Thinking about bullshit, I was reminded of the standard interpretation of the Greek sophists. The sophists tend to be seen through the eyes of Socrates which is to say through the words of Plato. But we are using a lens of understanding that is covered in more than two millennia of dust and grime.
I’ve long known that trying to grasp anything in the ancient world can feel like a near impossible task, even if too alluring to refuse the attempt. Understandably, we feel compelled to pull back the curtains of the past, hoping to get a glimpse. It isn’t entirely fruitless endeavor, as we have accumulated much evidence, although more scanty than is preferable.
The problem is less the evidence itself and more about how to make sense of it. After millennia of accrued interpretive traditions, it is hard to see the past with clear eyes and new insight. We inherit biases about texts and history, it being hard to separate the one from the other.
David Corey has a book on the topic, The Sophist’s in Plato’s Dialogues (see Lee Trepanier review). If he is correct, that upends the standard view. It would mean Plato’s motives in writing were more complicated, but it more importantly would mean what he wrote about was more complicated.
He points out that Plato references multiple times that Prodicus, a sophist, was Socrates teacher. His argument is that the sophists are often portrayed in positive light and that a close reading shows that there are many commonalities between Socrates and the sophists. They share methods and purpose in philosophical debate. They share a view of a manifest world that is relative and uncertain. And they share a commitment to human virtue that challenges tradition.
In one dialogue, Socrates makes a fairly direct defense of the sophists, in arguing against an unfair and unfounded criticism of them. What is interesting about the criticism, corrupting society, was later used against Socrates. And this is when it is good to remember that Socrates was also sometimes referred to as a sophist.
If sophists were bullshitters and their bullshit was a threat to Athenian democracy, then what does that say about Socrates? He too was judged as a threat and it is a fact that he did associate with some people who actually did threaten the society by enforcing authoritarian rule. It was a time of instability and so it’s clear why so many Athenian citizens feared anything that further destabilized the vulnerable democracy. But when is guilt by association a justified judgment?
The punishment for Socrates was only banishment and yet he chose death, which basically made it an act of suicide. He willingly drank the poison, instead of simply leaving. I don’t know that there is any evidence that his accusers wanted him dead. Socrates remained a well respected philosopher and public figure, even after his death. Banishment wasn’t even always permanent. So, why did he choose suicide which is permanent?
The main perspective we get on all of this, of course, is from Plato. In the Republic, Plato presents a utopian vision that is non-democratic in nature. That is the earliest inspiration for republican thought, at least in the American tradition of political philosophy. What occurred to me is that this republican ideology was articulated by someone living in a democracy and so, if implemented, this republican society would have followed after a democratic society.
Maybe such republicanism could only ever have been imagined in a democratic society. Because of modern revolutions, we define republicanism in opposition to the monarchy that it replaced. But that isn’t the context of that earliest republican thought. Instead of republicanism primarily being a revolution against monarchy, maybe it first and foremost is a reaction against democracy.
That could be seen in the American colonies where democratic self-governance had been developing for decades prior to the American Revolution and later the co-opting of power by the (pseudo-)Federalists who believed republicanism was opposed to democracy. So, the fight for democracy preceded the enforcement of republicanism. And, yes, it was an enforcement… ask those involved in Shay’s Rebellion who were violently put down.
So, what is Socratic dialogue and sophistry? And what are their relationship to rhetoric and bullshit? If Socrates or Plato had been alive in the revolutionary era of the American colonies, what would they have given voice to and whose side would they have taken? Or if they were here in America today, what role would they play? Do philosophers have much role to play at all in our society? When was the last time a member of the philosophical elite was perceived as enough threat to be deemed treasonous?
One last thought. Harry Frankfurt, in “On Bullshit,” argues that bullshit is more copious in a democracy. Is that really the case. I’ve argued against this. Whether or not there is more bullshit in a democracy, there is no doubt plenty of it. And bullshit ends up undermining democracy. Similar to an eye for an eye, bullshit for bullshit leads to us all being covered in it. There is no moral high ground on top of a pile of crap.
But how do we know what is bullshit? According to Frankfurt, that is to ask about intentions, in terms of sincerity and insincerity. Some of the critics of Socrates and the sophists claimed to know their intentions and that their intentions were not good. That apparently was a serious charge to make against someone back then. As for charges of treason these days, the issue of bullshit is irrelevant. What our society idealizes is the truth and hence what the powers that be fear is those who tell the truth. The most treasonous are the whistleblowers who leak government documents showing inconvenient truths, even if they had the best of intentions such as revealing illegal acts and moral wrongdoing.
For Socrates and the sophists, along with other Greeks, sincerity was of penultimate importance. Bullshit was seen as a threat because it was insincere, a value considered central to their small intimate democracy. We now take insincerity as the norm. Sincerity is too personal of a concern for such an impersonal society as ours. It’s harder to have personal concern for hundreds of millions in a large modern nation-state than to have personal concern for a few thousand in an ancient city-state. We are more tolerant of bullshit maybe for the sake of simplicity, as we can’t go around worrying about the moral intentions of so many strangers who we will never meet.