Why Not Sophistry?

"Why then do we not exercise ourselves in understanding philosophic argument?" Because at present, though we are not exercised in these things and not distracted from the study of morality, still we make no progress in virtue.

What can we expect if we add this to our studies? It would not only be an occupation which would withdraw us from more necessary things, but would also be a cause of self-conceit and arrogance. For great is the power of arguing and the faculty of persuasion, and particularly if it should be much exercised, and also receive additional ornament from language. So every faculty acquired by the uninstructed and weak brings with it the danger of these persons being elated and inflated by it. For by what means could one persuade a young man who excels in these matters that he ought not to become an appendage to them, but to make them an appendage to himself? Does he not trample on all such reasons, and strut before us elated and inflated, not enduring that any man should reprove him and remind him of what he has neglected and to what he has turned aside?

Epictetus is asked by one of his students, "If Sophistry is such a great thing, then why don't we make a greater study of it?"

Epictetus explains that he uses logic, not Sophistry which can seem to prove untruths. Sophistry and even logic will not bring us to the root of virtue. Though Sophistical argument is a wonderful tool, it does not make us better people by using it. A person who dedicates himself completely to Sophistry, then, misses the essence of life. It is important to be able to recognize it; it is also important not to engage in it.

In chapter 5 of Acts Paul visits Athens, which was the seat of philosophy in the ancient world. There were many "academies" teaching the youth rhetoric, logic, etc. Verse 18 tells us, "Certain Epicurean and Stoic teachers also debated with him." They dragged Paul before the city council called the Areopagus.

This passage in Acts provides an interesting scene; for it is one of the few places in the Bible where we actually see Philosophy and Christianity come head to head. The two seem to be somewhat at odds, though not completely. Though some of the "philosophers" make fun of Paul, others prove sympathetic. Yet this struggle between the Greek Philosophers and the Great Evangelist were fought precisely on the grounds of logic.

Christianity is not a religion based solely on "mathematical precision". As Paul often reminded us in his writings, it is a religion based primarily on faith. The philosophers attempted to pick apart Paul's statements using sophisticated rhetoric. Paul was more than equal to their attacks; for Paul was a skillful speaker. We do not have the exact words of the exchange, but we can imagine Paul talking about Jesus and Heaven while the philosophers came back with "if this/then that". Paul spoke of virtue, he spoke of faith and a new covenant with God. He told them how to live a life that was good and fulfilling.

We might use rhetoric to convince ourselves and others that to choose a way of life that is good for the soul will make them happier, but then again, a person might use rhetoric to justify the other side as well. Epictetus understood this.

Paul ended up having many people follow him from the meeting at the Areopagus. They wanted more information about this religion called Christianity of which they had never heard before. The power of virtue proved greater, at least for a few Athenians, than the argumentative power of the Sophists.

Chapter 8:

  1. Concerning Faculties and the Uninstructed
  2. Why Not Sophistry? (8a)
  3. Sophistry No Virtue (8b)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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