The Sophists Won

I hate to say it, but in the sophists won the 3000 year war.  Well, maybe the battle is ongoing, but they definitely have the lead.

Sophists were a group of Greek philosophers that sold their knowledge to the highest bidder.  They receive their fair amount of criticism from other philosophers like Socrates[1], Plato, and Xenophon[2] who believe knowledge should be free.  Today, we reject the idea of Sophism wholeheartedly.  In fact, the English language has come to define “sophism” as “a false argument designed to deceive.”  Something about paying for knowledge and relegating learning to the wealthy sits ill with the modern American.

Yet, the Sophists won.

After all, I paid an enormous sum of money for my college education.  Some of my friends are $100,000[3] in debt.  They paid money not only to get an education, but to get a good one at the school they wanted.  This huge payment is considered an investment.  Something to set yourself apart from everyone else.  The problem is (and this is just one of many problems really) almost anyone who can afford the fee can get a college education.  Like with the sophists, being able to pay is more important than being a good student.

Which brings me to the Catch-22, as a college degree gets more expensive, the ease of getting one goes down meaning that you look sillier for not having one — despite spending more for less.

You may argue that the sophists at least lost for elementary students.  After all, society has decided to pay for every child to be educated.  Then again, we haven’t decided to pay for every child equally.  Would you rather your kids went to school in Carmel, Indiana or an inner city school in New Orleans?  Think carefully. It shouldn’t take you too long.

What about research?  I was shocked to learn that it was only recently that tax payer funded research became a matter of public record.  Lots of research already was.  For instance, I’m typing this blog post on a laptop which uses a Lithium-Ion battery.  The design for which was influenced and improved on by tax-funded NASA engineers.  (You know those guys that got laid off as non-essential by a bunch of professional windbags that spend more than half the year on paid vacation.)  Yet a lot of medical research that was funded by American taxpayers was considered private property — owned by companies, not people.  Knowledge is still something that can be possessed and monetized.

I’m not entirely against the possession and monetization of knowledge, but there are definitely abuses going on.  For instance, there are journals that universities pay to have access too AND that scientists pay to publish in.  Some investigators have found that bad studies show up in these journals all the time.  Paying the fee is more important than presenting good information.  That concerns me.

We might also talk about the redefining of copyright laws to extend indefinitely.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s work was due to become public domain a couple of years ago, but now it will remain the property of a film company for years upon years in the future.  As time goes on the proceeds of a old idea will go to people less and less involved in the production of the original material.  Money that should be spent creating new ideas instead of rehashing old ones over and over again.

My final concern is by far the worst, and it actually goes against the rest of the post.  I’ve spent this post talking about the possibility of an Orwellian society where information is strictly controlled, owned by corporations, where people can’t get the information they need.  Maybe the opposite is true.  Maybe important information is getting lost in the noise of the irrelevant.  People that want it can’t find it, but most people don’t even want to find it.  They’re content with the useless, banal, and trivial.


1. Socrates objected to their methods, but actually refers to some sophists as good philosophers.  Going as far as to call some of them better teachers than himself.

2. Xenophon may stand out on this list as the one guy you haven’t heard of, but he is an important figure.  He is more associated with Sparta than Athens, having written detailed histories of a number of wars.  He was also an admirer of Socrates and personally recorded many of his dialogues.  Plato gets more credit, but a second opinion is always a good idea.

3. One of the problems I didn’t have time to reference is that $100,000 is significantly more per person than our parents or grandparents paid for a university education. Significantly more, even adjusting for inflation.

Posted in Philosophy.

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