arguments based on reversal, arguments based on antithetical reasoning, and ethotic argument (argument based on witness testimony and the appeal to character).
Professor Tindale concludes his examination of the contributions of the Sophists to argument by noting that sophistical reasoning makes possible rhetoric itself, which is indispensable in any discussion of choices about justice hence all argumentative reasoning is rhetorical. At the core of such argument is an acknowledgment of the importance of audiences, who through rhetoric may become “equal partners in a constructive process that can improve the quality of intellectual communities and the quality of reason itself.” In Reason’s Dark Champions , Christopher Tindale has done much to advance just such a project.
This book is the result of almost a decade of thinking and writing, over which time many audiences have contributed to its improvements. Parts of chapter 3 were first presented in a paper to the Ontario Philosophical Association in 2002, and sections of chapters 1 and 4 were presented at the International Pragmatics Association meeting in Italy in 2005. Sections of chapters 2 and 4 are drawn from talks presented at the Classical Association of Canada meetings in 2005, 2006, and 2007. The material on allusion in chapter 8 had its first airing in a paper presented to the International Society for the Study of Argumentation in Amsterdam in 2006, and some of the discussion of commonplaces in the same chapter is drawn from a paper to the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation in Windsor, Ontario, in 2007. An earlier version of chapter 5 was read to the Department of Philosophy at the University of Windsor in 2007. And chapters 3 and 5 were discussed in a seminar at the University of Copenhagen in 2008. I am grateful to all the audiences involved for their interest and critical comments.
My interest in the Sophists generally and an appreciation for their perspectives were honed during three senior philosophy seminars dedicated to their ideas at Trent University, including one in my final year there in 2005. I was fortunate in having groups of outstanding students who approached the subject matter with enthusiasm and creativity. Many of the ideas that have found their way into the final version of this book were first tried out in those seminars.
Two anonymous reviewers for the University of South Carolina Press made some useful suggestions that have helped me to clarify the intent of the project; I am grateful to them for these. Several other individuals also deserve particular mention here. My thinking on the Greeks’ interest in commonplaces and topoi has benefited enormously from ongoing conversations with my Bielefeld colleague Andreas Welzel. And Christian Kock contributed a number of important insights during my visit to Copenhagen, as well as impressing upon me the importance of taking seriously the argumentative riches of the Rhetoric to Alexander . My colleagues at Windsor’s Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric provided ongoing critical support during the final stages of this project. I would mention in particular Tony Blair, Hans Hansen, and Ralph Johnson. I am fortunate to be a fellow of this fledgling institution. Though they may balk at the label, they are fine Sophists all.
The negative connotations that attach to the term “sophistry” have a long and abiding tradition. The use of the term in contemporary debates is invariably accompanied by a critical and dismissive tone. Yet the Sophists whose practices are thought to have given rise to this negative notion have received far more constructive treatments in recent literature and even a few positive accounts that trace back to figures such as G. W. F. Hegel (1892) and Grote (1888). 1 Still, for all the rehabilitation of recent decades, Sophistic argument , insofar as it is discussed, tends to retain its negativity. Sophistic argument is closely linked (when not treated as synonymous) with eristics and false refutations. Aristotle bears part of the responsibility for this. His analysis of sophistical refutations in the work of that title grounds the historical treatments of fallacy such that a sophistical argument is simply a fallacious argument. 2 And the precursor for this thinking is, of course, Plato and his treatment of Sophists in the Dialogues , particularly the Euthydemus . Yet even a cursory consideration of the influence of the Sophists among their contemporaries and the respect accorded them by a range of important figures gives the lie to any largely negative depiction of their argumentative strategies. And even the Platonic presentations of sophistic patterns of reasoning are more ambiguous than the general animosity he conveyed toward them would suggest.
This book is not a study of any individual Sophist, since there has been a wealth of recent books with this aim, most done very well: for example Schiappa (2003) on Protagoras, Consigny (2001) and McComiskey (2002) on Gorgias, and Gagarin (2001; Antiphon 1997) on Antiphon. I intend, rather, to make a further contribution to the general rehabilitation of the Sophists but one that specifically attends to the nature and variety of sophistic argument. The Sophists, we learn, engaged in a range of argumentative practices, the goals of which were quite different from the principal ways in which Plato and Aristotle understood and employed reason. By looking at some of the extant fifth-century texts and the ways sophistic reasoning is mirrored in the thinkers around them, from historians to playwrights and even philosophers, we can build a far more constructive picture of sophistic argument, one that also has relevance to contemporary studies of argumentation.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 looks at the reception of the Sophists in their own culture and the subsequent tradition. It explores the depictions of the Sophists that populate Plato’s dialogues and the argumentative strategies attributed to them and considers the nature of the ‘sophistical refutation’ that forms the foundation for the tradition of fallacy. Part 2 turns to specific argumentative practices, beyond the interest in so-called eristics and refutations, looking at how Sophists employed such strategies as the argument from likelihood, reversal arguments, arguments on each side of a position, and commonplace reasoning, among others. In each case the argument strategy is explored through examples from the texts.
The category of Sophist will be expanded in part 2 to include figures beyond the central group. But here we might consider that group and the reasons we have for collecting them together. The principal fifth-century Sophists 3 are known as such because of their influence and the testimonies accorded them. Thus Protagoras and Gorgias stand out as dominant figures in the core group. While the paucity of fragments makes it difficult to use Protagoras in illustrating sophistic argumentation, the types of strategies attributed to him, such as the use of opposing arguments or two- logoi , make him an important figure to consider even if it is just in exploring how he set arguments on both sides of an issue. Beyond this the way his argumentative practices seem mirrored in other writers such as Thucydides and Euripides and Sophists such as Antiphon emphasizes the importance of his place in any study of sophistic argument. Gorgias is less difficult to draw upon. The extant fragments, including speeches such as the Helen and Palamedes and more theoretical disquisitions such as On Not-Being , provide a wealth of material for our study. Likewise Antiphon, the best represented of any fifth-century Sophist in terms of the material available, provides through that material exemplary illustrations of argumentative strategies as they were taught and employed in actual trial speeches. Other members of the major group, such as Prodicus, Hippias, and Thrasymachus, are of less direct value, although the distinctive approaches to reasoning that Plato presents in his portrayals of the latter two are useful in themselves in setting the contrast between reasoning that Plato considered appropriate for the ends he championed and reasoning that he did not. The argumentation of Prodicus is less vividly portrayed, although his Choice of Heracles , which comes down to us courtesy of Xenophon, illustrates the sophistic interest in antithesis as an argumentative strategy.
