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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Slaves of desire

Freedom is a meaningless word. It is cursed with such ambiguity in the modern era that it has lost all significance. It is without form because it it takes many shapes. Ask a thousand people what freedom means to them and you will get a thousand different answers. To the poor man it means being able to have enough money to quit a job he hates. To a rich man means being able to use his wealth however he pleases. It is bent by the whims of whoever interprets it.

Many take advantage of the sorry state of this word. It is a popular platitude for those who wish to been seen favorably in the eyes of others. Countless ideologies, movements, and politicians have hijacked ‘freedom’ as a rallying cry. Don’t like where you live? You simply haven’t been given enough freedom to escape it. Don’t like who rules over you? They are tyrants who have taken your freedom. Do you feel powerless to change your life? Don’t worry, it isn’t your fault, you’ve simply been oppressed.

Freedom is effective as a political tool simply because it shifts the blame away from the individual. It moves it on to shady cabals and devious oppressors who seek to destroy all of the good things in life. The problem is that these people simply do not exist. Every election and revolution starts out with the same premise: liberate the oppressed and crush the oppressors. The outcome is always the same. Not everyone can be “free”. Some men are born to rule and all others must follow.

In modern society, many see freedom as a synonym of permissiveness. It means the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want it. It does not matter how it effects the external world. This attitude can be seen every time nature is crushed to make way for a new freeway, every time a couple aborts a child to extend their prolonged adolescence, and every time politicians kick today’s problems further down the road for future generations to deal with. Let the good times never end. It’s not our problem. It will just go away if we sweep it under the rug and keep it there long enough.

To be free in this sense is a desire to live in a world without consequences. It is to be responsible for nothing except your own whims. This is a form of cowardice. Those who run away from responsibility do so because they are scared of it. It stems from a complete lack of self esteem. When you are responsible for something, it means you have the power to create or destroy it based on your actions. When one runs away from responsibility, he is essentially admitting he is not up to the task. He is afraid that by taking responsibility over something, he is more likely to hurt it than help it.

The tragedy of this mindset is that it destroys any possibility of having a meaningful life. If you look towards your ancestors and search for what gave their life a purpose, you will see that every great accomplishment required taking on a great responsibility. Whether that takes form in preserving a culture, defending their land from invaders, or making a home and raising a family in it. Modernity’s complete rejection of these values has created a vast wasteland without purpose. Reclaiming the world so it is full of meaning once more requires us to give up on the illusion of false freedom. Only then can we take responsibility for the things that matter most in life.

The blind leading the blind

Humans are social animals. We face many problems that are too big for any one person to accomplish. As a result, we form groups to solve these problems. Once a team is formed, roles are needed for each individual. Without them, it is impossible to divide labor in any meaningful way. The most logical way to form roles is based on the strength and weaknesses of each team member.

This is much easier said than done. It takes a great deal of foresight and leadership to reach this optimum balance. More often than not, it seems like the most incompetent get put in positions of power. This is nowhere more apparent than in modern society. People today are deeply dissatisfied with leadership at every level in society, from their bosses at work to their national politicians.

The root of this problem comes from modernity’s core values. It values appearances and words over results and action. It values popularity over actual competency. Only those who appear the most confident are able to convince the masses that they are able to lead. The truly wise are in constant doubt of what they know. They know that they know nothing. When you are inexperienced, big problems appear small. You can only know the true size of any problem when you fully understand the smallest parts of it.

Every individual only has a very limited set of knowledge about reality. Even the smartest physicist knows next to nothing about almost every other subject. Ignorance is the natural state of all knowledge. Very few people actually understand what it takes to be a great leader. When everyone gets an equal say in who rules over them, it naturally follows that most leaders will be chosen for superficial and unimportant qualities.

This can only be overcome by silencing the ignorant and promoting the wise. We must start speaking truthfully about the limitations of everyone. The modern tendency to pander to self-esteem and inoffensiveness is in direct opposition to this. As a consequence, honesty takes a back seat. Reality is subverted. What people want rules over what actually is. People having the courage to call out idiocy is the first step towards a healthier society.

Atavism

Conspiracy theories are far more common than we give them credit for. Everyone harbors some belief that the majority rejects. We live in a world where we only see an incomplete picture of reality. You only have one set of eyes.

