Truth in the Age of Trump

by Patrick Lee Miller

04trump1_opener-articleLargeTrump is contemptuous of truth. It is not so much that he lies, although obviously he does a lot of that. His contempt of truth goes deeper than that of the liar, who knows what’s true and deliberately says the opposite. Trump simply doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false. A Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, called this attitude bullshit in an essay he wrote under that title decades ago. A canny publisher recognized an audience for the distinction between lying and bullshitting during the junior Bush years and put out the same essay as a little book.[1] Frankfurt had his fifteen minutes of fame on Jon Stewart’s show and then faded from public awareness. His distinction lives on, but it was never really his in the first place. Plato first drew it to alert his countrymen to the dangers of the Sophists.

These were famous men who traveled the Greek world selling their power with words. Words are always potent tools, but more so in democratic societies such as classical Athens, where political office can be acquired by making speeches. When you can manipulate words, you can sway crowds. The Sophists became rich, and in a few cases powerful, by promising to make their customers masters of words. As Plato shows, their expertise was an ability to bullshit, in Frankfurt’s sense. The Sophist knows how to say what it takes to win—a court case, a business deal, a democratic election. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false; it’s irrelevant. After a while, in fact, he stops paying any attention to the truth. Thinking about it becomes a distraction from his purpose. Life is a contest, whether for money, fame, or power—and words are the tools for winning.

Plato’s analysis of bullshit goes deeper than Frankfurt’s because it marries a discussion of truth with an understanding of tyranny that helps us understand, among other things, the candidacy of Trump for president.

This is the man who first flirted with a presidential campaign in 2012 by calling into question the citizenship of a sitting president. Not even the grudging publication of a birth certificate would silence his conspiratorial doubts. Was there ever any hope of setting the record straight with either him or his followers? Too many falsehoods followed, and they came too fast, so that only devoted journalists could keep up: Muslims cheered as the twin towers fell, Ted Cruz’s father colluded with Lee Oswald in the Kennedy assassination, and so on. To discredit these claims one after the other became overwhelming; after a while, it seemed pointless even to point them out.

To Trump, words are not tools for investigating the world, coming to understand it, and then communicating this understanding with others. No, words are pieces on a board, moved for one purpose: winning. Trump’s only goal is to aggrandize himself—whether with money, in his many years as a businessman; fame, in his dozen years on reality TV; or with power, during his campaign for the presidency. Anything that stands in the way of his aggrandizement will suffer. This was evident to anyone who knew the history of his business deals; it was the whole premise of his television character; it became increasingly clear to anyone who followed his political campaign. It was shocking at first. Remember? Before Trump, we had not seen it done so often or so brazenly. Previous candidates had been liars, to be sure, and some had been contemptuous of truth— but none so openly.

But our shock wore off. Trump learned, or maybe he knew all along, that the cumulative effect of shock, if it be induced often enough, is lassitude. In the final debate, for example, he responded to multiple allegations of sexual harassment by saying that “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” What is most remarkable about that statement? Not that it was false. Obviously it was. But by that point in the campaign we had stopped making special note of falsehoods, even egregious ones. If we noticed Trump’s boast at all, it wasn’t for its falsehood but for his brazen contempt of the truth. Like the proverbial used-car salesman, he would lie if it helped him seal the deal, just as he would tell the truth if it had the same effect. All that mattered was the effect: winning. By that point in the campaign, everyone knew the game and how Trump was playing. Accordingly, this move was hardly mentioned by commentators afterwards.

Besides, it had been eclipsed by so many other instances of Trump’s contempt—most notably, for the election itself. He wouldn’t commit to accepting the results! This was unprecedented, but not at all surprising. By that point, he looked to be losing; losing wasn’t winning; so a new move in the game had to be invented. Flip the board over! The election was rigged against him! Evidence of this implausible conspiracy was unnecessary. Evidence had never mattered. Evidence was for losers. Seeming to concede the danger of that move, however, Trump clarified his meaning at a rally two days later: he would accept the results of the election so long as he won. What a perverse relief it was to hear him say openly what we suspected he had thought all along: the election was irrelevant. For him and his core supporters, the electoral process had always been a show. The goal had never been justice or truth, which require respecting laws and evidence. The goal had always been victory and power. If laws and evidence became obstacles to winning it, well, greatness has a cost.

1. Tyranny & Truth

This is the hallmark of a tyrant, the sort of leader who locks up his political opponents. “By leveling the usual false charges and bringing people into court,” writes Plato of the tyrant, “he commits murder.” (Republic 8.565e) Trump hasn’t committed judicial murder, but neither has he controlled the judiciary. What would it be like if he did? Of his many pernicious contributions to American politics, most dangerous has been his marriage of tyrannical impulses with contempt of truth. Whereas before these spouses had to hide, now, thanks to Trump, they walk naked, as a would-be emperors, proud of the fact that they have no clothes. The child who screams this aloud, the one who triumphs in the fable, ceases to be a threat when he can be muzzled or beaten.

Trump has repeatedly threatened serious news organizations with lawsuits, banned their reporters from his rallies, and promised to restrict their journalistic freedom if he should become president. Dissenters at those same rallies were beaten, but rather than repudiating the violence, Trump encouraged it. Next, as in the Russia of Putin, whom Trump has often praised as a strong leader, such journalists and dissenters would be killed. Why not? “Once he takes over a docile mob,” Plato adds, “he does not restrain himself from shedding a fellow citizen’s blood.” (8.565e) Justice and truth are also for losers.

