So he concluded that these things that Socrates was obsessed with were really just names, or words. They mean what you want them to mean. 2,360 years later, French intellectuals like Derrida would say the same thing and get famous for it.
So to hell with words, said Antisthenes, and let’s get out of here. Screw society and its norms and conventions. Jury duty? Puhleeze. Vote? No way. That stuff was for those do-goody Athenians who were under the illusion that they were “free“. Antisthenes, who had a good sense of humor, regularly recommended that the Athenians should vote that asses are horses, as a way of celebrating democracy.
He, and all the Cynics, were thus what we would call apolitical: without politics, without a polis, without a city. Aristotle thought there was something pathetic about being apolitical, cityless–like being “a solitary piece in checkers”. But Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes and those types saw freedom in this withdrawal.
As Jag Bhalla, an expert on such matters, has already pointed out on the Hannibal Blog, the Greeks had a word for these people: keeping out of public affairs, they were private, or idiotes. In time we came to call people who cut loose from conventions idiosyncratic, but also tried to discourage that sort of thing and gave idiots a bad name.
I, for one, stick by my Diogenes dream: Being an idiot sounds great to me.
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?
So we opened this thread on Socrates and his relevance to us today by showing the heroically positive, then nuanced that with some more ambiguous observations. We must now add (before we eventually get to the heroic again) a few more. First: he was arrogant.
Yes, an arrogant S.O.B. I mean, let’s take his personal “creation myth”, ie the story that he would later use at his trial (to which we will get) as his raison d’être.
There are two versions of this story, one from each of the only two students whose writings we rely on to know anything at all about Socrates.
Xenophon, the less famous of the two, says that Socrates told the Athenian jury that he had sent a student/apprentice to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, where the oracle opined that
no man was more free than I, or more just, or more prudent.
Ahem. Lest that sound a bit, you know, over-the-top, Socrates added that
Apollo did not compare me to a god [although he did] judge that I far excelled the rest of mankind.
So there, members of the jury. That’s why I have been going around humiliating and exposing you, disabusing you of your impression that you were free, undermining your self-confidence while tooting the horn of the Spartan enemy.
The more famous of the two students, Plato, wrote later and probably realized that it would be wise to tone this down a bit. Here Socrates ‘merely’ told the jury that the oracle told him that
there was no one wiser.
This is still rather cocky, but now with a twist. The twist is that Socrates is now on a divine mission. He must find out whether the oracle is right, whether anybody out there is wiser after all. So, you see, he had to make everybody look like a fool just to do justice to Apollo.
His ‘biographer’ I.F. Stone calls this one huge “ego-trip”, possibly the biggest in world history. It just so happens that I have a soft spot for huge egos, provided that they are intelligent and witty and not my editors. So on The Hannibal Blog, this is not an attack per se. It’s just, you know, ‘color’. We need to know who we’re dealing with.
Socrates was a snob, an unabashed elitist. How I love him.
Now, I know it’s not fashionable to be an elitist in today’s America–every four years, a Palinesque figure emerges to tell you that you don’t belong to “real America”. Elites, in some vague and unspecified way, then become those people out there who conspire to keep the honest folks down.
Socrates had none of it, and he too eventually ran into the Palin faction of his time. So this is yet another way in which Socrates, with his life and thought and personality, speaks to us across the ages, as we are discovering in this thread.
The mob and the experts
As ever, we must see Athens as his analog of America. So how did the Athenians see themselves? Above all, as free. Their word for their city was polis, a free and self-governing state. That’s where we get our word politics.
So the non-slave, male Athenians of a certain class lounged around the Acropolis and Agora, debating in their assemblies and deliberating in their huge juries–participating in this and that and every way.
rule neither by the few nor the many but by the one who knows.
In short, he was neither oligarch nor democrat, but elitist! An Athenian, he always loved and admired Sparta, the elitist enemy of Athens.
(The orginal Greek meaning of aristocrat was “rule of the best”, similar to our meritocrat. How strange that we need to mix Latin and Greek roots together to understand a word properly. See: television.)
So Socrates thought it was just as ridiculous for the Athenians to expect masons and smiths to “govern” and “judge” in the assembly and jury-courts as it would be for them to hire a mason to build a ship. Obviously, they’d get a shipwright. So too they should get a properly qualified statesman for the ship of state.
