Book Review: The Ancient Art of Thinking for Yourself

Douglas C. Bates
8 min readMar 13, 2024

Addressing the ancient question: do you have ideas or do ideas have you?

These days “rhetoric” has nearly become a slur word, but for much of the history of Western civilization, training in rhetoric was a standard part of the curriculum for those educated beyond grammar school. This came to an end with the advent of mass public education. In The Ancient Art of Thinking for Yourself, author Robin Reames describes how the public — both in antiquity and in the present day — unfamiliar with the tools of rhetoric, becomes easily manipulated by rhetoric — much to their harm, not only individually but collectively. Reams rightly points out that people need a basic familiarity with some of the most powerful and commonly used rhetorical techniques to defend themselves from manipulation. To that end, Reames’ book is an easily read and useful antidote.

The book is intended for general readers. It also has an appendix useful for educators who might wish to include the book as part of an introductory class on rhetoric or related topics, such as debate. I’ll argue below that it is also a worthwhile read for those interested in the modern practice of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and especially, Pyrrhonism.

One of the rhetorical techniques the book will inform you about is the creation of narratives. Even when facts are established and agreed upon, the facts can be selected and arranged to produce different stories, to persuade the reader towards desired conclusions.

This review unabashedly engages in this rhetorical technique, as I wish to lead readers on a somewhat different path from that which Reames leads her readers on, but these two paths cross and merge so many times one might think they were going to the same place — and they almost do so. Readers familiar with this column know that its primary topic is ancient Greek philosophy in general and Pyrrhonism in particular. Reames’ book isn’t about either of these, but it is very much about the Sophists.

Rhetoric is the mother of philosophy. It was the Sophists’ invention of rhetoric that ignited the Classical era of Greek philosophy. Their influence on that philosophy is profound. These days many people are turning to the ancient Greek philosophies of life as self-help programs, most particularly Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Pyrrhonism. To fully understand those philosophies, one needs to know about rhetoric and the Sophists. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the first book by one of the most successful contemporary promoters of Stoicism was titled, Trust Me, I’m Lying — a confessional about the author’s success with misleading rhetoric.

Like “rhetoric,” these days “sophist” is a slur word: someone who engages in devious argumentation. The Greek term from which “sophist” is derived did not originally carry that meaning. It just meant a wise person, and it was applied to teachers of arete such as Socrates. “Arete” nowadays is commonly translated as “virtue,” but at the time its meaning was closer to “excellence,” albeit with an emphasis on ethical excellence.

Some of these Sophists were great original thinkers regarding the use of language. Three of them were particularly important: Gorgias, Protagoras, and Socrates.

“Wait! Wait!” some readers may be interjecting here. Socrates wasn’t a Sophist! He was a philosopher!

Welcome to the power of narrative to mold thinking.

Such readers have subscribed to the narrative Plato created after Socrates’ death. It’s not a false narrative. It’s just one that highlights certain facts and applies certain labels. Plato came up with the term “philosopher” to distinguish Socrates from the other Sophists, but during his life, Socrates was considered to be a Sophist. Like Gorgias and Protagoras, Socrates was an innovator in the use of language. Aristotle credits Socrates with the invention of formal definition. Remember, at this time there was no such thing as a dictionary. Socrates contributed a crucial innovation, because one of the rhetorical techniques commonly in use at that time was to play on the ambiguities of meanings of words to lead people to false conclusions. (N.b., this example about Socrates is my own and not the author’s).

It wasn’t just that in those days words had ambiguous meanings, even the concept of truth did not exist in the way it does now — a fact often ignored or glossed over in works on Classical and pre-Classical Greek philosophy. Reames tackles this important issue in the book’s first chapter, as it is critical to how rhetoric functions.

Before Plato and Aristotle changed what people thought truth was, the term in Greek translated as “truth” — alethia — literally means “uncovered.” The Greek metaphoric idea of truth was that truth was an exception that shined forth whereas the rest remained unrevealed. As such, the opposite of true for them was not false, but hidden. The choice of metaphor (covered in chapter 3) influences how people think. Sometimes, as in the case of alethia, these metaphors are baked into the language. Those who wish to change minds must work against them.

Strangely enough, this idea of truth being something revealed is not merely a quirk of ancient Greek; it’s an insight into the psychology of persuasion. Much of the rhetorical technique of narrative is about choosing which facts to reveal and which to keep covered. One of the alures of conspiracy theories is that they make believers feel like they are in on some hidden truth.