Tyranny and the contempt of truth have always needed each other in these ways. The tyrant needs to suppress the truth in order to maintain his illusion of legitimacy. A people will not elect someone who openly says he wants power, money, and fame for himself alone. He must deceive them into thinking that he will supply these things—or other objects of their desire—to them. His opponents who expose this deception must therefore be silenced. But eventually some of those who were deceived, his friends and supporters, will learn the truth too. “The ones who are bravest,” writes Plato, “speak freely to him and to each other, criticizing what is happening.” It does not end any better for his brave supporters than it did for his opponents: “the tyrant will have to do away with them all.” (8.567b)

Just as tyranny must make war on the truth, so too will the contempt of truth crave tyrannical power. Only with power to silence critics can it avoid exposure of its pretense and hypocrisy. For it is always pretentious and hypocritical. To see why, consider the Sophists again. The first generation of them would arrive in Athens and advertise their expertise in the art of persuasion, rhetoric. There were no mass media, of course, but their advertisements were at least as persuasive. Gorgias entered the court of public opinion, as we call it nowadays, taking as his client the villain of the Trojan War, the face that sailed a thousand ships, Helen. Against universal condemnation, Gorgias argued that she was innocent.

Either she had been abducted forcefully by Paris or she went willingly. If she had been forced, it wasn’t her fault. Nor was it her fault if she had gone willingly. For what made her willing? If it was Love, this was either an affliction of the soul or an irresistible god. If she had been persuaded by Paris’s words, however, this would have been irresistible in its own way. “Speech is a powerful lord,” he declaimed, “which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works.” Gorgias was exploiting the newest scientific jargon, with all its prestige, to argue that speech was the flow of little atoms from the mouth of the speaker into the ears and souls of the audience. A clever speaker would manipulate words, the effluences of atoms from his mouth, in such a way that they would strike the souls of the audience as forcefully as the grip of a god or a rapist.

Gorgias did not appeal to atomism because it was true—he didn’t care what was true, anymore than he cared what was false—but because it helped him win customers. And it worked. With the appearance of an exhaustive argument rich with the learning of science and religion, Gorgias became rich himself. Indeed, he became a celebrity abroad and a powerful man in his native Sicily. Think about that: with a speech that claimed speech could force people to do the bidding of the speaker, Gorgias got people to give him their money, their attention, and their political offices. Not surprisingly, ambitious young men flocked to him and Protagoras hoping to learn this trick. But what exactly was it?

Whenever he had the opportunity, Plato’s Socrates would ask the Sophists about their expertise. “I’d like to find out from the man,” says Socrates of Gorgias, “what his craft can accomplish, and what it is that he both makes claims about and teaches.” (Gorgias 447c) Was it knowledge? If not, then what was it and why would anyone pay so much for anything less? If it was knowledge, what was it knowledge of? The truth? How could it be? Gorgias wrote speeches that were heedless of the truth. Socrates asked him whether his art of persuasion was “the one that results in being convinced without knowing or the one that results in knowing.” (454e) Gorgias admits that he specialized in conviction without knowing the truth.

For his part, Protagoras wrote openly that there was no such thing as truth: “Human being is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” (80B1) Sophists seem to have assumed this Protagorean relativism—according to which human being, especially when it is gathered in groups, determines what is real and what is not—yet they also advertised themselves as experts, wise men, sophistēs. Don’t experts know how things really are, that is, the truth? (Theaetetus 161c–162a) Protagoras insisted that he did “not deny the existence of both wisdom and wise men.” (166d) However they are not wise because they know some objective truth—the sort supposedly made possible by a reality beyond appearances—because there is no such thing. “The man whom I call wise,” he says instead, “is the man who can change the appearances—the man who in any case where bad things both appear and are for one of us, works a change and makes good things appear and be for him.” (166d)

The physician, for example, is an expert in bodies whereas the rest of us are not. Between their sickness and health, he is able “to make a change from the one state to the other, because the other state is better.” (167a) He is able to do this reliably because symptoms and treatments appear to him in a way they do not to the rest of us. But his success does not require the existence of any truth, although Protagoras concedes that “the things which appear to him are what some people, who are still at a primitive stage, call ‘true.'” (167b) When he compares the appearances of this expert to those of us who do not know, his sophisticated, relativist position “is that the one kind are better than the others, but in no way truer.” (167b) By replacing the notion of truer with the notion of better—the notion of truth, in short, with the notion of good—Protagoras thinks he can preserve a role for experts while avoiding the distinction between appearance and reality. “Human being” can remain “the measure of all things,” yet he can also remain the sort of wise man worthy of a hefty fee (167d).

But Protagoras’s response works only when there is agreement, as in his example of health, about what is better. To nearly everyone, health appears better than sickness. Few would wish to contest this appearance and dispute that, in reality, health is not better than sickness. Were anyone to do so, however, Protagoras would have to grant that the physician who is able to exchange sick appearances for healthy ones only seems an expert to the majority. This concession may seem trivial, inasmuch as the vast majority deem health better than illness without qualification. Perhaps only a philosopher will object that in some circumstances it is better to be sick than healthy (during a military draft, e.g., for an unjust war).[2] But the concession seems far from trivial when there is a heated, painful, even violent dispute about the appearances of goodness. Yet this is the often the case in politics.

