Voltaire, speaking in an age that deified reason remarked on the potential for its misuse: “The human brain,” he said, “is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.” It is true that we humans tend to shout down our Reason whenever it disagrees with our appetite. (I recently upgraded my Costco membership for a free pizza, for instance). But just as often it takes a salesman to convince us to buy something we do not need or cannot afford. This is why the first rule in sales is to overcome customer objections. When we waver over the decision to keep or part with our money, salesmen provide us with ‘reasons’ we should indulge our appetites, often against our better judgment. But the use of specious ‘reasons’ to defraud the unwary did not begin with the rise of the market economy; it is as old as human speech. The casuistry that persuaded our first parents to transgressions was finally codified into the formal technique of deception in argumentation called Sophistry, named for its propagators and practictioners, the Sophists of pre-Socratic Greece.
In Socrates’s day, the Sophists, (from whom derives the term sophisticated), earned their wages by professing to teach virtue, while actually teaching the art of fallacious argumentation and moral relativism.1 Socrates held a special contempt for these hucksters, and offered his system of dialectical logic as a remedy for the poisonous half-truths of Sophistry. It is telling that while the Athenians decided to keep the Sophists, they eventually executed Socrates for “corrupting the youth.”
Socrates bequeathed to the Athenians — and to us, a technique by which we can, if we want to, discern between truth and sophistry: dialectic. Dialectic, also known simply as logic, is a system of ordered argumentation based on observable reality. It is especially important to our own time, when Sophists again abound, championing, as they did in Socrates’s time, that sure-killer of civilizations, “moral relativism.” We are worse off than the Athenians, though, as the near omnipresence of the our media — print, television, and the internet – serves to amplify the voice of our Sophists and lends to them a an even more convincing appearance of authority than their Greek forebears.
Sophistry doesn’t depend upon technology for its force, and Sophists don’t necessarily seek to defraud their auditors of money. John Milton, the quintessential Renaissance man, and the one of the finest rhetoricians the world has known, wrote in a time when the printing press was the cutting edge of technology, and when writers depended largely upon patronage rather than book sales for their livelihood.
Known chiefly for his epic poem non-pareil, Paradise Lost, Milton was a Protestant revolutionary, who found even the newly-established orthodoxy of the Presbyterian church too constricting. Owing to his rebellious spirit, he spent much of his career writing pamphlets and treatises against the state and the established church. He was such an effective rhetorician that while one of his works against the English monarchy led directly to the execution of Charles I, his son, Charles II, when restored to the throne, kept Milton alive, realizing, like Augustus Caesar had realized, the indispensability to the state of a gifted poet.
Milton’s interests were not limited to the commonweal, however. When he wrote his treatise on maritial disharmony, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Milton left the arena of politics and returned to Biblical exegesis. In Doctrine, Milton supports the practice of divorce using evidence purportedly found in the Gospels. It is worth noting that Milton had a stake in the outcome of his thesis, since he sought and acquired a divorce from his wife at a time when the practice was all but impossible in England.
In essence, Milton’s argument in Doctrine is that since God readily breaks the commands dearest to him to spare his children suffering, he would just as readily break his commandment for a man to remain married to his wife except in the case of fornication, if it were an undue burden to the man.
Here is the argument set forth in book II of Doctrine:
What was ever in all appearance less made for man, and more for God alone, than the Sabbath? Yet when the good of man comes into the scales, we hear that voice of infinite goodness and benignity that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath.” What thing ever was made for man alone, and less for God, than marriage? And shall we load it with a cruel and senseless bondage utterly against both the good of man and the glory of God?2
Milton is so convincing because of the ethos he is able to quickly establish with his readers. In rhetoric, ethos means approximately the speaker’s apparent credibility and benevolence. A speaker establishes ethos by appearing to be informed on the topic about which he is speaking, and by seeming well-disposed toward his audience. Anybody who hopes to convince an audience must begin by establishing ethos. It is for this reason that a skilled salesperson will first offer refreshments and well-wishes before beginning his sales pitch.
When establishing ethos knowing one’s audience is of utmost importance. Milton’s intended audience was Christians who opposed divorce, and who depended upon the benevolence and grace of God for their own salvation. His use of Christ’s mercy to support his heterodox perspective on divorce is no accident.
Milton’s command of the English language further bolsters his ethos. If there exists a doubt in the mind of any reader who deserves the title of England’s chief poet, one need only read Book I of Milton’s Paradise Lost — a work that is peerless in its beauty in spite of its gross heresy.
