Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Philosophy 101

Philosophy is Greek for "love of wisdom", and a Catholic's study of philosophy goes back to the ancient Greeks, in particular Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. These three men were involved in debates in opposition to teachers known as Sophists, meaning 'wise'. Now Socrates taught Plato, and Plato wrote down what we know about Socrates. Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Saint Augustine's philosophy is based on Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas' philosophy is based on Aristotle, and the Greek influence on early Christianity is due to Alexander conquering most of the ancient Middle East. These philosophers form the basis of the rational Western tradition, and much was written by two of them and is of such high quality that they are still useful to us today.

The three philosophers were in debates against the Sophists, whose style and method is of much interest. The Sophists started getting a bad name around the time of Socrates, and we still use the word sophistry to describe their style. The Sophists taught for a fee, which was considered bad form, and were sometimes highly paid, unlike Socrates who taught for free out of the love of truth. The Sophists taught boys Rhetoric, the art of argument, which was a critical skill for a man of the upper classes in democratic Athens. This was a narrow curriculum compared to the whole of knowledge taught by Socrates and his followers. Sophists taught the students how to win debates, not by using logic and reasoning to arrive at the truth, but by appealing to judges' feelings (and even the occasional bribe). Truth, according to the Sophists, is whatever the judge says is the truth, and they tended to deny even the existence of an objective Truth. The Sophists would use the ambiguities of language and rhetorical tricks to deceive. They tended to be relativists with regard to knowledge and thought, and were critical of traditional religion, ethics, and law. Most were atheist or agnostic. Ultimately, the Sophists, instead of loving truth and knowledge, were merely interested in power, money, and having a good time. There were condemned as immoral by the State.

The Sophists also had bad habit of seducing the boys that they were being paid to teach. They would gather in a symposium (literally, a drinking party) to discuss their conquests. But Plato said that one ought to seduce them to love wisdom instead, and this is where we get the term 'Platonic friendship'.

It is clear that the Sophists are still with us. Especially since the 1960s, when class action lawsuits with punitive damages and compensation for pain and suffering became the norm, sophistry has made a huge resurgence in the courtroom. Nowadays, a good class-action plaintiff lawyer will choose a friendly venue where the facts don't matter and where a positive victory is guaranteed. The Sophist lawyer will manipulate his hand-picked jury's feelings to the best effect.

In contemporary education, facts don't matter, and Progressive, Model U.N., Outcome-based, or whatever-it-is-called-nowadays education is Sophist to the core. Feelings are what matters, subjectivity is emphasized, knowledge is relative, religion and ethics are banned, and boys are still at a high risk of being molested by their teachers. The counter-style of teaching, which emphasizes broad reading, which is taught by teachers who love truth and who are paid little or nothing, is absolutely anti-Sophist, and indeed is called Classical Education, for it is based on the teachings of our philosophers of Classical Antiquity, Plato and Aristotle.

Democratic politics is a Sophist profession. Plato, in this Ship of State analogy, describes Athens as a ship at sea. The ship's captain, who represents the electorate, is under the control of the Sophists, who use him for their own benefit, and the ship ends up being their own wild, drunken, floating party. The ship's navigator, who represents the true philosophers, is hated and ignored, and is prevented from doing his job. Without a good captain or navigator, the ship is in danger of being lost or smashed on the rocks. Athens did lose a major war, and ended up under foreign domination because of Sophist power grabs that ignored the common good. Sadly, rationality is not often found among modern politicians, nor is love of the truth. Power is what matters, and at any cost.

Journalism is also a Sophist profession. Rarely do we see high journalistic standards anymore, and certainly not in television journalism. We do see appeals to emotion, and the manipulation of facts to get what the editors want. Ultimately, Journalism as usually practiced today is not about truth but about power.

In the Church today, the Sophists are very easy to spot. When a Bishop proclaims that in his mass the "real Presence is manifest in the gathered community", is he really saying what you might first think about the "Real Presence" or not? Is a priest -- who gives warm feelings in his homilies instead of the hard teachings of Christ -- abusing his authority with his young parishioners? No doubt parishioners will say that the Sophist priest is really good with children, and is never strict or disciplinarian. Is a Vocations Director actually encouraging vocations or is she pursuing another agenda by actually turning vocations away? Does a theologian redefine well-known terms, or takes odd viewpoints on scripture or even redefines what is actually scripture? And do all of these folks use confusing language, are ambiguous in their statements, and try to constantly subvert liturgical norms with a political slant? "In the Spirit of Vatican II" is a Sophist phrase, meaning not what the documents of Vatican II actually state, but what they want you to believe what they state. Making religion a handmaiden of politics is a sure sign of sophistry.

