The Sophist’s Folly

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, August 28

While the modern definition of sophistry refers to specious and deceptive argumentation, it originates from the Greek word sophos or sophia meaning to be “wise” or “wisdom.” In the second half of the 5th century BC, sophists were intellectuals of Athens who claimed that they possessed wisdom. However, as German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper puts it, “the words “philosophy” and “philosopher” were coined, according to legend, by Pythagoras. And they were intended to stand in an emphatic contrast with “sophia” and “sophos”: no man is wise and knowing, only God. And so the most that man can do is call someone a loving searcher of the truth, philo-sophos.

Thus sophistry is directly contrary to the intellectual tradition of philosophy and of Socrates and Plato who saw themselves, not as possessing wisdom, but as pursuers of wisdom. Instead, in the philosophical tradition wisdom was not something that could ever be possessed by mortal man, no matter how vigorously the philosopher pursued it. Instead, wisdom is something to be received. The philosopher tries to conform himself to the world but the sophist seeks to conform the world to himself. Thus, the philosopher grasps a reality that expands to infinity, and is far more human, more fulfilling, than that finite environment of the domineering sophist.

In attempting to possess knowledge instead of receiving it, the modern man makes science both his means and his end and in so doing science, too, becomes his philosophy and his religion. The scientific method is an invaluable tool but it can only inform us of our environment; it is blind to our purpose and meaning. We cannot know the whole truth of the world by containing ourselves to science because what we can perceive through our senses represents only one part of the human experience. Much of human experience, perhaps even most of it, cannot be viewed under a microscope and it cannot be quantified. The best that the modern sophist can do to explain our more transcendent experiences is to conceive elaborate stories about how building temples to sky-gods and praying to them somehow helps the DNA replicating process, or to dismiss such experiences as “mistakes” in our genetic code.

If you could see God, touch God, feel God, if you could prove his existence using the scientific method then all the birds and fishes and animals of the earth would be theists and every Sunday they’d gather and worship Him like the human believers do. But they do not worship, except by their existence, they do not pray and they do not construct religions or churches. But neither do they write ballads, paint the landscape or philosophize like we do. They cannot conceive of beauty like us for the same reason that they cannot worship like us: because they are just animals and we are not and because beauty and worship are intrinsically connected, flowing from the same well. We are not mere “smart animals”; we are flesh but also spirit, body and soul. We transcend what we can taste and smell and touch and hear. We transcend the world of functionalities to pursue things with no function. A man does not let his imagination run wild and write sonatas in order to pass on his genes; he does it for the joy of it. The object of festival is festivity. It serves no higher purpose because it is the purpose. And what higher form of festival is there than worship? Our DNA can never tell us to worship God and we cannot be programmed like machines to be like Him, to create and love and laugh. God wrote the genetic code in our bodies that tells us to breathe and eat and replicate but what is even more amazing is that He wrote a poem in our hearts. We transcend the machinations of DNA replication because God is a poet and the poem demands by all that is good that man be more than beast, and so he is.

It is precisely those functionless acts of man that speak of God. If everything we are and do is determined by our genes and our genes are determined by the evolutionary process then everything that we do and are must have a function, everything we do must function to further our lineage, to give us some advantage in passing on our genes. And, yet, man constantly behaves in ways that have no function. Humanity sings and dances and is festive; we laugh; we create art; we philosophize. In our culture of constant work all of these things can be, and have been, reduced to serve certain functions: the “philosophy” of political theory serves political agendas, modern art serves some men’s sense of superiority, night clubs serve to keep the working class contained and to allow them to “unwind” from their work. But political theory is not philosophy, modern “art” is not art and there is no song or dance in a night club. Oh, some remnant is there, but they are shadows. Leisure, festivity, in its truest form is without function: it exists for its own sake and men partake in it merely for the joy of it. Science could never create such a world. Only God, who is the first and last, who exists simply for his own sake and who loves us and creates universes simply for their own sake could ever conceive of such a world.

Of course, none of this is scientific proof of God. But that’s the secret that drives the sophists mad; no proof is needed. If an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being exists how will science detect it? There is no way. God created our senses, he created light and mass and matter. He created all of time and space and He is bigger than the universe. Every discovery of science detects some small part of God but it can never see all of Him because science is contained by the physical world and he is even larger than that. It would be easier for an amoeba to see a man than for man to see God. That is why theism is a leap of faith, not because we’re irrationally choosing to believe in some make-believe old man that isn’t real but because we are very rationally choosing to believe in something even more real than ourselves. The sophists who claim that the belief in God is actually a scientific hypothesis which they can test and disprove are like germs claiming that a Man cannot exist because they have no way of detecting him. The truth, however, is that he is simply too big to see.

Christian Ohnimus is a registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He is a contributor to The Porch and The Catholic Renaissance.

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