Everywhere you look, there is tragedy. The U.S. is creeping up on one million Covid related deaths—this number has long been surpassed internationally. Once-friendly nextdoor neighbors now flaunt their contempt towards one another with political lawn signs and flags. Countries have turned their backs on national sovereignty and individual rights, resulting in an all out Russian invasion of Ukraine with no peaceful end in sight.
It is understandably difficult for people to find and hold onto something positive, whether it be in the news or in their personal lives. This leaves us with two options. Either, we dig a little deeper for some positivity, maybe expand what exactly could be interpreted as good, or, we welcome tragedy, allowing it to take its real effect in our lives.
The first option is the easier choice for your psyche. But in the long run, I contend that the latter option—embracing the tragedy in your life—will put you on the path for legitimate inner satisfaction. Furthermore, experiencing and then turning towards and not away from your tragedy is necessary in order to flourish as a leader.
Today, to call someone a sophist, or to say they practice sophistry, is unquestionably an insult. It means this person is essentially arguing in bad faith, or with the intention to deceive. However, this idea of sophism is itself somewhat of a bad faith definition. It is an idea that is intended to deceive.
Back in Ancient Greece, If you were a student (more exactly, a male student from a wealthy family), you had two major choices for an educational route. One option, chosen by the likes of Alexander the Great and Plato, was the philosophical path. Your teacher was trained in the art of philosophy, and this was the overarching lens for all other subjects you were to study.
The other path to take was that of sophistry. Many future Greek politicians, such as Pericles and Solon, were the students of sophists. These were teachers trained in the art of motivation and persuasion, focusing more on rhetorical and theatrical studies rather than the alleged objective facts and reasoning of philosophy.
Philosophers, especially Plato, were major adversaries of sophists. Whether this was because many sophist teachings went against philosophical ideals or the sophists were just stealing business from philosophers remains a question still. What we do know is that this current negative definition of sophistry comes from Plato. He created the modern outlook of what sophistry is. Sophist characters are seen in a number of Platonic dialogues, each with a variety of unruly qualities, but his strongest attack of sophistry comes in the Gorgias.
And like many who appear in Plato’s writing, Gorgias was a real person. Maybe thanks to Plato, he is probably the sophist who gets the most attention from scholars today. One of the reasons why is his stance on tragedy, and it is from Gorgias’s work on tragedy that we get the idea that accepting and embracing tragedy is how to become a prosperous leader.
About 3,000 years later, it is fair to say that Plato won his battle with the sophists. Not only did Plato’s redefinition of sophistry that fits his narrative become the dogmatic definition, but most of the sophist teachings do not exist anymore. Conversely, we have almost all of Plato’s body of work at our disposal. As a quick aside, it is possible that this lack of actual sophist work is to blame for the unfavorable outlook of sophistry. Plato was able to shape his own outlook with nothing to counteract what he said.
Luckily, the bit of writing that remains from Gorgias is substantive. Some of this writing is found in the work of Plutarch, the Greek polymath who many consider the first real scholarly historian. Gorgias is among the many he wrote biographies about in Greek and Roman history. In Plutarch’s work on Gorgias specifically, an original fragment of Gorgias’s writing is preserved.
It is said that “tragedy is a deception that leaves the deceived wiser than the non-deceived.” This is exactly the kind of literary style to expect from a sophist. It is catchy, uses rhetorical devices like repetition, and does not have a clear meaning. It should be noted that these tactics also can be found in many modern politician speeches. I will here quickly acknowledge Plato’s view towards sophistry may be somewhat warranted. But even still, if you look past the “sophisty” involved in the phrase, the truth that is revealed is extremely enlightening. This is especially the case for those looking to thrive in leadership roles.
To understand what I mean, let’s break down each part of Gorgias’s claim about the deception of tragedy and where it may leave you. First off, what does it mean to call tragedy a deception? Generally, for something to deceive you, you cannot be expecting it. It must be a surprise, often exactly the opposite of how you envisioned.
This is the essence of tragedy. It is when an event or situation unfolds in a way you did not plan for. You are let down. Depending on the situation and what actually ended up happening, it can devastate you. And then what? Either you try and forget it, do everything in your power to not let it deceive you, or you work with it and learn from it. This forces you to take on the new situation, and you are wiser for it. You alter your plan around the tragedy that has unfolded. The tragedy is now part of your plan.
But only if you allow it to deceive you. If you do not embrace the tragedy and look for a new plan, a plan that includes the sudden change of situation, you will continue down that tragic path. If you do not let yourself get deceived by tragedy, if you pretend it never happened, you cannot use it to grow. This is what Gorgias teaches us.
This is how leaders ought to take on tragedy. Allow the deception it brings. You will be a wiser leader when you do.