Socratic subversion

To understand the importance of Socratic thought in European civilization, one must first understand how it arose. First and foremost, one should keep in mind the Athens that he lived in. The most well known parts of Socrates’ life are the events leading up to his trial and death. He was an old man of approximately 70 years at the time of Plato’s dialogues. He was born around 470 B.C., just as the Athenian empire was rising to prominence as a true power in the Mediterranean. He was not born into a noble family. His parents would probably be best described as “working class” today.

In the early years of his life, he was stonecutter by trade, working on all sorts of projects to build the ever expanding city of Athens. He was even to have said to have made statues that stood near the Parthenon. He also was a soldier, fighting in several battles that lead up to the Peloponnesian war.

His was life intimately entwined with the rise and fall of ancient Athens. By the time of the dialogues, Athens, who had once been the most powerful of all city-states, had been reduced to the puppet of Sparta. The hubris and arrogance of the Athenian government had lead it from a golden age to rubble. No city in Greece had ever been so high or fallen so low. His characteristic irony and sarcasm are known for having a general sense of disappointment of humanity in them. The fall of Athens and the flaws in its democratic government played a formative role in such attitudes.

The ideological and scholastic developments that Athens displayed during Socrates’ life are just as important as the political. In his elder years, Athenian academics was thoroughly sophist. Many of the wealthy and powerful in Athens were taught by Sophist tutors. As a school of thought, its core teachings espoused the superiority of rhetoric in all things. The tools of argument, if properly wielded, could be used to sway any audience to any conclusion. It did not matter the truth of what was ultimately being said. Sophist thought is a prime example of “form over function”.

From what the dialogues tell us, Socrates was consistently and vehemently an anti-Sophist. He saw their use of rhetoric as a nihilist abomination, an affront to the gods. He held that the underlying truth of the universe was unchanging and could be reasoned with. Disaster was the only outcome for those who would seek to subvert this fact.

Socrates actions in the dialogues, when viewed through this light, take on a new significance. He is no longer just a wise man, exposing the folly of the citizens of Athens, but a critic of his society. One cannot help but see Socrates’ Athens as a civilization in decay, rotting from the inside out. Whatever ethics they had that brought them glory in the past had fled.

Socrates fought against this pervasive attitude by using the own tools of the Sophists against them. Rhetorical flourish depends on exploiting uncertainty caused by the inexactness of language. One can say something vague enough so that it has an effect on any listener. The Socratic method thrives on absurdity. His method of overcoming this vagueness was by raising questions that demanded exact answers. It immediately put his subjects on the defensive. This easily put himself in control of the debate, from beginning to end.

Most of the people Socrates conversed with in the dialogues were much younger and higher born than him. They had lived their lives in a world dominated by Sophist thought. Things they saw as completely reasonable, Socrates saw as foolish. However, it is important to see that he was not arguing with these people for any personal reason, as they were often strangers to him. He argued for the sake of Athens. Ultimately, he was put to death for this very reason, “corrupting the youth” of Athens. The case brought against him was not for any individual offense. His accusers saw the danger he represented against their society as a whole.  The worst punishment comes when the heretic speaks the truth.

There are many parallels between the Athens of Socrates and the modern world. Both are societies who quickly rose to prominence but now are in constant existential doubt. Deep down, both are aware of their tenuous right to authority. They lost the will to create greatness because most realize that the logical conclusion to their way of life creates nothing. It only brings about destruction, yet both societies are too cowardly to change course. As a consequence, they try to stamp out any that might challenge this order as quickly as possible.

Socrates found an effective method for exposing the absurdity of the time he lived in through irony and logic. By questioning everything, including the beliefs held common by most Athenians, he could get people to consider ideas that would otherwise be alien to them.

So much of the opposition to modernity today is pointless. It takes the path of most resistance when it comes to argument. Persuading people against deeply ingrained held beliefs by arguing directly against them is, for the most part, impossible. Trying to save the environment by stopping loggers or picketing an abortion clinic only serves to create contention. Those sort of methods don’t help anybody because they don’t attack the root cause, the insane beliefs brought us here in the first place. One only has to expose the absurdity of the modern world for what it is. Lies collapse in on themselves when the slightest amount of truth is introduced in an understandable way. The Modern worldview is its own worst enemy, but only if people see it for what it truly is.

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5 responses to “Socratic subversion

  1. This esoteric phrase comes to mind:

    “Remember that there is nothing stable in human affairs; therefore avoid undue elation in prosperity, or undue depression in adversity.”

