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date: 27 February 2024

American Sophisticationlocked

American Sophisticationlocked

  • Ross PosnockRoss PosnockDepartment of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University


Like cosmopolitan, sophistication is a fighting word in American culture, a phrase that discomfits, raises eyebrows. It is not who we are, as President Obama used to say, for it smacks of elitism. Whereas the first word has had a stormy modern history—Stalin, for instance, used cosmopolitan as a code word for Jew—sophistication has always kept bad company, starting with its etymology. Its first six letters saddle it with sophistry, both tarred with the same brush of suspicion. Sophistry was a form of rhetoric that attracted the enmity of Socrates and Plato, with repercussions deep into the 17th century. In 1689, when John Locke said rhetoric trafficked in error and deceit, he was echoing the Greeks who tended to dismiss the art of persuasion and eloquence in general as sophistry, morally debased discourse. In the West, rhetoric, sophistry, and sophistication are arraigned as a shared locus of antinature: empty style, deceptive artifice, effeminate preening. They all testify to the deforming demands of social life, the worldliness disdained by Christian moralists, starting with Augustine, as concupiscence. This is the fall into sin from the prelapsarian transparency of Adam and Eve’s spiritual union of pure intellection with God, the perfection of reason that permits transcendence of the bodily senses. The corporeal senses and imagination dominate when man gives himself over to the world’s noise and confusion and is distracted from self-communion in company with God.

Given that sophistication’s keynote is effortless ease, from the point of view of Augustinian Christianity such behavior in a basic sense violates Christian humility after the fall: with man’s loss of repose in God comes permanent uneasiness, inquiétude as Blaise Pascal and Michel de Montaigne put it, a chronic dissatisfaction and ennui that seeks relief in trivial divertissement (distraction), convictions that Montesquieu, Locke, and Tocqueville drew on for their root assumptions about how secular political institutions shape their citizens’ psyches. American Puritanism is in part an “Augustinian strain of piety,” as Perry Miller showed in his classic study, The New England Mind, hence suspicious of any distraction from worship of God. Puritans banned theaters two years after the nation was founded. Keeping vigilant watch over stirrings of New World worldliness, they permanently placed sophistication in the shadow of a double burden: Christian interdiction on top of the pre-Christian opprobrium heaped on sophistic rhetoric. Only by the mid-19th century does sophistication finally shed, though never definitively, sophistry’s fraudulence and deception and acquire positive qualities—worldly wisdom, refinement, subtlety, expertise. The year 1850 is the earliest positive use the Oxford English Dictionary lists, instanced by a sentence from Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography: “A people who . . . preserve in the very midst of their sophistication a frankness distinct from it.”


  • Literary Theory
  • Print Culture and Digital Humanities

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