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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-05-14)

In the last column in this series we talked of the difference between sophistry and sophistication.

The search for exact meanings here takes us back a long way, to classical Greece. Both words derive ultimately from the Greek “sophia” (wisdom) and the Sophists were originally travelling teachers. But in the later fifth and fourth centuries BC the Sophists established themselves in Athens and attracted the attention of a teacher called Socrates. He identified a sceptical trend of thought among the Sophists and vigorously opposed them. It was perhaps unlucky for them that Socrates had a pupil called Plato; Plato had a pupil called Aristotle; and Aristotle was tutor to a young man called Alexander of Macedon, who came to be known as Alexander the Great.

Of this astonishing quartet, two – Plato and Aristotle – were extremely persuasive writers, whose works shaped European thought up to the Renaissance and beyond. With this heavy artillery ranged against them, it isn’t surprising that the Sophists’ reputation is a poor one, and “sophistry” came to mean “plausibly deceptive or fallacious reasoning.”

But “sophistication” doesn’t get off unscathed. As we apply it to machines such as computers, it has a favourable implication – “highly complex and efficient.” Applied to people, it’s a little ambiguous. It implies refinement, culture and worldly wisdom, but there’s an implication of excessive and unnatural refinement. It can also have the adverse sense of sophistry – “adulterated, falsified.” This bad sense of the word must be very old; it derives directly from a mediaeval Latin word meaning “to adulterate”, a long way indeed from “sophia”.

Back to the present: let us now praise famous women, in particular the Minister of Education in the province of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. At a recent graduation ceremony for young teachers, this good lady came out with some ringing utterances:

“Crafts, music and heritage are becoming big industries, responsible for gross inputs in their countries’ economies.”

“Will you come forward and be seen to be counted?”

Finally, she urged her audience to graduate “with a clear sense of servitude.” Well now, Madam Minister, servitude is defined as “slavery; subjection; compulsory labour; subjection to irksome conditions…”

As an ex-teacher myself, I think you’ve summed up the profession pretty well, as we would expect of a Minister of Education. But was it fair to break the news to your fledglings on their graduation day?

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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