These constitute the core group of actual Sophists from which material will be drawn for the study. 4 Others are known more through the testimonia than for any fragments that remain. 5 But if part of the Sophists’ fame lay in their influence, then the work of those influenced also becomes important for illustrating some of the strategies. Beyond this group there are certain anonymous texts, such as the Dissoi Logoi , that serve further to tell us how specific types of argument were understood and used. And finally a case will be made in the introduction to part 2 for expanding the range of materials available to the study by including the work of some of the more important students of the core group, such as Alcidamas and Isocrates.
The “hot potato” of Sophist studies is undoubtedly the place that should be accorded the figure of Socrates. In the Apology Plato takes pains to distance Socrates from other fifth-century thinkers, perhaps to counter Aristophanes’ damaging depiction in Clouds . But that agenda seems less apparent in later dialogues such as the Sophist itself. Still most commentators appear reluctant to categorize Socrates in a way that is so contrary to his historical reputation. As Kerferd observes: “The very idea of including Socrates as part of the sophistic movement is at best a paradox and to many absurd” (1981, 55). To a certain extent, the question is moot from our point of view, since he wrote nothing and thus there are no direct examples of how he argued. On the other hand, the Socratic elenchus is a method of refutation, and the famed sophistic argument of the tradition is a false refutation. So any considered study of refutation arguments must make some effort to distinguish the two.
While writers such as Kerferd (1981, 56–57) and Guthrie (1971, 33–34) have been reluctant to include Socrates fully under the label “Sophist,” providing more ambivalent treatments, stronger cases for doing so have been made. And as we will see, a study of sophistic argumentation will tend to support the case for inclusion. In various dialogues Plato has Socrates “play the Sophist,” whether by giving lengthy speeches that were the preferred discourse of the Sophists or, as in the Meno , by expressly speaking as Gorgias would in order to give his interlocutor (Meno) the kind of performance to which he is used and which he understands ( Meno 76c). But on each of these occasions the serious contrast is maintained between sophistic and nonsophistic procedures. The Sophist itself, however, involves the development of a definition that, once complete, indicts the Socrates of the Socratic dialogues in a central way.
C. C. W. Taylor (2006) has recently made the case that the core definitions of the Sophist have the effect of distinguishing Socrates from the “philosopher” and identifying him with sophistry, albeit of a noble variety. Grote had said as much more than a century earlier, when he observed that “the definition which he [Plato] at last brings out suits Sokrates himself, intellectually speaking, better than any one else whom we know” (1888, 44). But Taylor gives substance to this observation through a detailed review of the various parts of the definition, from the hunting of young men 6 to the crucial part that involves cleansing the soul through refutation or elenchus (Soph .230d–e). 7 Granted, Socrates avoids falling under the fourth part of the definition since he does not sell his wares for a fee. But it remains a matter of debate whether their fee-taking propensity, to which Plato returns time and again, should really be seen as an essential, rather than a peripheral, part of what is important about the Sophists (and particularly the Sophist arguers ), and at best it would exclude Socrates from the class of professional Sophists. Regardless the common interest in refutation as a method of argumentation draws Socrates firmly into the Sophist fold. It remains then only to inquire whether the uses of the method are sufficient to distinguish him in any interesting way. Plato’s own position on the matter became clear: beyond a certain point, the Socratic elenchus failed to serve the needs of his philosophical agenda. Whether this was due in any part to its similarity to sophistic practices is beyond the purview of this study.
Chapter 1 provides two conflicting views on sophistic argument, drawn from the tradition. The first is negative and reflects the views of people such as Aristophanes and Richard Whately through to contemporary argumentation theorists. The second is more positive and is drawn from such thinkers as Euripides and Thucydides, through Hegel and more contemporary writers such as Eduard Zeller. The chapter looks at the grounds for each perspective. Chapter 2 explores one of the chief arguments leveled against the Sophists in works such as Plato’s Apology and Aristotle’s Rhetoric that they made the weak argument or cause to be or appear strong (it is the translators who create the problem of appearance in the texts). Here I discuss the seriousness of the charge and argue that it arises from a disagreement over the nature of reality and human experience in relation to it and the capacity of language to handle this. The charge is being made through Platonic or Aristotelian lenses, but there is a quite reasonable way of seeing what the Sophists were doing. Those Platonic lenses are given more thorough attention in chapter 3 , which examines the presence of Sophists and sophistic strategies of argument in the Dialogues . They are present even when not expressly addressed and represent a fundamental threat to Plato’s project (as seen in the treatment of Protagoras in the Theaetetus ). Repeatedly the contrast is made between speech making and its public value and dialectic and its private value. The emergence of rhetoric in the Gorgias is explored as well as the role of Socrates as a foil for sophistic reason, particularly the largely ignored negative role of the midwife simile. Many commentators are suspicious of Plato’s portrayals of the Sophist and so argue that we cannot place too great a value on them. I argue to the contrary that, given the enormity of the threat that Sophists represented to his philosophical agenda, it was in Plato’s personal interests to present them as accurately as he could for a firm dismissal of their positions. In light of the attention he gives to their interest in speech making and to argumentative practices so different from his own, it would seem odd to exclude him as a potential source for material and insight. Finally chapter 4 explores Aristotle’s contrast between a sophistical and a “real” refutation in light of the tradition of fallacy in Western logic. The nature of such a contrast is traced to Plato’s Euthydemus , and Aristotle’s treatment in the Sophistical Refutations is examined. The two types of refutation aim at different goals, both legitimate in their own terms. The tradition has valued one and marginalized the other.
The fragments of the principal Sophists and related authors are included in the Fragmente der Vorsokratiker of Diels and Kranz. References to these fragments are abbreviated DK B (with section A providing the testimonia ). English translations are available in Rosamond Kent Sprague’s 1972 edition of The Older Sophists . Where specific translations of other key texts are used, particularly for Plato and Aristotle, I note these in the citation and provide the information in the references.
Contrasting Views
Plato was correct to regard them as masters of illusion who presented men not with the truth but with fictions, images, and “idols,” which they persuaded others to accept as reality.
Marcel Detienne, The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece
In his Elements of Logic (1836), Richard Whately conjures up an illogical antagonist with whom to contest his points, particularly on the efficacy of the fallacies. This device constitutes a kind of running dialogue between himself as the epitome of reason and a champion of unreason. The antagonist is simply called “the Sophist.” He acts deliberately to obscure and disguise expressions, while hoping they appear as simple as possible (161). “Sophistry,” Whately writes, “like poison, is at once detected, and nauseated, when presented to us in a concentrated form” (162), but the wily Sophist dilutes his deceptions, thereby making them more virulent. When he cannot prove his point, he distracts his audience so as to avoid the need for a proof (193), and he generally stands to represent all that can be understood by the term ‘unreason’. This is a devastating portrait. It makes of the Sophist a thoroughly unpalatable character. Our question, though, has to do with the origin of this idea and whether it accurately approximates any historical Sophist who would have acknowledged the title. Whately’s depiction is a common one, influenced in no small part by the tradition that comes down to us from Plato and Aristotle and sees them as the philosophers, logical in thought and purpose, resisting the encroachments of the Sophists, illogical in all respects.
