Curse of the Sophists

Curse of the Sophists

“Plato described sophists as paid hunters after the young and wealthy, as merchants of knowledge, as athletes in a contest of words, and purgers of souls. From Plato’s assessment of sophists it could be concluded that sophists do not offer true knowledge, but only an opinion of things. Plato describes them as shadows of the true, saying, “[…] the art of contradiction making, descended from an insincere kind of conceited mimicry, of the semblance-making breed, derived from image making, distinguished as portion, not divine but human, of production, that presents, a shadow play of words—such are the blood and the lineage which can, with perfect truth, be assigned to the authentic sophist”. Plato sought to distinguish sophists from philosophers, arguing that a sophist was a person who made his living through deception, whereas a philosopher was a lover of wisdom who sought the truth. ” – Shiappa, Edward. “Protagoras and Logos” 

Some call it fake news. Some call it a biased media. Some call it simple sophistry.

People, like politics, are complicated. Their values and priorities, needs and comforts, personalities and strengths and weakness are unique. Humanity is complex. So complex that, to fully understand it, we might consider various disciplines that have attempted to explain us: philosophy, religion, economics, the various schools and branches of psychology and biology, to name some.

Politics, like people, is complicated too. But most of what we know as politics – scraped from between the toes of cable news and radio and newspapers and magazines – is gutter slime. It is smegma. It is toe jam. It is the sliver of yesterday’s steak stuck between our teeth, stinking in its smoldering decay.

Drama and literature are art. As art forms, drama and literature may attempt to explain some of the complexity that is the human condition, i.e., the complexity that is us.

Drama and literature can also be entertainment. Drama and literature can be both art and entertainment. And drama and literature can still be “art” while mostly being entertainment.

Shakespeare wrote drama. Tolstoy wrote literature.

Soap operas like General Hospital are drama too. My grandmother’s Harlequin Romance novels were literature too.

Modern sophistry masquerading under the banner of politics is The Bold and the Beautiful or Riviera Romance, not Tolstoy or Shakespeare.

“The Sophists were orators, public speakers, mouths for hire in an oral culture.  They were gifted with speech.  They were skilled in what becomes known as Rhetoric.  They were respected, feared and hated.  They had a gift and used it in a manner that aroused the ire of many.  They challenged, questioned and did not care to arrive at the very best answers.  They cared about winning public speaking contests, debates, and lawsuits and in charging fees to teach others how to do as they did.” – Philip A. Pecorino 2000.  Classroom notes on Introduction to Philosophy.

But soap opera politics is palatable to a foolish audience too dumb or lazy for the efforts of Othello or Anna Karenina. It is easy and escapist and exciting and sleazy and cheap and salacious, just like soap operas or pulp romance or detective novels. It may cause your heart to flutter or your dick to swell, but it rarely excites the intellect. Likewise, gutter slime politics can be fun, like a Hostess Twinkie or a MoonPie, but a horrible thing for prolonged nourishment.

Mainstream politics is junk food politics as soap opera is junk food drama. It entertains while providing the illusion of having a taste for real drama. It provides the illusion of having a genuine interest or appreciation for real drama or literature. Soap opera politics gives the illusion of having some understanding of something real that’s beyond our ability or will to comprehend at any deeper level. It provides easy satiation with belief instead of knowledge. It is for the truly unwise.

It is garbage. It is gutter slime. Junk food politics is for the same folks who can’t appreciate art if it’s subtitled cause reading while being entertained is just too much fucking effort. Gutter slime politics is for those too dumb or lazy to be entertained by Kurosawa or Rohmer or Tarkovsky because mindless entertainment and the minor effort of reading don’t coincide. If appreciation or comprehension of something takes effort, then none will be had.

We don’t want Plato or Shakespeare or Tolstoy. They are too difficult. We’d rather have “the shadows of the true” of the sophists. We’d rather have the talking heads of CNN and FoxNews and the editors at Whatever Times or Post and their rhetoric. We’d rather have pablum and rhetoric than hard facts and truths and the burden of piecing them together cogently. We submit to the arguments of the billboard lawyer offering legal defense on an easy installment plan, us being too stupid – unlike the cunning, educated judge and opposing lawyer – to see through our shady lawyer’s guile. Sophist politics is the defense villainizing the prosecution and the prosecution villainizing the defense, with winks and nods and smirks exchanged between both lawyers and the judge as they exploit the naive defendant and his accuser. As plaintiffs and defendants we are rubes, both believing to be entangled in a fair system of justice that serves us instead of itself.

