The Sophistication of Sophistry

The Sophist takes refuge in the darkness of not-being, where is at home and has the knack of feeling his way, and it is the darkness of the place that makes him so hard to perceive… Whereas the philosopher, whose thoughts constantly dwell upon the nature of reality, is difficult to see because his region is so bright, for the eye of the vulgar soul cannot endure to keep its gaze fixed on the divine.

– (Plato, The Sophist, 254a-b)

We have become both too cautious and too imprecise with use of the word “sophist”.  It has become among the worst insults one can throw at an academic—and thus is said rarely, in the open—but has also become rather vague; one could attain the same effect by declaiming someone as a “fraud”.  Perhaps it reflects upon the decline of education in the liberal arts and the increasing pursuit of STEM, but it strikes me that academic invective ought to be cleverer and more precise.  A fraud is nothing to fear, but only someone who makes a living on bad research, bad writing, on obscuring his or her own intellectual and educational deficiencies.  There are probably a great many more frauds (of varying degrees of fraudulence) in the university than there are sophists, though it is also doubtless that every sophist is also a fraud.

For a sophist, succinctly put, is not merely someone who claims to be wise, but claims to possess wisdom.  This means more than claiming to be a sage, a source of knowledge and guidance.  Rather, the sophist claims, as the possessor of wisdom, to be for others a source of truth. That is, the sophist does not teach us to see for ourselves, but knowing the darkness, can guide us through it—making us trust them.

To be a sophist is not, therefore, merely to do something, but to be something; it is not merely a way of acting here and there—smooth-talking one’s way through the halls of the ivory tower, disarming questions in a conference Q&A, obscuring the shallowness of one’s thought through layer upon layer of jargonistic veneer—but a way of being and a trait of one’s personal character.  It is to drag us into the darkness at which they are home, into the obscurity where they live, and convince us that it is better to follow them through the convoluted paths they know by heart than to seek the light outside.  This was the art of the sophists of antiquity exposed by Socrates and Plato; but the sophists did not decline with Athens.  Sophistry, like poverty, always exists somewhere and somehow—in the 21st century no less than in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC.

The allure of the sophists is not in what they are, but in what they mimic: the philosopher, who does not claim to possess but rather to love wisdom, as something beyond the human grasp but not invisible to the human intellect; rather, as what is supravisible.  But where the philosopher draws our attention to a light behind him or herself, the sophists draw our attention to their own abilities in guiding us through the darkness of their own making, the darkness they create by blocking out the light.

Today, the sophists are running the universities: not only with stifling bureaucratic technocracy, but in the classroom and the departmental meeting, in the academic press and especially the academic journal; not only in the departments of science, but also in the arts; not only in English literature and history, not only in language and classics, but also in the departments of philosophy of theology, where sophistry does the most damage.

The historical account of sophistry’s ascent requires a careful and complex analysis of not only the past few decades, but the past several centuries; and not only of the explicit systems of education that have since been put into place, but also of the technological, political, and other social factors weighing upon development in the Western world.  Rather than undertake such historical analysis, our focus here today instead will be placed upon the nature of wisdom and sophistry, and briefly describing how the two stand in culture today.

In the Light of Wisdom…

The legend of Socrates’ philosophical life begins with the Oracle at Delphi; having heard from a friend that the Oracle had declared no one in the world to be wiser than Socrates, the world’s first philosopher set out to disprove this claim: for he did not believe himself wise, and, knowing that others had a reputation for wisdom, set out to discover at least one person whom he could definitively pronounce wiser than himself.  What he found, repeatedly, were experiences that echoed his first (Apology, 21c—d):

I gave a thorough examination to this [wise] person… and in conversation with him I formed the impression that although in many people’s opinion, and especially in his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not.  Then when I began to try to show him that he only thought he was wise and was not really so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of the other people present.  However, I reflected as I walked away, Well, I am certainly wiser than this man.  It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of, but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.  At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.

It is often difficult to read Socrates’ admissions of complete and total ignorance as not being at least a little tongue-in-cheek.  Yet I also think that, given certain aspects of the Platonic theory of knowledge (and that Socrates’ words, even when belonging to a historical person and not merely Plato’s mouthpiece, are always through the interpretation of Plato), “knowledge” is not something that any good Platonist would claim to possess; at best, one sees the intelligible and thus touches upon knowledge given the beneficence of the Good.

Thus as Socrates goes on (ibid, 23a—b):

…the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value.  It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us, The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.

