WordPress: Plato’s Academy Today

Some of you may have noticed that my thread on Socrates was going strong all through the summer and then, seemingly, stopped. Something similar, you might have thought, occurred with my thread on America.

Well, no, the two threads did not stop. They went into overdrive, albeit in a different form. Indeed, they became a story–what we call a “Christmas Special”–in the new holiday issue of The Economist.

It is called “Socrates in America: Arguing to death“. Please think and smirk as you read it (which also, of course, goes for almost anything you read on The Hannibal Blog).

(A similar, though less pronounced, process led to my other piece in that issue, a sort of polemic against direct democracy. That idea occurred to me after amusing myself, here on The Hannibal Blog, in my thread on freedom, with posts such as this one on James Madison.)

Thank you!

But what am I saying! Nonsense. It was not I, amusing myself. It was we, amusing ourselves.

And that is the point of this post. It is, first, to say Thank You to you, who come here to comment, to teach me, challenge me, tease me.

Those of you who have been readers for a while will see yourselves in my story in The Economist. Cheri will recognize, in the ninth paragraph, the gem that she herself sent to me. Jag will spot, further down, his pun on the Greek word idiotes. Mr Crotchety, who offends the gods by not having his own blog, will see his own worldview–irreverent, humorous, incisive–throughout the piece, since he trained me well in it. Phillip S Phogg, with his deep erudition, subtly worn; Solid Gold Creativity, with her sensitivity and philosophy; Thomas StazykThecriticalline and the Village Gossip, with their almost poetic thought processes;  Peter G, with his outrageous wit; Steve Block with his precision mind; Douglas with his forging inquiry; …. the list goes on and on and on.

Those of you who come sporadically, such as Vincent and Kempton; those of you have come recently, such as Man of Roma, Susan and Dafna; those of you who disappear for a while and resurface months later; and the many, many more who don’t comment at all but just read: all of you have enriched this blog and my mind and my writing.

You are all now co-authors of stories in The Economist and of a book in the making.

Academy 2.0

Which leads me to another insight: Socrates was wrong about one thing, as he himself would gladly concede if he were given a WordPress account: the written word is not inimical to good conversation; text is not necessarily dumb and dead.

What we do here is dialectic, defined as good conversations. What we have here is the Academy that Socrates’ student Plato founded in Athens. Where they ambled in circles and joked and teased and inquired and contested and thought, we do the same thing here on our blogs, minus the ambling.

And there is something new and special about these conversations. I have debated in many settings–the famous “Monday morning meetings” at The Economist in 25 St. James’s Square, London, being a notable one.

When you practice dialectic in those settings, in the flesh, you are always aware who is speaking as well as what is being said. Often this adds an impurity into the mental flow. Are we paying more attention to somebody of higher status or rank, less to somebody who is new? Are we distracted by a twitch, a snort, a sniffle? A curve, accentuated by a fabric, reminiscent of a …

Here there is none of that. With one single exception, I have met none of you in person. (And is that not amazing?) Here, the only thing that matters is what, not who.

Put differently, here in this modern and more pure academy, we all feel safe:

  • safe to contradict ourselves,
  • safe to take intellectual risks,
  • safe to fail and advance,
  • safe from embarrassment.

We exist on our blogs, between which we skip and link and flit like thoughts across neurons, through our words and associations, our minds and thoughts alone.

Here, we are each equal with Socrates.

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42 thoughts on “WordPress: Plato’s Academy Today

  1. Yeah, but I’d feel a lot safer from embarrassment if I could go back and edit my comments after I submitted them. Every time I notice a typo, a grammatical blunder, or a blatant lapse of logic upon perusing my commentary once it has been irrevocably posted I feel like running to my local Starbucks and ordering one of these venti hemlock lattes in order to become even more equal with Socrates by adding the Socratic deadness component.

    Regarding our share from your book sales, do you do direct deposit or will you be mailing checks?

