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The False Sophistication of Sophists

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In ancient Greece and Rome, parents took their kids to study oratory skills from teachers called Sophists (the word sophisticated has sophist in its root). Sophists focused on the art of persuasion through both emotion and reason, and kids were taught to argue both sides of an argument. Stoics, on the other hand, put the emphasis mainly on reason (not emotions) in their communications.

The Sophist’s oratory skill was like a spear; it was a powerful weapon that could be used for good or for evil, thus students needed morality taught by philosophy to know where to point it.

Stoics were extremely cautious about the Sophists – they thought the words you use to persuade others matter, since in persuading others you may impact your own thinking. In the attempt to persuade others through an appeal to their emotions, we use colorful metaphors; we dramatize the words we use. If we had two brains, one to talk to others and one to talk to ourselves, we’d be fine. But that is not the case; thus our words may turn on us and impact our own emotional state.

It is almost as though Stoics would not want to use the colors available in the rainbow to express their opinions, but resort only to black and white. However, I see the value of their thinking. We need to examine the words we use when we communicate with ourselves. When something stirs up negative emotions inside us, we need to be careful when we describe the problem to ourselves. We want to make sure we are not being Sophists against ourselves.

The best way to do this is to write it out. When you lay each word on the paper, examine it. Instead of “My husband drives me insane,” you write, “My husband says the following … that upsets me.” (I am not quoting from my wife’s journal; I am reading her mind.)

Instead of “The stock market collapsed,” write, “The stock market declined X%.” Epictetus said something along the same lines. Instead of saying “Our ship is lost far at sea; we’ll never get home,” he suggested we go with, “We are at sea, and we don’t know where we are.”

We take fancy words, string them together, and add dramatic, superfluous colors. Instead of calling a dish, “Basel Honey Glazed Wild Alaskan Salmon,” Marcus might suggest we describe it as “the dead body of a fish, with herbs and honey.” He writes, “where there are things which appear worthiest of our approval, we should lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.”

We need to pull the fancy outer layer off our problems and strip them to their bones. Instead of “my life is horrible,” you create a list of things in your life that bother you, spelling them out as plainly as possible (don’t use big, colorful words; leave those for the Sophists).

Here is an example of breaking things down. I was a sophomore in college; I was taking five or six classes and had a full-time job and a full-time (more like overtime) girlfriend. I was approaching finals and had to study for lots of tests and turn in assignments; and to make matters worse, I had procrastinated until the last second. I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed.

I whined (I am sure I was using big, colorful Sophist words) to my father about my predicament. His answer was simple: Break up my big problems into smaller ones; create a list and then figure out how to tackle each item separately. It worked.

I listed every assignment and exam, prioritizing them by due date and importance. Suddenly, my problems, which all together looked insurmountable, one by one started to look conquerable. My father didn’t have to tell me to use plain English, because my academic problems, broken down to bare facts, didn’t even require that; they all simply had due dates.

The beauty of the Stoic advice of depreciating our problems by analysis is that our subconscious doesn’t sense or understand sarcasm or humor. If you keep telling yourself you’re a loser and will never amount to anything (even jokingly), you’ll sooner or later be right.

This point is extremely important and has a lot of implications of its own; thus it requires another analogy. Look at the conscious mind as the captain of a ship and the subconscious mind as the ship’s engine room. Those in the engine room don’t see what the captain sees, and thus if the captain says to go forward, in reverse, to port, or to starboard, they just follow the command without questioning. Is this command good for the ship? The engine room doesn’t know, nor does it care. Our subconscious doesn’t exercise that judgment. The words you use to talk to yourself matter, so be careful with them.

To illustrate my next point, I’d like share a story from my favorite book of all time: Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Around 155 BC, Athens sent Carneades, a philosopher, to Rome to plead with the Roman Senate for a favor. Athens had been levied a fine by the Romans, which Athens desperately wanted removed. Carneades delivered a brilliant speech. The audience was swayed by his passionate delivery. However, this was not the message Carneades wanted to convey. He felt the audience had been swayed by his delivery, not by the logic of his brilliant argument.

So the next day, Carneades came back to the same square and delivered another impassioned speech, making the opposite point from the day before. He managed to persuade the audience all over again! Unfortunately for Athens, Cato the Elder was in the audience this time; and enraged at Carneades’ oratorical antics, he convinced the Senate to send the ambassador packing.

Though Taleb was trying to make a different point with this story, the lesson I got out of it was: beware the Sophists. A great speaker can bend logic with emotions and exert undue influence on your decision making.

In my day job, investing, I talk to executives who run the companies we are analyzing. I also listen to dozens of conference calls each month. To become a senior-level executive at a publicly traded company you need to be a good communicator. After I am done listening to a call or after a conversation with them, I often want to mortgage my house, pawn my wife’s car, and turn all our money over to them.

Just to be clear, I don’t want to imply that all executives with great oratory skills are frauds – not at all. We just need to have a Sophist filter – we need to depreciate the emotional content of their messages down to the core. Remove the emotional content of the message, identify the important points the CEO made, and break them down to their essence. The better someone speaks, the more discriminating your Sophist filter needs to be.

Your sophist filter should also be on when you deal with cynics. Not the ancient Greek Cynics (with a capital C), just plain old cynics; people who paint negative pictures. They always sound smarter than optimists, but they are not always right.

You also want to be beware of arguments made through jokes, especially at the expense of your own argument. By getting people to laugh, your opponent brings them over to their side of the argument. This doesn’t make them more right though.

Finally, be careful with people who advertise their virtues of their own volition: “I am honest,” “I never steal.” Odds are that by advertising their virtues they are overcompensating for that void in their character. A fellow I know was beating his chest, boasting about the strength of his word and his character. He borrowed a large sum of money from another friend of mine, skipped town, and never paid it back.

I’ll let Seneca  conclude this discussion:  “A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer’s hand.”

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Vitaliy Katsenelson

Vitaliy Katsenelson

Dubbed “the new Benjamin Graham” by Forbes, Vitaliy is the CEO of a value investing firm, author of several books, and a prolific writer on topics as diverse as investing, parenting, classical music, and self-improvement. You can read his articles at Investor.fm or listen to them on his podcast, The Intellectual Investor.

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