The uneasiness Athenians felt toward the Sophists is captured beautifully in a Greek word that later came to define rhetoric at large. Deinos is an adjective with manifold meanings, and a deeper look at the word can help us understand why the Sophists were both disliked and revered, how the art of rhetoric works, and perhaps why Socrates himself was accused of mastering it.
Deinos comes from the noun deos, which can roughly be translated as "fear." As with most Greek words though, giving a single, punctual definition is not the most faithful way to render the ethos carried by the language. Instead, it’s better to look at the fluid cluster of meanings that changed in various word combinations and in the contexts of different authors and stories.
Deos and deinos are associated indeed with fear, but the kind of fear that a god might inspire. Dread, wonder, admiration, and incomprehension are all combined in the unique flavor of this word. Here is how Guthrie (1977, 32) explains it:
[Deinos] stands for anything terrible or dreadful, as for instance in Homer weapons, the glare of a foe, the whirlpool Charybdis, thunder, lions. Of a goddess, it is coupled with 'reverend,' and may have conveyed an idea more like 'the fear of the Lord.' This sense of 'awful' persists, often with a suggestion of the strange, incomprehensible, uncanny; and so used the word contributes to some of the most moving, and untranslatable, lines of Greek tragedy. Hephaestus cannot bring himself to chain Prometheus to the rock because 'kinship is something deinon.' Clytemnestra hates and fears her son, yet when she hears of his death cannot feel the expected joy and relief because 'to give birth is deinon—the fact of motherhood has a strange power.'
Although at its very origin, the word sophistes meant poet, with time it gained the somewhat opposite meaning of practical “expert”—and in association with deinotes, it veered toward “wondrously clever” and “skillful.” As Guthrie explains, sophistes was someone who taught because they had a special skill, either for politics or the practical arts; an air of “professorial authority” (p. 30) exudes from their skillfulness, as Socrates humorously but also admiringly says to Diotima that she speaks like a true sophistes (Symp. 108 c.). Based on what Glaucon says in the Republic, and Hippolytus in Euripides, Guthrie concludes sophistes came to mean “deviser or contriver” (p. 31), and perhaps we could add the nuance of “deviser of grand schemes” (the Egyptians, for instance, were deinoi for devising military stratagems), with maybe even the ability to influence natural phenomena. After all, Glaucon says a truly wondrous sophistes would master not only all the crafts but also all the things in the natural world (596d). Demosthenes is accused of being “deinos, sorcerer, sophist, and the like” (De cor. 276) and Hippolytus says, “I became a sophistes of many calamities” (Eur. Heracl. 993). More interestingly, in Greek mythology, Prometheus, the bringer of fire to men, is deinoi at getting out of difficulties, and in Aeschylus’s version, Hermes addresses Prometheus as “you the sophist, who have sinned against the gods.” (quoted in Guthrie, p. 32)
Liddell and Scott also agree with Guthrie on the evolution of the word deinos. According to their dictionary, the word has, chronologically, gone through three stages of meaning:
- fearful, terrible, awful, dangerous, dire
- marvelously strong, powerful, mighty, wondrous, strange
- able, clever, skillful
Through this third meaning—together with the phenomenon of the Sophists who pretended to speak exceptionally well, gain political power through words, and teach others to do the same—the noun deinotes transitioned further to mean “formidable speaking” (Demetrius, On Style) or “formidable in argument” (Plato, Apology). The Sophists might not have been able to control nature, but their distinction between physis and nomos and their insistence that being a great political leader was something you could learn and didn’t have to be born into, might well have been seen as a way of interfering with the natural order of things.
From Prometheus to the Sophists, skillful people are both respected and reviled, as admiration of one’s intellectual prowess brings with it a feeling of suspicion. Laymen do not understand experts, and what cannot be comprehended is naturally feared. Additionally, having a great way with words—which can be the mark of either a great teacher or a glib politician—makes pundits, together with intellectuals, difficult to trust. In fact, scholar Ludwig Voit (1934) points out that “those who were deinoi legein, "skillful in speaking and interpretatíon," assumed political superiority over the untrained idiotai, or "laymen." Voit describes laymen’s reaction to the Sophists as "the uncanny wonder of laymen at the expert, uncomprehended and out of reach." (quoted in Biester, 1996, 300)
We might fear the unknown, but we’re also drawn to it. Interestingly, the same word Greeks used to discredit the Sophists also referred to the “elements of wonder” that are at the crux of great rhetoric (Biester, 290). Demetrius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, "Longinus," and Hermogenes all advocate deinotes as the general, desired effect of style (ibid.), and while they might disagree slightly over the techniques involved, obscurity remains a key element in producing deinotes.
According to ancient critics, when speakers use obscure diction and condensed constructions, they almost literally capture their audiences, carrying them away in the kind of rapture that Gorgias claims in the ‘Encomium on Helen’ is as impossible to resist as ‘Fate and the will of the gods’ (id., 293).
In Aristotelian rhetoric, the use of strange, unusual words creates this feeling of wonder. A powerful speech enraptures and transports its audience far from ordinary life, whereas straightforward speaking does not achieve the same effect. Bluntness and candor are not deinotes. Demetrius, "Longinus," Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Hermogenes all agree that a great speech is akin to the uncontrollable forces of nature, as they overpower the audience, speaking of wondrous and lofty ideas in a language that is correspondingly remote and uplifting. To speak of the sublime you must use sublime language, or, as prof. Biester charmingly puts it: “Powerful speech [has] the dread and transport we feel at the most excellent and therefore least knowable objects or presences” (295).
