Tag Archives: persuasion

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Living Down Plato’s Scorn

It is a tribute to the philosopher Plato that the term ‘sophistic’ still survives as a label of scorn for people who play fast and loose with the truth.

Governments have always sought to impose laws and rules of conduct that civilize daily life. Even so, most Western democracies value the ideal of individual freedom, but always with exceptions. Those who have sought to rein in dissent and vigorous public debate have had distinguished allies, including the Greek philosopher Plato. He spent part of his life arguing that ordinary people were frequently incapable of making decisions about who should govern their communities. He thought they lacked the necessary intelligence and training, believing that few citizens can discriminate between the thoughtful judgments of a well-trained leader—described in The Republic as a philosopher king—and the irrational pandering of the well-trained persuader. A leader chosen by popular vote would substitute flattery of the mob in place of true wisdom. Leaders guided by public opinion were bound to be as misguided and dangerous.

Plato scorned itinerant teachers of rhetoric, who were collectively known as Sophists.


The great philosopher’s view did not go unchallenged. A prolonged debate over the wisdom of democracy developed between him and other teachers who traveled through the city-democracies along the coasts of Greece, Sicily, and Italy. He was deeply troubled by the activities of these independent tutors, whom affluent parents hired to educate their children. (In the 5th Century b.c. the enlightenment of the Hellenic world ended short of including women, slaves, and the impoverished as full citizens—even in democratic Athens.) Among these first teachers was Corax, who instructed citizens who needed to improve their persuasive abilities in the recently democratized city of Syracuse. Public advocacy was becoming an important skill. Indeed, the Greeks had their own Goddess of Persuasion, Peitho.

Plato scorned Corax and other itinerant teachers, who were collectively known as Sophists. They suffered his wrath partly because they worked outside of the prestigious intellectual center of Athens, and partly because these teachers taught the techniques of persuasion.


His aversion to the Sophists was so strong that he named some of the weak-thinking characters in some of his dialogues after several of them. It is a tribute to Plato’s importance that the term sophistic still survives as a label of scorn for people who play too loosely with the truth.

Yet, even with his disapproval, it still may be something of a badge of honor to be a teacher of persuasion.  At least that’s what Plato’s own best student thought.  Aristotle wrote the first useful textbook of persuasion, The Rhetoric.  He rightly argued that effective advocacy was a justifiable form of self-defense.  Moreover, he noted, some smart people need help in communicating their views to others.

There’s a lesson for our times here. The suppression of dissent in favor of a supposedly all-knowing leader is never good.  Americans rightly consider it their birthright that they can engage in public advocacy without risking their lives.  This certainly doesn’t make all advocacy rational.  That is still up to us to determine in each particular instance.

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The Agentic Personality


Milgram’s work is a reminder that too many of us depend on responsibility-avoiding locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

The recent film Experimenter (2015) dramatizes the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who was interested in the seemingly fixed tendency of humans to shift responsibility for harmful acts up the chain of command.  Milgram is well known for his “shock box” experiments at Yale University in the early 1960s.  In this iconic study volunteer “teachers” were recruited and instructed to ask true/false questions to unseen “learners” in an adjoining room.  Any wrong answer given by the learner was to be followed by electric shocks administered by the teacher.  If the volunteer teachers expressed alarm over the shouts of pain coming from the next room, they were instructed by the white-coated experimenter to proceed.  This was usually followed by a reassurance that the researcher would take responsibility for the entire process. And so over two thirds of his volunteers proceeded to inflict seemingly lethal doses of electricity on the learner.

Of course the learner was not actually hooked up to the shock box.  He was an actor.  But the teachers did not know that, nor did they understand that they were the experimental subjects. Milgram was testing their willingness to carry out instructions issued by a superior, even when the effect of the shocks they were supposedly administering were harmful.

No Institutional Review Board at any university in the United States would ever allow this kind of research today. Volunteers cannot be put in this kind stressful state. But the Milgram studies remain as stark testimony to the willingness of seemingly decent people to comply when credible authorities take responsibility for indefensible actions against others.

Milgram was one is a long line of thinkers and researchers on the origins of German acceptance of the exterminations going on within the Third Reich.  All wondered why otherwise decent people could be so easily induced into lethal compliance.

Agentic personalities may assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. 

The short answer is that we seem to regard higher authority as a kind of shelter:  they can be responsible for decisions that they want to enforce. One effect is that questioning the morality of a “job duty” seems to get lost in the comfort of just “doing the work,” “doing what I’m told,” or “respecting the decisions of my bosses.”

Luckily, most encounters with mid-level functionaries do not come with such lethal risks to others.  But we can still imagine the urge to comply that so easily happens within the middle of the chain of command.  And so Milgram’s work is also a cautionary tale of how many individuals spend their working lives dependent on locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

He calls individuals who find comfort in these caveats “agentic personalities.”  They assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  And so paperwork must be filled out before an emergency room patient who may be bleeding out can be admitted.  An office supervisor insists on a performance review for a person who is about to retire. Or a pre-9/11 trade school registrar never thinks to inquire why a man wants to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but not land it.  Functionaries in these roles find a degree of psychological shelter in the belief that they are acting in accord with their required job-role.  After all, it’s “the boss” who is really in charge.

But here’s the kicker.  In the Milgram study there was no requirement to comply.  Volunteers could quit if they didn’t like what they had to do. Even so, most stayed to the bitter end.