Is it good to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants? Is it good to freeze the immigration of all Muslims? Is it good for police to return to racial profiling? Trump thinks so. Do you? If not, what response could Protagoras offer here? None. You have your notion of the good, Trump and his followers have theirs. There is nothing else to say. His racism should scare us, as should his sexism. His ruthless business record, which is also a history of bankruptcy, hardly makes us feel more secure at the prospect of such a person occupying the most powerful office on earth. There are many reasons to fear the presidency of someone like that. But above all, we should worry about the tyrannical contempt of truth Trump embodies. For even with his loss and disappearance from the national scene, his damage will endure. His supporters will merely turn to another—surely less clownish—avatar of their tyrannical fantasies. And that’s what should really scare us. Trump will fade, but his contempt will remain.

2. The Roots of Our Contempt

This contempt is like a weed, one that has been growing for years in the corners of our national lot. Trump was not the plant, he was merely its yellow flower. At first he was pleasing to many, people who found him comical in the spring of his candidacy. With time, though, the yellow flower became windborne seeds. Next season is what concerns us now, expecting that these seeds will take root over the rest of the lot. In the meantime, then, let us consider the weed. It toils, it spins, and has many roots: in racism, sexism, and unregulated capitalism to name a few. But if the contempt of truth, allied with tyrannical fantasies, is indeed where it goes deepest, to understand it best we should follow it all the way down to that dark depth. The quickest route is to follow the story of Trump University.

It was not a university, needless to say. It wasn’t even a school, if that be an institution whose primary goal is education. Instead, it was a business. Its goal was profit. To make money for Trump and his organization, it projected the image of a university, the appearance of education. It promised to teach how to make money in real estate—just as Trump had. Salesmen made these promises part of elaborate pitches to part people from tens of thousands of dollars. Many of these gullible future ‘students’ were financially insecure; some were desperate. Retirees who were having trouble making it between social security cheques, for example, were encouraged to pay their tuition by calling their credit-card companies in order to increase their credit limits. It would all work out, they were assured, because they would emerge from Trump University with the power to do great things. Hadn’t Trump done great things? Trump University’s pitch thus anticipated the appeal of Trump’s campaign.[3]

So far we know of this scheme only from scattered reports in the press. Soon, though, we shall know of it from court documents. A class-action suit against Trump University is in federal district court before Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Fearing for his business, if not also his political prospects, Trump said Judge Curiel could not judge this case fairly because he was “Mexican.” (Curiel was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants.) Trump inaugurated his campaign, let us recall, by descending a golden escalator at Trump Tower and declaring that Mexico was sending rapists and other violent criminals across the border. “We must build a wall.” This harsh stance against Mexican immigration, he now claimed, was presenting “an absolute conflict” for Curiel in handling this case. But as many have observed, including leaders of the Republican party, Trump’s claim was racist. He was arguing that Curiel, because of his race—a race Trump had already denigrated—was incapable of rendering an impartial judgment.

That said, Trump’s racist claim makes a presupposition that goes deeper into the soil that nourishes his candidacy. Because of his race, added Trump, Curiel is “unable to determine the truth.” When a judge judges, in other words, he does not do so as an impartial reasoner, but instead as an embodied subject, one whose racial identity necessarily infuses his judgments and determinations. That was arguably the thought of Justice Sotomayor when she claimed that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” It’s not a racist thought, perhaps, but it’s certainly the sort of critique of Enlightenment epistemology one hears not only from liberal Justices but from the professoriate who educated them. Pure reason in pursuit of truth and justice, according to this critique, is impossible. Philosophers from Descartes to Kant may have thought they were doing this, but they were not. Debates between rival viewpoints cannot be impartial exchanges of evidence whose goal is understanding.

Such debates must instead be contests of power. When the positions are irreconcilable, as so often happens in politics, only one can prevail, so the goal must be winning. This post-Enlightenment, or postmodern epistemology is the default position of the humanities and social sciences nowadays. “‘Truth’,” wrote its most influential proponent, “is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it.”[4] These are the words of Michel Foucault, a French philosopher who came to prominence after 1968 writing histories that exposed practices, institutions, and ideologies of truth and justice as in fact regimes of power. In other words, he showed them to be pretentious and hypocritical, and he was very often right.

The modern American prison system, for example, pretends to rehabilitate criminals in its so-called correctional facilities, rather than subject them to the cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the framers of the American constitution (e.g., drawing and quartering). In fact, however, it throws them into an environment designed to torture them in soul as well as body.[5] Foucault examined courts and prisons, medicine and psychiatry, churches and schools, among other regimes of truth and power. Others have followed him still wider afield. Judith Butler, for instance, argues that neither gender nor sex is natural; both “man” and “woman” have been constructed by societies for the purpose of promoting reproduction. Particularly effective tools in this task of construction are the notions of “nature” and “reality.” Sex and gender have seemed natural to some, despite their social construction for all, because the most effective social constructions disguise themselves as incontrovertible, objective truths of nature, reality, or reason. So, courts and laboratories have been enlisted to throw a cloak of law over the naked exercise of power. Indeed, law and science—among other ‘discourses’—are the exercise of power itself.