In spite of the rehabilitation that the Sophists have enjoyed in recent studies (Kerferd 1981; Schiappa 1991, 2003), the negative judgments of Plato and Aristotle have tended to be endorsed by argumentation theorists. 1 A major text that aims to capture the current state of affairs in the study of argument (van Eemeren et al. 1996) conveys what is indeed the standard story on the Sophists. Referring to the Sophists of fifth-century Greece, the authors tell us that they “were itinerant scholars who taught lessons in argumentation and social and political skills” (30). But the argumentation that they taught presumably was bad argumentation. The authors transfer the advocacy of relativism, often attributed to the fifth-century Sophists as a group, to a particular standpoint in argumentation that they call a sophistic standpoint. Of this, they write: “objectively speaking, there can be no such thing as good argumentation. If one person convinces another with his arguments, this is because the other person accepts what he says. The first person is, in other words, agreed to be right , but that does not necessarily mean that in objective terms he actually is right ” (ibid.).
What appears here to be a description of sophistic practice is on closer scrutiny a prescription. Behind the account stand the assumptions that good argumentation must have standards outside of social agreement and that the Sophists recognized no such standards. Both assumptions may prove questionable. But what is notable here is that a particular conception of argument, and indeed good argument, is being projected onto the Sophists and used to find their practice inadequate. In this respect the authors follow in the steps of Plato and Aristotle.
One argumentation theorist who is cognizant in his work of the controversy surrounding Plato’s and Aristotle’s interpretations of the Sophists is Douglas Walton. This is significant because in many respects Walton’s own dialectical model of argument has much in common with the Sophists’ interest in likelihood and plausible inference, as he himself recognizes (1998a, 15–16; 1995, 4). The problem, as Walton suggests it, is that the denouncing of the Sophists by Plato and Aristotle was so widely accepted as correct that any interest in a logic based on presumption and opinion was in turn regarded as less than respectable. This, however, does not prompt Walton to go back and investigate the argumentative practices of individual Sophists (beyond a recognition of Antiphon’s predilection for the argument from likelihood [1998a, 15]). Instead he directs his attention to salvaging the disfavored aspects of dialectical argument.
Again, while Walton acknowledges the recent controversies surrounding Plato’s and Aristotle’s interpretations of the Sophists, he does not himself pass judgment except to accept their condemnation of eristic argument. Eristic argument, in their terms, is a form of argument that aims at victory at any cost. 2 The standard examples of this are found not in any of the Sophists’ extant writings but in Plato’s Euthydemus . In fact these examples often seem to be taken as the examples of sophistic argument, even though, or perhaps because, the Euthydemus constitutes Plato’s most derisive treatment of “sophistic thought.” That it is countered by a greater number of respectful portraits of Sophists in other dialogues is often overlooked. Certainly the depiction of sophistic argument presented in the Euthydemus fuels the judgment that the Sophists were not serious arguers inquiring after truth but perpetrators of fallacious reasoning and seekers of personal profit. At least this is the view that Walton follows Aristotle in sharing. Aristotle links sophistical argumentation and fallacies (or sophistical refutations) to eristic argument. That Walton is in agreement with this move is indicated when he relates it to his own new dialectic: “Aristotle is also making an extremely important statement about the analysis of fallacies that is preserved in the new dialectic. Fallacies are associated with deceptive shifts from one type of dialogue to another in the new dialectic” (1998a, 191). The stigma of deception clings to eristic argument, and in turn to the Sophists who are deemed its exponents. Even when the controversial nature of Aristotle’s interpretation is recognized, the association holds firm. Yet, as we will see, there is more to sophistic argument than eristics, and not all sophistic argumentation can be equated with fallacy even if we permit ourselves to view it only through Aristotelian lenses. Eristic argumentation itself may even be seen to have some merit to it (Grimaldi 1996, 29).
For a contrasting image of the Sophist, consider one aspect of the discovery by August Mariette of the Serapeum at Memphis, Egypt. During the excavation an avenue bordered by 141 small sphinxes was uncovered between the temple and the Serapeum. It followed a curve and stopped. Beyond the last of the sphinxes was a bench surmounted by Greek statues. These were arranged in a circle, known today as the Philosophers’ Circle. They had been erected during the Ptolemaic period. Represented there are the poets Homer, Hesiod, Demitrius, and Pindar. Presumably they were exemplars of their craft. Opposed to them are philosophers such as Plato, Heraclitus, Thales, and, in their company, Protagoras. This last association of the famous “Sophist” Protagoras with the likes of Plato suggests a much different attitude toward the two on the part of those who arranged the circle, an attitude that sees grounds to associate them rather than set them in opposition. Insofar as we understand Protagoras to be the most famous of the group of fifth-century Sophists, then the statues at the Serapeum might make us wonder how firmly the opposition between philosopher and Sophist should be maintained.
Such is the tone that is struck in some counterviews of the Sophists that arise occasionally in the history of philosophy. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1892), Hegel promotes several features of sophistic reasoning, noting at one point: “If sophistry is bad in the sense that it signifies a quality of which only bad men are guilty, it is at the same time much more common than this would imply; for all argumentative reasoning, adducing of arguments and counter-arguments, bringing into prominence particular points of view, is sophistry” (367). People take on the standpoint of the Sophist whenever they judge concrete cases in which a particular point of view determines the action that results. In everyday life we cannot avoid this. Hegel sees the greatest gift the Sophists offered to have been culture. Men wished for culture and so to be guided by thought and no longer through oracles, custom, or passion. 3 What Hegel means by culture is “that what free thought is to attain must come out of itself and be personal conviction; it is then no longer believed but investigated in short, it is the so-called enlightenment of modern times. Thought seeks general principles by which it criticizes everything which is by us esteemed, and nothing has value to us which is not in conformity with these principles” (256). Accordingly, he writes, “[a] man of culture thus knows how to say something of everything, to find points of view in all” (356).
Eduard Zeller (1883), likewise, offers a very sympathetic reading of the Sophists, noting the breadth of their influence, including that on people such as Sophocles, 4 Euripides, and Herodotus. “It remains the undying service of Sophism to philosophy that it turned Greek philosophy to the study of man himself and first laid the foundations of a systematic education of the young” (92). But he also notes that the movement was brought into ill repute by certain Sophists (such as Euthydemus and Dionysodorus), who “degraded sophism to paltry hair-splitting, logical quibbles and fallacies” (91).
