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  • The Scandal of Sophism:On the Epistemological Seriousness of Relativism
  • Daniel Boyarin

As its subtitle indicates, my essay concerns the epistemological seriousness of relativism, a mode of thought whose seriousness is often-much too often-in question. To begin, I would like to quote a statement of received opinion about Plato's dialogue Gorgias. In an essay purporting to advise students on how to get the most out of college, the conservative pundit David Brooks wrote recently:

Read Plato's "Gorgias." As Robert George of Princeton observes, "The explicit point of the dialogue is to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy (the quest for wisdom and truth) to rhetoric (the art of persuasion in the cause of victory). At a deeper level, it teaches that the worldly honors that one may win by being a good speaker . . . can all too easily erode one's devotion to truth-a devotion that is critical to our integrity as persons. So rhetorical skills are dangerous, potentially soul-imperiling gifts." Explains everything you need to know about politics and punditry.1

Despite a century of research findings and explication to the contrary (since Nietzsche!), this way of thinking about the place of Gorgias (and of Sophism [End Page 315] generally) in our culture is still dominant.2 Accepting the caricature drawn by Plato, George and Brooks seem only able to understand Gorgias as a charlatan who was cynically aware that what he taught was nothing but a means to achieve victory in debate, without regard for truth (and in service of the adept's own power and pleasure).

It is this same genre of Platonism, it seems to me, that motivated Cardinal Ratzinger to summarily dismiss relativism as intellectually contemptible and morally dangerous. The closest he comes, in his preelection homily, to discussing relativism with respect to intellectual life is his characterization of it as a lack of intellectual integrity. Rather than a set of arguments or a kind of theory or even a stance, relativism is for him evidence of a character flaw, or else the flaw itself. "Relativism, that is" (he begins his definition), "letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine' " is not itself a doctrine, but only an indecisiveness or lack of will in a world where doctrines are copious and fast proliferating. It is a remarkable thing to find a scholar of Joseph Ratzinger's learning and status presenting a philosophical position in competition with his own as having no goal but to satisfy "one's own ego and desires." And it is not as if a commitment to "recognizing something as definitive," which he valorizes, could have nothing at all to do with ego or desires. The cardinal's homily caricatures-even (I hope it is not too disrespectful to say) slanders-its intellectual opponents, but in this mode of critique, it is following a distinguished precedent: Plato's. The practice of slandering adversaries as seekers after egocentric pleasure and power is a key technique of Plato's dialogues, notably the Gorgias.

The same precedents that motivated Cardinal Ratzinger motivate other contemporary epigones of Plato, for instance George and Brooks. The problem is endemic even to the most respectable academic philosophy. Although stated in a more sophisticated manner, the view of the French philosopher Alain Badiou is not much more nuanced than Ratzinger's in its understanding of the place of rhetoric: "Philosophy today, caught in its historicist malaise, is very weak in the face of modern sophists. Most often, it even considers the great sophists-for there are great sophists-as great philosophers. Exactly as if we were to consider that the great philosophers of Antiquity were not Plato and Aristotle, but Gorgias and Protagoras."3 Badiou's phrase "historicist malaise" is shorthand for his view that truth is unchanging from age to age, that what was true in Aristotle's time is true in our own, that if Aristotle said things that are false, from our present perspective, that is because he was wrong, then as now; we know better now what [End Page 316] is true than he did. Ratzinger's outlook, as expressed in his homily, is the same...