  2. adreas, your blog popped up by accident. yet i think i found a home.
    the posts, the wit, the insights, the wonderfully skilled writers… humble me.
    also it continuously amazes me that just as i think i might be posting an original thought, someone has beat me to it. only today i asked myself the question “why am i drawn to this blog?” and the answer was the attraction of people who not only seem capable of honest self-evaluation but they seem able to learn from others. (academy 2.0) it seems that sometimes it takes a knock on the head to really understand something. it is a wonderfully less painful gift to read it and say ahhh – i would never have seen it that way!

  3. Your piece about Socrates in the Economist is excellent. But then, I would expect no less!!

    ……nonconformism is not an absolute virtue and easily veers off into sedition, subversion or other actions deemed unpatriotic……

    Is it not true that in all democracies, whose citizens can publicly speak their minds without being thrown in jail, this freedom of speech is allowed only in times of peace? But when war comes, are not states of emergency always declared, so that freedom of speech is drastically curtailed? And is it not true that it is precisely during times of war, when individual rights are trampled on in the extreme, when freedom of speech should be most important to the individual?

    I suggest, then, that in democracies, freedom of speech is allowed only when it poses the least threat to the status quo, or to the well-being of those set in authority.

    Think also that in your average democracy, it isn’t government that Joe Sixpack feel most oppressed by. It is by his boss at work, or otherwise by the stress and nature of his job. But should Joe Sixpack, as a citizen, exercise his right of free speech by speaking out against his boss or company, he will suffer by being thrown on the soup-line, which could have devastating consequences for him and his family.

    What then, free speech?

    • There is that irony–ie, of free speech being given like un umbrella when the sun is shining, and taken away when it starts raining–and there are others.

      You highlighted my sentence containing the words “nonconformism” and “sedition”.

      Were not the White Rose actively subversive and seditious, and do we not consider them heroes precisely for that reason?

  4. what fun to see the people from your blog immortalized in your piece. i can’t quite pick them all off, but i saw you bow a few times!

    too late to make it to the end of your piece but “Socrates’s habit of demolishing every conceivable opinion but not offering anything positive” – lieberman reincarnated?

    @ phil, well if you just ask questions and never offer any answers most people will offer up an answer on their own and end up feeling rather clever – it would seem socrates couldn’t stop while he was a head.

    it is sometimes better to be kind than to be right.

  5. Awww, thanks so much for the acknowledgement, Andreas. Finding your blog, and participating in the community you’ve created, has been a real pleasure in 2009. SGx

  6. Just read your article on Socrates Andreas. Gorgeous. Thanks for mentioning me here even though I popped up only a few days ago. Academia 2.0 , not only a cute way of putting it. I strongly believe in all this as my bombastic method post attests, so lengthy I can’t get to the end of it myself plus the corny fruit of Tuscany grapes euphoria.

    I didn’t consider how ‘pure’ this blogging dialogue can be. Naked minds, no bodies, just our thoughts bouncing on one another. So true that this connection – the German Hannibal, the Economist, his readers – makes me nervous, your naked mind getting some flesh back somehow.

    But I’m a Roman, man, a detail not to be forgotten. Roman-like, I’ll get over it 😉

    Oh, the payments. In natura for me too pls. Preferably females.

  7. Thank you for the intelligent and thoughtful blogging, Andreas. I love the depth and variety of the discussion on this blog (although I also find its erudition a bit intimidating -I’ve been reading the HB for a long time now but only recently gained the nerve to begin commenting). I think it’s wonderful that you take time out to reply to the comments and engage so generously and gracefully with your readers.

    • Crikey. “intimidating”, the adjective I was hoping not to see connected to the HB.

      One or two other people have said that to me. How do i change that?

      Thanks for being here, Susan!

    • How do i change that?

      well, i also am intimidated at times by the erudition but not enough to stop me from risking foolish posts. when i get a “word play” the reward is feeling clever, when the meaning/reference eludes as in “agonist or carthannibal” the penalty is confusion.

      on the other hand this is one of the most un-intimidating blogs in the respectful way its participants interact even on the most contentious topics (as edward notes)

      it certainly teaches well the “power of disengaging” when discourse turns to debate!