The impact of the Sophists to which Zeller refers belies the subsequent negative portraits. Contemporaries such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Euripides all reflect a serious engagement with their ideas and ways of arguing. The debate on different regimes in book 3 of the Histories has been suggested to reflect the influence of Protagoras on Herodotus, and both figures were associated with the founding of Thurii (de Romilly 1992, 221). In a similar vein, the text of the Dissoi Logoi (or Contrasting Arguments ) that we will examine in part 2 echoes Herodotus at 3.38.
The influence on Thucydides is even more pronounced, as is widely acknowledged. The technique attributed to Gorgias of presenting hypotheses that cover every possibility (as with his account of Helen’s behavior) is freely employed in Thucydides’ speeches, as are debates that match opposing sides of an argument.
Perhaps, though, the influence is most richly apparent in the extant tragedies of Euripides. As Desmond Conacher notes, “The influence of Sophistic rhetoric on Euripides is almost a cliché of literary studies of his plays” (1998, 50). But the impact of their thinking on a range of issues far exceeds the rhetoric alone. Euripides’ alleged association with Prodicus, with whom he is said to have studied, may account for his interest in precise definitions (Conacher 1998, 28), and a similar relationship with Protagoras may account for the apparent interest in the relativity of ethical values on the part of many of his characters as well as a skepticism toward the existence of the gods. Fragment 795, for example, criticizes anyone “who boasts of knowing anything concerning the gods,” a remark that is consistent with the Protagorean claim that he could not know whether or not the gods exist, in part because of the obscurity of the subject ( DK 80 B4). While observing that the Helen is a demonstration of what it means to make the weak argument strong, Conacher sees this echoed in a line from Euripides’ Antiope: “If one should be clever at speaking, one should be able to establish a case ( agôna ) consisting of two arguments for every proposition” (cited in Conacher, 51). Conacher calls this “a similar claim,” but the reference is specifically to the sophistic strategy of ‘double arguments’, which also occupies Euripides in the Hecuba (123–24) dissôn muthôn rhētores (“speakers of twofold arguments [or narratives]”). 5 There are good reasons for treating the making of weak arguments strong and the creating of double arguments as quite distinct strategies. Still Conacher’s point is to mark the extent of the sophistic influence on Euripides’ language and modes of argumentation. While in some plays the appearance is more tendentious, in others it is uncontroversially pervasive. Thus of the Heraclidae Conacher writes: “It can, perhaps, be described as one of Euripides’ most Sophistic plays, both in its iconoclasm with regard to traditional values and certainties, and in its presentation of shifting attitudes and arguments suggestive of the more chameleonic aspects of Sophistic discourse” (93).
Last, but certainly not least, in terms of contemporary influence is the testimony of the law courts. The mainstay of the legal institution in fourth-century Athens was speech making, and in this area the sophistic influence was powerful and again pervasive. The purpose of law was to express the will of the demos ordinary citizens who made up the core of the state. Represented by a selected body of citizens, the demos would hear the cases of prosecutors and defendants, effectively in debate, and would then decide the issue by vote. Thus the power to persuade through speech was an essential skill for those engaged in civic life. 6 We see this graphically in the case of Socrates in Plato’s Apology . He recognizes the importance of speech making when he enters the court and excuses himself for being a bad speech maker ( Apology 17b). He saw his skill lying in elenchtic debate (illustrated in the exchange with Meletus [24d–26a]) and not the long speech. Thus Callicles in the Gorgias can warn him that his failure to grasp the skills of speech making can only lead to a failure to defend himself and consequently his downfall (486a–b). The ability, then, to turn the tables on one’s opponent in argument (the peritrope ), or present an argument on both sides of an issue, or take a weak case and make it strong all strategies we should associate with sophistic argumentation was valuable in the extreme, and it is no surprise that the citizenry of Athens was prepared to give considerable sums of money to those who professed to teach such things. These were the Sophists. And while the central goal of winning victory over an opponent may imply no more than eristical contests such as those witnessed in Plato’s Euthydemus , as was suggested above, we will later see that the constructive strategies involved far exceed these. We find a range of argumentative strategies, for example, in the extant writings of Antiphon the Sophist, one of the ten writers known as the Attic Orators. 7
Contemporary argumentation has not been so kind to the Sophists. As we have seen, the treatments of van Eemeren et al. (1996) and Walton are the standard treatments in argumentation theory, if the Sophists are mentioned at all. There are, though, some exceptions to this rule, exceptions that serve to question what in fact is “standard” here. Notably Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) challenge the received view when they observe that the value of the Sophists’ enterprise depends very much on the value we place on the type of argumentation involved. Plato considered truth to be more important than gaining the adherence of an audience. But for Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, “as soon as these procedures are examined from the angle of argumentation, a justification can be found for them which makes them less offensive” (319). The implication is, of course, that there is still some offense committed by the Sophists, but at least Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca understand a model of argumentation, and perhaps good argumentation, that can be reconciled with sophistic practice.
A more complete positive engagement with the Sophists’ reasoning is provided by John Poulakos (1997). He goes beyond simply noting the antipathy that Plato and Aristotle felt toward the Sophists to ask what exactly it was that they were rejecting: “How did the Sophists reason? Why? On what grounds did philosophers of the fourth century B.C . reject the logic of sophistical thought?” (13). These are useful guiding questions. Poulakos also introduces several methodological principles in approaching these questions. Of most significance is the understanding that logic is “time- and place-specific” (ibid.). Poulakos sees different logics arising in response to different cultural situations and declining when those conditions no longer pertained, as opposed to progressing over time. Such might be reflected in a shift from the oral-based, itinerant teaching and public sphere contexts of the Sophists to the emerging text-based, institutional, and private contexts of Plato’s writing.
In accordance with this, Poulakos follows the principle that a logic can be derived from studying the practices and ideas of the Sophists (14). There is ample material for following this direction. Although we are limited to fragments of the Sophists, there are many corroborative accounts of their practices and positions, including those of Plato and Aristotle: “the informational aspect of the critics’ comments” (14). The difficulty is to distinguish description from interpretation in these accounts. But while such a difficulty will loom large over any such project, it ought not to deter us from employing the approach. In Poulakos’s study it is the culturally derived sense of spectacle that comes to the fore (along with their associations with the pre-Socratics and poets); he presents the Sophists as figures interested in competition and exhibition, with modes of reasoning (such as the eristic argument) developed to those ends. Sophistic logic, he concludes, concerns itself “with situational forces, specific points of contention, and new visions of linguistic expression. In short, it must be a circumstantial, agonistic, and exhibitive logic” (16). This logic is founded around three notions, which he develops in a general discussion without direct reference to any of the individuals involved. The first notion is that of opportune rhetorical moments, or kairos . This involves speakers responding spontaneously to fleeting situations marked by their unique features (18). The second idea is that of playfulness ( paignion ), seen in the making of the weaker argument stronger and the way in which the language was exploited in the coining of new words and arguments (20). The final notion is that of possibility ( to dynaton ), which refers to things that are not but could be. Here, Poulakos argues, the Sophists introduced a third alternative between the strict opposition of the actual and the ideal (21). The merit of Poulakos’s essay is the way he culls these features from the cultural and political contexts in which the Sophists worked and further explains how each notion served as a target for Platonic and Aristotelian criticisms. Several of his points will enrich some of the discussions that follow.