The problem with Milton’s argument becomes clear if we examine its logical content, or logos. Fortunately, in Socrates’s method, we have a technique by which we can to cut to the heart of this matter. In order to expose Milton’s sophistry, let’s examine his chain of reasoning using the two interdependent types of dialectical reasoning, inductive and deductive logic:
Inductive reasoning is “. . .reasoning that takes specific information and makes a broader generalization that is considered probable, allowing for the fact that the conclusion may not be accurate.”2
Inductive reasoning is the type of reasoning we use to discern patterns and draw logical conclusions from experience. For instance, if, after observing Charlie for a time, I notice that Charlie wears blue shirts only on Thursdays, and I observe that today Charlie is wearing a blue shirt, I can, with some confidence, conclude that today must be Thursday.
One type of inductive argument called argument from example. Milton employs this type of inductive argument to arrive at the conclusion that God willing breaks his commandments out of his love for men to keep them from bondage:
1) God cherishes the Sabbath.
2) Implied premise: God esteems most those things
which are his own.
3) God abrogated the Sabbath out of his love for man in
this instance (Luke 13:16).
4) Therefore, out of his love for man, God breaches his
Deductive reasoning is the counterpart to inductive reasoning. Instead of moving from a specific instance to a general principle, it begins with a general principle, sometimes supplied a previous inductive argument, to a specific truth.
Deductive reason takes the form of the syllogism. A syllogism is made of a major general premise and a minor general premise, and lastly, a conclusion. If the major premise and minor premise are true in a syllogism, the conclusion MUST be true.
The classic example of the syllogism is the proof of Socrates’s mortality.
Socrates is a man. (minor premise)
All men are mortal. (major premise)
Socrates is mortal. (conclusion)
If we lay his argument bare of all rhetorical adornments, Milton begins with principle he claims to have established concerning God’s readiness to break his commandments, and concludes through a syllogism that God permits divorce.
Milton’s deductive argument uses the conclusion from the above induction as a major premise.
1) God allows abrogation of God-created institutions.
2) Marriage is a God-created institution.
3) God allows abrogation of marriage.
If we can disprove either of the two premises, we can demonstrate that the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. (A syllogism with a false premise can still contain a valid conclusion ,e.g. I am an American; I have shoes; therefore, Alaska is the largest state in the union.) However, if you can refute a claim in a syllogism, you can demonstrate that the author’s conclusion, whatever it is, was not arrived at in the manner he described. This puts the onus on the arguments author to reframe his argument or admit that it is invalid.
An example that refutes a claim is called a counterexample. One such counterexample to Milton’s premise that God abrogates his commandments in the case of human weakness is St. Paul’s continued prohibition of homosexuality 3, which demonstrates that some institutions, e.g. heterosexual marriage, remain inviolate, regardless of whether or not these constraints would be perceived as a fetter to a fulfilling life by some Christians.
In his first inductive reasoning to God’s readiness to break covenants, Milton committed a logical fallacy called Hasty Generalization, in which a person either deliberately or intentionally arrives at an erroneous conclusion based on scanty evidence. Again, logical fallacies are rhetorical slights-of-hand Sophists exploit to arrive at desired conclusions using specious premises. (Here is a list of logical fallacies).
By examining Milton’s argument stripped of rhetorical embellishments, we can see the kind of error into which his reasoning could lead (indeed has lead) the Christian church. While it is true that Christ fulfilled the spirit of God’s laws in ways that surprised the contemporary religious elite, he did so with perfect knowledge of God’s (his own) intention. In his exegesis of scripture, Milton notes rightly that Christ has the authority elucidate the commands of God as delivered to Moses; however, by an honest oversight, Milton forgets that he is not Christ.
The controversies over Milton’s, shall we say, liberal, interpretation of scripture have all but diseappared in modern discourse, while the power of his poetry and rhetoric have little diminished. It is possible for a Christian to read his poetry and to be swayed by his theology — especially in America where freedom is synonomous with Christianity in the hearts of many.
Logic then is not something best left to academicians, nor should its pagan origin dissuade Christians from making good use of it. Indeed, in his Stromata, St. Clement of Alexandria encourages us to observe to the serviceable wisdom of the ancient Greeks, since it was like a “schoolmaster” preparing the Hellenic mind to receive Christ, as the law had prepared the Jews.4
 Kerferd, G.B.The Sophistic Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.6.
 Milton, John, and Merritt Y. Hughes. “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.” Complete Poems and Major Prose. New York: Odyssey, 1957. 696-725. Print.
 Rom. 1:25-27 (KJV)