It’s worth mentioning that Robert Pirsig weighed in on this issue in his colossal best-seller, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In Pirsig’s telling, the Sophists were the ones who taught arete. Plato demoted arete from its position of highest honor in Greek thinking to being in second place, after Truth and the Good. That which is true is good; that which is good is true. Subordinating arete to the True and the Good set the stage for Aristotle to further demote arete to being merely a topic in ethics, and to separate the True from the Good, putting the True at the top of the hierarchy.

Reames reminds us Aristotle did something else here. He invented formal logic, and in formal logic the opposite of alethia isn’t that which is hidden, it is that which is false. While nearly everyone consciously agrees with Aristotle now, parts of our minds still work in the old ways. Reames provides the example of how frank, unscripted speech conveys a revealed authenticity that makes people feel they are receiving the truth, as contrasted to scripted speech that makes people feel like things are being carefully hidden from them.

As Gorgias pointed out, “language is not the things themselves.” Everything we think about is mediated by language. All assertion of fact is supported by other assertions. While the distinction between primary and secondary sources is important, for the kinds of political matters that consume so much contemporary attention, what people know is all mediated by the media, taking the discourse far away from the facts.

Reames shows how easy it is to get away from pesky facts. Regardless of whether something is true, in rhetoric, something is a fact only if it is agreed upon. If one makes a claim such as “birds are not real,” the reality of birds is no longer a fact. Birds become the object of doubt and investigation. Hence mere denialism can be used to fuel even the most outrageous of beliefs.

These are just a few of the rhetorical techniques Reames introduces the reader to. Her aim is to teach the reader to think rhetorically. As she says, “Thinking rhetorically prompted listeners to think more skeptically about the ultimate aim of the rhetoric and not just about whether they believed the words were true.”

Thinking rhetorically is a crucial element in Pyrrhonism (switching narratives again here) — which is a major reason I offered to review Reames’ book. (I was provided a pre-publication copy). One nice thing to see in the book is that Reames’ describes outcomes of rhetorical thinking that parallel outcomes of Pyrrhonist thinking. For example:

“Eventually, you’ll find that you become more and more comfortable with being uncertain. And you’ll even find it odd that being uncertain about a topic once provoked a sense of anxiety, or that it was once difficult to remain deliberately uncertain. The natural instinct is to defend and shore up our beliefs rather than to expose them to critical analysis and questioning.”

“One of the biggest differences that comes from thinking rhetorically is that more of your sentences will end in question marks than in periods (or exclamation points!). You’ll begin to notice how ideology is subtly persuading you, in nearly imperceptible ways. How it preys on your deepest fears and your strongest desires. How it manipulates your values, how it tricks you. All of this will lead to a different way of talking. Rather than agreeing with allies and disagreeing with opponents, you’ll find yourself more and more comfortable with — and delighted by — the sweet spot of agonistic disagreement: the place where your tentative agreements and disagreements are suspended in a state of tension with one another, where they are allowed to change and evolve over time.”

“As much as possible the aim is to be more critical of the views you are inclined to sympathize with than those you are inclined to be critical of.”

The reason for this is that the target of both Pyrrhonism and rhetorical thinking is the pernicious grip that certain kinds of beliefs have on us.

My one criticism of the book is, oddly, a rhetorical one. Reames tells us that her interest in rhetoric was kindled by political arguments with her father while she was growing up. Her father was a conservative, and prone to falling hard for conservative fear-mongering. The stirring up of fear is a powerful rhetorical device. For example, he stockpiled massive numbers of incandescent bulbs because of fear that they’d be outlawed.

While on several occasions in the book Reames points out that the use of rhetorical thinking opens up many perspectives, every example she gives of rhetorical manipulation is an example of right-wing usage. The book would have been more persuasive if she had taken a more balanced approach by including left-wing usages and non-political usages, such as in marketing. I sense that the audience Reames would most like to reach are those like her father. Unfortunately, that audience is going to pick up on the one-sidedness of the narrative. Their belief-defense mechanisms will kick in, and they’ll stop reading. Or worse, they’ll post about this in their book reviews to persuade others to pass the book by. This would be a great pity.

Another great pity would be for liberals to come away from reading the book with a sense of smugness, thinking that only those idiot conservatives fall for rhetoric, and that all they got out of the book was a refinement of their already good judgment.

To learn more about Pyrrhonism, see my book, Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, or see this short introduction to Pyrrhonism.



Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”