Tag Archives: Plato

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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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They made the boring interesting. They modeled confidence and competence. Mostly, their individual features of character—especially their forbearance—changed the course of lives. As a group they were simply wonderful.






The act of teaching is one of the most consequential of all communication functions. By the use of the term I mean more than its application to institutional settings.  All of us perform a teaching function from time to time: mentoring others, coaching, and explaining something we know well to someone who wants to know more. Even the choices we make can instruct.  While our influence may not always be apparent, our actions modeled to others give them reasons to learn or occasionally rebel.  But even cultivated rejection of an instructor’s ideas can be positive. Aristotle embraced the study of rhetoric, something his teacher mostly repudiated. To be sure, no one wants the nightmare of a music teacher like J.K. Simmons’ tyrant in the film Whiplash (2014).  For things musical we would probably all prefer someone like the engaging Antonio Pappano, the music director of London’s Royal Opera. His video discussion of Puccini’s Tosca is a model mini-lecture.

                             Times Higher Education

The subject of wonderful teachers came up recently when I asked some of my students to identify an instructor who was a significant influence. The specific subject came up in planning a debate on whether we lose too much by abandoning the classroom in favor of online courses. I was coaching the affirmative speakers, whose formal position was to defend instruction in real place and time. I suggested they provide a few sketches of individuals they had known who made a difference.  Presumably all of us have had moments when a teacher provided a pathway through a subject we had never known.  Interestingly, I got no response: a surprise given New Jersey’s reputation for excellence in many of its schools. Perhaps it’s in the nature of youth to miss what is outside a narrow calculus of personal interests and concerns. At that age many of us were too distracted to notice the gifted people we had been lucky to know.

As a profession, teaching is not a prestige profession. My best teachers—Dawn, Phillips, and others—barely created ripples of recognition beyond the influence of their students. The anonymity of their names belies their competence and abilities to evoke the imagination.  They made the boring interesting. They paid their students the honor of taking them seriously. Notably, their individual features of character—everything from how they spoke to how they how they offered guidance—changed the map of their students. As a group they were simply wonderful.

What many of us forget is that the temperment of a teacher matters.

Schools of education teach future teachers mostly on the premise that this form of communication is a process—and a bureaucratic one at that. There are lesson plans to learn, testing protocols to honor, human development sequences to master, and curriculum yardsticks to know. These benchmarks are needed because teaching younger students usually happens within a rigid structure of state and organizational mandates.  There’s a metric for everything, including how well Johnny should be reading in the fifth grade.

What so many of these strictures miss is that the temperament of an advocate/teacher probably counts for even more. What Aristotle observed about all forms of communicators—that character matters most—still seems valid.  This is more than noting that a teacher must be a virtuous person, though that’s partly what Aristotle meant. Teaching with the right qualities of temperament must embody a degree of passion for a subject being pressed upon the young. Teachers must believe that their subjects matter.  And somehow they must generate the same kind of conviction in a student.

I’ve been lucky to see seemingly stale subjects conjured into life mostly because the instructor performed their own fascination with them. In my case it happened in a Freshman course in elementary biology, a high school course in acting, and college classes devoted to politics and rhetorical theory. The last is surely the ultimate test. Is it possible to be awakened to the deep relevance of rhetorical theory?  I’m here to say it is and it was, when Trevor Melia patiently revealed a world we had never seen. His quiet probes eventually produced a cadre of academics around the country who now work to induce their own classroom transformations on unsuspecting undergrads.

You can probably reverse engineer your own interest in a subject back to a teacher that lit the fire of enthusiasum for a subject that has never died. If so, that piece of your life is their enduring legacy.