Butler sees this exercise of power as unjust because she prefers politics that include sexualities and genders that are excluded by “heteronormative” societies. But if she were pressed for a defense of her own preferred ideals—inclusion and representation of queer genders and sexualities—she could not advert to any objective truth of nature or reason.[6] Nor does she ever come close to such a rookie mistake. Instead, she refuses to defend her ideals. She simply prefers inclusion of queers, thinking this is better. End of story. Catholic moralists prefer their exclusion, thinking this is better, but Butler never pretends that there could be any neutral standard (reason, nature, reality) according to which such preferences could be measured. “Human being is the measure of all things,” she might say, “queer theorists of what is to be included by them, Catholic moralists of what is to be excluded by them.” In her philosophy, these are simply irreconcilable viewpoints in the perpetual struggle for power.

Other examples of this postmodern approach are not hard to find. Richard Rorty argued that the liberal politics he preferred—the politics of human rights and their restrictions on cruelty—did not have any foundation in objective truth. He doubted the existence of God, and thus of natural law. Neither nature itself, human nature, nor the nature of reason could ever tell us what was right and what was wrong. He nonetheless believed in liberal democracy, because “a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance.”[7] Liberal democracy, in other words, was the winner in the long contest of power from ancient Greece to the Cold War. It was not that the American model, or any of its defenders, had shown the Nazis and the Soviets to be wrong, objectively speaking, but rather that more people had been persuaded that it was better—if not by words, then at the point of a gun.

This term, “better,” evokes Protagoras and the Sophists, whose reputation Rorty was trying to restore in the wake of Plato’s criticisms. Rorty thought American democracy was “better,” the way Protagoras seems to have thought the same about the Athenian version. Neither gave “the term ‘better’ the reassuring weight the metaphysician”—namely Plato—”gives it when he explicates it as ‘in better correspondence with reality.” (1989, 91) That’s because Rorty, like Protagoras, thought metaphysics, with its dream of objective truth, was naïve. Many professors in the humanities and social sciences still share their contempt. These three philosophers—Rorty, Butler, and Foucault—are three of the most influential of the last half-century. Despite their differences, each adopted the same basic approach to truth and power: debates between rival viewpoints cannot be genuine searches for the truth, least of all when these debates are about justice, for all debates, even ones that pretend to seek the truth, are merely struggles for power.

Butler is horrified by the Trump phenomenon, calling it “a nightmare.”[8] Rorty died a decade ago; were he alive, he would be no less so. Foucault died three decades ago, and his reaction is harder to imagine. In 1978, after all, he supported Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary movement, writing that it “impressed me in its attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics.”[9] So let us set Foucault aside and focus on the Americans, who present a tamer image. They certainly saw no tyrannical consequences arising from their epistemologies. On the contrary, they have respected, even promoted, the basic rights of liberal democracy. Those who read their books and brandish them for political purposes usually vote Democrat, if they participate in American electoral politics at all. Rorty, Butler, and postmodern epistemology are widely supposed to nourish the Left. Isn’t it invidious, then, to associate them with Trump; isn’t it still worse to say that their philosophical contempt of objective truth is the deepest root of his political contempt of all truth?

It goes without saying that Trump has not read their books, but we can also be sure that had he immersed himself in them he would not have emerged with anything like a script for his presidential campaign. So what warrants associating postmodern epistemology with Trump? Trump doesn’t care about any truths; he’s a con-man, a bullshitter. Rorty, Butler, and Foucault are not. They are estimable philosophers whose work usually shows a rigorous effort to investigate and express certain truths—of penal and medical history, of gender-roles in heteronormative societies, of the liberal horror at cruelty. But their estimable effort to express these small-t truths cohabits uneasily with their critiques of Truth with a capital T. Is it possible to maintain the discipline of little truths while rejecting the pursuit of Big Truth? If so, my argument is unsound. It is sound only if this is impossible. For if it is impossible to maintain the discipline of little truths while rejecting the pursuit of Big Truth, then the postmodern rejection of Big Truth has nourished the tyrannical contempt of all truth whose corpse flower is now blooming all over the world.

3. From Relativism to Tyranny

The contempt for objective truth while maintaining the discipline of little truths has already been tried, by the Sophists of classical Greece and the Athenians who fell under their spell. Protagoras and Gorgias were evidently brilliant men who were masters of more than mere rhetoric. Gorgias boasted that he could answer any question posed to him, any question at all, adding “that no one has asked me anything new in many a year.” (Gorgias 448a) He must have had an encyclopedic mind for the accumulated beliefs of his time, and could not have performed this feat without having exercised the discipline of little truths over a long life. In the Platonic dialogue that bears his name, Gorgias appears a just and conscientious man, who assumes—whether from naivety or shame—that someone who masters his art will use it to defend the true and the just.

The next generation of Sophists, including his own students, were less scrupulous. In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles soon takes over the discussion on behalf of rhetoric. Whereas Gorgias was polite to Socrates and generous with his reasoning, Callicles hurls insults and distorts what Socrates says for the purpose of ridicule. “Is Socrates in earnest about this,” he begins, “or is he joking?” (481b) Rather than adopting the back-and-forth style of the discussion thus far, he launches into a tirade that starts ironically by accusing Socrates of “grandstanding in these speeches, acting like a true crowd pleaser.” (482c) His trick, according to Callicles, is to appeal to the shame of others who do not wish to offend convention. Callicles, by contrast, does not care about convention and its laws. He is shameless. And this, he thinks, makes him an invincible opponent in the debate with Socrates.