For a narrative to be compelling, it must be complex. Everyone has tried to interpret a dream at one point in their life. The best ones are the dreams where you only remember bits and pieces. Meaning comes when you try to formulate a cohesive story out of the dream.

Our worldviews are created in a similar way. Wars spring up on every corner of globe. Genocide is a regular occurrence in history. We hear about another mass shooting every month like clockwork. Some people are so rich that they couldn’t be bankrupted from spending a fortune each a day. Others are so poor they can’t even afford food. All of these are begging to be explained. They must have a reason.

Understanding is the basic purpose of consciousness. It is the interpretation of the past to predict the present. The smaller the system, the easier it is to understand. All scientific knowledge is gained by isolating a phenomenon down to its essentials. This sort of thinking is not universally applicable. Treating life like a science experiment is a recipe for disaster. A person is a infinitesimally minute part of a much larger system.

Despite this, we are still implanted with the desire for understanding. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t smart enough to connect the dots, you are going to anyway. Much like the trope of the obsessed detective scouring through random clues to break a case, we search the world for meaning. You see that shady figure behind the bush in this photograph? That isn’t a smudge on the negative, that’s the real the killer.

Modernity has made the world more complex than most people can handle. People want to know why they can’t find a job. They want to know why their kids are so fat. They want to know why their country seems to get worse with each passing year. Most people have a hard time staying awake in history class. Why should we expect them to understand global politics?

What they end up with is nothing more than patchwork. An ideology based on appearances and intuition rather than reality. Some people put their faith in God for these answers. Some people put their trust in a charismatic politician. Very few are honest enough with themselves to realize that truth isn’t a birthright.

Horror vacui, nature abhors a vacuum. Meaning and purpose have always been a useful mechanism for survival. Even if modernity has made it irrelevant, the urge lives on.

Serenades of opposition

We live in an age of untruths. Far too often, we bite our tongues instead of speaking our minds. We have been trained to do so from early youth. There are certain things you can say aloud to anyone, certain things you can say only in confidence with close friends and family, and certain things you must forever carry alone in your own mind. The most well-adapted man to the modern age knows these boundaries well. He knows what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. For this, people think of him as clever, insightful, and witty.

Conversely, a man who does not follow these rules becomes a social pariah. His words become an albatross around his neck. If one is not careful about what he says and to who he says it to, he is branded with labels that forever stain his reputation in the eyes of others.

A man who gains this particular form of infamy is treated poorly by all. Every society has its own strain of ideology. When people group together, they need a protocol for understanding each other. History shows that if a society does not have an ideology from inception, it quickly acquires one. It is required for a sense of group identity. Without a shared ethos, a society crumbles into chaos.

Because of this, those who have the audacity to attack a society’s ideology are seen as the most vile kind of man. They become public enemy number one. Past societies had a multitude of names for this sort of man: heretic, blasphemer, infidel. These words have fallen out of fashion in modern society, but they are very much alive in their spiritual successors. They are needed more than ever.

As a consequence of diving deeper into the recent obsession with globalism and diversity, members of society continue to have less and less common with each other. The chaos this breeds requires a greater force to uphold it. You can see in action all around you today. Any time someone calls another out as a bigot, a chauvinist, or a extremist, it is an attempt to form social cohesion in this brave new world.

The basic concept remains the same today. It is no different than the shaming done in the past. If something goes against the grain of the lies that everyone else has agreed upon, it will be demonized. The primary difference is that you don’t need to kill, rape, or pillage to be considered a barbarian any more. In this form of modern insanity, words speak louder than actions.

The worst kind of punishment comes when the heretic speaks the truth. The weakest of ideas are rooted in lies. People do not castigate an insane man, they feel pity for him. A society is only compelled to utterly destroy a man when he threatens it with truth. Look at any two examples of virulent persecution in history and you will see one overriding commonality between them, they dare to say that the emperor had no clothes.

Persecution is not something that can only be viewed through the obscured lense of history. It is alive and well. It will only grow stronger the farther we dare to plunge further into the ideas that have made the modern world. Look around and you will see witches being burned at the stake. There is much to be learned from their heresy. In a world increasingly ruled by madness, those that we deem insane are the only ones who dare to speak the truth.

Favored by misfortune

Our society is obsessed with status.  Thousands of movies, documentaries, and TV programs are dedicated to the billionaires, movie stars, and politicians we deem important.  They strive to answer what makes them great, how they reached such heights and places of power.