Other recent writers direct attention to the argumentative practices of specific Sophists. For example Consigny (2001) gives a logically consistent reading of the Gorgianic corpus, and both Schiappa (2003) and Mendelson (2002) draw out the qualities of the approach to argument taken by Protagorus. These works will be among those discussed in the chapters ahead, but Mendelson’s treatment is particularly worth mentioning in this introductory chapter because of the attention he gives to antilogic. Protagoras is renowned for saying that there are opposing logoi concerning every subject (Diogenes Laertius 1985, IX 51). Following Michael Billig (1987) and G. B. Kerferd (1981), Mendelson understands this two- logoi doctrine to be the method of antilogic. Billig (45) notes that Plato uses antilogikos in the Theaetetus (164c) to refer to the practice of those who consider opposing arguments, since Socrates and Theaetetus have shown both that the man who remembers knows and that he does not know, and in the Phaedrus (261d–e) antilogikos describes Zeno’s art of speaking that makes the same thing appear like and unlike, stationary and in motion. Kerferd draws from these passages, among others, in asserting that the essential feature of antilogic for Plato “is the opposition of one logos to another either by contrariety or contradiction” (63). This idea undergoes considerable development by Mendelson, who judges it a method of pedagogy. In antilogic, by his reading, there is an implicit commitment to dialogic exchange “that distinguishes it in almost every way from the unilateral emphasis of traditional debate” (2002, 49), and as an argumentative method of inquiry, the focus is on the experience of opposing positions interacting (78). This may seem a stretch from what can be culled from extant fragments, where no obvious interaction per se is emphasized (opposing arguments can just stand in opposition to each other), but it is a measure of Mendelson’s skills as a historian of argument that he can so plausibly tease clues and strains of theory from the remnants and implications of what we do have. Much of Protagorean practice, for example, is understood in relation to his most famous fragment on the human-measure doctrine. While Mendelson expresses a reluctance to place too much weight on the meaning of this fragment, in the end much of what he has to say about Protagoras follows from how he understands this basic position. The human-measure doctrine states that the human being is the measure of all things: those that are that they are, and those that are not that they are not ( DK 80 B1). While the latter part of this doctrine invites an intriguing debate with the Platonists over the question of how we can know what is and what is not, it is the opening clause that holds the most interest for argumentation. Protagoras would seem in these few words to place meaning and interpretation in the domain of human agency and to raise interesting questions of how we are to arrive at any agreements about the world and our place in it. 8 For Mendelson this shifts the focus directly onto the argumentative practice that is implicated by such a view. If humans are the final arbiters of what is the case, and things are as they seem to each individual, then it makes perfect sense to argue strongly for each side of an issue and to consider carefully those arguments before deciding which view to adopt.
We can already see in these discussions the kernels for some fruitful recovery of sophistic ideas on the nature and practice of argumentation. Yet the negative image largely prevails today in spite of such serious moves of rehabilitation. I close this chapter by returning to that negative view and considering why is has been both so intense and so intransigent.
We have considerable testimony to indicate that among their contemporaries the Sophists were held in suspicion. Or perhaps, as Jacqueline de Romilly has suggested (1992, 236), the period of innovation and enlightenment that they inaugurated was destined to pale as crises of morality and religion ensued and imitators caricatured their ideas, intentionally or otherwise. 9 Aristophanes provides a graphic reaction to the Sophists’ influence in Clouds , where alleged claims to teach anything are ridiculed and the weak argument wins out over the strong.
Such an attitude is echoed in Xenophon’s reaction to the Sophists, the tone of which prefigures the disdain expressed by Whately. 10 In his work On Hunting (Xenophon 1897, vol. 3), Xenophon spends twelve chapters detailing the merits of hunting: its methods, the quality of the hounds employed, and its value to those who participate. But at the start of chapter 13 there is a sudden switch in apparent topic and the introduction of strong invective against the Sophists, “as they are called” (13.1), who, although they promise to lead the young to virtue, actually lead them in the opposite direction. The connection with what has gone before, in Xenophon’s mind, seems to lie in the pros and cons of how to lead young men to virtue. He engages in some specious causal reasoning in chapter 12, that since the virtuous men of the day all hunted in their youth, then it is hunting that leads to virtue. This is a laborious route to approach the attack on the Sophists in chapter 13, if that was his intention. But for our purposes it is what he has to say about them that is of interest. He claims never to have seen anyone who “owed his goodness to the sophists of today,” and their voluminous writings are on “vain and frivolous” subjects, rather than those that would lead to goodness. He then develops a contrast of method with the philosopher. The wisdom of the Sophist consists in “word-subtleties” (or names, onomasi ); that of the philosopher in “thoughts and ideas” ( noemasi ). The Sophist issues “sonorous catch-words” ( paraggelmata ); the philosopher provides “reasoned conclusions” ( enthumemata ). And on the contrast between appearance and reality, Xenophon strives for his writings “not to seem but rather to be useful” (13.5). In a final description that echoes the Plato of the Euthydemus and the Sophist , and that aptly relates to the subject matter of his own work, Xenophon calls the Sophist “a hunter after the rich and the young” (while the philosopher is friend to all) (13.9).
Plato’s response to the Sophists, while more nuanced than Xenophon’s, is still largely negative, at least in its reaction, and there is little doubt that the historical reputation of the Sophists owes much to the force and artistry of Plato’s rejection. And reject them he had to, because on every front they represented a threat to his project and interests, offering widely accessible public education, proposing questionable views on virtue and justice, and, most important, eschewing any attempt to uncover an objective truth. As Plato has his mouthpiece, Socrates, indicate more than once, if the ideas and procedures of certain Sophists are correct, then the very activity of dialectical inquiry is pointless and the project of philosophy as Plato conceives it must fail. These were not consequences he was prepared to tolerate, and he reserves some of his more incisive arguments for the debates with the Sophists that take place within his dialogues. While major Sophists such as Protagoras, Gorgias, and Hippias are accorded dialogues in their own right, many others populate the dramas and enter the discussions throughout. Moreover, even where no Sophist is present, their threatening ideas still lurk in the shadows, a fitting backdrop to some crucial debates that set the agenda for much of Western intellectual history.