Better, therefore, to look for the best, then train them, then pick the best again, then train them even more. What you are doing is eligere in Latin, to elect in English, élire in French, and that last variant is where elite comes from.
Americans in particular love this kind of market selection. When they step onto plane and hear from the pilot, when they send in the Marines overseas, when they appoint and compensate CEOs, they are proudly rooting for members of the respective elite.
Just don’t tell Americans that they love elites. When it comes to politics, nothing has changed since, well, the polis. Some sort of Nietzschean slave morality, a ressentiment against anybody who might think of himself as uppity, seizes Americans. This is when you get, say, billionaires posing for the cameras chowing hot dogs and slurping beers, to prove that they are ordinary enough to be president.
In opening this thread on Socrates and his relevance to our modern lives, I mentioned “an oddly serendipitous string of events”: Several of you had, independently, emailed me with links and thoughts that, directly or indirectly, touched on issues that Socrates raised.
Here is one example, which segues from the previous post on Socrates’ negativity, his apparent sacrifice of gentleness at the altar of unvarnished truth. A few weeks ago, Joel Rotem, a reader of The Hannibal Blog, emailed me this TED talk of theologist Karen Armstrong, in which she puts forth a theory of “good” religiosity. Joel was sceptical and asked philosophically:
Is it OK to misinform your listeners in order to get to a noble target? Do the ends justify the means?
As you see, Armstrong wants to persuade us that religion is not really about “believing” this or that, but about behaving in a certain way: with compassion. All religions, she argues, have at their core a version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Hatred, she infers, is alien to true religiosity and a form of “hijacking” religion.
Now, this is of course a Rorschach test of sorts. Those who would like to exonerate religion will tend to confabulate ways to agree with Armstrong, those who would like to indict religion will do the opposite. Joel is in the later camp, as I tend to be. But that is not the point.
The point, as Joel said in our impromptu debate (because Socratic dialectic seems to come naturally and effortlessly to readers of The Hannibal Blog ;)) is this same tension between true and good that got Socrates into so much trouble. Joel’s words:
In western thought, we often equate truth with good (both very subjective terms). Telling the truth is good. Lying is bad. We must always strive to reveal the truth. We have book and movies dedicated to heroes struggling to reveal the truth. Some of our (my) heroes fighting to reveal the truth include: Woodward and Bernstein, Galileo and hey, how about that Superman guy fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Seems pretty open and shut until you listen to a Karen Armstrong. Is it better to paint Islam as the religion of humility and peace or to [point to] Islam’s bloody roots and doctrines?
Joel did not single out Islam but implicated all religions. He then listed other topics, beyond religion, where “truth” will get you into a world of hurt. For instance, race: What if we were to discover a truth that we would find just too apalling to entertain? We seem to need lies to maintain civilization. The problem, as Joel said,
is of course the slippery slope. Who says what lies we should believe for the common good?
Socrates saw himself as “a gadfly to a horse”, where the horse was Athens–a “sluggish horse” in need of a bit of “stinging”. This the origin of our cliché. As we keep discovering in this thread on Socrates, the old man is still with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.
Socrates also liked to compare himself to a midwife. (Perhaps that metaphor came to him because his mother was a midwife.) What he meant by it was that, through his dialectical questioning and conversation, he “birthed” the thoughts that his conversation partners were already pregnant with. Put differently: He felt that he brought something out of people: he led (Latin ducare) something out (ex), ie educated.
But how did others see him?
Cicero, a few centuries later, said that Socrates practiced a “purely negative dialectic which refrains from pronouncing any positive judgment.”
Hippias, one of the sophists (teachers) Socrates interrogated, said that “You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.”
Meno, another conversation “partner”, tells Socrates that “You are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it… For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed.”
In short, it is hard to avoid concluding that Socrates left everybody feeling bad. If you were lucky, he merely belittled or embarrassed you; if you were unlucky, he exposed and humiliated you. He never made anybody feel confident or good. In our lingo, he left everybody 😦 and nobody 🙂 .
What if Socrates had talked to Patanjali?
