Aaron Sorkin’s television show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip aired in 2006. Already, the show feels somewhat dated and when watching it with our children my husband and I found ourselves trying to explain how the public debate was different at that time. (Just as one example, these days we hear more about the white supremacists than the religious right, but the show focuses on the latter, not the former.)
There is something fun about stepping outside of the time period and thinking about the debates of other time periods. It is part of what I do in the secular Bible studies classes I’ve been teaching. I try to help the students see the debates that took place in other eras. It is also something I enjoy reading about.
Right now I’m reading the book Philo and Paul among the Sophists. The book takes me back in time to the first century CE. Philo, a Hellenized Alexandrian Jew, led an appeal to the Roman emperor to argue on behalf of the Jews of Alexandria. Paul, a Jewish-Christian, attempted to guide a church in Corinth, even from a distant. This book looks at how both Philo and Paul attempted to distinguish themselves from the Sophists of the time.
Sophists were orators. They were criticized in their time for accepting money from their students and for focusing on public praise rather than on truly promoting virtue. Philo suggested they “pour forth the sophist-talk which wars against virtue” (85) and that they made success, not righteousness, a virtue.
How strange and fascinating it sounds to read the criticism of sophists! What would the ancient writers have thought of our celebrities today? They would have been appalled. False news? Clickbait? I feel self-conscious of my own writing. Do I write things at times not to promote goods but in hopes of praise? (Or likes or those rare comments and even rarer shares?)
Or think about the argument that the sophists were wrong to take paying students, because that excludes some of the great minds while including others who have no real interest in philosophy. That argument sounds pretty modern, in a way. It sounds relevant to discussions about universities and whether we should have free access to universities.
The argument that the sophists were wrong to take paying students also makes me think about teaching classes on Outschool. There’s always the debate between whether the classes should be priced affordable for parents or so that they pay the teachers a reasonable wage. There’s the question of whether one tries to find the popular market and teach for that or whether one teaches what one loves, even if there’s less students. There’s the question of to what extent teachers alter their teaching in ways that are detrimental to student’s actual learning in order to not get bad reviews but instead keep students registering. Should teaching be a marketplace? Certain ancient philosophers would argue no. I presume they had wealthy patrons.
This is not to idealize ancient times. Few people had recognized rights. There were huge problems. But at the same time, they were having some interesting debates and it is helpful I think to read about those debates and to think about them.
I think of people today say “don’t judge” and how many ancient writers would probably say instead “judge well.”