Saturday, May 17, 2008

Post 1300 - Tom Stoppard and Sophistry

I have been rereading my Tom Stoppard, one of the few writers who can cause me to both think and laugh out loud. Today it was "The Real Thing," which came out in 1984 with Glenn Close in the Broadway cast. A section early in the second act caught me. Briefly: Henry, a playwright, is attempting to rewrite a terrible script by a jailed protester, Brodie. He has been put up to this by his activist wife, Annie. The playwright explains why it is not merely bad writing by Brodie, but bad thinking that prevents Henry from fixing it up.
Because it's balls. Announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific - war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft...It's all here: pages and pages of it. It's like being run over very slowly by a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the india rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea... I can't help someone who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable speech is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech. Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent...

And now to our real subject: Henry later tells his 17 y/o daughter Sophistry is a phrase so neat you can't see the loose end that would unravel it. It's flawless but wrong.

I thought of two quick examples of phrases which sound so very wise but are in fact rubbish. You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. Well, of course you can, you ninny. Every country in the world does it all the time, except perhaps Sweden. Or how about The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth. The nonsentient rock has a natural right of ownership over people, frogs, and paramecia for what reason, exactly?

The reader is encouraged to provide more examples.

9 comments:

Habu said...

Thank you for the kind invitation.

I enjoyed your comments on sophistry, especially the one about preparing for and preventing war simultaneously.
We know the head bobbing crowd would all mumble agreement with Tom, shuffle their feet and decry war as a wasted enterprise anyway. War is hell there is little doubt of that. One only has to read about it or watch the DVD's of WWII and WWI to get an idea of how it tears at every generation present during the war and the ones who immediately follow.
In some cases, such as the US Civil War the implications can last for a hundred or more years and yet wars occur with almost metronomic regularity and always have.

I have mentioned, as others have that not all wars are bad things. Our War for Independence was a good cause, as was the Civil War and WWII. From those wars came the greatest and most benevolent nation ever to exist, the freedom of an entire race from slavery, and the prevention of mankind slipping into what Churchill called the dark abyss of perverted science.

Sophist,Plato tells us, is largely responsible for the modern view of the "sophist" as a greedy instructor who uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning. In this view, the sophist is not concerned with truth and justice, but instead seeks power. Plato was supported by Aristotle and other great thinkers of that day.

The great counter-balance of course is knowledge. With it one can find the raveled end of the fallacy and cuaderize the lie before the infection spreads.

Mister Snitch! said...

Good post, AVI.

Re 'good' wars and 'bad' wars, years ago I used to question churchgoers on this. It's a difficult and divisive subject.

I have since found that those who follow Jesus in the most hidebound way tend to be more likely to ecry war, while those who place the spirit of his teachings above doctrine or dogma are more likely to say 'you gotta do what you gotta do'.

You want an example of sophistry in action? OK, I think this may be appropriate.

Carl said...

How 'bout the canard that "journalistic ethics" constrain bias and ensure objectivity--when everyone knows that the media plays the ethics card solely to shield themselves, not to protect the public.

Michael said...

"You can't legislate morality." It happens every time a legislature is in session.

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