Here is one way of seeing the timeless relevance of Socrates for us today: Think of him as the archetype of individualism fighting against oppressive social conformity.
In this thread on Socrates, I’ve already looked at some noble and less noble aspects of the man’s character. And every time I found him to be thoroughly modern and recognizable. So too in this way.
Watch the 2-minute video above of the famous Asch Experiments that began in 1956. They were devastating: We saw confirmed what we already suspected, that people will readily surrender truth to a group.
To me, still emerging from my old Ayn Rand phase, this was always the ultimate, the most disgusting, sin. To me, this is how the Nazis perverted an entire nation, how Mao’s Red Guards did it again, how all great evil throughout history spreads.
Hence the inherent appeal of a hero such as Socrates. He told the group (the Athenians) to bugger off. In return, they killed him for it. (This will get a lot more nuanced in future posts, but let’s leave it at that for now.)
If Socrates had sat in the Asch Experiments, he would never have changed his answer.
But should the group really bugger off?
If it were as simple as all that, The Hannibal Blog would not find this so interesting. But it is not so simple. It turns out that we have moved on from the Asch Experiments somewhat. Read, for instance, Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer, two psychologists who took a new approach.
The people who might change their answer to “lie” in unison with the group were in fact facing an exceedingly difficult situation that inherently required all sorts of complex trade-offs, they argue:
- On one hand, there is the value of truth.
- On the other hand, there is the value of social solidarity.
In practice, most people did not conform consistently (ie, “lie” with the group every time) but varied their response in what Hodges and Geyer call
patterns of dissent and agreement to communicate larger scale truths and cooperative intentions.
In short, they were being biological organisms that keep in mind 1) their own survival in a group and 2) the survival of the group as a whole.
Now this is exactly the sort of poppycock that I used to have no time for at all. But as I get older I see more complexities. In Socrates’ case, for instance, there actually was a specific threat to the group survival of the Athenians, and I will get to that.
So we can add another timeless conundrum to the issues that Socrates raised. We already said that truth often conflicts with gentleness and kindness, and that one cannot assume truth must always win this fight. What if Hodges and Geyer are right and truth must also occasionally take a backseat to those “larger truths”– and that Socrates, failing to understand that, paid a fair price?