He will do what it takes to win because he knows this is the only law that matters, the law of nature, of might making right. “It’s a just thing,” he exclaims, “for the better man and the more capable man to have a greater share than the worse man and the less capable man.” (483d) A great man, such as himself, can declare this openly because he is strong enough to resist the efforts of weaker people—women, presumably, and effeminate men—to shame him into respecting convention. He tells it like it is because he alone is strong enough to get away with it. And the fact that he can get away with it demonstrates his greatness. As if to underscore this circular logic, his speech becomes more and more violent, more and more contemptuous of human frailty. When a grown man stutters, he says, “it strikes me as ridiculous and unmanly, deserving a flogging.” (485c) Philosophers should also be beaten (485d). Were Callicles to have spoken at one of Trump’s rallies, then, he too would have mocked a disabled reporter, condoned the beating of a protester, and worn such shamelessness with pride.

This shamelessness was new in recent American politics. Other politicians had been liars, racists, sexists, and contemptuous of the weak and the poor. That was not new. What was new was a candidate doing it openly. What was truly shocking, moreover, was seeing his poll numbers after each provocation: rather than going down, as the laws of conventional politics predicted, they went up. Trump’s contempt of truth and tyrannical impulses walked hand in hand. This is not to say he was totally transparent. Far from it. He hid his tax returns, apparently because they prove how weak his businesses really are. To appear shameless gives him an aura of strength. To be revealed as anything but strong—especially in business, the basis of his public profile—would destroy his fantastical appeal. After destroying that appeal for women and minorities, it was only a matter of time before his financial hypocrisy came to light.

We do not know what he would do with the power of the presidency, but if the analogy between him and Callicles is sound, we can imagine it. Callicles represented a whole generation of Athenian youth who had been schooled by Protagoras, Gorgias, and other Sophists. Over the course of Socrates’ mature years, the period of the Peloponnesian War, this generation came to power in Athens. An early sign of the influence of Sophistic thinking on Athenian politics was the Mytilenean debate. The town of Mytilene had rebelled against the Athenian empire in the Aegean sea. The Athenians suppressed the rebellion and decided to kill all its men, selling all its women and children into slavery. But the next day they doubted their resolve and put it again to a debate. Cleon argued before the assembly that they should not waver. Thucydides reports that he was “the most violent man at Athens, and at that time the most powerful with the People.” (3.36)

Fortunately, for the Mytileneans, Cleon was opposed by Diodotus, who eventually prevailed. However, Diodotus did not argue that wholesale slaughter and enslavement were unjust. In fact, he advised the Athenians to dispense with justice and think only of their interests. By killing all the men, rather than only the leaders of the rebellion, they would be setting a precedent that would make it harder in the future to suppress rebellions, for cities would now fight to the last man, rather than betraying their leaders in hopes of sparing their own lives. “Though I prove them ever so guilty,” declared Diodotus, “I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient.” (3.44) He too was trying to make the Athenian empire great. He and Cleon disagreed only over tactics.

This Sophistic way of approaching political questions—as natural struggles for power, to which justice is irrelevant—appeared most flagrantly in the Peloponnesian War when the Athenians sent an expeditionary force to subdue the tiny island of Melos. Before the Melians could object that the attack was unjust, the Athenian ambassadors told them that “you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (5.89) Imagining that the Melians might refuse to surrender for the disgrace of cowardice, the Athenians replied to that objection by encouraging them to be shameless in the pursuit of their interests (5.111). The Athenians, in effect, schooled the Melians in the raw contempt of justice and truth that they had by now adapted from the tamer, more conscientious relativism of the first generation of Sophists.

What could Protagoras or Gorgias have said against this adaptation? Was it untrue? Surely not, for such a complaint was deemed naïve by Protagoras. Was it, then, worse? For whom? For the Melians, surely. After a long but successful siege, Thucydides records, the Athenians “put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and settled the place themselves.” (5.115) So it was worse for the Melians, but better for the Athenians. But wasn’t it really bad? If “human being is the measure of all things,” including the good and the bad, there is no answer to that meaningless question. It was good for the Athenians and bad for the Melians and that is all there is to say. There is simply no objective truth here.

Real badness or real goodness, real justice or real injustice: if there is anything to say about these fictions, it is that they are ideologies created by the powerful to subdue the minds of obedient subjects in order to preserve the status quo. Regimes of justice are really regimes of power. This is the argument of Thrasymachus, the Sophist who spars with Socrates in the opening book of Republic. “Justice,” he says, “is what is advantageous for the stronger.” (1.338c; see also 338d–339a) Like Callicles, his speech is full of insults, ridicule, and intimidation. He must be physically restrained while Socrates is speaking (1.336b), he laughs at him sarcastically and asks whether he has a wet nurse (1.343a), he says that Socrates is not seeking the truth about justice but only humiliating others with his awkward questions in order to win (1.338a). In other words, he thinks Socrates is playing the same game as he is. Like Callicles, he not only advocates tyranny in the content of what he says, he engages in discussion as though he were already its insecure tyrant.

Thrasymachus’s speeches, along with those of Callicles, rationalize the tyrannical behavior of Athenian leaders during the Peloponnesian War. To say their thinking caused this behavior would perhaps impute too much power to philosophical speech. But it certainly didn’t help. Our original metaphor seems apt: this second generation of Sophists nourished the tyrannical impulses of the Athenians. Yet the thinking of this second generation didn’t arise from nowhere. Let us follow this root all the way down. It developed from the tamer thinking of their teachers, the first generation of Sophists. Protagoras and Gorgias were contemptuous of Big Truth, but they carried on a discipline of little truths. Yet nothing in their philosophy restrained them from ignoring this discipline. When audiences required them to know facts, they knew facts. Had they spoken before audiences less scrupulous, or more easily duped, nothing but habit or taste would have kept them faithful to this discipline. Truth had no value in itself.

