If you are partial to attending class wearing an Armani suit and a $400 haircut, this post may not be for you. At least, that is not the sort of sophistication I have in mind (though it’s fine with me if you want to look dapper while you are learning). Rather, when I use the term “sophisticated,” I’m bearing in mind its connection to a group of teachers who wandered Ancient Greece cultivating wisdom: the Sophists.
The Sophists, in my opinion, deserve a little positive PR when it comes to lifelong learning.
The terms “sophist” and “sophistry” have taken on derogatory connotations in modern times. They suggest distortion of the truth through complex, convoluted reasoning. Ironically, this interpretation of the Sophists’ legacy is itself a distortion of the truth. The greater part of what we know about Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus and the other philosophers who are associated with the Sophist movement comes from Plato and Aristotle, neither of whom had a very high opinion of the group. If you have ever sat through even the first day or two of a Western Philosophy 101 course, you know that Plato and Aristotle carry a lot of weight. If they didn’t give the thumbs up to a philosophical movement, the movement probably didn’t fare very well in subsequent history.
So it went with the Sophists. But the real story of the Sophists – at least so far as we can now decipher it – is that they were a group dedicated to cultivating excellence and virtue, primarily through the skillful use of reasoning and argumentation. The Sophists usually charged for instruction and often questioned things that people didn’t really want questioned – like, for example, the existence of popular deities. As a result, they were not universally popular, to say the least.
But who ever said the pursuit of knowledge is a path to popularity? If you are willing to take a few risks, the following three practices of the Sophists are good ones to adopt in your pursuit of lifelong learning.
1. Question everything – and then question it again
Asking questions was at the heart of the Sophist approach to learning. Often they would push their questioning to the point of absurdity in an effort to expose the fallacy of a particular belief or argument. This was critical thinking on steroids, though as you might imagine, it has the potential to be a bit annoying. Practice this technique judiciously, but most definitely make it part of your skill set: In the info-flooded world of the Wild Wild Web, questioning is more important than ever.
2. Learn how to articulate your arguments well
The Sophists were particularly skillful with language, and I suspect this was one of the key traits (in addition to their fat fees) that turned people against them. It can be infuriating to be subjected to a stream of absurd arguments that are so skillfully constructed you don’t know how to refute them. But there is no better way of knowing how to identify and pick apart false arguments than mastering the art of constructing them yourself. Moreover, if you are able to speak clearly, in your own language about a complex topic, that is one of the surest signs that you have learned it well.
3. Cultivate a thick skin
When you start questioning things, people will disagree with you. When you question eloquently, with well-constructed arguments, you will likely even attract fierce enemies. The Sophists, I’m sure, became quite accustomed to the slings and arrows of their critics. They persevered and prospered – and even avoided drinking hemlock. If you are out there blogging, podcasting, tweeting, or otherwise being public about your learning activities, you are bound to catch some criticism of your own along the way. Learn to embrace criticism as part of the process – and, of course, be well-prepared to articulate your counter arguments when appropriate.
Master these three practices, and you will indeed be a “sophisticated learner” in the truest since.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.