Sophists and the City

Sometimes we have to be a tiny bit selfish, and this week’s readings surely exemplified this trait lying within each of us. Most clearly in Plato’s Phaedrus, the descriptions of Eros and the motives of lovers/non-lovers, illustrates that sophistry truly is wildly, intelligent trickery. With “judgment weakened by passion,” Phaedrus’ notes that “lovers consider how by reason of their love they have neglected their own concerns and rendered service to others” (4). Both Zizek and Lacan have noted that desire equals lack, and with some stretching, we can map this notion back onto sophistry. (Okay, here it goes.) By “neglecting their own concerns,” the lover selfishly seeks out pleasure rather than true friendship seen by the non-lovers. The lover, then, is constantly vying for attention, making oneself attractive to a variety of others (I am pretty certain that ‘others’ suggests men of some stature, while the ‘lovers’ are young-ish boys, but I don’t wish to make an incorrect assumption, so pardon the gender-neutrality.) Making oneself attractive to others is like updating one’s CV for different jobs—one displays what one needs (or, lacks) at this specific moment, and why that person/school would be the perfect match. Crudely speaking, Mr. Right Now. (The more this response continues, the more it is sounding like some strange Sex and the City episode. Yikes.) Lovers and sophists alike fit themselves into different situations by recognizing their own need, and finding someone to fill it. This moment of recognizing the personal need is what I find so brilliant about the sophists. As Jaeger notes,

“Now, if we assume that the purpose of rhetoric is to deceive the audience—to lead them to false conclusions by resemblances alone—that makes it imperative for the orator to have exact knowledge of the dialectic method of classification, for that is the only way to understand the varying degrees of resemblance between things” (189, emphasis mine).

If lovers and (as?) sophists both deceive their audiences, flattery and trickery are not done out of foolishness or accident, but rather though complete and precise knowledge of their subjects.

Unlike Mike, this response is not my magnum opus, so before I am run out of room, I would like to say a few brief words about The Clouds. What I have always loved about The Clouds is that while he is housed in The Thinkery, Socrates is overtly pretentious—and it works. The audience can finally laugh at rather than feel obliged to respect the man. Strepsiades, convinced (deceived?) that he “can just get out of all [his] debt” and “make men think of [him] as bold and glib,/as fearless, impudent, detestable,/ one who cobbles lies together, make up words,” clearly identifies himself as a /with the sophist/s, and lets Socrates lead him off to the ‘naked’ truth (19). Jaeger points out that the “fundamental resemblance” between Socrates and the sophists is they both “analyzed everything, and thought nothing was so great for so sacred that is was beyond discussion and did not need to be founded on rational basis” (372). Maybe the Thinkery should have a soccer team… (Get it? Like that YouTube “moment of zen” video?)

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One Response to “Sophists and the City”

  1. Clouds definitely provided some comedic relief in relationship to the other texts. In both Protagoras and Phaedrus, I found it quite difficult to tolerate Socrates’ digressions and, often, seemingly unrelated banter. Often, the logic of his argument, as I noted in my post, shifts to the extraneous. In Protagoras, this becomes most evident. It seems that in many ways Clouds provides an interesting character parallel to Protagoras. Despite Socrates claim to a certain virtuousness, I find that he proceeds much like the Unjust speaker in Clouds; winning the battle by faulting Protagoras on ridiculous issues (ie., limiting the length of Protagoras’ response, and providing insignificant syntactic entrapments).

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