Why is our public square so nasty and unproductive? I’ve never been one to shout down spirited exchange, if it seems to be going somewhere. But few people nowadays manage to succeed in a flowering marketplace of ideas through respectful exchange. Bullying, badgering, and point-scoring seem to be the ticket. And if you do make it to the top, the way to stay there is emphatically not by modeling the virtues and values that you claim to champion. Rather, you should use your status to beat down anybody who tries to hold you accountable for what you say or do.
Ours isn’t the first society to have these sorts of problems. Plato’s Socrates regularly does battle with the Beautiful People of his own day, whom he named “the sophists.” These were teachers of rhetoric whom well-to-do parents would employ to instruct their sons in the art of getting ahead. Sound familiar? Apparently Ancient Greece also had its elite class, which was practiced in protecting its ranks through tricks, artifice, and ruthless double standards.
In 2014, we worry about the inegalitarian nature of such an arrangement. This didn’t bother the Greeks nearly so much. But they (or at least Socrates) did notice that the sophists were less than fully committed to justice and truth. Actually that’s something of an understatement. Sophists were mostly quite willing to trample the truth in their mad dash towards fame and fortune.