Friday, 19 October 2018

Wisdom in the era of Donald Trump

Above is a talk by Victor Davis Hanson on the reasons behind Donald Trump’s unexpected US presidential election triumph in 2016. Hanson, a classicist and not so much a Trump supporter as a critic of leftist-liberal visions and versions of American history and destiny, employs Demosthenes, Aristotle and Euripides to explain why he thinks Trump – a repugnant figure to Hanson in many ways – was able to win the White House.

In the case of Euripides, Hanson uses the quote from the Bacchae, in which the playwright states, via the chorus, τὸ σοφὸν δ᾽ οὐ σοφία, to demonstrate that while Trump and his supporters were often castigated for being stupid – a basket of deplorables, in Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase – and those who opposed Trumpism were regarded – or regarded themselves – as possessors of superior knowledge or education, wisdom, in fact, comes in many forms and does not always equate to intellect.  Sometimes, according to Hanson, it can come in the form of ‘animal cunning’ – which Hanson attributes to Trump; what is most useful to a society – such as workmanship, physical expertise and manual skills; and, ultimately, the recognition by society of the boundaries that cannot be crossed and by humans of their limitations.

Τὸ σοφὸν δ᾽ οὐ σοφία has been translated into English as ‘that which is wise is not wisdom’ or here as ‘wisdom is not cleverness’. In his talk above, Hanson suggests Euripides is making a distinction between ‘who is wise and who is a wise-ass’ and, in this article, he translates the playwright as saying, ‘cleverness is not wisdom’.  The latter – ‘cleverness is not wisdom’ – is the translation I prefer.

Hanson begins his piece:

At the height of the sophistic age in classical Athens, the playwright Euripides asked an eternal question in his masterpiece, the Bacchae: “What is wisdom?” 

‘Was wisdom defined as clever wordplay, or as the urban sophistication of the robed philosophers in the agora and rhetoricians in the assembly?

‘Or instead was true wisdom a deeper and more modest appreciation of unchanging human nature throughout the ages, which reminds us to avoid hubris, tread carefully, always expect the unlikely, and distrust the self-acclaimed wise who eventually prove clever fools? At the end of the play, a savage, merciless nemesis is unleashed on the hubristic wise of the establishment.

‘Euripides would have appreciated the ironies of the 2016 election.