So we submit ourselves to the courtroom of Judge Judy and squabbles over pilfered earrings and infidelity. We frolic in its salaciousness, completely oblivious to the proceedings in the Supreme Court – convincing ourselves there is no difference since our main interest – justice of any sort – is the same in TV courtrooms as on One First Street in Washington.

“Rhetoric is a single performance before a mass of ignorants for the sake of power.” – unknown author, possibly John Poulakos
“Philosophy is cooperative dialectic with few, committed interlocutors seeking wisdom before appearances.” – unknown author, possibly John Poulakos

We want the sophists of cable news and newspapers. And if it isn’t enough, we go even deeper into the territory of even more obvious and obnoxious charlatans. We exchange televangelists and conspiracies and conspirators and their emotional and psychological appeal for the difficulty that is The Republic. We perk our attention to Pat Robertson or Alex Jones instead of the difficulty of Aristotle or Dostoevsky.

We choose mainstream or fringe sophists because they keep us dumb while making us feel smart. We choose lots of sugar with cheap, artificial flavor to anything more subtle or complicated. We choose sophists because we love their easy, soap opera versions of drama. We choose the sophists’ drama because, after all, drama is drama whether it’s General Hospital or the drama in the emotional and psychological nuances within War and Peace. We choose sophists instead of Plato or Shakespeare for the world of grays the sophists offer us. We choose the grays of the sophists, smugly satisfied in knowing it’s more sophisticated than mere black and white. So we elevate our grays to the willful ignorance of the worlds of Tolstoy and Shakespeare’s vibrant but scarily complex colors of our humanity.

We hate one another because we follow and listen to and are prodded and cajoled by sophists of different flavors. We hate one another instead of the sophists that dupe and divide us. That is their cunning. That is the billboard lawyer’s brilliant guile. That is the stench in our towns and cities that we’ve grown used to. It is the stench that has infused itself into our souls. It is a stench soaked into our bones and teeth – a stench that in millenniums will identify our remains as belonging to this stupid age. Perhaps we hate one another because we’re too lazy for Rashomon. Perhaps we wallow in our gutter slime politics of one artificial flavor or another because it unites us in some perverse way. It unites us behind As the World Turns or Days of Our Lives. We club and spit and claw over which one is best. And maybe the point of all the cheap unity and division is for us to remain willfully ignorant and to distract us from anything else but cheap and salacious daytime dramas.

We choose the gray world of the sophists, knowing it’s bullshit. We choose to believe in bullshit that we don’t believe in. We try to believe the bullshit that we know isn’t true. We accept their soap opera version of the world and ourselves, then try to fit ourselves into it, knowing all along it’s bullshit.

We are the televangelist’s congregation. We know that his miracles and channeling of the power of God is nonsense. We know that speaking in tongues is emotional, psychological and linguistic epilepsy and nothing more. Nothing divine. But we are dumb. We are so dumb and lazy that it’s easier to try to believe the nonsense than to fill our hollowness with any real knowledge or understanding. So we choose to “believe”, knowing all along it’s bullshit, which, by proxy, probably makes us bullshit too.

In the same way, we accept the sophists’ world of grays, knowing the reality of the colors of existence don’t, won’t and can’t jive with it. And when the colors of the real world – the real world that includes us – when its colors bleed into our convictions and certainties of grays – we lose our shit. Yet, the culture becomes more and more entangled in the illusion of grays. We fester and fight that the rest of the world doesn’t see most things as Grayscale #7. We fight because, if others could and would see things as we do, we wouldn’t fester so much. We submit to the idiotic entanglement of teams of gray, knowing it resolves itself in nothing more than confusion, hatred and resentment rather than meaning or any real solutions. Is it any wonder we seem to have lost our fucking minds and souls? Well, it’s claimed that Plato called the sophists “purgers of souls.” If that’s what he really said, then he might have been right.

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