Shengren – Chapter 3.10 – Der Sophist (Sophist)

“The sages died in Europe – they will die in Asia”

Sophisten, gr. sophistai, Weisheitslehrer; ursprünglich alle die Wissenschaft Pflegenden und nach Weisheit strebenden, im 5. Jh. die in Athen auftretenden und dorthin zugewanderten Lehrer, die den Unterricht in den Wissenschaften und der Philosophie, besonders die Ausbildung der Jugend zu Rednern betrieben. Dass sie aus ihrer Tätigkeit ein Gewerbe, aus der Ausbildung zur Beredsamkeit eine formale Űberredungskunst machten, forderte bald die Gegnerschaft der echten Wahrheitssuchenden heraus.[1] [Sophist, sophistai, wisdom teacher; originally all tending the sciences and striving for wisdom; in the 5th century in Athens occurring and later attracting teachers from other places who taught the sciences and philosophy, especially educated the youth in rhetoric. The fact that they [the sophists] made a business out of their activities of training oratory and the art of persuasion, their activity soon provoked the opposition of the true seekers of truth.]

– Johannes Hoffmeister, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe

Since Plato and the philosophers, the word sophist has been used pejoratively to describe a charlatan, imposter, swindler, quack, and renegade scholar, and in modern times – a con artist, a fraud, a spiritual coach, etc. Sophisterei in Germany was synonymous with Neunmalklugerei (know-it-all), Rabulistik (pettifoggery), and Spitzfindigkeit (quibble). In the English language the adjective “sophisticated” still felt neutral, as “in a sophisticated manner”, but could also imply that something was unnecessary complicated, like simple ideas in long sentences. Slang, fashion, and the pompous language of advertising and business were forms of “sophism”, too. Since it was so ambivalent, sophisticated could simply mean “hochentwickelt” (highly developed), “kultiviert” and “elegant” (cultivated and elegant), or merely “verfälscht” (corrupted) and “gerissen” (sly).

The sophists had been teachers and travelling scholars who offered their skills and wisdom for a fee. The idea of a travelling scholar without affiliation to a professional school, or the teachings of wisdom without having received philosophical and scientific training, had always evoked intense feelings of suspicion, contempt and even hatred on part of the ruling intellectual elite. The disregard for those teachers of wisdom prevailed through all those centuries till today, when “Privatgelehrte” (private teachers) and “Autodidakten” (autodidacts) open praxis or travel through Germany offering non- or semi-academic courses on rhetoric, time management, counseling, relationships, spiritual practices and many more. Most of them do not have a proper institutional appointment or Festeinstellung. In his Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (1955), the historian Johannes Hoffmeister described the sophists as “pseudo scholars and word artists”:

Durch die Verspottung des Aristophanes und den Kampf, den Sokrates und Plato gegen sie führten, erhielt das Wort Sophisten die üble Bedeutung von Scheingelehrter und Wortkünstlern. [Through the mockery of Aristophanes, and because of the struggle that Socrates and Plato led against them, received the word “sophists” the evil significance of pseudo scholars and word artists.]

Some of greatest Western philosophers had previously incited hatred for the sophists. Plato in his famous work Republic, described the sophists of Athens as the evil antagonists of the truly good philosophers. While the philosophers received philosophical training, possessed true virtue, and searched for truth, the corrupted sophists were self-proclaimed teachers, vicious statesmen, or deceitful, superficial intellectuals who taught in public whatever paid in their pockets or served to their immediate advantage:

Do you really think, as people so often say, that our youth are corrupted by Sophists, or that private teachers of the art corrupt them in any degree worth speaking of? Are not the public who say these things the greatest of all Sophists? And do they not educate to perfection young and old, men and women alike, and fashion them after their own hearts?[2]

The student of Plato, Aristotle, who became the personal teacher of Alexander the Great, wrote in his Sophistical Refutations that:

The art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.[3]

If they had known each other, would Plato and Aristotle have considered Confucius a wandering teacher of morals, a sophist? By their own definitions, they would. To the Greek philosophers, any teaching of wisdom without applying scientific methods rooted in logic and rationality was evidently sophism. In the east, Confucius did not belong to any particular school but travelled and taught those rulers of China not science but instead flattered them on their nobility and instructed them politically and morally exactly the way they loved to hear it. This way, Confucius would have fallen into the Greek category of a sophist (today: sage, from sophos, all the same). In fact, Confucius perfectly matched any other definition of a sophist or sage in Western dictionaries:

From its original sense of ‘sage’ and ‘expert’ the word came to be applied in the 5th century BC to a number of men who travelled through the Greek world, given popular lectures and specialized instruction in a wide range of topics.[4]

The philosophers’ mind war against the sophists was fierce and remarkably one-sided, so one-sided in fact that European culture ever since thought about the sophists as the charlatans in the history of thought, and used words like sophistry and sophism in many derogatory ways. The wisdom that the sophists claimed to have was – so goes the philosophers’ argument – impossible to attain in reality. Even two thousands years later, and long after the industrialization, the European thinkers would always prefer to call an artifact, a mechanized process, a meticulously planned strategy, or a computer machine “sophisticated”. That it once belonged not to the machines but entirely to human being, human wisdom, is largely forgotten. How about a “sophisticated philosopher”? There rings a certain nonchalant tone and immodesty in calling someone wise, Wiseman, sophist or sage, when it all betrays the actual course of history the Western world had chosen a long time ago. In Europe, having wisdom was considered suspicious and deceiving – highest wisdom was humanly unattainable or else with God since Christianity. The wisdom of the sophist was waste and superfluous. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World (2005) said about it: “Plato […] depicts the sophists predominantly as charlatans, in contrast to Socrates, the true philosopher”. Benjamin Jowett, who translated Plato’s Republic into English, in accordance with Plato’s views, described the sophists “as tyrants who are the false teachers and evil rulers of mankind”.[5] The comparison of the sophists to tyrants, false teachers, and evil rulers of mankind here was significant, because it genuinely described the Western view on rulers and teachers of all the sage cultures in the East, be it the Chinese and Japanese emperors or Indian rulers, or spiritual leaders, or the sages of the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions. In the absent of the Christian God (the source of highest wisdom) and philosophy (institutionalized thought), those Eastern individuals who claimed to be wiser and better than the rest of humanity were thought to have evil intentions. “I am so special” – The despotic and tyrannical rulers: sophists and sages were suspected of enriching and empowering themselves at the expenses of the weak and suppressed. The sages in the West, especially in the German lands, could only walk peacefully under the correct “Heaven”, had to veil all their good intentions as “Christian”, and had to show all their education “philosophical”. Only then would they be made legitimate, but, unfortunately yet inevitable, would always be re-named saints or philosophers thereafter.

The dislike for the sophists, sages, and their wisdom is now inbuilt into Western society, and to change the European vile attitude toward sages and sage culture would require the Western thinkers to bring charges against their own civilization, even to denounce Plato and the philosophers and Christianity as the sources for their great ignorance, prejudices, and violence. That of course, is not going to happen.

A sophist, this word, would make a bad translation for shengren in any of the European languages, because the term is culturally loaded and hopelessly biased. The Germans would think about Sophisterei or Weismacherei (lit: wise-making), which is slightly stronger (and funnier) than calling someone a wisecrack in English – a person who dared to outsmart others by way of argument about a thing that is of such spectacular low importance that the speaker became the target of loathing and disrespect. It was well known that the Greek philosophers like Plato applied the term sophists to their political enemies and all teachers they usually disapproved of, such as the sages Protagoras, Gorgia, Thrasymachus, and Hippias of Elis.[6] That ancient Western attitude had not changed much today. Everyone that disagreed with Western philosophy and Christianity was accused of disrespecting the truth:

Solcherart Philosophieren, das der Zuordnung zu einer wahren Theologie beraubt ist, kann nicht eigentlich mehr philosophiia [sic] heißen; es ist nicht mehr liebende Suche nach der Weisheit.[7] [Such kind of philosophizing that is deprived of its assignment to a true theology can not really be called philosophiia {sic} any more; it is no longer the loving search for wisdom.]

Agreed, Philosophy and Christianity were decisively European. Asia had its own traditions. But the less the European public knows the better. The sages died in Europe – they will die in Asia.

[1] Hoffmeister, 1955

[2] Plato, The Republic, in Classics Archive, 2000

[3] Aristotle, 2010, The Internet Classics Archive

[4] TheOxford Dictionary of the Classical World, 2005

[5] Jowett, 2000

[6]Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2005

[7] Pieper, 2008