Doxa, Absolute and Relative.

While doing research on cars, I read an article saying “Though they made a strong finish, Chevy is going to have to try harder to establish itself as ‘the longest lasting, most dependable’ on the road”. The line came as a shock since in all the thousands of times I’d encountered that slogan in advertisements it never crossed my mind to take it as a claim about anything. The advertisement was processed as just another piece of slogany gibberish – it would have made no difference if they had said “Chevy: the American you” or “Roadstrong”. Ads aren’t claims that one weighs, disputes, or even looks into.

The problem is that, by sheer force of repetition and the omnipresence of advertisements in my life, there are large regions of my consciousness that are dominated by this sort of speech. One can’t escape being continually baited, spellbound, and drawn into multiple fantasy narratives that place him in an ideal world created by some product. We know that others daydream in the same way and so to consume the product would affect the opinion others have of us. Since the opinion of others is a significant part of our world, we know that buying the product can really change our world significantly.

Advertising thus taps into that elemental power that the Greeks called doxa – the power of reputation, opinion, glory, and their resulting power to include us in the group. Anyone can recognize in himself that, to a large extent, he is what others see him to be. There’s nothing odd in this – I can only teach students if they accept me as a teacher, just as I can only but something in dollars if someone accepts them as currency. But Plato was right to recognize that doxa has only a contingent value – it is entirely open to good as well as evil. Saints and gang members both measure their worth by their value in the eyes of others.

Advertising, however, seems problematic on exactly the same point that the Greek rhetoricians were: it cultivates an indifference to truth. Gorgias famously didn’t care if he understood what he was convincing people to do: if statesmen want to build walls, Gorgias could persuade people to build them; if doctors wanted patients to take their medicine, Gorgias could persuade them to take it. The persuasion would be just as effective if the walls were a boondoggle or the medicine were poison. So maybe Chevy is the most durable truck out there – even if this is so, Gorgias is not telling we this to inform me about Chevy but to get me to buy one; and he tells me this not because he loves Chevy’s himself but only because someone paid him to persuade others to buy them. To be more precise, the problem is not with persuasion but the fact that this persuasion is happening in a region where rational discourse is inapplicable. Even if Chevy wanted to make a rational claim in a commercial it would be hard to see how they would make it. The conclusion would just be another slogan, the discourse just another campaign.

This throws the difference between doxa and nous into sharp relief. Doxa is an inseparable part of life simply because we are gregarious animals and because all intelligent entities have second person perspectives as integral to their perfection. Doxa is just as transcendental as nous, and just as verified in God as in man. But human doxa carries with it the possibility of phoniness, hypocrisy, shallow consumerism, machismo, and the vapidity of both the masculine and feminine modes of status seeking. It is more apparent how human doxa is in need of correction a rectification in relation to what Plato called the Good itself. We would only add, with St. Thomas, that doxa is integral to the Good itself. It is not the case that doxa is, as it were, explained away by reason or nous but rather that it is perfected in relation to an absolute doxa. Human happiness consists in a knowledge God has of man’s acts, and God’s blessedness consists in his being seen by other persons like himself.

 

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