My Charlatan, Your Writer?

I have recently come to enjoy the apposition, particularly if separated by punctuation - and have Anne Carson's "The Life of Towns" to thank for this. If there are two people standing side by side, in a portrait, this does not necessarily mean they have been equated, even if something has been unified within the artifice of the frame. As one may be standing next to any manner of thing or person today, one may find the application of the frame quite amusing. But I digress. One apposition in this post will again be: Plato's Socratic dialogue, Protagoras, which I am still thinking about.
The section of the Protagoras I am specifically interested in is the end, when Socrates says: "I like the Prometheus of your fable ... I take Promethean thought continually for my own life when I am occupied with all these questions" (361d) because it turns out the Protagoras reference reappears in the work by a later sophist, Aelius Aristedes, titled "To Plato, In Defense of Oratory".
The Prometheus of Protagoras' fable saves man from Epimetheus' lack of wisdom in squandering all the "stock of properties" or "equipment" (from Lamb's translation) on animals, not leaving enough for man (320d-321c). Prometheus comes to find man, "naked, unshod, unbedded, unarmed; and already the destined day was come, whereon man like the rest should emerge from earth to light." It was Prometheus who sought the preservation of man and stole fire from Hepheastus and wisdom from Athena - being unable to steal civic wisdom, as this was found in the dwelling-place of Zeus (the two other gifts being in the buildings belonging to the respective gods; 321c-e).
We note that Plato writes: "Prometheus, through Epimetheus' fault, later on ... stood his trial for death", which seems to foreshadow Socrates' own death, which was also in part due to civic law, which Socrates respected and so drank the poison. We know Socrates respected the law because of what he said in the Crito: one is "to suffer, if [one's country] commands you to suffer, in silence, and if she orders you to be scourged or imprisoned or if she leads you to war to be wounded or slain, her will is to be done, and this is right, and you must not give way or draw back or leave your post, but ... everywhere,  you must do whatever the state, your country, commands, or must show her by persuasion what is really right" (51b-c).

We note Plato's words, that Prometheus stood trial for a fault not his own. It is the fault in the civic arts, and is curiously linked to persuasion, which is the immediate domain of the sophists, as opposed to the more distant and lofty attempt to reach truth by philosophers through dialectics, discourse. We note Socrates saying, "I take Promethean thought continually for my own life when I am occupied with all these questions" - questions of whether virtue can be taught. If it could be taught, wouldn't justice always be what is right? In which case, Socrates would not have stood trial.
The Protagoras ends with Socrates saying to the sophist that he would like to reconsider the issue: "lest perchance your Epimetheus beguile and trip us up in our investigation [361d] as he overlooked us in your account of his distribution". It seems also a play on words, because Epimetheus means afterthought; Prometheus, forethought. The Epimetheus tale tripped them up because it was used by Protagoras to illustrate that all men could be taught justice - which in the tale was not brought by Prometheus, who could not steal it, but by Hermes, who asked Zeus whether he should give it to some men or to all, "'To all,' replied Zeus" (322d).

This tale was retold by Aelius Aristedes in "To Plato, In Defense of Oratory". In his telling, Hermes does not "divide oratory as if it were a distribution of the festival fund, so that all in turn might share it ... but to select the best ... and to hand the gift to them, so that ... they could save themselves and others." Although like in the Protagoras, this gift brings organization to cities and political science, here, as seen from the quotation, it was given but to a few. What a clever answer to Plato, except that, like Plato's criticism in Gorgias, speech is presented as omnipotent: Aristides writes, "from that time [of being given oratory man] has had the power to use the things on earth as he wishes, making reason his shield". Though he does write that through this gift, man "brought thank offerings to the gods, the initial ones being the first fruits of their speeches, in which, reason proves, even now the gods much delight, because first from that source they came to recognize the gods."
An article about sophists by George Duke at the IED distinguishes philosophy from sophistry through "the mercenary character of the sophists and their overestimation of the power of speech". The mercenary, "subordinating the pursuit of truth to worldly success", is contrasted with the full-time and passionate pursuit of wisdom. "The philosopher, then, considers rational speech as oriented by a genuine understanding of being or nature. ... The sophist uses the power of persuasive speech to construct or create images of the world and is thus a kind of ‘enchanter’ and imitator." Words are so important because actions, for the philosopher, are to be consistent with them, and "emanate" from life experience. Duke nonetheless suggests that the difference between sophistry and philosophy is less methodological and theoretical than an "ethical orientation" in which "the sophist is likely to lead to a certain kind of philosophising ... which attempts to master nature... rather than understand it as it is" viewing knowledge as a finished product, transmittable to all. He concludes that the philosopher differs from the sophist, "in terms of the choice for a way of life that is oriented by the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself while remaining cognisant of the necessarily provisional nature of this pursuit".

Now that I have recognized that even today there is criticism of academic sophistry or charlatanism, I am noticing it everywhere, and not just in the obvious places. There seems to be no middle ground, both sides arguing that their side is not understood wherever it is criticised. Refraining from comment on the most recent example of criticism, I shall focus on Dalrymple's assessment of Žižek because of the conclusion he draws, which parallels a helpfully conciliatory point made by Duke, namely, that the sophists made genuine contributions to philosophy. Dalrymple writes, "I am not against charlatans; I even admire them if they are amiable, as of course the vast majority of them are (an unamiable charlatan is almost an oxymoron)", and concludes that life without charlatans would be rather dull. I would like to suggest that without the sophists, many of Plato's dialogues would not exist. There is something to be said about apposition...
But I will conclude by writing about writing - because when I wrote that I see criticism of sophistry everywhere, I meant that I even found it in a 1923 essay, echoing views still circulating today, by F. L. Pattee called, "The Present Stage of the Short Story" (which, we note, predates even Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which laid out the impractical nature of creative writing). "At least one college professor of literature has proved the value of his short-story course by cold figures: a given number in his last class had a given number of stories accepted by the magazines within six months with a total cash return of a given number of dollars. From this known data it was easy to compute ... the approximate cash value of a first story" etc. "Short-story writing is therefore ... a handwork vocation to be acquired by  mere ... mastery of technique. Moreover, it is taught ... as a newly discovered literary form ... Why study Milton and Matthew Arnold when one can take a literary course breathing the very life of one's own day? Read O. Henry and ... learn the rules ... with words to market 'worth ten cents per.'" It sounds like sophistry - but sophists had some good ideas.
As a final aside on writing, the Aristides link went, authored by Jona Lendering. If you have not yet seen his AHM, do take a look at the recent posts, and consider donating to the kickstarter campaign for the magazine.

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees. Brush: pastel from pugly pixel.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a rich and stimulatingly sourced post. Mr. Duke's quote is apt: "The sophist uses the power of persuasive speech to construct or create images of the world and is thus a kind of ‘enchanter’ and imitator." The critique of sophistry often comes to rest on the mirroring complication of mimesis. If a vote were taken as to whose prose referenced here would win the enchantment award, I'd nominate Mr. Dalyrimple. His witty illogic wins hands down.


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