Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The Tallinn Lectures--I. Sophist Blindfold Or Escape From the Cave?

The Basic Either-Or Option

Many of the great men of the western past warned against too easy an acceptance of the lessons of immediate sensual and emotional experiences, fearing that their powerful impact would divert necessary attention away from the thought and reflection which could place them in their proper perspective. Any unquestioning love affair with the messages sent by the intense sensations of ordinary daily existence would, they argued, ensure loss of a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and how to pursue that meaning and fulfill it. A romance of this kind would only guarantee indulgence in what was superficial, deceptive and ultimately completely self-destructive.

Nevertheless, the dominant forces of the contemporary western world encourage just such a passion. In varying ways, they all insist that voluntary abandonment to the teaching of surface phenomenon, far from being a frivolity, is actually the only realistic approach to existence that men and women can possibly embrace. Anyone seeking meaning, fulfillment and joy in life must energetically fight off that temptation to deeper thought and reflection which prevents “closure” and “moving on” to satisfaction of the ever changing and evolving messages of immediate sensation.

Study of the roots of the militant modern preference for the shallow over the profound must begin in the ancient, pagan world. For the conscious encouragement of a spirit favoring “closure” and “moving on” over “stepping back” and “reflecting” is already noticeable in the Classical Greece of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C., especially in the eye-opening period of the Peloponnesian War and its dismal aftermath (431-336 B.C.). This is because Greece, as the home of the first insightful discussion of the meaning and practice of education, paideia, inevitably provoked the original vocal battle between those primarily valuing either the lessons of surface phenomenon or the hunt for underlying and more nuanced truth. (The following discussion on the battle of Socratics and Sophists is based on the work of Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Oxford, 1986, 3 Volumes)

Epic, lyric, and dramatic poets were the first teachers of Hellas. They sought answers to the basic issues of life by asking aesthetic questions; by making queries regarding the meaning of beauty. Aesthetic preoccupations led them to tackle the problem of how best to educate for a knowledge and possession of “the Beautiful”. That hunt for the tools essential to a primarily aesthetic formation gradually became “holistic”. It slowly uncovered the need for consultation with, and guidance from, a variety of different sources: the individual and his immediate desires, the family and its long-term requirements for stability, and---perhaps most importantly---the demands of the polis, the city-state, in its search for attainment of a common as opposed to a merely individual or familial “beautiful” life.

The reputation of the polis as an aesthetic, educative, guiding force was enormous at the end of the Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.). Athens and Sparta, its two greatest contemporary representatives, had assured their polis’ prestige by winning a victory over the most impressive power in the world; a force before which, in startling contrast, a number of important individuals and purely family-dominated Greek lands had humiliatingly cowered. Such an unexpected but clear triumph made it appear that the community-focused polis could, in effect, accomplish absolutely anything.

It was for this reason that Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), in his Oristeia trilogy, has an unending cycle of superhuman vengeance and counter-vengeance concluded through polis-shaped (i.e., political) judicial action. Beauty, education, and the polis, one might have said; now and forever; one and inseparable.

Unfortunately, however, it was precisely the same cherished polis of Athens and Sparta which revealed insane, self-destructive passions and limitations during and after the Peloponnesian War, thereby stimulating further debate regarding the basic tools required for a proper education designed to gain possession of the beautiful. Control of the renewed dialogue passed out of the hands of the poets alone, who had said everything that they could possibly say on all sides of this issue of paideia by the time of Euripides (480-406 B.C.).

Greece, even before this moment, had witnessed the emergence of a quite different approach towards education, along the lines suggested by the first philosophers, the so-called pre-Socratics. These thinkers wished to replace an aesthetic understanding of man and nature with one founded firmly upon knowledge of the material structure of the universe itself; a “scientific” knowledge of its constituent elements. But pre-Socratic approaches to life and education proved to be too radical a break with the traditional aesthetic vision for the mainstream Greek world to accept. They were rejected, in particular, by two schools of thought both active in the war and post-war period, which were themselves destined to lock horns in mortal combat.

