A reflection on the fragments of the Sophists (Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias and Antiphon)
I have previously laid out my belief in the importance of the intellectual journey, and in my mind, the pursuit of an ever clearer understanding is the noblest pursuit of the mind. However, as I have previously shown (see Against Absolute Relativism), there is a strain of anti-intellectualism which scoffs at the idea of ‘improved’ knowledge, seeing opinions as relative to their proponents. Even more recently I have looked at the reductionist argument which threatens the potential for understanding to have value – stripping the potential for goodness or truth from reality (see on Materialism). At this point, I cannot completely deny these philosophies – but I find them repulsive. On the other hand, the case for a positivist philosophy remains beyond my grasp, although the more I read and write the clearer the idea becomes in my mind. However, accepting the reality of imperfect knowledge, we will be forced at some point to take a leap and accept some basic premise – be that the primacy of mind, senses, soul or material. A problem does occur, however, when we combine the issues of love and belief. If we believe a certain act is good, and we truly love someone else in the selfless sense (see on Love), then we want to convince our beloved of the goodness of said act and encourage them down the path of its completion. At this point, we reach the issue of persuasion.
If you are convinced of a basic premise, one that is based on belief rather than analytic reasoning, then you cannot use ‘facts’ to convince a person of the rightness of your cause. I do not mean only religious faith when I say belief in a basic premise – although this is one example. This can be things such as the basic equality of people, the need for human rights, that suffering has moral weight and wisdom is good. If you attempt to use factual reasoning or logic to ‘prove’ that these are good, you will eventually fall prey to the same relativistic, materialist and nihilist arguments which I examined previously. In the absence of an agreed upon fundamental principle we, unfortunately, need to pick some basic concepts of the world and move forward – otherwise, we collapse into a hyper-sceptical paralysis. If you love someone, platonically or otherwise, then you want them to live a good life. Such a good life is based on these fundamental assumptions, and as such if you want a person to live a good life, you must convince them of these basic precepts – without the tools of rationality.
I would posit that if you truly love someone, then you cannot force them to think in a certain manner – this would result in the poisonous submission, resentment or rebellion against oppression (see on Obedience). I would further argue, that if you lied about your basic premises, misrepresenting them as facts or beautifying them with statistics and anecdotes in an attempt to make them seem ‘scientific,’ then you commit intellectual violence against your beloved – you treat them as an inferior being. In this sense, arguing for liberty, rights or justice from positions of economics, sociology or politics is tantamount to a charade – for if these aspects are not fundamental underpinning beliefs, then they are vulnerable to the acidic nihilistic critique. Instead, the tools of governance and society are used to implement the goodness that is inherent in such concepts as rights, liberty and justice – this is the only way to maintain a coherent philosophy from metaphysics through to politics. Thus, how can one conduct intellectual persuasion without risking intellectual violence or oppression?
I would argue that the only method of truly convincing someone to change their opinion on such basic beliefs is like an act of seduction. It lies not in the rational but emotive part of the mind – and thus is delinked to that most eminent reasoning self. However, if this is the case, then arguments along the lines of reasoning will do little to convince our beloved – in fact, it may merely antagonise them. Thus I would argue that the best way to demonstrate the validity of our core beliefs is to live them. We need to make sure that the coherence in our thought, from cosmology through ethics, is tight, and that we follow our principles through to the end – even if it means personal dissatisfaction or discomfort. I am not arguing for the dogmatism that I so frequently denounce, but instead that people live up to their own expectations before attempting to convince others of their virtues. Who knows, if someone loves you enough perhaps they will persuade you of beliefs closer to the truth.
Gaspare Traversi, The Seduction, 1752