The Great Sophist

Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle (the third volume of his Order and History) studies Plato’s exposes of the Sophists, especially in The Republic.

It has become clear to me that these clever men, whose inherent corruption so troubled Socrates/Plato, were the true models of much of modern Western society.

“Plato described the Athenian society in which he lived as the Sophist written large, explaining the peculiarities of Athenian order by referring them to the socially predominant sophistic type,” says EV, and it seems to be true again in our own day.  The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

In EV’s words, “In Plato’s immediate environment the sophist is the enemy and the philosopher rises in opposition to him; in the wider range of Hellenic history, the philosopher comes first and the sophist follows him as the destroyer of his work through immanentization of the symbols of transcendence.”

These “symbols of transcendence” seem to me the rhetorical use of reason, the existence of truth and right order, and the concept of justice.  These are the classic tools of the Advocate, taught in law schools and embodied in politics.  But they have also become the tools of the mass media and higher education, among others homes of the elite.

Again EV paraphrasing Plato: “The general social environment in courts, assemblies, and theaters is the principal formative influence on young men, not the teaching of this or that individual sophist.  The many who exert the continuous pressure are ‘the Great Sophist’.

Plato/Socrates, The Republic:  “The individual sophists who teach for money have no doctrine of their own but echo the opinion of the multitude; and that is what they call their wisdom.  The professional sophist is rather comparable to a man in charge of a ‘great beast’;  he will study the habits of the animal and find out how to manage it.  Good will be what the beast likes, and bad will be what arouses its temper.”

Another “type” which seems to characterize modern society is the Therapist, as ably articulated by Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic).  But I begin to suspect that the Therapist is yet another variation on the Sophist.  He is an Advocate for the person paying the bills, spinning arguments to demonstrate that the subject is not responsible for his own problems.   (Consider the modern role of defense psychiatrists in courtrooms, invariably arguing for a frame of mind that renders the accused person less than fully responsible for his crimes.)  As EV put it, “The sophist proclaims his disease as the measure of human and social order.”

Flannery O’Connor wrote that “Plato’s enemies were the Sophists, and Socrates’ arguments against them are still today the classical arguments against that sophistic philosophy of existence which characterizes positivism and the age of enlightenment.”

Plato puts the contrast between philosopher and the sophist in the starkest possible light when he writes in The Laws: “God is for us (philosophers) the measure of all things, of a truth;  more truly so than, as they (sophists) say, man.”

Or, as EV put it, “The validity of the standards adapted by Plato and Aristotle depends on the conception of a man who can be the measure of society because God is the measure of his soul.”

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