Perhaps also shame restrained them from acting altogether indifferent to truth. Callicles says that shame restrained them from celebrating injustice as better than justice. Shame probably restrained them also from aspiring to tyranny. The second generation of Sophists were not so restrained. They were the shameless epigones of their teachers.

4. From Postmodernism to Tyranny

Neither Rorty nor Butler, never mind Foucault, has caused Trump, anymore than Protagoras and Gorgias caused the slaughter and enslavement of the Melians. Nor are they liars. On the contrary, they have discovered many important truths. That’s because they themselves practiced the discipline of little truths—not always, but most of the time. But why did they practice it at all? Was it required of their scholarly milieu? Yes, the university still prizes little truths. But why? Plato thought little truths to be the images of Big Truth, so that the discipline of pursuing them would help us approach It. But why should we approach It? Plato argued that beholding Big Truth—in his idiom, the Good—was the best life for a human being. Reject the Good, Big Truth, or the metaphysics that made sense of this orientation, then, and it becomes unclear why we should care about little truths.

Do little truths make life better, more pleasant, happier? That was the Epicurean hope of those in antiquity who remained devoted to the discipline of little truths while rejecting Big Truth. Their hope was revived in the early modern period by philosophers who saw in the new science a rigorous discipline of little truths that could function without metaphysics. Has that hope been fulfilled? Nietzsche, for one, was dubious. “In some remote corner of the universe,” he began a little essay cherished by postmodern epistemologists, “there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge.”[10] The star is quickly extinguished, the animals and their knowledge disappear, and nothing is lost. Nietzsche compares the philosophers’ traditional glorification of knowledge to the mosquito’s pride in flying. We humans value knowledge, and the truths it pretends to heed, because it makes us proud. Whenever our intellects come to the brink of some truth that might deflate us, we turn away.

Hasn’t that been an effect of much modern science, which keeps displacing us from the center of the cosmos? Think only of Darwin, whose account of human nature not only meets scorn from many religious believers in the wider public, but is largely ignored by thinkers in the humanities and social sciences whose work it most of all concerns. If truth has no absolute value, but is only good as a tool for our pleasure, a discipline of little truths that hurts our pride, such as Darwin’s, cannot develop as it should. The public will not fund it; the professors will not study it. Feminists respond to evolutionary arguments about gender, for example, the way Republicans respond to the arguments of climate science—not by reading them and offering objective assessment of their content, but by contemptuously ignoring them with vague ad hominem attacks against their authors.

Writing for audiences who share her contempt, Butler shows how the discipline of little truths may be suspended when it would otherwise reach conclusions at odds with a dominant ideology. Faced with the case of David Reimer, the boy who was cruelly raised as a girl after a botched circumcision, Butler does not concede the shortcomings of her theory that gender is performative.[11] Instead of recognizing that there are natural components of gender that no performance could change, no human discourse could overwrite, she argues ingeniously that this tragic case of social constructionism in action—which resulted in the suicide of its victim—confirms her theory. And to some extent she is right: the “experts” felt compelled by a heteronormative culture to make David into one gender or the other; they never seriously considered leaving him as he was, with ambiguous genitalia. But she should also have humbly admitted the limits of her theory. Whenever her argument presents her with an opportunity to do so, however, she retreats into postmodern jargon.

Protagoras and Gorgias would be proud, for Butler has shown in our times how to make the weaker argument the stronger, the worse appear better. Before audiences who are scrupulous about the truth, for whatever reason, shame restrains the postmodern epistemologists, as it restrained the first generation of Greek Sophists, from foregoing the discipline of little truths. But before audiences who are less scrupulous? What then? Is habit enough to keep them faithful to this discipline? Not, it would seem, if its truths conflict with their political goals. Why did they hold those goals in the first place? Were they better than the alternatives? Truly better? Well, if you are at a primitive stage, you may think of it that way, for as Protagoras said, “the things which appear to him are what some people, who are still at a primitive stage, call ‘true.'” The postmodern epistemologist prefers to think that the way things appear to him, or her, is simply better.

What, then, would the postmodern epistemologists do in the situation with which Socrates confronts Gorgias: a student uses their techniques to pursue other goals than their own, even goals opposed to their own? If they would reject such an epigone, would it be for merely personal reasons? Taste? Habit? Shame? Or would there be some reason within their philosophy for doing so? What would that reason be? Rorty was admirable for refusing to be led down this path of objections. He was just shameless enough to say that there was no objective reason to prefer liberal democracy over its rivals. It was simply the regime he preferred. Fortunately for him, and those who shared his preferences, at the end of the Cold War it seemed to have triumphed in the long battle between rival ideologies. That did not make it true. That merely made it the winner. We are less confident now than we were then that its triumph was secure. Indeed, the resurgence of other great powers—China, Russia, Iran—combined with an identity crisis among the liberal democracies has us wondering how much longer the supremacy of their values will last.