There might also have been another reason why obliqueness was preferred over plain speech. Classics professor Frederick Ahl refers to it as “figured speech” (1984) and points to its usefulness in expressing criticism of and within the Athenian democracy. While what Herodotus calls isegoria or “equality of speech” was extremely important in a democratic society, it might have also been wiser to avoid plain candor when criticizing the rulers in the public space or expressing unpopular opinions regarding moral or religious issues. A less straightforward way of speaking might have been safer, and this is what Aristotle is referring to when he says that those who succeed in their rhetoric are “Not those among our victims, enemies, or adversaries who say everything forthrightly, but those who are gentle, ironic, up to everything. Since you cannot see when they are close, you can never see when they are far away.” (Rhetoric 1382B)
Unfortunately, too much focus on obliqueness may have also brought the demise of rhetoric. Over time, and through a combination of factors (some of which we started exploring in our latest post), people came to believe that provided an orator had powerful words, he could reach psychagógia (the primary persuasive function of rhetoric) regardless of evidence or reason. With Plato, deinotes has been equated with panourgia, or deception. As James Biester shows, gradually, under the pressure to produce wonder, lyrical poets all the way through the Renaissance took obscurity and roughness out of the cluster of meanings that represented deinotes, and forgot about the rest, only to be seen pejoratively as sophistic by Neoclassical critics.
Convoluted phrases might have been a refuge for the Sophists—foreigners and disseminators of unpopular ideas—but what about philosophers? When it comes to the obscure entrapments of persuasion, are they above suspicion? Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor, makes a clear-cut distinction between philosophers and orators, one which Plato would have surely backed up. Poets, orators, and philosophers use different kinds of language, he says: the philosopher speaks clearly and straightforwardly, while poets and orators "choose the more stately words, not those which are common or vulgar," and combine them in such a way that "the listener shall be charmed and astonished and, with respect to intellectual persuasion, overmastered" (quoted in Biester, p. 294). Simple, plain, truthful speech is the mark of the philosopher.
But sometimes those who say they’re not great with words are indeed the best with words. Aptly convincing your audience that you’re not a sophist might just be the greatest, ultimate form of sophistry. Plutarch (Moralia, 59D) warns of such a thing as “counterfeit bluntness”, and Frederick Ahl (1984) further points out that “creating the illusion that one is speaking plainly when one is not is part of being ‘formidable in argument’” or deinos legein (p. 176). In fact, he goes as far as saying that Plato himself provides plenty of examples of figured speech, and that Socrates’ feigned bluntness didn’t convince many critics in antiquity. But given the steady decline of rhetoric, since the Romantic era, we have started to see any suggestion that Plato was a master of rhetoric as an offence to the purity of his philosophy and an attack on his reputation. In Ahl’s words:
We incline to believe Plato's Socrates when he contrasts his simple truthfulness with the clever twists and turns of phrase his accusers employ, instead of perceiving that he is adopting a rhetorical posture calculated to appeal to those who believe that what is simple is true. (p. 196)
Obliqueness leaves room for interpretation. The focus is on empty spaces, either in meaning or around the words themselves, spaces to be filled by the audience who walks toward the speech, works for it, appropriates it and thus makes it all the more powerful. The force of an argument lies not in what is being said, but in what is not said. As Demetrius says in On Style "Letting a lot be evident in a little is more cunningly forceful” (241, quoted in Ahl, 176). Creating the evident by not saying the evident is at the root of many, if not all, figures of speech. The mechanism is behind symbols, personification, metaphors, and similes.
So, did Socrates say by not saying? Demetrius seems to think so. In his study of Phaedo, he examines the moment (59 C) when Plato aims to admonish Aristippus and Cleombrotus for not visiting Socrates in prison before his execution. Instead of attacking them directly, he asks Phaedo who was with Socrates in his last moments. Phaedo enumerates everyone who was there. Then Plato asks if Aristippus and Cleombrotus were there, and Phaedo answers “No, they were in Aegina.”
Everything, Demetrius concludes, comes through in the expression, ‘They were in Aegina.’ The point is to achieve reproach without committing oneself to an outright statement of reproach. The effect is powerful (On Style 288) [and] more forceful because it is achieved by letting the fact speak for itself rather than having the speaker make the point for himself. We note the presence of forms suggesting emphasis: things lurk for the reader or listener to discover; facts speak for themselves. Aegina is not far from Athens; the passage by boat costs very little (Ahl, 178).
For Plato, Demetrius suggests, emphasis of the reproach is ensured by not actually uttering it. Our understanding of emphasis today, of course, is the complete opposite. When we wish to emphasize something we not only say it, but we say it louder, bolder, more determinedly. We profess, emphatically, leaving no doubt as to what we are trying to convey. Because of how fundamentally differently we perceive emphasis today, Ahl suggests, modern editors ignore or reject Demetrius’s interpretation, despite significant ancient testimony that Plato intended—and succeeded—to make the two feel guilty (some even suggesting that Cleombrotus committed suicide as a result) (Callimachus, Epigram 24, as cited in Ahl, 178).
Sorting through the translations, citations, and interpretations of a time that left us with very little written material can surely seem like a daunting task. But beyond theories and counter-theories as to whether Socrates indeed shared a cunning mastery of deinotes with the Sophists, we can just read Plato’s dialogues and decide for ourselves. In fact, in the opening of the Apology (which you can read for free here), Socrates directly addresses those who accuse him of being “a skillful speaker.” He says that it will have become evident to the jury that he has “not the slightest skill as a speaker—unless, of course, by a skillful speaker they mean one who speaks the truth.”
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.