The Sophistic(ated) Traveler

so·phis·ti·cat·ed Adjective   /səˈfistiˌkātid

  • Having, revealing, or proceeding from a great deal of worldly experience and knowledge of fashion and culture

So, one of the things that always strikes me as important to understand about the Sophists was that not only are they considered to be the first professional teachers in the European history, as well as the “founders” of rhetoric, they were also extremely well-traveled.

(Given that I am a teacher, study rhetoric, and have a passion for travel, this is probably not too surprising!)

But seriously, the fact that all the first sophists were born in various “colonies” around the Mediterranean, spent much of their lives touring from place to place, serving on diplomatic missions, giving lectures, and generally having a good time — this gives us an insight into one of their most significant ideas; namely, that kairos is everything.

Like many other sophistic concepts, kairos can be a little difficult to pin-down. But I basically use it to mean “situatedness” — the idea that everything must be understood and evaluated in terms of its context.

One of the common attacks on the sophists is that they were “relativists” (something I’ll address later when I talk about Plato). But if this criticism has any validity, it’s easy to understand why many sophists tended to take the position expressed by Protagoras that, “Man is the measure of all things.” If you spent most of your life traveling back and forth from various Greek city-states, and you observed, for example, that Sparta had a vastly different system of government, training for young men, and customs concerning women than, say, Abdera or even Athens, well, it wouldn’t take you long to realize that humans can hold and express vastly different views on similar topics. It also wouldn’t take you long to recognize the importance of adapting what you say, and how you say it, depending on where you are!

It makes me think about when people learn that I’ve lived in or traveled to over 500 cities in thirty countries, and they ask, “Well, which place is your favorite?”

The only truthful thing I can say is, “Well, it depends. Favorite in what sense?”

But this answer is never satisfying to people! What they want is a single answer, and absolute BEST PLACE, and so over the years I’ve learned that the most effective way to respond is to say something like, “Well, the history of India is incredible, and the food in Japan is amazing, and Europe has such fantastic art. But I live in [BLANK] now, and I really like it.”

As cynical as this might sound, for most people who haven’t traveled much, the only truly acceptable answer to the question, “Which place is best?” is, “Why, here of course!”

It’s often said that travel broadens the mind, and if there’s any truth to that, I suppose it’s because when you experience other cultures and begin to see the great variety in human beliefs and behavior,  the wide range of options humans have for organizing themselves and living, it makes you both more adaptable and more critical. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it makes a person both more adept at figuring out how to fit in to a new place (more attentive and appreciative of cultural differences), but also less beholden to any one particular set of values or beliefs. And ironically, this kind of “tolerance” is often seen as a threat to those who believe their own ideas and practices are the only sensible ones.

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