Socrates agreed that the truth is sometimes hard to pin down, but that truth is out there and must be sought. Plato went further and even postulated that reality was divided between an ideal world and a sensible world. Plato's Ideal world, the world of the Forms, is made up of intellectually understandable perfect ideas that have mathematical perfection, while the world of the senses is made up of imperfect copies of the ideal Forms which we can see with our senses. God, as the pagan Plato understood Him, exists in the world of the Forms and is represented by the image of the Sun. It is from Plato that we get the term idealism.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave, attributed to Socrates, describes his ideas of the Ideal and Sensible worlds. The allegory goes like this: imagine a group of prisoners in a cave, prisoners from their childhood, with their necks and legs chained so that they can only see the wall of the cave. Far behind them are large fires giving light, and in front of the fires men carry vessels and statues of animals and such. The light of the fires cast shadows of the objects on the wall of the cave, and these shadows of the objects are the only things the prisoners can see. The men's voices reflect off of the wall and so the prisoners think that the shadows have voices and make sounds. Also, the prisoners think that the shadows on the wall are all that exist of reality, and think that they are real objects in the real world. The prisoners talk about the shadows, and give them names. Imagine though, that somehow one of the prisoners becomes unchained and then turns around to face the fire: this is called his "conversion", which comes from the Latin translation of "turning around", and from this allegory is where we get the religious meaning of the word. The prisoner turns around, has his conversion experience, and although he is blinded and disoriented by the firelight at first, eventually he sees that it is objects that are casting shadows on the walls, and that the shadows are not real objects at all. He climbs out of the cave and is even more blinded by the daylight outside; it takes a long time for his eyes to adjust, seeing only the darkest shadows, but then eventually he sees real animals and other objects, and realizes that the objects casting shadows in the cave are mere representations of the real forms outside of the cave. Eventually his eyes fully adjust, and he can see the Sun itself, which sheds light on all of the real objects outside. The former prisoner, now that he has seen the world of the Forms, the ideal world, is now 'enlightened', and has become a philosopher, and goes back into the cave to free the other prisoners. Since it is dark and his eyes haven't adjusted yet, he is awkward, and stumbling around, making a fool of himself. The still-chained prisoners even threaten to kill him for his nonsensical talk of 'the real world', and they don't even feel a need to be freed, since their life is the only one they know.

According to Plato then, a person starts life as a prisoner of his senses, seeing only crude representations of the ideal, but believing that they are all that exists of reality. A person must first have a conversion, to know that he has been seeing only shadows. Then his soul must ascend heavenward, to contemplate the ideal forms, actual truth. It is overwhelming at first, but eventually he can even contemplate God. He must then descend downward into the darkness, to help his fellow man, even though they may oppose and reject him.

The ideal ruler, according to Plato, is also a philosopher, who has ascended in spirit to the realm of ideas and the contemplation of God. Power-hungry opportunists are what caused the downfall of Athens, but the truly wise should be made to rule instead. It is pretty obvious why Saint Augustine found favor with Plato, since his philosophy is based on truth and the contemplation of ideals. It is also clear that Plato's opponents are quite like Christ's opponents today, who reject truth and seek only power.

Aristotle is known in part for his development of logic and for his examination of logical fallacies. One of his books is called "On Sophistical Refutations", which is a manual for finding the errors in the arguments of the Sophists. Here he outlines many rhetorical tricks, such as straw man arguments, post hoc reasoning, and begging the question, and how to refute them. Like Plato, Aristotle has a high regard for the truth, and his opponents were fond of sidestepping the issue of truth. Contemporary Christians can still learn much from Aristotle's logic, and Saint Thomas Aquinas used his logic to a great extent in explaining much of Christianity in a way that is still used today. Contemporary Sophists will use the same kind of arguments that Aristotle refuted, so be on the lookout for logical fallacies.

Aristotle explained morality in his book the Nicomachean Ethics, and was interested in finding a way of defining the way a man must act in order to be good. Our classical or moral virtues come from Aristotle: justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude, and were further developed by Aquinas. The Sophists, however, thought virtue was the means of acquiring power, without regard to truth or goodness. Perhaps ambition and resourcefulness are their virtues.

Sophists don't believe in truth, and they don't believe in virtue. However, they will hammer a Christian who is untruthful or who has ethical failings, calling him a hypocrite, since they love denigrating someone who does not live up to his ideals. Of course, the charge of hypocrisy is impossible to levy against a Sophist, since they only believe in power, not ideals. Perhaps the best thing to do against one is to call him a 'loser'! Sophists hate to lose, are very poor losers, and they don't have an ideal of good sportsmanship. They are the first to cry foul -- especially if you don't follow the very letter of the rules, which don't apply to themselves -- and will refuse to accept their loss graciously.

In some respects Sophists are immature, wanting to get something without regard for the rest of society. They are selfish and self-centered. Perhaps this has something to do with their poor education -- knowing how to argue, but not having a deep knowledge of the world of ideas. Their atheism and lack of morality may also be due to their poor education, and fits in well with their selfishness. Perhaps they never had a conversion experience. But how does one deal with a Sophist who has managed to gain power? Beyond prayer and instruction, this is beyond what I can write about.

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