Trump is only one symptom of this identity crisis, its American variety. Other versions are troubling Europeans, from Britain to Austria. Values upon which the Western countries have for seventy years based their claims to power—values which were supposed to make that power right, not merely might—are now being doubted. To some extent, this is good. The postmodern critiques, like the Marxist critiques before them, exposed plenty of hypocrisy in the conduct of liberal democracies. And that hypocrisy must be addressed if we wish to be right, in both senses: to do what’s right (justice) and to speak what’s right (truth). But those hypocrisies can only be adjudicated rationally if the discussion aims to get things right. And it can only aim to get things right if it assumes there is such a thing as right in the first place. Whether or not we know the truth and the nature of justice, we must believe in the existence of such things if our discussion is not to become a shameless struggle for power.

Trump has thus forced Americans to face squarely this crisis: are we willing to switch games, from the old one, where we tried to pursue justice and truth, to a new game, which is of course a very old one, where the goal was victory and aggrandizement, where justice and truth were for dupes? The election is an important phase of this crisis, but it is hardly the only one. There will be other elections, and like this one their results will mirror the culture which sustains them. That puts us—we readers and writers, we teachers and students—on the front lines of the battle. What are we doing here, anyway? What is the goal of the university? If the postmodern philosophies are correct, it is not truth. Perhaps, with them, it is diversity, inclusion, and equality. If those goals are ranked above truth, however, we should expect a university where evidence is denied or ignored whenever it seems to conflict with them.

And that is what we are getting. In the last two years, especially, there have been dozens of occasions when students—sometimes encouraged by professors, often supported by administrators with an eye on the bottom line—have suppressed free speech in order to promote their political agenda.[12] They have disinvited speakers whose viewpoints they reject, they have demanded curricula tailored to their political agenda, and they have forbidden discussion of ideas they find threatening. On several campuses, for example, critiques of affirmative action are now considered tantamount to racism. Two years ago the administrators of the University of California system presented its deans and chairs with a list of “microaggressions,” acts that compromise the inclusive atmosphere they wished to create. Among these acts was saying “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”[13]

Now, someone could say those words aggressively, to intimidate a minority, to hint that she doesn’t really belong here. But she could also say those words generously, with the following intent: I am stating what I believe; I believe it for reasons; but I am a human being, subject to error, and I want to engage in a debate about my belief in order to learn whether it is true and my reasons are sound. In this new tyrannical intellectual environment, where it is assumed that everyone is playing the same game, to aggrandize and empower themselves, none of those intentions would matter. In fact, none of those intentions are possible, except as philosophical fantasies. Even the effort to discuss affirmative action in good faith, to determine whether it is just, would necessarily be a move in the power struggle that the university now understands itself to be.

To see the most egregious instance of this new tyrannical atmosphere, we should look north, to the University of Toronto. Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology who rejects the kind of gender theory underwritten by Butler. He thus refuses to use the new gender pronouns of someone’s preference (e.g., zie/hir, ey/em/eir), although this has been required by his university administration, and seems to be ordered by a new set of vague Canadian laws. He has become the focus of large and somewhat unruly protests by students. His fate is unclear. Will he suffer professional consequences? Will he be prosecuted by the government of his province? He is willing to meet both head-on, believing that the threat to free-speech has become serious enough to draw the line here. “People become upset by differences of opinion, and want them suppressed,” he writes, “and it’s no wonder. But the alternative is worse.”[14] The alternatives to freedom of speech, Peterson argues, are tyranny and slavery.

Very few academics support Trump, least of all those who see the university as a beach-head in the battle for “social justice,” that is, diversity, inclusion, and equality. On the contrary, it would seem, he draws much of his support from the harshest opponents of these social-justice warriors, namely, the “Alt-right.” Let us be clear: this right-wing movement is much scarier than the left-wing ideologies it denounces. Social-justice warriors, on one hand, tear down posters for talks that offend them; at worst, they try to ruin the careers of professors who oppose them.[15] The Alt-right trolls, on the other, besiege journalists who criticize them with threats of physical violence.[16] Trump must be defeated in order to deny these racists any more power than they already wield in American life. But the alt-right and the social justice warriors are two sides of the same tyrannical coin.[17] We old-fashioned liberals, we proponents of free speech, we believers in the ancient pursuit of Truth, must do something to change the currency. The alt-right are beyond the pale, but we can still reason with those inside the university. Our responsibility as members of this ancient institution is to change its self-understanding, to overcome the contempt of truth, and bring the academy back to its original field.

5. A More Platonic Academy

The university’s original field was outside Athens, a place named Acadēmia, owned by a certain Plato. Transplanting it back here will not be easy. Many people have a lot invested in the university remaining right where it is. Students have invested their tuition dollars with the hope of winning a return on their investment. Professors akin to Sophists have invested their careers with a hard-won expertise that makes them winners in debates at conferences and in journals. Administrators, finally, are reaping the hefty-fees comparable to those of Protagoras and Gorgias.

Yet there are also students here to learn, professors here to teach, and administrators here to help both achieve their common goal: truth. The problem is that they are no longer the majority. Consequently, any effort to transplant the university will incur hostility, insults, and intimidation from many angles. Students will give poor evaluations to the professor who insists on real learning rather than merely its appearance. Professors wedded to postmodern epistemology will taunt the reformer with naivety, question his integrity, and insist that he check his privilege. Administrators will begin their attack with subtle hints about enrollments and productivity, move to incentives for those who maintain the status quo, and then eventually threaten higher workloads, lower salary, and less job security to those who are working on the transplant. In short, those here to win will do everything in their power to continue doing so.