While Aristotle was at odds with Plato on many fundamental questions of philosophy, on the value and threat of the Sophists they were largely in agreement. Throughout the Metaphysics , for example, questions are raised about the tenability of sophistic ideas. And concerns over the consequences of sophistic practice arise in the ethical works as well as works such as the Rhetoric . But it is undoubtedly in the Sophistical Refutations that Aristotle wields the heaviest blow against the Sophists’ historical interests. The close association of sophistical arguments (or refutations) with the analysis of fallacy that grounds subsequent studies in Western logic effectively undermines the value of ‘sophistic argument’ generally. It is this aspect of the Sophists’ heritage that still most needs rehabilitating. That there is much more to sophistic argument than fallacious reasoning should be apparent from any review of the extant fragments, but sophistry has such a negative currency in our languages that such a review seems unwarranted. Even on nonfallacious terms, the legacy of sophistic argument may seem ambiguous. De Romilly judges the widely recognized ability to defend both points of view in a debate to suggest “a disconcerting unconcern for truth” (1992, 80) and to be quite fitting of the modern-day charge of “sophistry.” 11 With so much force and historical weight behind the detractions, the case for reappraising sophistic argument remains particularly challenging. In the next chapter we begin the task of furthering that project and arguing for its importance.
The “force” of a phrase is judged by the standard of a genre’s rules, the same phrase is weak or strong depending upon what is at stake. That is why it is legitimate for the weaker argument to be the stronger one: the rules of the genre in which it is placed have been changed, and the stakes are no longer the same.
Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute
A study of the argumentation of the Sophists must address early on the most serious charge leveled against their use of argument and treatment of discourse: that they claimed to make the weak argument (or case) strong and the strong argument weak. In many accounts this is linked to a further charge that the Sophists traded in no more than eristics. In this chapter we will explore both these charges, showing that each, at least as we have come to understand them, has been founded on a misconception of sophistic practice.
In chapter 24 of book 2 of the Rhetoric , dealing with so-called fallacious enthymemes, Aristotle specifically attacks the strategy of arguing from probabilities or eikota . 1 In the example there cited, if a weak man is charged with assault, he should be acquitted, because it is not probable that a weak man would attack another person. But likewise, if he were a strong man, he should also be acquitted, because it is not likely that he would have committed the assault, for the very reason that he would know that suspicion would be directed at him according to the general sense of what is probably the case. Aristotle writes: “Both alternatives seem probable, but one really is probable, the other so not generally, only in the circumstances mentioned. And this is ‘to make the weaker seem the better cause.’ Thus, people were rightly angry at the declaration of Protagoras; for it is a lie and not true but a fallacious probability and a part of no art except rhetoric and eristic” ( Rhetoric 1402a23).
Whatever the declaration that is being referred to here, the specific strategy of arguing from probabilities is being attributed to Protagoras, and this in turn is being associated with rhetoric and, more seriously, with eristic that use of argument for the mere purpose of winning and showing off. More to the immediate point here, though, is the charge of making the weak argument (cause or case) seem to be strong. There are several things to note about this. The most arresting is the choice made by Kennedy (2007, 189) here, and other translators elsewhere, to render the phrase as “to make the weaker seem [or appear ] the better cause,” rather than “to make the weak cause [or argument] the better cause [or argument].” 2 The inclusion of the seem would appear to be interpretative and points as much to how translators understand Aristotle’s meaning as to anything else. Not everyone makes such a choice. Barnes (1982, 545) and Sprague (1972, 13), for example, in their translations of the phrase omit the seem (or to put it another way, translate only what is there). 3
That those who use seem do so purposefully is clear from statements they make elsewhere. Kennedy observes that “because of its newness, it [rhetoric] tended to overdo experiments in argument and style. Not only did it easily seem vulgar or tasteless, it could seem to treat the truth with indifference and to make the worse seem the better cause” (1980, 41). We will see a similar understanding in the remarks from Alexander Sesonske I explore below. What stands out here is a concern with truth and an assumption about the Sophists’ practice from an understanding influenced by that concern. Schiappa (1999, 79) cites Lane Cooper’s translation, which includes appear , as showing a statement that represents sophistry at its worse. Schiappa’s interpretation of the Protagorean “promise” in the Rhetoric is that it means not the re-presentation of the same argument, with it initially appearing weak and then appearing strong, but “the substitution of a preferred (but weaker) logos for a less preferable (but temporarily dominant) logos of the same ‘experience’ ” (79–80). Thus he implies the presence of two arguments, one replacing the other. This interpretation, though, does not explicitly address the seem that is in dispute between translators and commentators, nor does it resolve the mystery of its choice.
One possible explanation, is that the seem is to be found elsewhere in some discussion of the weaker/stronger argument promise and has been simply transposed to Aristotle’s reference. Several candidates arise for such an alternative: the phrase appears in Aristophanes, and then later in Plato and Isocrates.
Aristophanes gives us a case in the debate between opposing arguments in Clouds , where Strepsiades says: “Just see that he learns that pair of Arguments, the Better, whatever that is, and the Worse, the one that makes the weaker case the stronger ( hos tadika legon anatrepei ton kreittona )” ( Clouds 880–89). Nor is the origin in Plato’s allusion to the weaker/stronger argument debate in the Apology , where he is attempting to distance Socrates from the Sophists. There we find the charge that Socrates is “a criminal and a busybody, investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger ( kai ton hetto logon kreitto )” ( Apology 19b). No mention is made here of his seeming to make the weak argument stronger; the charge is that he actually makes it stronger. Finally in the Antidosis Isocrates indicates that this is a charge that has been leveled against him by Lysimachus. He quotes the latter as saying he is able to “make weaker speeches stronger” (2000, 15). That such a charge carries serious negative currency is plain from the way Isocrates responds to it, but our interest at this point is in its formulation, not its evaluation.
The Greek in each of these passages is emphatic: the one argument (case or speech) is made to be the other. They do not say that it seems to be other than it really is. The closest possible passage may be that in Plato’s Phaedrus where Socrates is discussing the practices of Tisias and Gorgias and attributes to them the ability to “make small things appear great and great things small by the power of their words” (267a–b). Here the claim is indeed that they make things appear ( phainesthai ) other than they are. But the context indicates that what is at stake is the significance of what is talked about important ideas are played down; trivial ones exaggerated in their importance rather than the more substantive issues involved in the presentation of weak and strong arguments.
