Plato, “Gorgias” & ‘epistemic closure’
In Gorgias, Plato expands on many of the themes of the Republic while posing the implicit question: Why do democracies fail? In particular, why did Athenian democracy fail? In doing so, he makes a distinction between the Orator and the True Politician that brought to my mind the Levin/Manzi debate raging in the blogosphere. Okay, now bear with me here!
The dialogue begins with Socrates trying to get the orator Gorgias to explain what his ‘art’ consists of. The short answer: oratory consists of persuading others through speech. Gorgias assumes that this art will not be used for ill, but admits that a good orator can persuade others of things of which they themselves have no knowledge. Socrates claims, moreover, that an orator is actually more persuasive before an ignorant audience than an expert because they have the same level of knowledge as the crowd- none. Gorgias claims a rhetorician needn’t have any special knowledge, beyond rhetoric, and seems to think this is a good thing, but Socrates is setting him up for a fall.
Socrates does not think oratory is an art at all. He makes an important distinction between techne (art or skill) and empieiria (a knack): the former is a body of knowledge that can be taught or acquired through learning, while the latter is acquired only by experience. Rather arrogantly, Socrates asserts that many knacks are spurious or counterfeit arts. So a doctor treats the body by the art of medicine, while a cook’s knack allows her to put things in our body that make us feel good but don’t really make the body healthier. We can disagree with this point- apologies to the cooks!
The distinction extends to the Legislator or true Politician, who treats the soul of the people, and the Orator or Sophist who persuades them, while not actually treating their soul. This is because a true Leader has knowledge of good and evil. He cultivates the qualities of order and proportion in his people, which allows them to do what’s good. The Orator simply tries to satisfy their desires.
In the last section, as in the Republic, Socrates explains that the soul is judged after death for deeds committed in life. Standing naked before a judge, the soul of a wrongdoer is sent to be punished in Tartarus, while the righteous soul goes to the Isle of the Blessed. This is a far cry from the ‘shades’ in Homer.
A few points here. First, politics is no laughing matter to Socrates: an orator who leads us to false knowledge isn’t just screwing with us; he’s fostering disproportionate desires in us that are damaging to our soul. Ultimately, all true knowledge leads towards the highest knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, a good Leader actually makes us better people by cultivating in us the quality of self-control that allows us to choose good, and thus saves our souls. Not even the most gung ho Obama or Palin supporter would claim something like that!
Secondly, Socrates is not a believer in democracy. The good Leader is an Expert- who has the ability to rule over us as he sees fit, without our consent. The mass of people, according to Socrates, will generally support an Orator, actually a Panderer, who satisfies their desires. Indeed, a pandering Orator seems akin to a Tyrant here, and the suggestion is that democracy leads naturally to tyranny. Instead, Socrates wants something like a spiritual elite to lead us with an eye to our well-being, whether we like it or not.
Where this reminds me of the “epistemic closure” debate is when we see Jim Manzi, a wonkish Expert if ever there was one, arguing with Mark Levin, a radio Orator, about a topic in which the former is particularly well-informed and the latter is not. One doesn’t have to be an elitist (although, I’ll tell you, it helps!) to find it bizarre that the two are held up by National Review as roughly equivalent authorities, or that we’re patting NR on the back for taking the wonk as seriously as they do the radio personality.
Maybe the medium really is the message. The panderer works best in the mass media. The television and radio mediums communicate through avatars, and so constantly produce dynamic and fascinating characters: the grizzled cop still heartbroken by his first love, the kindly priest with a drinking problem, the prostitute putting her kid through college by hooking, and indeed the angry, crying pundit railing against the vast conspiracy. As Socrates understood, the appeal of the panderer is that he allows us to both take part in the search for truth and be reassured that everything we think is right. He does a great performance of sincerity.
In this, the panderer is a bit like the psychopath- he mimics human interactions with the intention of manipulating others to his own ends. James Poulos cuttingly suggests that the problem with a psychopath like Glenn Beck (my term) is that he conflates performances of ultimate sincerity and sarcasm. He seems unable to stop performing. It’s all a game for Beck because, on some level, he doesn’t recognize political sincerity as anything but a fool’s errand. So, the real “relativism” isn’t to think that there are multiple, culturally-specific ways of getting at truth- of course there are!- it’s thinking that there is no truth, so one knack’s as good as another.
The real problem lies for people who see truth as a matter of being wise and well-informed about the real world. For them, the panderers pose a dilemma: sure it’s a con, but the con might point a greater number of people in the right direction: as I’ve heard more than a few liberals say about Michael Moore: “I don’t like his methods, but his heart is in the right place”. Plato elsewhere advocates the use of noble lies to cultivate good citizens.
The problem is that you can’t embrace the con without embracing the contempt. When you say that an Orator is equal to or greater than an Expert, you’ve got what George W.S. Trow called “a problem of scale” in the best book ever written about television. Trow felt that television is so awful because it presents vastly different information by the same techniques- a flood in Venezuela is thus treated with the same importance as a new fitness trend. An Orator is treated with the same respect as an Expert. The only way to accomplish this total obliteration of scale, and Trow saw this as the ultimate function of television, is to destroy all context and create a context of no context that can comment on itself. The rest of the broadcast media- including, I suspect, the Internet- apes television.
I don’t think that Mark Levin is a psychopath, or even that he’s lying, just that it’s beside the point if he is. His job isn’t truth- it’s persuasion. The problem is the cross-odds: the Expert uses debate as a means of arriving at truth, but the Orator uses debate to persuade others of their position, regardless of its truth. When political movements start to treat Orators as Experts- or really as their superiors since that they get ‘better numbers’- it’s because they see persuasion- that is, power– as being roughly interchangeable with truth. ‘Epistemic closure’, I think, is really this problem of scale- an inability to tell the higher from the lower.
What conservatism needs, then, is probably more elitism. There really is a scale of value, after all. There are higher things and lower things, which can be measured in the soul. A hint: the higher things are the ones worth ‘conserving’. Otherwise, “conservatism” just becomes a knee-jerk defense of privilege and power.
1. Some of this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as always. I thought it would be fun to wade into topics the blogosphere considers relevant. Next time, of course, I fully intend to return to the standard irrelevance.
2. I’ll probably keep plowing ahead with Plato, who I’ve never read all at once before. However, I am really itching to get to the shelf of Chinese philosophy in my study before too long.