But what do I mean by sophistry? In an article I wrote last year for the Chuck Colson Center, titled 'Sophistry in Ancient Athens,' I explained how the sophists were teachers that arose as a result of Athens not having a police force.
The ancient city of Athens didn’t have a police force. Thus, if somebody committed a crime against you – if, for example, they embezzled your money or stole your property – the only way you could achieve justice was by taking them to court.
Ancient Athens also didn’t have any lawyers. Thus, anyone who found himself in court had to be prepared to argue the case himself.
One thing that ancient Athens did possess was plenty of unscrupulous characters. Many of these less-than principled folk discovered that if you were clever enough you could persuade the court to agree with you even if you were in the wrong (especially if your opponent was not very bright).
In the latter half of the fifth century BC, a group of teachers arose in Athens called Sophists. The Sophists claimed to be able to teach students how to prove impossible propositions, such as that nothing exists or that motion is impossible.
The Greek playwright, Aristophanes, poked fun at the Sophists in his comedy The Clouds. In his play, an elderly farmer named Strepsiades goes to a special school called “The Thinkery” where Socrates (caricatured here as a Sophist) promises to teach him how to use persuasive rhetoric to prove that right is wrong and wrong is right. Overjoyed at the power he will wield once Socrates has taught him the secret to proving anything, the unscrupulous Strepsiades breaks forth into this refrain (taken from Alan H. Sommerstein’s wonderful Penguin Classics translation)
“So I give myself entirely to the school – I’ll let it beat me,
It can starve me, freeze me, parch me, it can generally ill-treat me,
If it teaches me to dodge my debts and get the reputation
Of the cleverest, slyest fox that ever baffled litigation.
Let men hate me, let men call me names, and over and above it
Let them chase me through each court, and I assure you that I’ll love it.
Yes, if Socrates can make of me a real forensic winner,
I don’t mind if he takes out my guts and has them for his dinner.”
Although The Clouds was a work of dramatic fiction, it isn’t far off from the truth of what actually went on in Athens. Though it is unlikely that the historical Socrates was anything like Aristophanes’ portrayal, the Sophists were just as unscrupulous. Many of the youth flocked to them to learn how to be clever enough to persuade courts and other audiences, even if what they were saying was false.
|The chorus of clouds in Aristophanes' comedy|
I don't refer to the fact that it is not really marriage, though that is perhaps the most obvious example. Rather, I'm thinking of the way we keep hearing that laws to allow gay marriage will simply extend to same-sex couples the rights that the government already gives to married couples. President Obama's own comments show he has bought into this reasoning. Yet there is a fatal flaw to this utterly-simplistic and naive narrative. At least that is what I argued in another piece I did for the Colson Center, titled 'Sophistry in America'. This is what I wrote:
If we accept that the principle of equal protection under the law means that same-sex couples should be entitled to the same rights as married couples (including the right to call their union a “marriage”), then in order to be logically consistent we would have to say that a definition of marriage that includes both heterosexual and same-sex unions, yet excludes unions with animals or multiple partners, is also failing to provide equal protection under the law. Indeed...if someone is bisexual, then in order for their sexuality to be fully expressed, their “marriage” must include a minimum of at least one person from each sex. At least, that is where the argument against “discrimination based on sexual orientation” could go.... [The reality is that] any new definition of marriage that [we] may wish to proffer opens the door to an endless series of redefinition in the years to come. This is because what is true of the word marriage is true of any noun: to define a word as one thing is necessarily to exclude that word as being some other thing. A noun that can mean anything is a noun that can mean nothing.Further Reading
Consequently, if we say that it is unconstitutional for the word “marriage” to exclude anyone or anything, then we are beginning a process whereby the word must necessarily be eventually emptied of all content.
Suffice to say, if [the laws restricting marriage to one-woman and one-man] were set aside, then not only would a union between one man and one woman no longer have a monopoly on the term “marriage,” but in principle any definition of marriage (even one broadened to encompass homosexual unions) could eventually be challenged as unconstitutional by an extension of the same logic.
In short, the word “marriage” must finally come to cover anything we could possibly imagine. However, to do that would render the term incoherent, and that is something that not even the homosexuality community wishes to see happen.
Sophistry in Ancient Athens
Sophistry in America
Gay marriage: A Civil Right?
The Tyranny of the Minority: How the Forced Recognition of Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Undermines a Free Society.