In Ancient Greece sophists were teachers who taught virtue, which in those days generally meant the art of statesmanship, to young men rich enough to afford their services. Sophistry, as their art was called, is a trade much criticized in the dialogues of Plato, where Socrates attacks not only the practice of teaching for a fee but their claim to wisdom as well. Thrasymachus, perhaps the most famous of the Platonic sophists, challenges Socrates in the first book of the Republic by claiming that justice is “nothing but the advantage of the stronger.” The rest of the work may be read as a response to this powerful argument. Though often derided by Socrates, Plato was wise enough to know how great their influence could be in society and how much of a challenge their art could be to philosophy.
In modern times sophistry has come to mean the art of arguing using deceitful methods. Those may include classic logical fallacies, purposely complicated sentence structure, emotional manipulation, or a host of other methods. Nowadays attorneys may be seen as the closest modern equivalent to the ancient sophists, as they are essentially paid to represent their clients’ interests, sometimes to the detriment of the actual truth. A shining example of that kind of lawyer is Eliot Spitzer who, after a highly publicized scandal that forced him to step down as governor of New York, can now be seen moralizing on CNN on all sorts of issues, most recently the Weiner case. Although hypocrisy is not sophistry, Spitzer’s recent article on why the stimulus actually worked is a perfect example of the ancient art. Thrasymachus would be proud.