Are You Sophisticated? Here's How to Find Out

By Johnson, Paul | The Spectator, January 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

Are You Sophisticated? Here's How to Find Out


Johnson, Paul, The Spectator


The word 'sophisticated', though commonly used, especially by persons who turn out on close investigation to be unsophisticated, is tricky, and truly sophisticated people avoid it altogether. Now, having got that off my chest, let us try to define it. One difficulty is that the root of the word can mean opposite things. Thus, a sophist can be either 'a wise or learned man' (OED), or 'one who makes use of fallacious arguments'. Macaulay, in his History, ferociously calls Catholic theologians, especially casuists, 'this odious school of sophists'. 'Sophistry' nearly always means 'deceptiveness'. To sophisticate, used as a verb, is to mix commodities and render impure, to adulterate, deprive of simplicity, and make artificial. Hazlitt, himself a fascinating mixture of intellectual sophisticate, rare for his epoch, and downright naivity to the point of idiocy (falling hopelessly in love with a nasty servant-girl), sometimes used the word, verbally or adjectivally, as a term of abuse. The hint of criticism lasted throughout the 19th century - thus in the 1880s it was noted that plain names for girls, like Sarah or Mary, were being 'sophisticated' into Celestine or Mariette.

The use of 'sophisticated' in its modern sense occurred only in the third decade of the 20th century, though the OED cites Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure as an early authority. When used with approval, envy and admiration, it is essentially a 1920s word, cropping up in the early Aldous Huxley of Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, and applied to young women as well as men. Huxley's Mrs Viveash was sophisticated and so was Nancy Cunard, on whom she was based. It quickly moved into the cultural field, puzzling pundits and know-alls unable to decide whether Sons and Lovers, let alone Lady Chatterley's Lover, were sophisticated or not or even faux-naif, thus forcing them into dishonest compromises or having it both ways.

In the Thirties and Forties it made deep inroads into academia. We read that in ancient Athens, 'probably pederasty was more common among the aristocrats, the idle rich and the sophisticated than among the simpler people'.

Scrutiny took it up in its usual gruesome fashion, both as a term of guarded praise and of stealthy abuse. So we find the dreadful Raymond Williams droning on, in Marxism and Literature:

'Mediation, in this range of use, thus seems little more than a sophisticate of reflection.' Puzzle that out. In 1947 C.S. Lewis told me it was 'one of those words to be employed with the greatest care'. He loved to discourse on its etymology and contradictions, and made cunning use of it himself (cf. his That Hideous Strength).

All the same, I intend to have a shot at defining sophistication in this day and age, and even devising a test by which you can fairly (or even unfairly) determine whether someone is sophisticated or not. The word provokes not just argument but rage. People really dislike being called unsophisticated, or accused of a lack of sophistication, unless they are very sophisticated indeed, in which case they don't care tuppence, since they consider the person who calls them such lacks the qualifications to pronounce. To which my philosopher friend Professor Prodnose adds: 'Yes, and the only true Sophisticated One is God.'

Let us then proceed to give the ten tests by which you can decide whether you, or those you know to be in the running, are sophisticated or not. You don't have to pass all ten. Seven will do perfectly well. And test number one takes up the last point. Can you remain truly indifferent to what people say or think about you?

I mean, not just take no notice but remain perfectly calm. Can you take no notice of what is said about you in a gossip column, or better still, refrain from reading it when kind friends tell you you're in it? Personally I think this point can be carried too far.

Now come two tests of knowledge. …

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