That is, real wisdom here is the ability to have knowledge of what truly is; we human beings, for all our wisdom, catch only glimpses.  This “all or nothing” kind of contrast has a kind of rhetorical efficacy, but I do not think it accurately portrays the nature of human wisdom.  By contrast, we find a more moderate approach in Aristotle, who extracts a definition of wisdom from the consideration of the characteristics applied to those who are wise; that is, he writes (Metaphysics 982a 3—19):

Since we are seeking this knowledge [wisdom], this should be examined: about what sort of causes and what sort of sources wisdom is the knowledge.  Now if one takes the accepted opinions we have about the wise man, perhaps from this it will become more clear.  We assume first [1] that the wise man knows all things, in the way that it is possible, though he does not have knowledge of them as particulars.  Next, we assume [2] that the one who is able to know things that are difficult, and not easy for a human being to know, is wise; for perceiving is common to everyone, for which reason it is an easy thing and nothing wise.  Further, we assume [3] the one who has more precision and is more able to teach the causes is wiser concerning each kind of knowledge.  And among the kinds of knowledge, we assume [4] the one that is for its own sake and chosen for the sake of knowing more to be wisdom than the one chosen for the sake of results, and that the more ruling one is wisdom more so than the more subordinate one; for the wise man ought [5] not the commanded but to give orders, and ought not to obey someone else, but the less wise ought to obey him.

Aristotle then expounds on these five characteristics and describes in more detail what they entail, such as that the object of wisdom must be universal, among the first or primary things, and thus the causes of all else, things known not for the same of something else, but for their own sake, and that it is therefore a rule knowledge subordinate to no other but rather guiding and directing all others.  Despite this, and despite the evident human capacity for possession of it, Aristotle, too, recognizes the divine character of wisdom (982b 26—938a 11):[1]

It is clear then that we seek [wisdom] for no other use at all, but just as that human being is free, we say, who has his being for his own sake and not for the sake of someone else, so also do we seek it as being the only one of the kinds of knowledge that is free, since it alone is for its own sake.

For this reason one might justly regard the possession of it as not appropriate to humans.  For in many ways human nature is slavish, so that, according to Simonides, “only a god should have this honor,” but a man is not worthy of seeking anything but the kind of knowledge that fits him. If indeed the poets have a point and it is the nature of the divine power to be jealous, it would be likely to happen most of all in this case, and all extraordinary people would be ill-fated.  But it is not even possible for the divine power to be jealous, but according to the common saying “many lyrics are lies,” and one ought not to regard anything else as more honorable than this knowledge.  For the most divine is also the most honorable, and this knowledge by itself would be most divine in two ways.  For what most of all a god would have is that among the kinds of knowledge that is divine, if in fact any of them were about divine things.  But this one alone happens to have both these characteristics; for the divine seems to be among the causes for all things, and to be a certain source, and such knowledge a god alone, or most of all, would have.  All kinds of knowledge, then, are more necessary than this one, but none is better.

Thus we can define wisdom as the intellectual virtue—that is, that excellence of the mind—whereby an individual is able (however infirmly) to grasp the truth about the highest causes and their causal efficacy in the universe.  This knowledge is not for the sake of or capable of being subordinated to any other task but is the pinnacle of understanding.  To be wise is truly an exceptional trait, the chief consequence of which invariably is humility: for in understanding the causes and order of all the universe—not in all its particulars, but its essential structure—even if only a little bit, one cannot but help realize one’s own intellectual infirmity.

…or the Darkness of Sophistry?

By contrast, consider what one finds today in the typical university, from mission statement, core offerings, program descriptions, lip service to academic freedom, vocational / STEM orientations, and see if anywhere within it you find something about wisdom in the sense given above.  With rare exception, you will not.  Rather, you are more likely to find—where you would expect discussion of wisdom—claims about improved critical thinking, social justice, dialogue, and how an education in the liberal arts prepares one for the job market of the future.  At its worst, one might find something about the wisdom of oppressed or minority groups, wherein, examining the content itself, one finds nothing about the first causes or principles.

Now some will—and have already—object that Aristotle was able to speak about “wisdom” as a virtue whereby one understands something of the whole universe and thus as a virtue which a human being could possess because there was not much knowledge in Aristotle’s time.  A lot has been discovered since 322bc.  Can we really claim to understand how it all works?  Is it not better to have a very diverse group of highly-specialized experts from whom a conglomerated picture of the world can be formed?  Animating this fragmentary vision of knowledge—seen less as parts of a continuous whole grounded upon common principles—is the Enlightenment-born spirit of scientism: the belief that the scientific method is the one true means to attaining an insight into the world of our experience, and that all else produces naught but opinion.  Tied up with this scientism is a thirst for power, control, and material progress—which has consequences beyond the scope of this essay to discuss.

While this has seeped into the culture beyond the walls of the ivory tower (“I f***ing love science!”, etc.), it is from within its darkened halls, offices, and classrooms that the decay of wisdom has spread.  Richard Weaver describes this rot in his well-known 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences (53):

At this point [of Enlightenment-derived scientism] the student ceases to be doctor of philosophy since he is no longer capable of philosophy.  He has made himself an essentially ridiculous figure, and this would have been perceived had not the public, undergoing the same process of debasement, found a different ground on which to venerate him.  Knowledge was power.  The very character of the new researches lent them to ad hoc purposes.  It was soon a banality that the scholar contributes to civilization by adding to its dominion over nature.  It is just as if Plato’s philosopher had left the city to look at the trees and then had abandoned speculative wisdom for dendrology.  The people who would urge just this course are legion among us today.  The facts on the periphery, they feel, are somehow more certain [which is to say, they have confused the things “better known to us” for the things “better known in themselves”].