This is quite worth thinking about.
You recall that Patanjali was my nomination for the title of “the world’s greatest thinker ever“. He was the original sage of Ashtanga Yoga. Which is to say: Whereas the Bhagavad Gita outlines Ashtanga Yoga (which it calls “Raja Yoga”: “regal union” or “kingly discipline”) in a narrative form, Patanjali was the first to analyze the “how to”, step by step.
As it happens, he had a lot to say about something that Socrates valued: truth, or Satya in Sanskrit. It is one of the Yamas, or ethical principles, that yogis must adhere to if they want to embark on the journey that leads to enlightenment. Don’t lie, in Commandment language, to others or yourself.
But Patanjali is more subtle than Socrates. Another of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence: Don’t hurt people (others or yourself), physically or psychologically.
The subtlety lies in understanding that Satya and Ahimsa, truth and gentleness, often conflict. It may be true that you are ugly, but do I need to tell you that and hurt you? In Socrates’ case, it may have been true that his interlocutors were, if not ignorant, at least far less wise than they pretended. But did he need to humiliate them publicly?
There was widespread consensus that his negativity helped the cause of truth only insofar as it tore down certain falsehoods. That’s a step forward! But Socrates did not then build on the rubble with a positive truth.
Patanjali might ask Socrates: What, sir, were you trying to accomplish by humiliating your opponents in your dialectic? Did you not forget your own distinction between eristic dialogue, in which the parties try to win, and proper dialectic, which brings people closer together in the common search for truth?
Sometimes, in life and world history, one must be violent in the name of truth. Other times truth is not worth violence. There must be a higher purpose, a positive goal. Otherwise a gadfly is just another gnat that bites to feed on the blood of others.
It led to a weird, perambulatory kind of school, as Socrates walked around with various people, mostly younger, engrossed in conversation. This would ultimately get him in trouble, of course. But before it got him killed, it merely raised eyebrows.
Aristophanes, the greatest comedian of ancient Greece and Socrates’ most cutting parodist, invented a word for this kind of purposeful and moderated conversation, in his play the Clouds: a thinkery (phrontisterion).
A think tank, in other words.
Indeed, think tanks are among Socrates’ legacies. His student Plato took over a grove dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and founded his Academy, which lasted for three hundred years, throughout the entire Hellenistic era.
One of the people perambulating and thinking and conversing at that Academy was Aristotle, who eventually took over another grove, dedicated to Apollo, the god of wisdom (and other things), and also started a think tank, called the Lyceum.
In time, Academy and Lyceum became the roots for “school” in many languages, depending on whether the insitution leant toward Platonism or Aristotelianism. But the more direct descendants today might be the likes of Heritage, Cato and Tellus.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need to start looking at whether Socrates actually practiced what he preached in his peculiar style of conversation. Stay tuned.
So Socrates loved good conversations, which he called dialectic, and disdained bad conversations, which he called eristic, as I described in the previous post of this series on Socrates. But that actually opens up lots and lots of fascinating and difficult issues.
For instance: the relative value of the spoken and the written word.
Since I happen to write words for a living, I spend quite a bit of time pondering this, as you might imagine.
Socrates never wrote a single word. He did not believe in it. Why waste your time killing words (since to write them down was, to him, to kill them) when you could send them back and forth in intimate conversation such as the scene (with him on the left) above?
His student Plato was more schizophrenic on the point. He agreed with Socrates but also, obviously, felt that he should write things down to make them immortal, to reach more people, to make Socrates’ wisdom ‘scalable’ in our lingo. So he compromised, you see: He “wrote” by transcribing … conversations!
One generation on, and we get to Aristotle, who clearly did not agree at all, and wrote what we would consider genuine philosophical treatises. No qualms about the written word at all!
Why did Socrates disdain the written word?
He sort of tells us in one of his (ie, Plato’s) dialogues, the Phaedrus. He takes several shots:
He tells a legend from Egypt, in which a god gives a king the gift of writing as an aid to memory. The king, however, observes that writing things down is likely to be a remedy for reminding, at the expense of remembering, and thus will lead to less wisdom, not more.