One of these schools was that of the Sophists, men concerned with rhetoric, the successful use of language. Sophists, in effect, argued that the old-line aesthetic approach to hunting for the Beautiful was correct, but that it needed to be organized, taught, and followed much more rigorously if it were to become a sure foundation for the individual, the family and society. The other school was that of Socrates (469-399 B.C.), who, while also retaining much of the traditional aesthetic approach to education, felt a call to critique, transform, and elevate it. The battle that this entailed was related for us not by Socrates himself but by his most brilliant pupil, Plato (427-347 B.C.). And Plato reveals the nature of the conflict in his debate with Isocrates (436-338 B.C.), perhaps the most self-conscious and instructive proponent of the opposing, sophistic, rhetorical approach.

Plato’s great achievement as a philosopher and as an educator was one of demonstrating that the classical Greek formation of an individual for the possession of the beautiful required an understanding both of the nature of goodness as well as of the underlying truths of the universe for which the pre-Socratics were groping. He presented Socrates, his model teacher, as a “soul doctor”, a man who sought the cure of moral and intellectual flaws in his continued hunt for aesthetic perfection. Education for beauty in the fullest possible sense was indeed a holistic project, Plato insisted, but an exciting and dramatic one, drawing the individual closer and closer to God, the measure of all things, shaping his soul as an image or icon of the divine as he advanced.

Every tool that the Greeks had come to consider to be important--the polis included--had a crucial role to play in this all-encompassing, life-long enterprise. Nevertheless, those valuable tools were flawed, each and every one of them. Paradoxically, the means of education themselves required correction and improvement at the hands of the individual “icons” that they helped to shape. Soul doctoring could be a perplexing, immensely difficult, exhausting task, involving much meditation and self-questioning. And such an enterprise could not help but appear to be a pointless, frustrating detour to those on a perpetual hunt for “get possession of beauty quick” schemes; those interested in “closure” and “moving on”.

“Pointlessly frustrating” was certainly the criticism attached to Platonic education by Isocrates, who claimed the title of philosopher with as great a sense of justice and fervor as his fellow Athenian did. Still, apt student of the Sophist Gorgias that he was, Isocrates understood philosophy to be a wisdom that only the trained rhetorician could possibly grasp and use properly. This inevitably meant that his definition of any Good or Truth underlying the Beautiful would differ considerably from the one given to them by Socratics eager to pass beyond the borders of rhetoric alone.

For Isocrates, there was no question of seriously critiquing, transforming, and possibly even rejecting the immediate emotional and sensual experiences and preoccupations of the ordinary man. Man was the measure of all things, and unquestionably correct in his urgent, common sense appreciation of the importance of obtaining the riches, power, and fame that he obviously knew would yield the beautiful life. The average individual’s sole problem was a technical one: he could not relate one, justifiable, obvious, common sense experience to another, and thereby understand how best to exploit and satisfy them regularly and comprehensively. His efforts to explain his reactions to daily problems, both to himself as well as to others, proved to be “dumb” ones. It was effective words, and the arguments shaped through them, which were lacking to the average man. Only the well trained rhetorician, the master of words, could clarify the full depth of immediate feelings and experiences, show where they were headed, and stir people to do what was necessary to fulfill their promise. The Good and the True were, therefore, ultimately nothing other than “appropriate” explanations and developments of those obvious and common sense reactions to the raw stuff of daily life which are themselves absolutely infallible guides to the possession of Beauty.

To take but one simple example, the average person might be said to have an eminently justifiable, positive, common sense reaction to the powerful feeling and experience of sexual passion. Nevertheless, without the right words and arguments to explain his “opinions” regarding this formidable force de la nature, he is not able to relate the meaning of his reaction to experience properly; not even to himself. Pragmatic efforts to gain the full promise of sexuality and cause it to work together with other deeply felt experiences about which he has positive “opinions” are even further out of his reach. It is the rhetorician who illuminates Everyman through the use of appropriate and stimulating words, demonstrating the key to sexual understanding and its link with the multitude of other desirable goals.