    I greatly enjoyed this piece, as it gave a bit…yet let one yearn for more. The parallels between modern society and that of Socrates’ time are uncanny. Yet, there are many such examples throughout human affairs. As such, it calls for one to constantly re-visit historical perspectives. In the end…human beings are one in the same. One can almost deduce what may happen at such given moments. Yet, there is also something terrifying in the element of intangibility to the human and their constructs.

    Although, it goes to say…there may be some particular elements, to today’s society that are incredible unique. It may seem on the surface that one should know or sense something is wrong. While I do think on some basal level there may be some reflection…methinks that mostly it goes unnoticed due to some deep problems in our blood. This trickles into the soul, its connection to humanity…and all the levels in-between. There is a large disconnect, where one cannot truly observe themselves in most capacities. Leading its way into bases of deeper destruction, yet to the casual observer…completely unnoticed. The constructs have become so replete…it is hard to break through any challenging thoughts and move one into action. The actions are lost on themselves. The meaning is meaningless…then what strength of will can one have.

    Using ones own thoughts and actions against them…that is an interesting way to fight. Yet, in its effects…what will be left , one is to wonder. The after…

    In irony and logic…one can break through the construct. Especially with the latter. It cuts the air straight in half…exposing the illusions, lessening their strength. I find this method can have several effects. Yet, the final matter being…one does not care for reason, much in the same vein as truth. As you say, these figures are not welcome. Perhaps irony carries a greater torch with today. Its turned on its head though…

    It leads one to believe what is truth in a society such as ours. When one reaches, it is all just illusion…a construction of truth? It is quite interesting to ponder on what something as this truly looks like to the individual who chases it. Who craves it. Who shuns it.

    The following may sum up in simplicity…why our society attacks innocence. Why innocence may be closer to any kind of truth and perhaps something that is forever lost and not meant to be found. One re-visits their past…yet something’s may always remain that which cannot be found. Something which was lost within…

    “An honest man is always a child.”

    • It’s interesting you mentioned the effectiveness of both irony and logic. By themselves, they can be, as you say, quite off putting to someone who is firm in belief. In my opinion, this is where the subtle genius of the Socratic method shows itself. In the dialogues, Socrates rarely tells his subjects that they are outright wrong. Many times, is not able to convince him after long enough, he will simply leave the argument where it stands. He often used absurdity to draw out the argument, logic to guide it, and irony to end it.

  2. Reblogged this on συμποσίον ἀκταῖος κατακηλέω and commented:
    Socratic Subversion…
    “I cannot abandon the principles which I used to hold in the past simply because this accident has happened to me; they seem to me to be much as they were, and I respect and regard the same principles now as before. So unless we can find better principles on this occasion, you can be quite sure that I shall not agree with you; not even if the power of the people conjures up fresh hordes of bogies to terrify our childish minds, by subjecting us to chains and executions and confiscations of our property…Serious thinkers, I believe, have always held some such view as the one which I mentioned just now: that some of the opinions which people entertain should be respected, and others should not.”

  3. I remember reading about a Sophist argument (maybe it was in a play?) where a student of a Sophist managed to persuade his parents that he had the moral right to slap them. If this isn’t subversive, I don’t know what is. Sophists were only motivated to travel and teach for the money. Why the government of Athens allowed this to happen I don’t know. Perhaps it can be linked to the same system of government that tolerates such vile forms of subversion today? Did the authoritarian Spartan system have this problem? It is a shame that their rhetorical skills were used to corrupt their host societies instead of fortify them. It seems that the desert ones of today have employed these same behaviors of the Sophists.

    The Thirty Tyrants were really just looking to lay the disaster of the Peloponnesian War onto a victim. What better person to blame than someone who is questioning the very foundation of the lies itself? The same applies today, only in a more exigent form. There is no purpose in aiming for the upper stories of a building. The entire foundation needs to be uprooted for the collapse.

    We are living in a time of twigs holding up massive boulders.

    • That’s an interesting question, if other parts of Greece had similar issues with Sophists. I haven’t really come across much information about Sophistry outside of Athens. There is mention of Sophists travelling to other cities to teach for money in the dialogues, so it is safe to assume that the movement wasn’t entirely localized to Athens.

      Sophistry was an interesting development, in both historical and philosophical terms. As always, it seems to start out with good intentions but quickly gets corrupted. I’ve found this to be a good resource if you want a thorough overview of what historians have been able to piece together about it: http://www.iep.utm.edu/sophists/

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