He then compares writing to paintings, which “remain most solemnly silent” whenever you question them, and just say the same thing over and over, stupidly and dumbly. People wise and ignorant alike will look at them and understand and misunderstand them. And they (the words/pictures) cannot talk back, defend themselves, explain themselves.
So text has several problems, in Socrates’ opinion:
It is not a conversation, not dialectic, because it cannot go back and forth and climb toward something higher, such as a truth.
An author has no control over what idiots or assholes might read his text, whereas somebody in oral conversation does control with whom he speaks.
Words outside of their original context (ie the intention of the person using them, and the way a listener might hear them) can mean anything, and thus nothing at all.
Ultimately, Socrates disdained writing for a subtler reason that unifies all these points: It’s just not what life is about!
Instead, life is about communing with others and discovering yourself and truths in conversation. Not about recording this or that, or propagating this or that. Socrates believed that you can’t find yourself when you write, only when you converse.
Where does that leave us writers?
In a tight spot, it would seem.
Then again, we have moved on 2,400 years, and few things are becoming clearer. Here is how I would converse with Socrates on the matter if he were to visit us today:
The need for conversation…
First, I would tell him that he is mostly right, even and especially for writers. Only a tiny part of “writing” consists of typing words–5%, if I had to guess. The other 95% consists of living, experiencing, interviewing, discussing, talking, reading what others have written, and so on. The ideas and stories that end up on pages don’t come out of nowhere. They still come out of conversations.
… but also for order
But writing, which should never replace conversation, has something to contribute: order. Real conversations–and Socrates’ own dialogue with Phaedrus is a great example–run all over the place, like foals on a meadow. That’s the fun. But it can also be frustrating when you want structure and discipline about one particular issue. Writing can simply be a way of forcing yourself to structure the thoughts that came up in conversations.
Why not written conversation?
This is one bit that Socrates overlooked. You can converse in written form.
Today there is a fascinating technological twist. In 400 BCE, it was impossible to imagine ‘place-shifting’ (via tele-phony, far-hearing) or time-shifting conversations. But time-shifting is exactly what we do when we …. blog!. I write words, and those then turn into conversations in the comments below, or on other blogs that link to them. So the words are not dead at all. They can talk back. Writing can be conversation.
Indeed, by time-shifting the back-and-forth of a real conversation, the dialectic can become better. All of the people who talked to Socrates must have felt, a few hours later: “Doh! If only I had said…..” Well, now it’s possible to take a moment to think–without the distractions of, say, a famously ugly face such as Socrates’, or body odor, or wind, or sun–and then to come back with a clearer thought.
The inevitability of context
But Socrates was right on at least one point: The written word without context, as provided by conversation, is treacherous. Just take this notorious example, which we call the 2nd Amendment:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Does that mean that a people has the right to keep an armed militia, or that every shmuck in the people individually has a right to bear everything from a pocket knife to nukes, whether there is a militia anywhere to be seen or not?
I ended the previous post, the first in this series on Socrates, by suggesting that we “count all the other ways in which Socrates, like Hannibal, is relevant to us, today.” So let’s start with perhaps the most important (if not the most famous) insight that Socrates gave us: the incredible importance of knowing good from bad conversations. And for that, I need to introduce you to that strange lady above, whose named is Eris.
We spend much of our lives, and indeed many of our happiest moments, conversing with others. I love that word, which means turning toward each other. Good conversations make us human and whole, make us feel connected to others and bring us closer to the truth of something (or at least further from a fallacy).
Unfortunately, we also spend at least as much time in bad conversations. You know them:
bickering between husbands and wives
political “debates” on Fox, or indeed almost anywhere else.
Cross-examinations in courtrooms,
and on and on and on
Those “conversations”, which are really a turning away from one another, do the opposite of what good conversations do: They leave us depleted, down, disconnected, alienated, sleazy, yucky.
What is the difference between the good and the bad conversations? Socrates told us, by giving us two new words:
dialectic (=good), and
Meet Eris, the Ur-Bitch
So now it’s time for a story. It’s the most famous of the many stories about Eris, whose Roman name was Discordia.
Eris was the goddess of strife. Nobody liked her, so when the future parents of Achilles had their wedding, everybody was invited except Eris. Eris fumed.
