Rhetoric, Reason, and Truth

In ancient Greece, a group of philosophers, the sophists, made a name for themselves for their skill in debate. The took the position, a position shared by so many in the modern world, that no objective truth existed. Instead, truth was merely subjective. Because truth was subjective, debate did not have the purpose of finding truth, but of simply convincing others to adopt one’s views without regard to whether or not those views were true. Hence, the sophists would teach others to debate both sides of an issue with equal effectiveness since neither side was more (or less) true than the other. In their world, one without truth, the side of an issue one adopted would be based on the slick arguments used, the appeals to emotion, persuasiveness of the case to a particular person etc. But one never chose a side of an issue or course of action because it was true- it was not.

Against the sophists, rose the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who created rules of logic, including the syllogism, as well as a list of fallacies that invalidated an argument. Hence, a claim that “you only think that because you are a man,” or “you only think that because you were raised to think it,” would be rejected as fallacious irrelevancies to the question of whether or not a claim was true. In this view, logic and reason, not rhetoric or slick talk would determine the truth value of a particular claim.

Yet, in the ancient world, Aristotle (as well as his teacher Plato) formed a distinct minority. It awaited the Middle Ages for his views to be spread to society at large. In one of those strange accidents or twists that makes history so interesting, the twelfth century rediscovered Aristotle’s works in the universities that were just beginning to form and spread throughout Europe. Harmonized with Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, logic became the language of the universities that formed the basis of the modern university system. While Aristotle had invented it, it took until the Christian Middle Ages for Aristotle to really catch on as “The Philosopher,” “the master of them that know” in the words of Dante.

Maybe such reason and logic could never really have flourished in a pagan world. Maybe the reason it took until the Christian Middle Ages to really take over lay in that Christianity offered a basis for the logical explanation of the world that pagan antiquity never really could. In the Christian conception, the universe was the product of a divine mind, a greatest conceivable being (in the language of Anselm). Hence the universe was an orderly place reflecting the order, reason, and love that had made it. Consequently, the universe could be explored rationally. No one in the ancient world thought Zeus or any other god particularly rational—at any rate, the ancient gods were creatures and not creators, anyway. More commonly, the universe was simply regarded as the product of chance, appearing for no reason, according to no plan. Hence it was not especially likely to be a rational place; far more likely were it to be non-rational and random. Logic and reason simply had more basis to flourish in a Christian society—and so they did.

Possibly this is why logic and reason are on the decline in the modern world. As the world grows increasingly pagan, the world appears as a cosmic accident, a chance event. Why then, should it be a rational place? Why should reason be able to tell us anything about it? Instead of reason and logic, debates in the public sphere often seem to be a matter of emotion, of slick and clever sound bites. The sophists have returned and they have all the force of the modern media, newscasters, social media, and twitter behind them. One might hope the universities, with their medieval basis, would be an exception, but as they secularize, they too are less places of rational and free inquiry and more places where students are taught a particular viewpoint (the pagan one). Arguing now means insults and personal attacks rather than the cool analysis of a particular issue. This has been particularly evident perhaps in recent debates over same-sex marriage. Opponents of it are not reasoned with; they are merely insulted, called names, and dismissed with no more than a few cheap cliches. In an increasingly secular world, perhaps this is unsurprising, but it is still nonetheless regrettable.


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