A further point suggested by the weak/strong argument passages is that the attribution of this promise or charge to the Sophists is not limited to any one author, and Aristophanes’ mention of it, along with Lysimachus’s use of it in his composition, indicates that it was widely acknowledged, since otherwise their audiences would not have appreciated the point. Beyond this it hardly needs noting that in every case the attribution is deemed negative and undesirable.
Alexander Sesonske (1968) may shed some light on the thinking of the translators who add the seem . In discussing the arguments of the Sophists, he claims a common underlying attitude toward argument in the representations of the Sophists found in Plato’s dialogues, whether it be Protagoras, Hippias, or Thrasymachus or even the very different Euthydemus (217). “The Sophist” and Sesonske does not distinguish between them on this point “enters argument as a combatant. For him an argument is not the occasion for resolving a practical problem, but for the exercise of a skill. . . . The content of the conclusion is irrelevant; what matters is that his argument should have won” (220). In so claiming, Sesonske assumes the perspective of a tradition that, although it has seen the Sophists rehabilitated in many other respects, still tends to deny that they offered serious models of argumentation, as we saw in chapter 1 . To his understanding weakness and strength are logical properties that arguments have as some objective feature about them. Hence to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger cannot involve making the weaker argument actually be stronger, making it what it is not; it must involve confusing things so that the audience prefers the weaker argument in spite of its weakness (219). This perfectly plausible (but incorrect, I believe) understanding of the matter may well explain the choices of the translators and commentators I have mentioned. From the perspective of a logic we have inherited principally from Aristotle, the strength of a previously weak argument must only be an appearance, masking its inherent weakness. And the trick of making it seem so is what we have come to understand as sophistic deception.
The traditional understanding is completed by a further related feature of argument, this with respect to its purpose: “Rightly undertaken, an argument is an inquiry a search for truth” (221). This is very much to read the nature of the dispute between Aristotle or Plato and the Sophists from Aristotle’s and Plato’s perspective. It is an interpretation of the nature of weak and strong arguments that accords with Aristotle’s remarks in the Rhetoric . A clearer sense of the Sophists’ intentions in promising to make the weak argument strong, if they so promised, needs to be developed. And the following will contribute to this. But in the process, we must also address another aspect of the passage from Aristotle that links a usage of the argument from probability 4 with eristic that approach to argument with which the Sophists are so often associated.
Sometimes translated as “contentious arguments” ( Sophistical Refutations 183b35), “eristic” is called “seeking victory in argument” by Kerferd (1981) 5 and marked as not involving any concern for truth; Chance (1992) calls it the pseudoscience of argument. Against a tide of negative appraisals of this practice, Grimaldi (1996, 28) offers a relatively neutral definition: “disputatious argument wherein one person seeks to make the other give absolute answers to statements which demand qualification.” All agree that the place to best witness it in practice is the Euthydemus .
Among the Sophists who make an appearance in the pages of Plato’s dialogues, the weak cousins are Euthydemus and his brother, Dionysodorus. But as remarked earlier, these are often taken as the exponents of sophistic argument, and Aristotle will return to the examples of this dialogue in presenting examples of sophistical refutations (or fallacies). We will return to the Euthydemus for a more detailed discussion of refutations in chapter 4 , but some preliminary discussion of the dialogue (and the Sophist brothers) is warranted here, because in this dialogue we do find the examples of the kind of eristics so frequently associated with the Sophists. Here, too, we meet the exemplars of Sesonske’s “exercisers of skill” (1968, 220) and seekers of victory in argument. Associated with the physical metaphor of fighting (271c–d), Euthydemus and Dionysodorus come wielding words and defeating every argument, whether true or false (272b), as we can see from a very simple example that represents the quality of their contributions:

[Dionysodorus:] Now are the things that have sense those that have soul, or do things without soul have sense too?
[Socrates:] It is the ones with soul that have sense.
And do you know any phrase that has soul? He asked.
[Socrates:] Heavens no, not I.
[Dionysodorus:] Then why did you ask me just now what was the sense of my phrase? (287d–e). 6
The Euthydemus itself has received short shrift from commentators of Plato’s dialogues, even with the recent interest in methodology (Chance 1992, 2). Moreover Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are excluded by Diels and Kranz from the list of Sophists in the Fragmente der Vorsokratiker . 7 Unlike the examples of Socratic argument with a structure, the Sophists’ arguments have none (282d–e). Nor do the Sophists have any commitment to what they earlier may have agreed to, as the Socratic method requires (287b). The Sophists’ method is one that is quickly, perhaps too quickly, learned by Ctesippus (300b–d), and it is far too accessible (304a). This latter point, above everything, may be Plato’s greatest concern with the Sophists in this dialogue.
As we will see in the next chapter, however, not all the Sophists that Plato chose to portray are shown to trade in eristics, and even in the Euthydemus the Sophists intimate some serious elements of doctrine (albeit “sophistic” doctrine) that they would hold to be correct, as when Dionysodorus denies that there exists such a thing as contradiction (285d) and develops this idea through a discussion of false speaking that echoes similar discussions elsewhere. And the practice is not without its modern-day champions. William M. A. Grimaldi (1996) argues for some value to be seen in eristic argument itself: “Eristics is not something to be readily dismissed as trickery such as we find in Plato’s Euthydemus . First of all, in a good sense it is a kind of intellectual dueling that develops a sharpness of mind, clarifies problems, and helps to specify and define issues. Even in its bad sense it encourages the person subjected to the trickery to develop these qualities in self-defense” (29).
In several respects this may be too generous a concession. On the evidence of the Euthydemus , eristics serves to obscure rather than clarify problems or issues. Participants end up with no more, and often less, insight than they had when they began. Furthermore there is the danger that such performances served to fuel the antilogism of which Plato has Socrates speak in the Phaedo (89d). Elsewhere Grimaldi (1972) is more measured in his assessment, noting that we can “find sufficient evidence to challenge the view that their [the Sophists’] interest was confined to superficial tricks of language expression in order to achieve one’s practical aims” (8). But to find such evidence we must shift our sights outside of the Euthydemus , and beyond Plato’s texts entirely, to the extant work of such people as Gorgias and Antiphon.
The assumption that the Sophists engaged principally in eristics and aimed at persuasion has been pervasive throughout the tradition, from Aristotle’s Rhetoric to modern-day critics such as Sesonske. But it is an assumption that also runs counter to the evidence (Gagarin 2002). As noted in chapter 1 , we find in the extant works and contemporary comments suggestions of a far more complex attitude to the methods and goals of argument. The argument from probability or likelihood, widely available in sophistic texts and the object of interest to Aristotle in the passage under question, is used to examine propositions, propose alternative possibilities, and negotiate outcomes. Moreover the practice of proposing double (or opposing) arguments of equal merit, for which the Sophists were also renowned, hardly makes sense if the intention was to persuade audiences (Gagarin 2002, 30). We need to move beyond the caricatures of the Euthydemus (and the Sophistical Refutations that it influenced).
