Friday, December 16, 2005

Plato's take on bullshit

Despite their somewhat differing philosphical views, one thing that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all shared in common was a great disdain for the Sophists. The Sophists were a professional group skilled in the art of rhetoric who taught debating skills, famous for being able to argue either side of any given issue persuasively.

What irked the three aforementioned philosphers a great deal was the Sophists purported ability to "prove" any position. Plato and Aristotle viewed sophists very much as the ancient equivalent of the bullshitter, a person to whom truth is incidental to his purposes. Indeed, it is through the works of Plato and Aristotle that the negative connotation of the word sophist has come into common usage.

In the dialogue Gorgias, Plato, using Socrates as a mouthpiece, questions Gorgias (who is based on a well known contemporary Sophist of the same name) about the nature of rhetoric. Gorgias admits to Socrates that the purpose of rhetoric is persuasion

After this admission Socrates begins to ask Gorgia if there is not any other means of persuasion besides rhetoric, and if there is a difference between "having learned" and "having believed." The point Socrates is making is that there are two forms of persuasion: one which leads to knowledge , and one which leads to belief without knowledge.

Up until this point Gorgias had maintained that rhetoric was the most noble of arts. Here Socrates begins to challenge that claim. The ultimate point that Plato seeks to make through Socrates is that the rhetoric of the Sophists, by its creation of belief irrespective of truth, is an ignoble art. Plato draws this charge out of his metaphysics, in which he believes the good is the pursuit of truth, to which Plato means a higher plane of transcendent reality (Plato's cave parable illustrates this view.)

While I don't think Plato's metaphysics has much merit - it was through the early Church fathers absorption of Plato's metaphysics (via Plotinus) that the notion of a "higher" Heavenly plane of reality, more real than this one, came to be a part of Church doctrine - I don't think one needs accept Plato's metaphysical beliefs to appreciate his criticism of rhetoric directed at getting someone to believe something irrespective of its truth value.

Apparently, bullshit was as irksome in Plato's day as it is now.

Blogger's Note - While the Sophists were heavily criticized, they were not completely without merit. In a future entry I'll explain what the Sophists got right.


Unknown said...

Down with the Sophists!

gawker said...

I wonder if this in any way has any relevance to contemporary politics. hmmm.

Hume's Ghost said...

The chief employers of the Sophists were young, affluent men seeking a career in politics.

Its also interesting to note that part of the reason why Plato didn't like them has to do with his distaste for democracy ... he views the easy manipulation of public opinion as a justification for the rule of philosopher-kings.

Neoconservatives look to Plato (as intepreted by Leo Strauss) as their inspiration. They just don't mind bullshit as much as Plato did; they instead embrace it.

JB said...

What about Plato's metaphysics do you not like / believe?

I find your interpretation of Plato interesting (read: wrong).

1) Plato did not have a disdain for democracy - he called it the "fairest of all regimes" in the Republic (Book 7 or 8 I believe).

2) Uh, Plato clearly says that the Philosopher Kings cannot rule - it's the Third Wave (Book 5). They may tell Noble Lies, but "easy manipualtion of public opinion" is not his justification for the philo-kings, it is the image of the ship (Book 6) the one who "knows" what ought to be done and when (or where the ship should go) ought to rule by this virtue. Philosophers, he argues, are the ones who know. The sophists don't - they claim to know but cannot prove it and worse some even argue there is no such thing as justice and that a political success screws over anyone they can while looking philanthropic (which actually makes things worse than better for the everyone else).

weird interpretation.


Hume's Ghost said...

I'm a metaphysical naturalist, so that should make it obvious what I disagree with about Plato's metaphysics.

1. Plato was critical of Greek democracy - this isn't my interpreation ... this is common knowledge about Plato. From the internet encyclopedia of philosophy

Why does Plato not consider democracy the best form of government? In the Republic he criticizes the direct and unchecked democracy of his time precisely because of its leading features (557a-564a). Firstly, although freedom is for Plato a true value, democracy involves the danger of excessive freedom, of doing as one likes, which leads to anarchy. Secondly, equality, related to the belief that everyone has the right and equal capacity to rule, brings to politics all kinds of power-seeking individuals, motivated by personal gain rather than public good. Democracy is thus highly corruptible. It opens gates to demagogues, potential dictators, and can thus lead to tyranny. Hence, although it may not be applicable to modern liberal democracies, Plato’s main charge against the democracy he knows from the ancient Greek political practice is that it is unstable, leading from anarchy to tyranny, and that it lacks leaders with proper skill and morals. Democracy depends on chance and must be mixed with competent leadership (501b)

2. I think you've misunderstood what I was saying. The rule of philosopher kings would be justified as a means of preventing sophists from corrupting democracy by manipulating public opinion.

And, yes, Plato did decide in the Laws to go with the rule of law rather than philosopher-kings.