But how will Everyman know that the rhetorician is “speaking appropriately”? The answer to this question is also an obvious one. For the master rhetorician’s advice will not only “sound right”---clearly, consistently and self-assuredly responding to the average individual’s personal sense of the obvious truth of his own preoccupations, and where, more or less, those concerns are headed. Beyond that, it will prove itself by being crowned with success. Hence, Isocrates’ recognition of his need to underline the simplicity, lucidity, harmony of purpose, confidence, and material achievements of his pupils, while contrasting them with the cranky and unfathomable detours, self-criticisms, bitter divisions, and practical failures of the Socratics.

Isocrates longed to prove rhetoric’s ability to gain possession of the Beautiful on a grand, world scale. In order for him to find the key to such great success, the philosopher/rhetorician had to begin with the study of the raw experiences and the common sense reaction to them not merely of an individual, but of an entire people, since only a city-state or nation could conceivably become a long-term driving force in global events. The work of Herodotus (484-424 B.C.), Thucydides (mid-400’s-403 B.C.?), Xenephon (430?-355 B.C.?) and others offered guidelines as to how such historical data might be collected. Rhetoricians like Isocrates saw one of their tasks as being that of explaining to a population the appropriate greatness to which its otherwise “dumb” historical experiences were calling it. History thus came very early under rhetorical purview and influence, partly to its profit--- since it became more readable, dramatic and effective---but very often to its severe detriment, being transformed into a tool for propaganda.

From the raw history of his environment, Isocrates claimed to learn a number of important principles: that there actually was a Greek people, united by a shared culture, Hellenism; that the essence of Hellenism was the development of the illuminating, life-giving, and unifying “word”; that the universal value accruing from appropriate use of “the word” gave to a Greece which possessed knowledge of its significance a world-wide cultural mission; and, finally, that this universal vocation had been shown to involve the sea, struggle against Persia, and imperial expansion.

Fulfillment of future Hellenist destiny would require two things simultaneously. On the one hand, it was crucial to maintain a constant respect for the “good old days” of the foundation of the Greek spirit and the institutions giving clout to it. On the other, it was necessary to shape a loyal population obedient to any vigorous, strong man who might guide that spirit to the discharge of its contemporary mission. Moreover, the institutions embodying the spirit of the good old days, the strong man giving them clout and the populations obedient to his fist were to be stirred to their appropriate political roles through the vital words of the creative rhetorical genius.

But “philosophy”, as defined by Isocrates, can easily constitute a gigantic circle, manipulated by the rhetorician who, through the clever use of appealing words and images, may seize control of the familiar concerns of the average man or State and run with them where he wills. Common sense experience is pronounced the infallible basis for action simply because the experience appealed to is declared “common sensical” and an infallible basis for action. Successful attainment of riches and power is said to prove the appropriateness of the rhetorician’s understanding of the beautiful life and ability to guide Everyman to fulfill its promise because possession of riches and power is presented as unquestionable, axiomatic proof that beauty has indeed been grasped. Respect for the “good old days”, contemporary strong men, and obedient populations are essential because denial of such esteem to any one of these elements would rip apart the “beautiful” rhetorical image tying together ancient roots with present hopes and future destiny, mass popularity, and elite power. And all those aspects of “the vision” were necessary since experience had proven them necessary to construct the career of the master of words, whose success worked to guarantee the validity of their union.

Absolutely no questioning of “obvious experience”, “common sense”, “success”, the “historic mission” and the consistency of the tools required for its realization could be contemplated, lest this lead to the unacceptable argument that obvious experience, common sense, success, the historical mission, and its vital tools were themselves somewhat problematic. Isocrates makes a virtue out of abandoning any deeper investigation of the meaning of life once he has shaped what for him appears to be a rhetorically beautiful “point of view’ with a chance of obtaining a successful outcome. That “point of view”, if attractive and potentially useful, must be accepted as though it were Truth itself. With this, the debate is over. Closure has been achieved. One must move on to accomplishment of the Great Promise, or face the wrath of the rhetorician and the outraged nature whose infallible voice he has infallibly proclaimed himself to be.

And the rhetorician is powerful. He knows that his words have “the ring of truth”. He knows that he can count on the support of immediately-felt, individual, family, or polis-wide “common sense” passions in his call for their immediate satisfaction. He senses the understandable and well-nigh universal fear that acceptance of Socratic self-criticism would paralyze swift action, thus preventing exploitation of favorable opportunities to fulfill desire, and causing men to “lose out” on success, perhaps even up to the very moment of death. The rhetorician, with his mastery of words, can paint the profound, life-determining, “either-or” option offered to men by Sophists and Socratics in all of its dramatic colors, though clearly weighted to his advantage. After he has skillfully organized the picture as he wishes, any Socratic who calls the average man to logical, painful soul-searching at the possible expense of satisfying urgent passion becomes a sitting duck for his rhetorical abuse. A Platonic philosopher would all too easily lend himself to the accusation of representing both a crackpot idealism, indifferent to the obvious demands of human nature, as well as a cynical opposition to the successes of “real men” whom he cannot emulate, bitterly envies, and wishes to destroy in consequence.

Plato was not just a Socratic philosopher but a literary genius in his own right, sensitive to the power of purely rhetorical arguments over the average man, and the need to respond to them “beautifully” to demonstrate their flaws. He did so reply, by depicting the pure rhetorician as an ultimately self-deluding failure. Yes, Plato argued, the Sophist rhetorician was influential. But contrary to his claim that that influence came from his role as a wise man teaching individuals and states what the beautiful was all about and how to get possession of it, the impact actually and ironically was exercised precisely due to his inability to educate those whom he professed to be illuminating. For the “word” spoken by the rhetorician styling himself to be a philosopher could itself never rise above “dumb” opinion. It merely illustrated the trained man’s ability effectively to flatter peoples’ fancies. Rhetoricians possessed what Plato called a “knack” of appealing to a particular appetite, like that of a cook in a fast-food restaurant, ignoring entirely the question of whether such an admittedly successful flattery and knack ought to have been indulged in the first place.

The successful rhetorician deceives himself into thinking that he is superior to his “wordless” audience, but he is simply more effectively “thick and stupid” than it is. His words resemble an overbearing and endlessly repeated rock rhythm in a room filled with impressionable, but musically illiterate, hedonists. They fail to elevate, just as any tool that uses man rather than God as the measure of all things falls miserably short of its pretensions. Anyone responding to the “either-or” option confronting him by choosing for the rhetorician would, therefore, be voting for eternal mediocrity and blindness. Sadly, precisely due to the rhetorician’s observable knack for maintaining power over the vulgar mob, the pathetic outcome of such a wrong choice could conceivably be hidden from its victims forever. False rhetorical “philosophers” only needed to do two things: 1) enthusiastically to invent ever “new” surface variants on the proven appealing slogans to keep men thinking that fulfillment of the brilliant promise of the Empty Life lay just around the corner; and, 2) constantly to drill into a benumbed population’s mind the fear of the “dead-end” impotence that the Socratic hunt for a more profound goal would ensure.

One of Plato’s painful labors was that of explaining embarrassing instances of this seeming Socratic impotence, the disaster of his own political missions to Dion in Sicily in 388 and 367 being primary among them. Such shipwrecks, he insisted, were not attributable to true philosophy’s innate inability to navigate effectively. Rather, they were simply another confirmation of the difficulty and very infancy of the task that the real lover of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth had set for himself. Yes, he admitted, philosophy needed the aid of rhetoric, of the lesser “word” to explain itself successfully to a world filled with ambiguous though powerful passions, and to convince it to change its ways. But that secondary “word” must always be subordinated to a deeper Word, the Logos towards whose ultimate knowledge it was meant to be employed. Alas!, at least in Plato’s own day, it had proven to be “hard to find the creator and father of the world”, and “impossible to describe his nature publicly.” Men could not yet be guided properly to the divine imitation that would definitely perfect them and give them possession of the Beautiful. As dilemmas went, this certainly was a killer, and Plato feared that it would remain an unresolved one unless “some God” came to the earth to unravel it.

Faulty or not, the ideas of his opponents did more than those of the Socratics to form that mixed Greek/Middle Eastern/Latin civilization which we call the Hellenistic World. This new reality certainly did demonstrate the literal value of the Greek language, whose superiority in transmitting manifold, complex concepts became universally recognized. It also reflected all of the potential practical consequences of a cosmos shaped by a purely rhetorical “word” alone. For Hellenistic Civilization was one that did indeed work for the “common sense” benefit of those “vigorous strong men” praised by the rhetorician as essential for fulfillment of its mission. These leaders learned to create and manipulate powerful state machinery for the purpose of keeping the “dumb” mass of the population in obedient submission. Such “doers of great deeds”, from Alexander through to the Caesars and the Senatorial Aristocracy of the Roman Empire that worked with them, were even willing to tolerate satisfaction of certain specific, immediate desires of the multi-cultural, pluralist world over which they ruled, so long as its constituent elements accepted “closure” regarding matters that might disturb what really counted: the personal power, wealth, and fame of the victors. And rhetoricians galore gained a decent income justifying the order thus created. (For this discussion, see Peter Green, Alexander to Actium. The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, University of California, 1993; Also, Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, 150-700, Harcourt Brace, 1971; Moses Hadas, A History of Greek Literature & A History of Latin Literature, Columbia University, 1950 & 1952; Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Beacon, 1963; Jean Mayeur et al., eds., Histoire du christianisme, Volume 1, Desclée, 2000)

Rhetoricians were very active from the 300’s B.C. through the 300’s A.D., providing the Hellenistic cosmos, or ecumene, the arguments proving that the debate over who possessed the things that made life beautiful, and what those things were was over. They contributed mightily to efforts to overcome “parochial”, religious “superstitions” whose concerns might threaten the Status Quo. Such integration of divisive elements involved publicizing the need to submit to and adore the divinity of the State apparatus and the self-made men who dominated it. “Closure” had been achieved in the realm of the gods as well as that of men, and the “word” could now “move on” to “get the ordinary job of living done”.

It moved on by devoting itself to legal and civil service careers, and to sickly praise or boring, encyclopedic chronicling of the existing, unchangeable order of things, thereby sharing in any trickle-down benefits the Divine Rulers supposedly in the service of a Great Vision permitted. It moved on by finding substantial employment producing that esoteric, archaic, and pointless heap of pretty sounds and properly placed commas adulated by exclusivist literary circles. Failing that, it moved on by churning out pornographic material for the gross diversions of a rabble ever tempted to accept subordination and abandon true enlightenment for cheap material satiety.

The spiral downward from the more sophisticated “apologetic” writings and literary achievements of earlier Hellenistic regimes to the servile, pedantic, and vulgar oeuvre of much of the so-called Second Sophistic of the 2nd through 4th Centuries, A.D. is instructive. Plato, for one, would not have been surprised by the decline, since he had argued that word merchants indifferent to true philosophy were destined to a low-class butchering of even their own legitimate art and talent. One need only consult the biographies and stories to be found in Aulius Gellius’ (123-165) Attic Nights, the 2nd Philostratus’ (c. 170-248) Lives of the Sophists, Eunapius’ (346-414) Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, Diogenes Laertius’ (no later than 200’s) Lives of Eminent Philosophers, and Athenaeus of Naucratis’ (200’s) Doctors at Dinner to test the validity of his hypothesis.

But what about the Socratic opposition? What about their war with immediate appearances and superficial judgment? Did not the grasping of the Hellenistic Monarchies far surpass that of Athens and Sparta at the time of the height of the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, when Socrates himself had shown that the call to possession of a flawed Beauty could never, in the long-run, satisfy either the population or the very tyrants misleading it? Was there not a fraud to be identified and corrected here? Or had some mystery of iniquity done its job, quieting the outrage of the true philosopher?

Alas, philosophy had generally been tamed, adapting itself nicely to the depressing, conformist, “common sense” rules established and rhetorically-justified by a combination of power-worshipping adventurers and sophists. This was partially due to certain innate weaknesses of the Socratics and subsequent, powerful, related schools of thought like Stoicism. Aristotelians retreated into their cubbyholes of knowledge, working in spheres that did not have to bring up the big questions disturbing to the Status Quo. Neo-Platonists, even while conducting a truly exalted discussion of the Hierarchy of Being leading to clarification of the final, divine, unchangeable principle of the universe, also became propagandists for the powers that be. They were fearful that any disorder and alteration in the political and social world could open the path to what they considered to be a totally unacceptable conception of change, willfulness, and unpredictable action affecting one’s notion of the character of the very Godhead itself. Stoic insistence on the purpose-filled structure of the universe tempted it, in the absence of a concept of sin, into treating accommodation to the successful status quo as though it were obedience to the will of God. Acceptance of the idea of the purpose lying behind every aspect of natural life also convinced many Stoics that crude popular experiences of reality, including truly offensive superstitious practices, should be approached seriously as well. Plato’s effective rhetorical use of allegory could be called upon, though in reverse, to show the more “sophisticated” (dare we say “appropriate”?) meaning expressed through their vulgar exterior peculiarities.

But none of this would work if the populations thus “guided” by the rhetoricians and their allies did not in some way respond to the song which was sung to them. This, the majority of them seem to have done, dealing with the bewildering change backed by willful men and their propagandists by going on vacation to a Never Never Land where native beliefs and customs which did not shake the Established Order could still be maintained. Many ancient Greeks, Romans, and Near Easterners took this holiday of denial, stunned as they were by the innovations accompanying the multicultural empires shaping their world beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) and continuing down to the eve of the victory of Christianity. Once arriving in Never Never Land, they often even denied that anything new and dangerous had actually entered into their lives at all. In order to obtain permission for traditionalist Never Never Land games, however, the visitors to these varied ancient playgrounds had to collaborate with the existing system and its rulers on those matters that really guided their practical lives. Forget about simply avoiding anything which might give offense to the powers that be. Personal security required that they enthusiastically praise the divinity of the Establishment oppressing them. And this they readily did: over and over again.

Beyond that, collaboration for the truly powerful might entail the shouldering of active obligations to the divine monarchs of the age before rushing home to the more pleasant task of cultivating impotence. Collaboration, for the weak, might mean just working, paying taxes, and never transgressing the sacred wall separating private fantasy from social and political reality. Most collaborators kept the wheels of the regime machinery going because they did not wish to risk their necks by openly opposing it; some since they had become so used to its gears that they took them for granted as an unquestionable given, maintaining ties with their own oppressed traditions through pure inertia. A few of those who collaborated were fully co-opted by their masters. They became fervent propagandists for the new order, alongside the official rhetorical class, even hoping to be accepted into its inner circles.

Of course not everyone confronted by bewildering change, backed by force and justified through rhetorical bombast, went down the escapist-collaborationist path. A respectable number reacted to such transformations by militantly taking up arms against them, and this often outside of those legitimate structures of their societies which had cowardly or unthinkingly opted for an accommodating posture. But such a path was fraught with danger as well. On the one hand lay the overwhelming power of the existing order of things. On the other, stood the tendency of initial opponents of the Status Quo eager for success so to adopt the same approach as their enemies as to become indistinguishable from them. Such men masqueraded their transformation by unceasingly referring back to their past glories, seeking to hide their treason through reiteration of their former, justified designation as “defenders of the faith”. One can point most effectively in this regard to the change of the Maccabees from Jewish martyrs and confessors into typical Hellenistic tyrants.

All this is not to say that that those tyrants and their propagandists were necessarily “fulfilled” human persons. How could they be, unless one truly believes that their pathway is indeed the pathway to individual perfection? Plato himself insisted that the tyrant had to be the least contented of all men. And, in point of fact, the elite of the Status Quo was shot through with discontent, and not just that expressed by material dissatisfaction. Some of the elite itself retreated into the Never Never Lands of the ineffectual philosophical clubs. Others “went native”, seeking meaning in the local gods of conquered lands, gods whose labors could be construed, through Hellenism, to signify something much more universal than Egyptians or Mesopotamians had ever thought possible. A few even went so far as to adore the strangest god of all, the god of the Jews. But the Status Quo remained unchanged through it all.

Something “other”, the intervention of “some god”, as Plato indicated, was needed in order to fight this unchangeable beast. Only the intervention of a force from the outside could inject new strength into sufficiently large numbers of the “dumb” population—which, by this point, included not only ordinary individuals but the philosophers as well--elevate and stiffen its awareness of the real Drama of Truth in which they were players, and strike some fear into the opposition. That new force arrived with the Incarnation. And with the arrival of the Incarnation, a War Between the Words and the Word truly began in earnest.

September 26, 2007

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