Fortunately we are not be forced to rely solely on the depictions of Sophists in dialogues such as the Euthydemus for ideas about sophistic argument. Some of the best examples of sophistic argument, which accord with the insights, if not the conclusions, of Plato, can be found in the fragments of people such as Gorgias and Antiphon.
The Gorgianic speeches Helen and Defense of Palamedes , for instance, are excellent examples of rhetorical argumentation, aimed at changing an audience’s perspective through the deployment of such devices as the argument from likelihood or eikos , “the most common argument scheme taught by the sophists” (Woodruff 1999, 296). Conacher (1998) suggested that the Helen gave a vivid demonstration of making the weak argument strong (as opposed to appearing to do so). Presumably he has in mind the way the discourse renders Helen a passive victim in the events that surrounded her, shifting the responsibility to other “agents.” But a better place to go to see what is at stake in making weak arguments strong, along with a full range of sophistic arguments, is to the fragments of Antiphon the Sophist, and in particular to his Tetralogies , demonstrative speeches in four parts, which were written as teaching tools. 8 I will discuss the details of these speeches as they relate to the strategy of appealing to eikos .
There are three tetralogies, each one involving speeches by the prosecution that are then countered by the defense. The first case involves an assault of a man and his attendant (or slave). The man died in the attack, and the attendant died shortly after being discovered. Antiphon presents two exchanges between the prosecutor of the man accused of the attack and the defendant. Each of the four speeches points to probabilities, with the prosecutor arguing in the first speech that the jury “must give the utmost weight to any indication whatever of likelihood ( eikos ) that is presented” ( DK 87 B1: 2.1.2) and the defendant concluding in his second speech that “it has been demonstrated that these likelihoods are in general on my side” (2.4.10). 9
The first speech of the prosecution draws attention to several likelihoods, including that the criminals were not professional killers, since the victims were still wearing their cloaks and professionals likely would have taken them; and the killing was not the result of a dispute, because people do not become involved in disputes in the middle of the night in a deserted spot. The party most likely to have committed the crime is a man who has already suffered injuries at the victim’s hand and expected to suffer more. And this describes the defendant: an old enemy, who had recently been charged by the victim with embezzlement.
To these particular charges, the defendant counters in his first speech: It is not unlikely but likely that a man would be attacked in the night and killed for his clothes. That they still had them suggests that the killers panicked. On the other hand, maybe the man and his attendant were witnesses to a crime, the perpetrators of which silenced them. Or is it not more likely that others who hated the victim would have committed the crime, knowing that suspicion would fall on the defendant? To this particular charge of the prosecution (that the defendant was the most likely person to commit the crime), the defendant’s response clearly anticipates Aristotle’s later example in the Rhetoric: “Indeed, if on grounds of likelihood you suspect me because of the intensity of my hostility, it is still more likely that before I did the deed I should foresee the present suspicion falling upon me” (2.2.3). Hence Antiphon’s speech seems a fuller account of what Aristotle meant by the argument from probabilities or likelihoods. Antiphon invites the reader to consider the case from the perspective of what their experience tells them is likely to have happened, or what might reasonably be extrapolated as likely from the details provided. Aristotle’s insistence that one of the alternative likelihoods really is likely suggests that there is a truth about the case being masked by this strategy. But Antiphon’s procedure seems fairly aimed at arriving at a determination about a case where the question “what actually happened?” seems inappropriate. Nor is it clear how the weaker cause is being made to seem the better or stronger here. The traditional suggestion is that the weaker cause could be known in advance of the deliberation. But Antiphon is proposing that the weaker cause would only be revealed by weighing the likelihoods.
We see this, for example, in the way that a key detail is treated in the dialectical exchange between prosecutor and defendant.

Prosecutor, first speech: The attendant was still conscious when found, and before he died he named the defendant as the attacker.
Defendant, first speech: It is unlikely that the attendant would recognize the killer in the heat of the moment. And, besides, a slave’s testimony is untrustworthy, which is why slaves are submitted to examination [torture] to extract the truth from them.
Prosecutor, second speech: The testimony of the slave is trustworthy, since in giving evidence of this kind, slaves are not examined.
Defendant, second speech: We should not trust the testimony of an attendant over that of a free man [the defendant himself].
Each contribution to this exchange is designed to get the hearers to revisit the details of the case, replacing one likelihood with something deemed more likely. Each contribution changes the context relevant for the judgment. In this way the speeches are attempting to modify the hearers’ experience as it is to be applied in this particular case, to think of the world as a place where what is proposed seems most likely to have happened. 10
This is seen even more vividly through one of the peritropes (reversals) demonstrated in the second tetralogy. This is a case where a young man practicing the javelin with his classmates in the gymnasium accidentally killed another boy who ran in front of the javelin as it was being thrown. 11 Again the prosecution and the defense exchange two speeches. At issue is whether the dead boy should be avenged by the death of the boy who threw the javelin, even though it is agreed the death was accidental. In the second speech the defendant (the accused boy’s father) argues that the dead boy is avenged if the killer is punished, and in this case such has occurred: “The boy, on the other hand, destroyed by his own mistakes [in running in front of the javelin during the class], simultaneously made the mistake and was punished by his own motion. Since the killer [that is, the victim himself] has been punished, the death is not unavenged” (3.4.8). The tables are turned so that the victim is made to seem the killer. Again this appears a clear “sophism,” an instance of trying to make a weak case seem strong. But elsewhere we learn that Antiphon’s understanding of language allows that when someone speaks there is no permanent reality behind their words. Only the senses tell us what exists, and “names are conventional restrictions on nature” ( DK 87 B67). This is to suggest that the meanings of victim and killer need to be worked out by exploring the context of a particular case. The same will hold for what is understood as justice. These claims about Antiphon’s ideas come from the fragments of his On Truth , and it is to that source that we should turn to understand further the ideas held by the writer of these speeches. 12
As we have seen, Antiphon’s sample arguments in the Tetralogies give a quite specific reading to the charge of making the weak argument (or case) defeat (or seem to defeat) the stronger argument (or case). This is certainly far from the display of eristics demonstrated in the Euthydemus , which Aristotle and Sesonske seemed to see associated with the weak-argument charge.
Still, commenting on Antiphon’s material and in the same vein as these other critics, Jacqueline de Romilly (1992) casts a pall over the accomplishments: “It was heady stuff, no doubt, but alarming too. Such an ability to defend both points of view suggested a disconcerting unconcern for the truth. If it was a matter of defending opposite points of view equally well, justice was left with no role to play. Besides, the art of twisting arguments rendered the very principle of argumentation suspect.

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