What's the difference between a philosopher and a sophist? In the ancient world, the sophists were well trained and highly educated people who offered to teach others and help them to attain their goals. And they did this as a well-paying occupation. Their own wealth was their main, or sometimes, only goal. But Socrates, by contrast, the first famous philosopher who tackled life questions with others, the paradigmatic philosopher, notoriously refused payment for his services and, as a consequence, went around barefoot.
I teach others and help them to attain their goals. And I'm often well paid for it. So what makes me a philosopher, rather than a sophist? I was actually asked this question recently, at a college. And I enjoyed answering it.
It's true that Socrates refused to charge anyone for what he did. And it may be no coincidence that he had a very unhappy wife. I'm just saying. But in many ways, I can't imagine that he was the easiest and most practical guy to live with.
He could, however, be the life of the party. And he often was. His capacity for both wine and wisdom was legendary. And yet, he would never tolerate sloppy thinking. Certain sophists of the age, by contrast, were said to be willing to use any sort of thinking to help their clients win and attain whatever their desire might be.
Throughout history, the sophists of ancient Greece have had a pretty shady reputation as professionally amoral, hired guns of the mind. They would reportedly help people to attain any goal, by and large, regardless of what it was. They would advocate any case, promote any cause, and empower any person, if the money was right and wealth would flow.
Philosophers, for the most part, have walked on the side of the angels, whether they believed in angels or not. They may sometimes have had reputations as prolix and obscure, complex and abstract, otherworldly and out of touch, but they have, for the most part, seemed to be purer souls in their focus and work. But why exactly? That's the key.
The sophists were much more concerned about how than about why. The philosophers have always been more cautious. They have wanted to help people reflect not just on how to attain their goals, but on why they are pursuing certain aims rather than others, and what, perhaps, might be best to seek, and again, why. They have certainly analyzed deeply all the relevant issues of how, but have always raised the question of why. And this is what I try to do. That's the reason, when you read any of my books on success, you'll come across a lot on what success is, and what it's not, and why we should be careful in what we focus on and pursue.
There's a new-old saying: "You can get anything you want, if you help enough other people to get what they want." On the surface, this sounds like great advice. And most who say it mean well, thereby counseling people to find a need and meet that need. But wants aren't the same as needs. And, as a matter of precision, the new-old saying is an example of sophistry. It's generally true, but equally dangerous.
The sophist wants to help you get whatever you want, and will assist you in doing so by giving other people whatever they want, without urging anyone involved in all this to reflect on whether what they happen to want right now is truly good for them, or not. And this is not wise. At certain points in life, for certain people, getting what they want may be disastrous. It could be that their wants need to be changed, not satisfied, or improved and refined, through the guidance of real wisdom. We can get what we want by helping others to get what they want, but should we always do that, regardless of the particular wants involved, and their consequences? The new-old saying can be used to motivate a drug dealer to provide more dangerous, destructive substances, and more liberally, for his customers. And that's clearly not the path of wisdom.
I love to help people attain their goals, but only if their goals are right for them and will bring them genuine fulfillment and happiness, not disaster and regret. So I help them to reflect on all the important issues. For a philosopher, understanding must precede and guide the best life accomplishments. Wisdom is everything. Then, true wealth will come. So I say:
Sophistry is not for me/I much prefer/Philosophy.