    • It is intimidating because everyone here seems to know alot more than I do…but it is also enriching for that very reason. I think you’ve mentioned this on the blog somewhere…you learn so much more by talking to people who know more than you do. So you really don’t need to change anything. One day I hope to catch up so I won’t feel intimidated any more :-). And as dafna pointed out, everyone is very courteous here, even when they disagree, so that way it is one of the ‘least intimdating’ blogs too!

    • Susan, everyone feels intimidated in life in many situations, I certainly often do as well, although this fear is partly just the darn ghosts of our mind. Moreover, you said it well: one learns so much from people who know things we don’t. Let us brush fear off us, gently. Andreas and the rest here are helping. I like the general tone here.

  8. Thank you for inspiring all who venture here to be better readers, writers, and citizens.

    Thank you for your sharp wit and hilarious irreverence.

    Thank you for your kindness and grace.

    When the Divine Writer in the Sky doled out talent, she dispensed an extra portion to you.

  9. I’ve learned much from reading regularly the Hannibal Blog, and hope this happy state of affairs will continue.

    So, thank you, Andreas, for all your good work. I look forward to reading “Hannibal Agonistes”, or whatever your book will be called, when published.

  10. As a new reader, I read through the archives in wonder at the author’s erudition and breadth. You may say with justice that this is the Academy, but it’s a rare blog that can address hard topics in a hard way and still not fall to Eris, who seems to give her patronage to most websites that even touch on political or social issues.

    Here in Ireland, we don’t have the American two-party war between the blues and reds (or Blues and Greens?), so the bad argument isn’t partisan as such. Instead we have a lot of anger at any authority figure, from government to European Union to economists. On our internet, the paranoid tendency is loudest in each corner, no matter what its politics.

    I do not think that the good man Socrates would appreciate what little we have done with him and his school over the last 2,500 years.

  11. Looking forward to reading the piece. I have been following the blog for a while but haven’t been commenting as much as I would like. I should take a task for the future to comment more often as that is half the fun of reading a good blog.

    Thanks for the wonderful discussion.

  12. Andreas,

    This post strikes a note and brings me to personal memories – pls allow me you Anglo Saxon people, me coming from other climes.


    The thing is I started blogging with dialogues in mind. My mentor, whom I call Magister, taught me his dialectic a bit and he certainly was like a Socrates to many of us, who underwent a metamorphosis, not many doubts about it.

    Before meeting him I had been reading Superman and spent my days with a rock band, much to the consternation of my parents. He expanded my views (beyond Clark Kent and Pink Floyd, at least I’m sure) and allowed the insights I had received from school – and from a dear though boring father – to be of any use.

    That is why my blog is dedicated to Magister, a well known writer and outstanding educator I make fictitious a bit not desiring him to be recognized.

    My blog was therefore originally planned as a dialogue carried out:

    1) within our mind

    2) among minds (mostly books) and

    3) via discussion with commentators

    Num 1) and 2) I originally thought the most critical. No sign of readers at first plus Magister taught us how to reflect on and have dialogue with classics, a solid education of the mind plus an antidote to everyday superficiality. He told us how Machiavelli, once back home, took off his clothes, cleaned himself and, with his best attire on, entered his library and had dialogue with the ancients. He asked questions. They replied.

    Things bookish at school suddenly got damn interesting, we running to buy piles of books and devouring them like mad.

    Getting back to the Man of Roma’s blog, well, one day the Indians from the subcontinent arrived, sooo young.
    (my post on ‘Sex and the city of Rome’ being the culprit I presume)

    As a high school teacher, years after M’s days, I used to discuss and laugh so much with my pupils. It was natural for me to behave in the same way with my Indians. I tried to explain my culture to them, they did the same with theirs. Oh we had so much fun, I got so many fond memories of all of them, of Ashish the Geek Wrestler for example, a witty dude now in Mumbay studying networking engineering (and having stopped blogging altogether.)

