The lowest of professions, Plato believed, were those whose stock-in-trade was flattery, for instance, beauticians, courtiers and embalmers. And his opinion was echoed by Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian antiquarian, who stopped by the 4,600-year-old Great Sphinx of Giza the other day, to find that the masons hired to cosmeticize its surface had decided that some nifty new limestone blocks would look ever so much nicer than those old stones the Sphinx had for paws and so had replaced them. At which point Hawass, although lacking any authority to do so, had caused the work to be halted.

"If you are angry and see something very, very bad going on," he explained, "you can stop it. And I was just like a crazy man."

Even so, one can easily imagine that the masons were puzzled and hurt. After all, "a sense of history" had been nowhere mentioned in their job descriptions, and like those cheerful people who spruce up the appearance of things everywhere, they'd sought only to please.

Most likely, one surmises, they'll find jobs elsewhere, for there's lots of external restoration to be done these days, as acid rain and corrosive smog, on the Acropolis, the Forum and the Mall, eat away at the physiognomies of the past. Erosion, then, has made those professions Plato held in lowest esteem to be everywhere venerated among us, and those who know how to put a flattering face on the surface of thing do well.

Even the Sphinx itself, in times gone by, has been known to reward cosmeticians. For instance, back in Egypt's 18th dynasty, one Tuthmosis went out hunting one day, stretched out to nap in that creature's shade and was told in a dream that he'd be made king if he'd clear some sand away from around the base, a dream that came true, because in those days, as in ours, attentiveness paid well.

Since our times are like those, Hawass' outrage at the men who gave the Sphinx new paws will most likely be ignored, although he seems to be saying something, too, about structures not hewn in stone. For he is at pains to point out that the ravages wrought by modernity aren't merely outward ones that can be glossed over.

In the Sphinx's case, for instance, modern irrigation projects have so raised the water table that the interior of that ancient structure is being weakened by the corrosive salt water its limestone draws out of the ground. This means that unless the inner structure is strengthened the Sphinx may collapse as suddenly as any matador-killed bull. And thus Hawass sees the beautification program, which consists of laying new limestone blocks along the flanks, as essentially destructive in that it hides the real nature of things, and gets in the way of any efforts at structural reform.

His views have special piquancy, one ventures to suggest, because our own civilization is not entirely unlike that huge, recumbent figure in those distant sands, with its powerful lion's body and its face that is still recognizably human, though pitted from much rifle fire. And what is alarming many Americans, too, is taht sense of an inward crumbling -- while ever more eager legions of cosmeticians clamor for public office or (what's equally frequent) for influential positions in education, media or what advertises itself as our official culture, that is as unrelated to the central structure of things as any have-a-nice-day smile plastered on the side of the Washington Monument.

Because cosmeticians choose what we see, too much of what we see is surfaces. And hence what passes for "reality" in this town is like the quiet, tense interior of a television-control booth, wherein the director is murmuring, "Change. Change. Change." -- as, to his command, quick hallucinatory shots of the tail, flanks, paws, beard and cobra-on-the-forehead are shown in quick montage, disturbing the emotions without making the connections. And it is always the surface, the surface, merely the surface of things; suave pols promising to paint the claws a beguiling new shade; academicians languidly comparing the smile with the Mona Lisa's; and commissars of culture meeting around glitteringly waxed tables to see to it that right-thinking folks get government funds to mix paint for the sightless eyes. And it's new paws every day.

Meanwhile, one has a sense not only of an inner crumbling, but of something actually having snapped. And one feels, as Hawass did, anger at the presumption of these cadaverpainters to whom we're handed over control of things, and alarm at their so-called remedies, that have all the character and seriousness of a Revlon ad.

But the structural truth of the matter is like this: the situation in the Middle East, which smiles could not stave off, will very possibly lead to nuclear war. Nuclear proliferation, unless it's handled much more decisively, will certainly lead to nuclear war. Our armed forces are dangerously weak, and that is not being dealt with; nor is Russia's global aggression being dealt with; nor are our won perpetrations of needless evil, which sap this country's self-esteem, being halted; nor is the systematic destruction of America's middle class (which has had no presidential candidate for many years) being in any whit abated; nor is the wanton social destructiveness of the media so much as mentioned; nor are the totalitarian edicts of the Supreme Court being challenged in any other way than by gossip and whining.

What makes the situation deadly is that these structural weaknesses cannot be repaired by the agile, friendly beauticians who have come forward to lead us. Worse, we lack even a forum in which these things might be discussed. Meanwhile, the strong inner structure of this country crumbles, rock returning, with little snappings, to everlasting sand.