She knew what she was good at, and did it: She left a golden apple lying around the wedding party. It said “To the most beautiful”. How cunning, how feminine.
Three extremely beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, immediately started bickering about who had rights to the apple. It was decided to appoint a judge, somebody sufficiently hapless, naive and male to be easily manipulated. They settled on Paris, a prince of Troy.
“Paris,” whispered Athena, “don’t you think I’m the most beautiful? I’m the goddess of wisdom, as you know, and I could be persuaded to make you the wisest man alive.”
“Choose me,” said Hera, “I’m the wife of Zeus and can make you the most powerful man in the whole world.”
“Oh, Paris,” cooed Aphrodite with a tiny bat of her languorous eyelids. “You know who I am, don’t you? We all know that the apple is mine. Say so, and I will give you the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Paris, with the priorities of the average teenager, chose Aphrodite. Athena and Hera were fuming. Hatred descended on the wedding party. And everybody knew that Paris was now to get Helen, the most beautiful of the mortal women.
The only problem: Helen was already married, to a Spartan who was the brother of the great king Agamemnon. Agamemnon and his Greeks would have to come after Paris and his Trojans to get Helen back. Ten years of bloody war followed. Eris had outdone herself.
So Socrates chooses to call bad conversations eristic. They are full of strife, because–and this is the key–they are conversations in which each side wants above all to win. Where there is a winner, there is usually a loser, so these conversations separate us.
The opposite was dialectic, whence our word dialogue, the Greek form of the Latin conversation (ie, turning toward). When you turn toward another, you are not trying to win, you are trying to find the truth. That is your motivation, and it is one you share with your conversation partner (as opposed to opponent). Everybody wins, as long as you climb higher through your conversing, toward more understanding or more communion.
I mentioned in the previous post a series of serendipitous events recently. The first was an email from Cheri Block Sabraw, a writing teacher and reader of The Hannibal Blog, that pointed me to this essay, “Notes on Dialogue”, by a great intellect named Stringfellow Barr.
Written in 1968, it might as well have been penned today, as Barr describes eristic and dialectic conversation in our own world:
There is a pathos in television dialogue: the rapid exchange of monologues that fail to find the issue, like ships passing in the night; the reiterated preface, “I think that . . .,” as if it mattered who held which opinion rather than which opinion is worth holding; the impressive personal vanity that prevents each “discussant” from really listening to another speaker and that compels him to use this God-given pause to compose his own next monologue…
Expressing the Socratic ideal, Barr says that
We yearn, not always consciously, to commune with other persons, to learn with them by joint search,
the most relevant sort of dialogue, though perhaps the most difficult, for twentieth century men to achieve and especially for Americans to achieve is the Socratic….
What makes good (Socratic) conversations good? They have a completely different dynamic than bad conversations. They tend to be
poor in long-winded declarations and rich in short, pithy back-and-forth,
egalitarian in that it does not matter who says what but what is said (even though this does not mean “equal time” for any nonsense)
spontaneous, in that they follow wherever the argument leads, even and especially to surprising destinations,
playful, and indeed humorous, for that is what makes “serious” investigation possible and sublime.
In short, this sort of conversation is what The Hannibal Blog is about, with the amazing input by all of you in the comments that make each topic come alive. If The Hannibal Blog is against anything, it is Eris and her spawn.
And so I leave you with just one famous instance when two fakers were called to account and told just what sort of “conversation” they dealt in:
So why now an entire series? Because he deserves it. And because of an oddly serendipitous string of events:
I have been thinking for a while about writing my second book about a theme illustrated by Socrates, rather as the theme of success/failure is illustrated by Hannibal in my first book–even though it’s not even out yet.
Even though I haven’t told anybody about this, several people, indeed several readers of The Hannibal Blog, have been sending me ideas and links and recommendations that have to do with Socrates. (More about those soon.)
Hannibal embodies more than one theme in our lives, although any good story needs one theme for focus, with the others appearing along the way.
For Socrates, too, I have one theme in our lives in mind. But it’s way, way too early to get into that. For the rest of this blog thread, let’s just start counting all the other ways in which Socrates, like Hannibal, is relevant to us, today. There are so many.