    This also changed the tone of my blogging a bit. Moreover MoR became wild sometimes too because of personal problems now overcome. Many times have I thought to erase some of my most weird rants. But after all, I’m glad I didn’t do it.

    Ok, that’s it. I wanted to share.

    Cheri, Joe you depicted so well stroke a note too, now you know why.
    Andreas, this was loooong.

  13. The ECONOMIST Dec 18th double edition had many fantastic articles in its Christmas Special Edition. With the Socrates piece being the high water mark. As a farmer from Kansas, the ECONOMIST is my main window on the world. Thank you for shining even brighter this holiday season.

  14. Andreas,

    Thanks for creating a community for us to amuse ourselves, teach ourselves, challenge ourselves, feel safe to contradict ourselves, and sometimes to be plain silly.

    This piece and others you linked to reminded me of a lovely little Chinese book I read more than 20 years ago when I was wiser, more self-assured, handsomer and video game machines didn’t dare to tell their owners they were obese! 🙂

    The tiny Chinese book was a translation of Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi’s “Dialoge über Mathematik” which contains the charmingly insightful “A SOCRATIC DIALOGUE ON MATHEMATICS”.

    Well, I took some time yesterday to try to find something to share. Well, I lucked out and found an English version of this gem of a socratic dialogue as imagined by Rényi. Plus I was delighted to find the author’s postscript which was not in my Chinese translation.

    Click to access Socratic%20Dialogue%20On%20Mathematics.pdf

    It is wonderful to see you crediting many people in the community who contributed to our shared discovery and even took time to include this sporadic visitor. 🙂 And then I thought of what Confucius wrote in Analects,


    Which I venture to translate as,

    “In a group of people, I can always learn from someone.
    Observe their merits and try to learn from them.
    Observe their mistakes and try to reflect and correct our own failings.”

    P.S. Sorry for taking longer to reply to this post than I had originally thought.

    P.P.S. I quite enjoy “The tyranny of the majority”. And to be honest, I didn’t think I would enjoy “Arguing to death” at all as I don’t have the slightest idea about most of the long dead Greeks, Athens, Carthaginian, et al (Fabius, Scipio, … huh, who?). Fortunately, to my surprise, I ended up enjoying “Arguing” like I enjoyed (very much) the TV series Deadwood (which I don’t understand about 20% of their words).

    [Tangent: David Milch, creator of Deadwood & NYPD Blue, speaking at MIT
    http://kempton.wordpress.com/2007/07/17/deadwood/ ]

    By the way, you and your publisher have probably thought about something like this. Will there be a companion blog/website to your book pre and post book launch where lively discussions about things, views, and ideas in and around the book can be further explored? Freakonomics is one model and I am certain there are many just as or more interesting ideas to be explored.

    • Thanks, Kempton.

      To start with your very last point: Actually, I was thinking of making The Hannibal Blog that very forum. You reckon?

      I’ll have a read of that dialogue pdf. Looks fun.

      And you made me very happy by saying that you did NOT have a pre-existing interest in the Socrates piece but found it welling up within you. That’s what I live for.

    • Interesting idea in possibly using The Hannibal Blog as the book forum. I suppose you can tag the related entries with the book final title or something. (This may even work if you decide to write another book. 🙂

      I hope you enjoy the dialogue pdf, it is a fun read and I ended up reading the English version in one sitting before I posted the link. It reminded me of the fun I had when I first read the Chinese translation. (By the way, Rényi’s “Dialoge über Mathematik” have two other dialogues and they are quite good as well, worth to try to find it from the library or Amazon.)

      The Socrates piece was a great article and managed to intrigue me and hold my interest. But to be honest, when it is in the length of a book of a few hundred pages long, a lot of other “interesting” stuff have to be very well intergrated into the book. I think Deadwood is a good example. If one of the episode wasn’t as interesting and I couldn’t follow 70% of the what they were trying to say, I might have stopped watching. Fortunately, David Milch is a master story-teller and managed to hold my interest in each and every single episode.

      I hope you don’t mind me being honest. But then a good socratic dialogue probably demand us to hold lies down to a minimum. 🙂

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