But there are no surprises here. Plato warns that the philosopher will have to contend with a hive of bees. “It buzzes,” he writes, “and does not tolerate any dissent.” (8.564d) It is imperative nevertheless that we engage in debate with those who buzz, for the transplant of our university to the richer soil of the Academy is nothing other than that sort of engagement. It is just as imperative that we not engage in this debate by buzzing ourselves. Thrasymachus and Callicles resorted to insults and intimidation to hide the weakness of their arguments. The epigones of postmodern epistemology who are making news on campuses across the country by silencing opposition and threatening careers are playing the same game. Socrates ignored the invective and threats of the epigones of Protagorean relativism because he knew how trivial and ephemeral these were when set against the permanent cost of failure: tyranny. We can do the same now too.

To argue that there is objective truth and real justice, we must behave justly in the discussion and stay focused on the objective features of the argument itself. Resistance to tyranny in political life, in other words, begins with resistance to it in intellectual life. We must therefore engage in this debate, and all the many debates it evokes, with not only the goals of Socrates but also his spirit and style. As a preliminary, then, we must cultivate the courage and temperance Plato thought to be integral to any serious pursuit of wisdom. How else will we look past the scorn and contempt of our friends, not to mention our enemies, and keep our eyes on the only prize that really matters?

Finally, we should not only imitate the style of Socrates, but should also scrutinize the substance of his replies to the Sophists. These replies all make the same point: if Sophistry is an expertise, it is knowledge, and knowledge must be of the truth. For our times, if there is knowledge in the humanities and social sciences, it must be knowledge of truth. But what is truth? Is it possible for there to be little truths without one Big Truth? In Republic Plato’s Socrates argues that there cannot be. We need not begin with his answer, but we should begin where he and Thrasymachus do, with a genuine discussion of that question. What we need, above all, is an academy that foregrounds this discussion. What we need, additionally, is an academy where this discussion is not poisoned by ridicule, let alone casual accusations of racism and sexism, but instead sustained by mutual pursuit of the truth, even if that means humbly admitting error.

This isn’t possible in the present university, where this question is treated not as fundamental to the whole institution, but rather as a bauble in a boutique at the furthest end of the collegiate mall. The freshman nowadays is a shopper, and in a political and economic environment such as the present, she will naturally gravitate to the shops that promise the best value. This will be especially true if she has borrowed heavily just to enter the mall, as most of our students have. Perhaps her parents will have called their credit-card companies and asked for increases in their credit limits in order to afford these exorbitant tuitions. Our admissions officers do not need to pressure them to do so; our culture already supplies overwhelming pressure: without a college degree, you are unlikely to win in this national competition for diminishing success. “The initial investment is high,” the admissions officers may concede, “but you will win it all back and more when you brandish our degree. Look at our alumni!” What parent can resist that argument? Who needs deceptive salesmen when you have a whole national culture making your pitch for you?

And yet, if this is your model, how different are you from Trump University, and everything it represents? Unless you care about the distinction between truth and falsehood, unless you make it the reason for your existence, it is only a difference of degree. You may despise Trump, and everything he stands for, but unless you think we’re here to pursue the truth, you are what he stands for.

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Patrick Miller PhotoThis text was delivered as a lecture to The Examined Life series at Duquesne University on October 28, 2016.

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Patrick Lee Miller is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Continuum, 2011), and co-editor of Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (Hackett, 2015). His recent articles consider gender, sexuality, pedagogy, virtual-reality, child psychology, and constitutional government in his effort to use Platonism to solve current problems.



[1] Frankfurt, H. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton.

[2] Plato raises this problem about health and other apparent goods at Meno 87e6 –88a1. Whether or not they are really good requires wisdom, which alone, therefore, is really good. See also Republic 6.491b–c.

[3] Ford, M. 2015. “The Art of the Swindle,” The Atlantic (06.01.15). Available here:

[4] p. 133 in C. Gordon 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972–1977 Michel Foucault. Pantheon.

[5] Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Tr. A. Sheridan. Vintage.

[6] Butler, J. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge. See especially pp. 8, 22.

[7] p. 189 in Rorty, R. 1989. Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. Cambridge.

[8] “Trump is emancipating unbridled hatred,” an interview with Judith Butler on Zeit Online, 10.28.16:

[9] “What are the Iranians Dreaming About,” Le Nouvel Observateur, October 16–22, 1978. Also excerpted on pp. 203–9 of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, published by the University of Chicago Press, 2005. The original article is available here:

[10] “On Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense.”

[11] Butler, J. 2001. “Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7.4: 621–36. Butler’s paper discusses the case of David Reimer, the subject of J. Colapinto’s more truthful As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. 2000. Harper-Collins.

[12] These cases are being catalogued by FIRE: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ( Responding to the movement in higher-education against political heterodoxy, professors led by Jonathan Haidt have formed The Heterodox Academy, which, for example, has recently released its rankings of American universities, according to their respect for free speech (

[13] Lukianoff, G. and J. Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015. Available here:

[14] Peterson, J. “Canadian gender neutral pronoun bill is a warning for Americans,” in The Hill 10.16.16. Available here:

[16] The story of David French is harrowing in this regard. French, D. “The Price I’ve Paid for Opposing Donald Trump.” The National Review. 10.21.16. Available here:

[17] This essay aims only to show their common contempt of truth and tyrannical impulses. But there are also causal connections between them. Richard Spencer was a doctoral candidate in the humanities at Duke University, a center for postmodern philosophy. He is now one of the leaders of the alt-right—indeed, he invented the name. Mother Jones interviewed him and he says of social-justice warriors (among others), “They made us.” Available here: