Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reactionary Minds in antiquity

I've been reading a lot about the Sophists lately, part of the rich tradition of ancient Greek thought that is unhelpfully and unfortunately lumped into the term "pre-Socratics." What's remarkable is how well some of the dynamics of ancient Athens fits with the Corey Robin thesis. Although we are more likely to identify them for their particular intellectual tradition, the Sophists were generally speaking wandering teachers, itinerants trained in the arts of rhetoric, poetics, and logic who would instruct whomever could pay their fee. In traditional Athenian society, education was provided for young men across social classes, but advanced education was reserved for the upper classes, who had the resources and connections necessary to pair their young men off individually with older mentors who would guide them through their educations. The Sophists democratized education, and for this reason they were feared by the Athenian ruling class, who at times acted to forbid Sophist teaching.

It wasn't merely the fact of teaching for those outside the aristocracy but also the content and purpose of such teaching that undermined the established order. As I.F. Stone puts it in The Trial of Socrates,
There is a strong element of class prejudice in the Socratic animosity towards the Sophists. They were teachers who found their markets in democratic cities like Athens among a rising middle class.... They wanted to be able to challenge the old landed aristocracy for leadership by learning the arts of rhetoric and logic so they could speak effectively in the assembly.... [H]igher education remained the monopoly of the aristocracy until the Sophists came along. They provoked upper-class antagonism by teaching the arts of rhetoric-- for an ability to speak well in public was the open door to middle-class political participation in the debates of the assembly and the higher offices of the city.
Sophists also threatened through the radicalism of their teachings. Although ancient Athenian religion was never as prescriptive or rigid as the monotheistic religions tend to be, the profound agnosticism found among major Sophistic thinkers like Protagoras must have rankled Athenian society. The Sophists also posed radical critiques of the meaning of knowledge and existence of truth, topics which provoke reactionary responses even today. Alcidamas of Elaea expressed the earliest known condemnation of slavery in human history, in a time when slavery was an essential part of the economy and the social structure. In every sense, the Sophists represented an intellectual tradition that challenged the status quo.

It's therefore no surprise that they have been shrouded in mistrust and dismissal by history. For centuries, the Sophists were dismissed as deceitful and illogical. Even today, "sophistry" is a term that refers to weaselly, conniving discourse. Rhetoric itself labors in an assumed worldview that distrusts it, under the inherently reactionary theory that the truth can be articulated plainly without the need for ornamentation. It's no accident that this long tradition of disrespect stands in contrast to the reverence for Socrates and Plato-- two explicitly anti-egalitarian thinkers who expressed a longing for authoritarian power and a distrust of the common man. Those in power write the history, and its up to us to recognize, even 2,500 years later, those whose arguments were belittled and misconstrued because they challenged the current power structure. And it behooves us to recognize one of the constants of human history: the power and persistence of class struggle.


Charles said...


To say that Socrates and Plato were anti-egalitarian thinkers is not precisely untrue, but also not the whole story. In many respects Socrates (as presented by Plato) looks very much like a Sophist: He would teach anyone (for no fee at all); he thought that slaves (see Meno) and women (see Symposium) were intellectually capable of studying and even teaching philosophy; he was mistrustful of pious religious talk (see Euthyphro, Apology). In some respects he was more iconoclastic than the Sophists themselves. The Sophists offered entry into the power structure -- Socrates questioned the legitimacy of that structure entirely and mocked it mercilessly.

I'd like to add that parsing Plato's political views out of Republic is a real problem. The traditional reading is deeply inadequate. Take a look at Book II, specifically 372a-373a. What Socrates says there undermines absolutely everything that follows it throughout the rest of the book. Think in particular about who Glaucus and Adeimantus are in that scene. Socrates is playing to an audience there and he explicitly warns them that the city they want can never be a just city. The rest of the book is both more interesting and much more difficult in light of that passage.

Charles said...

Oh, and I'd also like to ask for any recommendations you'd care to offer for books about the Sophists. I've read the Platonic dialogues (obviously a terribly biased source) and the fragments that were in whatever edition of the Kirk & Raven book I picked up maybe 15 years ago (mostly drawn, if I remember correctly, from terribly biased ancient sources); I also read the Stone book but don't remember it well. (Maybe I should pull it off the shelf and give it another go.) Anything else you'd recommend?

Freddie said...

Those are fair points, Charles-- I confess to being a bit of an anti-Socratic crank, in part out of conviction, in part out of contrarianism.

Give the Stone another go. I'll pull some citations and get back to you.

Josh said...

Freddie, this is tangential, but are you familiar with Eric Havelock's theories about the shift from an oral to literature culture in ancient Greece? I dug into them a little bit a few years ago, and my sense was that they never seemed to have gained much traction, but they struck me as compelling.

Freddie said...

Yes! In fact I cited a Havelock paper fairly extensively in a paper I wrote last semester on the culture of type and typography in the early modern period, as demonstrated through English educational treatises from 1500-1800. I also highly, highly recommend Barbara Eisenstein's The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, which to my mind is enjoyable even for people who aren't generally interested in those topics.

Josh said...

Cool, thanks! I actually just heard of Eisenstein in passing for the first time on Nicholas Carr's blog the other week. It sounds right up my alley.

matt said...

Plato, far from belittling sophists or their arguments, appeared to have considered them the single most important feature of his civilization (along with the tradition of epic and tragic poetry, perhaps). Famous sophists are featured in many Socratic dialogues, and not as whipping boys. Socrates engages with sophistic arguments with great depth and care (and irony) in the dialogues.

Paul Sherrard said...

Yeah, I'd have to agree with what Matt said. "Sophism" may have become a term of opprobrium later on, but not because of Socrates and Plato, who invariably treated Sophists with respect.

I also think it's a stretch to label Socrates-Plato Reactionary Minds. Socrates didn't preach anti-authoritarianism, but he did flout traditional authority about as much as anyone could until it got him killed. (I suppose you could say this is only Plato's account, but why would a Reactionary Minded authoritarian give such an account?)

It is true that Plato/Socrates argued for political structures that we in the 21st Century recognize as monstrous, but (1) I personally find the arguments to be sincerely offered, and reasoned with good will; I can't believe it was all a con to protect the established authorities, and (2) the sophists argued for something worse. They aren't shown arguing disreputably or in bad faith, the way they would be if Plato were smearing them; they aren't depicted the way Aristophanes depicts Socrates, as idiots or buffoons. They're depicted as decent and ernest. But their arguments tend to be inhumane, and like Plato's they are not at all egalitarian.

You could say the sophists lived a more labor-class type of life if you force an industrial age reading on the situation; then, I suppose, Socrates becomes The Man simply by virtue of being their opponent. That would be simple minded. At some point you have to judge them by their arguments, and to my mind neither side was egalitarian or anti-egalitarian. Maybe pre-egalitarian would be a useful term here.

Freddie said...

It's very possible that I'm taking too much from Stone's book, here, as he is rather relentless in his distaste for what he sees as Socratic antidemocratic ideas.

Charles said...


Part of the problem is that Stone is reading the dialogues as doctrinal statements rather than as teaching tools or devices for promoting exploration/discussion, which is almost certainly how they were intended. For example Stone's take on the inconclusive discussion of virtue in the Protagoras. Stone thinks Socrates is being evasive, failing to really engage Protagoras, etc. He reads the 'flipped positions' ending as somewhat absurd. But what Plato is doing here is modelling philosophical discourse for students/readers who will go on and examine for themselves what virtue is. Stone assumes he's using Socrates and Protagoras as mouthpieces for points of doctrin
. He isn't.

There are very few dialogues that look like straight doctrine if you're reading carefully. (Phaedo is the only exception I can immediately recall.) And none of the Platonic doctrines are really safe. In the Parmenides even the Theory of Forms is successfully criticized, and it isn't recovered by the end of the dialogue. Old Parmenides tells young Socrates something like, "If you want to keep this theory you're gonna have to go do some serious philosophical work to get it back."

None of this is to sugggest that Socrates and Plato weren't anti-democratic. But as Paul seems to be suggesting, our modern categories don't map very cleanly onto these people. As I noted in my comment above, Socrates was on some issues more egalitarian than the people around him, if less so on others.

Enjoying Stone, by the way, even as I disagree with him. Thanks for bringing it up.

Paul Sherrard said...

"None of this is to suggest that Socrates and Plato weren't anti-democratic. But as Paul seems to be suggesting, our modern categories don't map very cleanly onto these people."

Yeah, I'm definitely suggesting that. (BTW, I want to make it clear that I have no credentials at all on this subject, and that Charles' reading of the dialogues is far more careful and considered than mine.) Plato just doesn't seem reactionary the way Edmund Burke is definitely reactionary. He seems like an aristocrat, a decent one but with some typical aristocratic prejudices, kicking around ideas in the days before there was a Left to react against. He doesn't quite seem like an establishment figure. He's pro-authority, but anti-status quo: he wants the current ruling class replaced with himself.

It would be cool to hear Corey Robin's views on the subject.