The Return of the Sophist

The Return of the Sophist

by Roger Scruton

The Times (London), Aug. 11, 1997

.... on the danger of philosophies sold from the shelf

The ancient Athenians, who roved far and wide in the Mediterranean, saw the
variety and absurdity of man's religions.
After centuries of successful trading, the local gods and festivals could no
longer satisfy their religious need. Their spiritual
hunger was exacerbated by the stress of city life, by the constant threat of
destruction, and by the grim vision of
totalitarian Sparta: the vision of Greeks living without light or grace or
humour, as though the gods had withdrawn from
their world.

Into the crowded space of Periclean Athens came the wandering teachers,
selling their wisdom to the bewildered
populace. Any charlatan could make a killing, if enough people believed in
him. Men like Gorgias and Protagoras, who
wandered from house to house demanding fees for their instruction, preyed on
the gullibility of a people made anxious by
war. To the young Plato, who observed their antics with outrage, these
"sophists" were a threat to the very soul of
Athens. One alone among them seemed worthy of attention, and that one, the
great Socrates whom Plato immortalised in
his dialogues, was not a sophist, but a true philosopher.

The philosopher, in Plato's characterisation, awakens the spirit of inquiry.
He helps his listeners to discover the truth, and
it is they who bring forth, under his catalysing influence, the answer to
life's riddles. The philosopher is the midwife, and
his duty is to help us to be what we are - free and rational beings, who lack
nothing that is required to understand our
condition. The sophist, by contrast, misleads us with cunning fallacies, takes
advantage of our weakness, and offers
himself as the solution to problems of which he himself is the cause.

There are many signs of the sophist, but principal among them are these:
mumbo-jumbo, condescension and the taking of
fees. The philosopher uses plain language, does not talk down to his audience,
and never asks for payment. Such was
Socrates, and in proposing him as an ideal, Plato defined the social status of
the philosopher for centuries to come.

No one should doubt that sophistry is alive and well. Many of today's gurus
are sophists: Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger,
Lyotard, Rorty, to name but five. But those that are alive make their profits
through the university system, giving lectures
that pretend to be educational. The pre-Socratic practice, of offering private
guidance to the bewildered and curing their
troubles by squeezing their purse (a practice which creates a powerful motive
to leave bewilderment behind), has been
the monopoly until recently of the psychoanalysts.

But we have entered the post-modern era - the era when beliefs and faiths are
available off the shelf. More and more
people are turning to philosophy, a kind of Which? report on available
options. And what is the use of guidance if it
cannot be packaged for the consumer, as the personal ointment to his personal
wound? Louis Marinoff, Professor of
Philosophy at New York's City College, has been first off the mark in
exploiting the new cultural climate. If philosophy is
to be marketed successfully, then people must pay for it. For people value
goods according to the price required to
obtain them, and in a consumer culture only what is costly can console.

Professor Marinoff compares his goods favourably with those of the
psychotherapist. Discussing a recent case in which
he treated a woman haunted by her dead brother's spirit, he said:
"Psychotherapists would say she is recreating the guilt
triggered by her brother's death. But it may be possible, according to some
belief systems, that there was something
there. I am there to help the client understand her belief system."

The remarks were reported in the New York Observer, and may not be verbatim.
But they tell us much about the
professor's vision of his trade. No longer does the philosopher guide us
towards the truth, through awakening our
inherent reasoning powers. He parades before us a catalogue of "belief
systems", helps us to identify our own among
them, up-to-date. And no doubt in order to persuade the client that her money
has been well invested, the favoured
"belief system" will be dressed up in suitable mumbo-jumbo, and priced at a
rate that will make it psychologically
necessary for the client to persuade herself that she is being cured.

Small wonder, then, that Professor Marinoff's wheeze is catching on, and New
York's psychotherapists are hurriedly
lowering their fees in response to the only competition they have had since
the collapse of the old religions.

The sophists are back with a vengeance, and are all the more to be feared, in
that they come disguised as philosophers.
For, in this time of helpless relativism and subjectivity, philosophy alone
has stood against the tide, reminding us that those
crucial distinctions on which life depends - between true and false, good and
evil, right and wrong - are objective and
binding. Philosophy has until now spoken with the accents of the academy and
not with the voice of the fortune teller.

When Plato founded the first academy, and placed philosophy at the heart of
it, he did so in order to protect the precious
store of knowledge from the assaults of charlatans, to create a kind of temple
to truth in the midst of falsehood, and to
marginalise the sophists who preyed on human confusion. Little did he suspect,
however, that he was providing the
sophist with his ultimate disguise.