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The Social and Psychological Roots of Machiavellian Thinking and Sophistic Thought

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This article was first published November 18, 2014, at Philosophers for Change.

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"For as we have said, the art of the sophist is a money-making art which trades on apparent wisdom, and so sophists aim at apparent proof, for sophistry is an appearance of wisdom without reality." --- (Quoted from Aristotle's On Sophistical Refutations, 171b32-7. Tr. E. S. Forster. Loeb Classical Library Vol. 400 (Harvard, 1955. P. 63)

The human mind is a marvelous set of formations and systems. It is the epicenter of consciousness and action. The human mind can form a unique identity. It can create its own view of the world. Rich experiences can emerge from its interactions with the world; bedeviled experiences also can transpire to destroy awakening.

The mind thinks, it feels, it wants, it has the ability to apprehend truths and suppress errors. It can achieve insights and it can fabricate prejudices, sabotage its own thinking and chloroform thought. Both useful truths and harmful misconceptions are the intermixed products of the human mind. The human mind can easily believe what is false, as well as what is true.

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The human mind has the propensity to see beauty in right conduct and justify what is flagrantly unethical within bad conduct. It can love and hate, engineer illusions or confront reality. It can be kind, it can be cruel. It can advance knowledge, or it can promulgate error. It can be intellectually humble and honest or intellectually arrogant and perfidious. It can be empathic or narrow minded. It can be open or it can be closed. It can achieve a permanent state of expanding knowledge or a deadening, smothering state of narrowing ignorance and throttled thought. It is said to both transcend the creatures of lesser ability, while it more than often insults their innocence and nobility by its ignoble self-deception and repeatedly unconscious or conscious cruelty.

If these assumptions about the human mind are true, then the question at issue is: how can humans create within their own minds such an inconsistent amalgam of the rational and irrational? The answer is clearly self-deception bred from culture, history, sociology, race, gender, exploitation and propaganda. The human mind is built on a socially constructed pyramid of thought.

In fact, perhaps the most accurate and useful definition of humans is that of 'the self-deceiving mammal'. For deception, duplicity, sophistry, delusion and hypocrisy are the foundational products of human nature in its 'natural', primal and untutored state; but it is not instinctive and subjected to fate. But, rather than reducing these negative tendencies, most 'schooling' and socio-cultural influences redirect them, rendering them more sophisticated, more artful, more obscure and more inclined to deception and illusion.

"One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun." ----- Niebuhr Reinhold

To exacerbate this problem, not only are humans socially constructed to be self-deceptive, they are, in their primal state, unsurprisingly socio-centric as well. Every culture and society sees itself as special and as justified in all of its basic beliefs and practices -- in all its values and taboos. The arbitrary nature of its folkways is known to its anthropologists (if it has any) but not to its overwhelming majority. Take the notion of 'American Exceptionalism' as one example.

When we look closely at human decisions and human behaviors, we can easily see that what counts in contemporary human life is not who is right, but who is winning; those who possess power in the form of wealth, property, and weaponry are those who decide what truths will be trumpeted around the world and what truths will be ridiculed, silenced, or suppressed.

The corporate mass media of the world generate an unending superfluity of messages that continually sacrifice truth to 'spin', knowledge to mere belief and independent thinking to delusional dependent thinking. When we reach beneath the surface of things, extend our minds beneath the Orwellian canopy within which we labor and live, we find a world in which the word 'communicator' and the word 'manipulation' virtually collapse into simulated synonyms.

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The Proficient Manipulators

We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society
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There are a small group of people who are skilled in the art of manipulation and control and they use this skill to threaten the survival of the planet and its occupants. These are the Machiavellians, their name taken from the philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who understood what the ruling elite needed to maintain domination over the mind and thus the material control of the world (https://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1943/machiavellians.htm).

These people are shrewdly focused on pursuing their own self-interests without respect to how that pursuit affects others. In fact, others are only prey for their minds and self-interested agendas.

Though they share many of the characteristics of uncritical thinkers, they have extraordinary qualities that separate them from uncritical persons.

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I am an author and investigative journalist who has written more than four hundred articles for Truthout, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Daily Censored, Project Censored and more. I received two awards from Project Censored, one in 2010 and one (more...)

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