The modern knower may be compared to an inebriate who, as he senses his loss of balance, endeavors to save himself by fixing tenaciously upon certain details and thus affords the familiar exhibition of positiveness and arbitrariness.  With the world around him beginning to heave, he grasps at something that will come within a limited perception.  So the scientist, having lost hold upon organic reality, clings the more firmly to his discovered facts, hoping that salvation lies in what can be objectively verified.

From this comes a most important symptom of our condition, the astonishing vogue of factual information.  It is naturally impossible for anyone to get along without some knowledge that he feels can be relied on.  Having been told by the relativists that he cannot have truth, he now has “facts.”  One notes that even in every day speech the word fact has taken the place of truth; “it is a fact” is now the formula for a categorical assertion.  Where fact is made the criterion, knowledge has been rendered unattainable.  And the public is being taught systematically to make this fatal confusion of factual particulars with wisdom.

The fatal confusion of factual amalgamation for genuine wisdom is evidenced by the continued fragmentation of the university today, and especially within the often mis-named philosophy departments.  One finds job postings with increasingly specific requirements, either in specialization, competence, or ability to teach certain courses.  Some of these will still be reasonably general—ancient or modern (seldom medieval), ethics or law—but oftentimes even these become high qualified: applied business ethics, or feminist critiques of law; modern philosophy, sure, but from the perspective of contemporary analytic issues, as well as the ability to teach Africana philosophy of race and gender; the history of philosophy, but placed into new and dynamic narratives.[2]

As academics and especially philosophers dive farther into the particulars—that is, while academics in the sciences have the particulars for their discipline-specific objects of study, they need always to be studied in a manner such that their significance can be reconciled with some greater and meaningful whole—their concerns get further away from the truth.  This deviation becomes especially pernicious given the career-mindedness fostered by universities today: the flow of funding tends to go to those most prolific, and those most prolific tend to be those who take the easiest road (often painting it as the most difficult).[3]  The career-advancing tasks of the academic, then, become about building prestige through publishing in the right journals, presenting at the right conferences or being invited to the right universities, and even now becoming highlighted in the right public media.

And so as the centralized institutions of the Western world are being abandoned in the wake of the new digital paradigm, people are looking elsewhere for guidance, but often with deep suspicion.  Who is there to trust, today?  Who can lead?  People will turn to someone like Jordan Peterson because he appears intellectually sophisticated; but having read a bit of his Maps of Meaning and skimmed through 12 Rules for Life, it strikes me as no coincidence that “sophisticated” is derived from “sophist”.  Indeed—as I have stated frequently, it seems, over the past year or so—the sophistry of modern academia is so sophisticated that the sophists themselves seem to genuinely believe themselves philosophers.  Ignorant of what wisdom truly is—or, through their systematically-constructed, institutionally-reinforced ignorance, in disbelief that any such thing could actually be attained—the sophists are deeply entrenched in their own sophistry, and all too happy to take the confused souls wandering through the dark and guide them along the way.

Wouldn’t it be better to step into the light?

[1] One should also refer to Aquinas’ commentary, 1270/71: In Metaphysicae, lib.1, lec.2, and 1259/65: Summa contra Gentiles, lib.1, c.1; and can benefit also from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s 1934: The Sense of Mystery: Clarity and Obscurity in the Intellectual Life, 3-46.

[2] Not a single one of these qualifications is something which I have made up, but something seen on

[3] Consider the latest issue of Nous, a very highly-reputed philosophy journal, which includes among its articles, “The Expansion of Thick Concepts”, for which the abstract reads: “This paper proposes a new Separabilist account of thick concepts, called the Expansion View (or EV). According to EV, thick concepts are expanded contents of thin terms. An expanded content is, roughly, the semantic content of a predicate along with modifiers. Although EV is a form of Separabilism, it is distinct from the only kind of Separabilism discussed in the literature, and it has many features that Inseparabilists want from an account of thick concepts. EV can also give non‐cognitivists a novel escape from the Anti‐Disentangling Argument. §I explains the approach of all previous Separabilists, and argues that there’s no reason for Separabilists to take this approach. §II explains EV. §III fends off objections. And §IV explains how non‐cognitivist proponents of EV can escape the Anti‐Disentangling Argument.”  This jargonistic mess is not meaningless, but its meanings are so far removed from any natural language or natural experience as to be near incomprehensible to any but an expert—but in essence, is saying very little of real substance or that will advance any human grasp on meaning.  Another article in the same journal concludes its abstract with “Thus the paper aims not only to do some constructive theorizing about the relatively neglected topic of normative explanation but also to cast light on the broader question of how normative explanation may be similar to and different from explanations in other domains.”  What is this article doing for human understanding?  Virtually nothing, except clothing itself in ever-more-complicated language.

2 Replies to “The Sophistication of Sophistry”

  1. Brilliant! Love it. Thank you. I am using your introduction the philosophical principles to teach some of my teachers at my classical academy. Thank you for a great philosophical work free of jargon and full of clear thinking and love of the real.

    I may have met you at a Gilson conference in Huntington, Long Island a few years ago?

    Liked by 1 person

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