The Fossils of Past Power Grabs

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

The Enlightenment brought back Athenian philosophy, Alrenous notes — and with it democracy and sophistry:

Sophistry, unleashed upon a population unprepared and lacking resistance, quickly laid the foundations for popular government. Popular government, once established, convinced each citizen that they have a share of government power — that they’re a politician. Therefore, all citizens sought expertise in the politician’s primary tool, sophistry. Sophistry became normalized, even prized.

These centuries have seen innumerable self-serving political campaigns, waged and won using ever advancing sophistry. These politicians are seen as heroes by their duped victims, as they embody an ideal sophistication to aspire to, and each victorious manipulative lie is seen as a worthy ideal.

The truth is what it is, but a lie can be designed for marketability; to go down easy and smooth, to fit existing misconceptions. Each new avaricious politician sees a much easier path in expanding old lies rather than attempting to fight them.

The result is that by now, the average voter’s head is stuffed to bursting with the fossils of past power grabs. Almost everything they say or do that has any political relevance whatsoever is the echo of some dead politician’s clarion call to serve his interests over their own.

Andrew Bisset made a similar point about the power of orators in the less-democratic England of 1859.

(Hat tip to Foseti.)


  1. Anomaly UK says:

    Spot on.

    For the historical element of this, I would make another plug for The Kit-Kat Club: Friends who Imagined a Nation by Ophelia Field, covering the joint births of journalism and the political class.

  2. I find this historical reconstruction unconvincing.

    If there was a point at which sophistry broke back into European society, it was in the 1100s with the revival of Classical learning in the “twelfth century renaissance”. Even then, Latin rhetoric, which retained a heavy dose of its Greek sophist inheritance, remained a part of the basic medieval curriculum known as the trivium even during the Dark Ages.

    Speech, informed by rhetoric, continued to be used to sway the crowds for political effect throughout the Middle Ages and early modern era. One notable example is the career of the low-born Cola de Rienzi, “tribune of the Romans”, who had a stellar career as a demagogue in mid fourteenth century Rome.

    This was part of a larger pattern during the crisis of the fourteenth century. Lowborn churchmen, educated but often barred by class from rising in the Church hierarchy, often provided the charismatic and rhetorical leadership for the masses. Often this was in the name of restoring the purity of the primitive Christian church as portrayed in the book of Acts where all believers were equal and all goods were held in common.

    The innovation of the Enlightenment that undermined Europe’s pre-Enlightenment inheritance was not sophistry or democracy but the idea that humans could build a religion-free society through reason and design alone. It’s when you combine naive rationalism and secularism with sophistry and democracy that you get the diseases of modernity.

  3. Alrenous says:

    “The idea that humans could build a religion-free society” got hold of the public mind how…?

    Your links are fantastic; my remarks on them reached full post length.

    Working through them, now I’m wondering if sophistry can be defined as the idea that the scholar order is more virtuous than the merchant or warrior orders, and therefore using the tools of scholars to subsume merchants and warriors. Our modern society is undoubtedly ruled by a scholar elite, and even the La Wik admits the uprisings were due to the denigration of the merchant class.

    Amusingly, this would mean both the tradition of aristocratic elitism and the tradition of anti-elitism are both sophistic.

  4. Defining sophistry that way, you might as well use the word “civilization” instead. Nearly every world culture elevates the priest/scholar over the warrior or peasant. Nearly all of them went out of their way to look down on merchants, especially in Europe. As you noted, many even ranked the silent peon who honestly tilled the earth over the grasping and selfish merchant.

    China was increasingly ruled by scholars from the late Spring and Autumn period onward. From the seventh century onward, bureaucrats were selected based on their ability to pass tests of their mastery of the Chinese classics. The rule of sophists wasn’t necessarily enervating for China. It was the world’s all-time civilizational champion until the 1830s.

    Indian civilization ranked the major four varnas in this order:

    1. Brahmins: scholars, teachers, priests and sages.
    2. Kshatriya: kings, warriors, and rulers.
    3. Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists and merchants
    4. Shudras: laborers, craftsmen and artisans

    The most eagerly capitalistic culture of the past millenium was Islam. Mahomet was a tradesmen and some statements (hadith) attributed to him seem to imply that state interference in mercantile affairs is impious because the market reflects the will of Allah, a sort of Islamic strong version of the Efficient Market Hypothesis.

    Periodic outbreaks of religiously inspired communal living started in India in the late Vedic era. This influence was magnified by Siddhartha Gautama and Mahavira and spread throughout Eurasia through the proselyting enterprise of Ashoka. Jewish communal living started in the third century before Christ, possibly under Indian influence.

    Besides the more famous example of Christian communal living in the Acts of the Apostles, monasteries were always intended to be islands of Christian communal living. However, since they tended to veer away from the ideal over time, throughout the Christian Era you’d see movements such as Francesco of Assisi’s emerge that were dedicating to bringing the Church back to basics.

    The Franciscans were only small part of the broader Cluniac Reform that sought to return the Roman Catholic clergy back to the ideal of apostolic poverty. It started in 910, well before the re-introduction of Greek learning into Western Christendom.

    The idea of a society ruled by secular priests who’d been freed of religion or, more exactly, freed from Christianity, is an innovation of the Enlightenment. It received its crucial impetus from the cauldron of the French Revolution. Truth be told, the progressivism of the sort developed by the largely forgotten French socialists from Gracchus Babeuf to Proudhon that Marx pitilessly plagiarized is Christianity (or Judaism) without God and the modern academic is a Catholic priest without the sanction of Church or Pope.

  5. Alrenous says:

    Ah, I am clearly wrong about defining sophism that way, then. Many thanks.

    I don’t know enough about Chinese history to discuss it, only that their emperors committed some grievous economic errors. (I don’t even know how serious they were in context.)

    Would you say we can blame some features of Progressivism, such as communalism, on Vedic contamination? Knowing little, I assume Progressivism has an utterly mongrel pedigree.

    La Wik mentions that the Cluny monasteries were founded and successful, but not how. Francis was a recognizably modern politician – it’s still possible he was a fusion of the two traditions.

    Secularizing Brahmins was indeed an Enlightenment idea, but it became inevitable much earlier. And it is indeed harmful, but requires groundwork to get anywhere.

    For a stupid example, atheism is much older than Dawkins thinks it is.

    For a better example, assuming the communalism idea is originally Vedic, if the Indians hadn’t come up with it, communism would never had occurred.

    More importantly, it is the Athenian tradition to reason forward from premises. Without this, the Vedic communalism doesn’t lead to communism.

    But, put those two in a pot with sophism, and you’ll always get communist nations out if nobody specifically prevents it.

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