Nowadays, mindfulness, spirituality and self-help have become staple subjects in literature and on many websites like YouTube, Instagram or TikTok. People watch endless hours of self-help gurus who promise the secret remedy to your existential crisis. They give you tips and tricks to make money, succeed your business and to become a happy person. The only thing you have to do is watch their videos and buy their products. Many influencers on TikTok or Instagram are advertising fake products that are too expensive in a way to deceive you and earn them some quick cash. We call them influencers, or self-help gurus. The ancient Greeks used to call them sophists.
During the time of Socrates and Plato, there was a whole class of intellectuals called the sophists. These sophists were teachers who one could pay for them to educate someone. They asked for money and returned education. However, a lot of criticism came from Plato. He believed the sophists were fakers. They didn’t have real knowledge; they were not looking for the truth. All they were interested in was money. It was the philosopher who really searched for truth.
The criticism against the sophist wasn’t that he educated people, but rather that he educated them in a wrong way. Instead of looking for the truth, which the philosopher does, the sophist teaches his student to get his way. Or to make the weak word strong. This is called Dissoi Logoi, or being able to plead for both sides of the argument. What was important is that the student learns how to have others agree with him, even if he is wrong, not him being right. Plato claimed that what the sophist did was unethical because it was clear to him that they were only after a profit. The sophist was a manipulator and a fraud. The sophist promised knowledge but instead gave you nothing substantial. One famous example is where a student of Protagoras comes to him and says he won’t pay him because he hasn’t won a single case. Protagoras replies that if he would never win a case, he would also not win this one and thus would still Protagoras the money. If the student, however, won the case against Protagoras, then the student has won a case and thus he would have to pay Protagoras. Nowadays, we would see this as a slick lawyer technique.
This brings us to fake influencers and self-help gurus. These people promise something which doesn’t positively impact your life for money. You have fitness influencers who promise you unnatural bodies within weeks, but only if you buy their product. You have fashion influencers who obtain millions when they sponsor a clothing brand which we then all buy just to fit in. And many self-help gurus promise happiness if you just follow their course for only $199,99! You know the deal, the get-rich-quick scheme that influencers try to sell you. The thing is, we all sometimes fall for such a scheme. That’s the power of the modern-day sophist. They know the art of rhetoric, the art of persuading people, and they know it well.
Rhetoric is a subject that every sophist knew and taught. It was immensely important during the democratic debate culture of ancient Athens. Nowadays, it is even more important in a consumerist capitalistic society, where every seller of a product wants to persuade you into buying the product for as much as they can so they can have the most amount of profit. They will use every trick in the book to get you to buy their product. But how do they do that? Aristotle has some answers.
Aristotle writes that in the art of rhetoric there are three main dimensions of persuading someone. I call them dimensions because they can all three be used in the exact same moment. Politicians use them to influence voters, and influencers use them to sell products. They are the logos, pathos, and ethos.
The logos is the logical argumentation of the speaker. Socrates is human. All Humans will die. Socrates will die. This is one way of persuading people to your cause. By making logical sense, people can understand where you are coming from and agree to buy your product. You want to have a perfect body. Everyone who buys my product will get a perfect body. Thus, you should buy my product.
The pathos is the emotional state of the public. How does the influencer play on your emotions? Aristotle tackled this dimension in two different ways. First, he made a list of socio-psychological profiles and then he made a list of the most important emotions an individual can have. He then showed how to influence which emotion at what time and context. This is exactly what influencers do. They make you feel sad or angry about something, but their product produces a hope to escape the bad emotion. That surge of dopamine hits your brain, and you believe them more and more. How could they try to deceive you? They want you to be happy, it is making you happy already, so it has to work! Beware, for they are playing on the pathos.
The last dimension is the most important one to influence people. The ethos is the moral character of the speaker that is presented while he is speaking. Note that this doesn’t represent the real moral character of the person but how moral the public sees that person. The person themselves can be a total psychopath, it’s how the public sees that person that matters in rhetoric. The influencers bring out this persona that they only want the best for you, that they are here to help you. They are virtuous and willing to help those in need. To seem moral, you have to appear knowledgeable, virtuous and seem to have a good will towards those you’re speaking to. Influencers seem to be knowledgeable about their product. They seem virtuous because what they are trying to sell is something that will improve your life. And they seem well-willing because it looks like they really want to help people in need with their product.
These three dimensions of rhetoric show us something. It shows us that we can be easily fooled, but most of the time we are too embarrassed to admit it. No one wants to admit that they wasted two hundred dollars on a product that would give you muscle with almost no effort. We’re ashamed that they tricked us. Or even worse, we pretend it works because we spent so much money on it and continue to buy more. This is also known as the sunk cost fallacy. The modern-day sophists eagerly use these techniques to gain a lot more money than they actually deserve.
That is not to say that there aren’t good influencers or self-help gurus out there. What is important is that you make a decision for yourself who to follow, who to trust and who to listen to. Don’t listen to just one influencer. Do your own research and have a group of influencers about a particular topic who you can listen. Don’t listen to just Ali Abdaal or Matt D’Avella. Expand your horizon and the people who give you information so you can get a more objective view of what is happening. Watch reviews of paid products so you don’t buy things you don’t need or that don’t work. You should find out which person does it for the money and which person does it because of moral virtue. This is very hard to do, takes some effort and you will definitely be wrong at occasions, but that is okay as long as you learn from them.
The sophists are those who manipulate people into giving them money without really giving anything in return. However, there is a way to be a good sophist. Plato says that the art of rhetoric which the sophist uses can be a real subject of study when it is accompanied by philosophy or rather when it is done in a moral virtuous way. So, the good sophists exist, even today. They are the ones who don’t care about the money in itself. They care about having people reach their full potential. Knowing about the art of rhetoric can help distinguish the two kinds. Even better, it’ll make sure you don’t become a sophist yourself.