Monday, September 13, 2010

Ancient, Ambiguous, Odorous Words

The above is from a Hyatt Hotels advertisement of their Visa card in today’s New York Times. I love the abbreviation L. for Leonardo. So sophisticated. Here is one of those wondrous ancient words; it has undergone so many cycles of use over time that quite contradictory meanings attach to it. The root is sophia, the Greek for wisdom—and I should really render it Sophia in honor of the Goddess of Wisdom. We find this root in philosophy, the love of wisdom; there its ancient meaning is preserved unsullied if also, perhaps, mostly unnoticed.

Precisely at the time when Greece emerged from its own religious (call it medieval) period—thus around the time of Socrates in the fifth century BC—the high arts began a descent into the world of commerce. Socrates was condemned to death by the state of Athens for supposedly corrupting the minds of the young—but the Oracle of Delphi considered him the wisest of men. In Socrates’ time emerged a profession of “teachers of wisdom,” the Sophists, who taught for a fee. Money and wisdom rarely mix well. Some of the sophists were, of course, genuine and serious teachers of philosophy; and far be it for me to deny the honest teacher his income. But many others—and they came, in the long run, to set the tone—“diversified” their product and began to teach cleverness in argument.

Here I’d note a more modern instance of ambiguous labeling. In the seventeenth century the Jesuits were accused of similar “sophistication,” so that the word jesuitical has a bad smell for those who know about such things. But the Jesuits are an upstanding and respected order, and I count myself lucky in having had them as my teachers.

In Greece we had an early split between philosophy and sophism—and lucky for philosophers that the language managed to produce a word that has retained its purity. The word itself, philosophy, was apparently introduced by Pythagoras, another fifth century figure. Rhetoric, the very serious science of oratory and of communications generally, suffered from an ambiguous reputation throughout its long, long history—having only been freed of this taint in modern times when, finally, we have differentiated advertising and public relations as the honestly dishonest forms of paid public discourse.

Isn’t it delightful, therefore, to see an ad in the New York Times lauding sophistication—the child honoring its parent?

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