Some of them ascribe to to luck.  “Bill Gates was just in the right place at the right time.”  Some attribute it to innate ability.  “Marlon Brando was just born a great actor.”  A select few of these narratives choose to focus on hard work.  They emphasize the thousands of hours of diligence poured into their work.  They set them up as examples for the viewer to aspire to.  You too could be great, if you just work hard enough.

These narratives are always less than satisfying.  The audience is captivated by the idea of vast amounts of power, but they must continue on after it is over.  Everyone must go back to their average paying jobs and their unaccomplished friends when the weekend is done.  Greatness is too complex of a topic to be boiled down into a catch phrase.  All attempts to do so are doomed to fail before they even start.

One of the most noteworthy attempts in history to understand greatness comes from Renaissance Italy.  The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli was written as a study into what makes a leader gain and keep power. Its lessons have since been widely applied, to everything from business to warfare.

Born into 16th century Florence, he lived his entire life in an Italy dominated by political strife.  He begins off the treatise by directly addressing the ruler of Florence, calling for him to rise to an unmatched greatness.  Only then could he unite the warring states of Italy and bring peace to the land.  In the ensuing chapters, he describes, at great detail, how great rulers are made.  He cites both contemporary and ancient sources as role models and cautionary examples.

He deviates little from this formula throughout the entire book.  A notable exception comes towards the end.  There is a chapter that concerns itself with the good and bad luck princes must account for ruling.  Instead of citing history, he speaks in generalities and metaphors.

In this chapter, Machiavelli speaks of a force he calls fortuna.  Most English translation render it as the word “fortune”, but it has a much more profound meaning.  She is a force to be reckoned with.  She is one that brings both blessings and curses. No one is outside of her grasp. She happens to everyone, from peasant to king, though not all at once.  It is impossible when to predict when she will smile upon you or bring misery to your life.

Despite the fickle nature of fortune, he still finds meaning in it:

I compare fortune to one of those torrential rivers which, when enraged, inundates the lowlands, tears down trees and building, and washes out the land on one bank to deposit it on the other. Everyone flees before it; everyone yields to its assaults without being able to offer it any resistance. Even though it behaves this way, however, it does not mean that men cannot make provision during periods of calm by erecting levees and dikes to channel the rising waters when the come, or at least restrain their fury and reduce the danger.
The same may be said about fortune, which tends to show her strength where no resources are employed to check her. She turns her course toward those points where she knows there are no levees or dikes to restrain her.

Misfortune casts it shadow on all men at one point or another. It does not effect everyone the same though.  Those wise enough to prepare for hardship will be the ones affected least. The true virtue of a man is tested in these moments.  The ability to deal with adversity ultimately determines his position in life.  In times of plenty, there is enough for all to live on.  The strong only show their worth in the worst of times.

Modernity is a time of untold prosperity.  We see it in every obese person on welfare, every professor who raids the state’s funds with tenure, and every time an apology is demanded for hurting someone’s feelings.  These people have never known starvation, never experienced war, or put their life on the line.  It takes only a modicum of effort to provide for the basics of life today.  The further we proceed into modernity, the more this weakness shall rule.

Machiavelli offers this chapter as a warning. Anyone who depends on the great fortune of today will be the first to fall when misfortune hits.  All glory is fleeting.  A decadent society that does not prepare for the future is no different.  It too will crumble at the first sign of true crisis.

Broken wasteland

Ask anybody what the problem with modern cinema is.  More than likely, you will encounter the notion that “too many sequels are getting made”.  Not enough new ideas are put into scripts.  Hollywood simply raids the past to create the blockbusters of the present.

It’s a formula that often works well.  They simply take a film that was made 30-odd years ago, update it with new slang, a new setting, and the latest computer generated film techniques. It makes for a successful product.  People flock to the theaters in droves, pay far too much for a ticket, and sit in dumbstruck awe for an hour and half.   All for something they have seen a million times before.

Both the audience and the filmmakers what a farce this is.  They are pure waste of an artistic effort.  Yet, we still go see them and they continue to make them.  Everyone is guilty. The unspoken truth behind mass media is that nobody actually cares about the merit of the output.  The producers only care about how much money a film will make.  The cinema goers only care about wasting a few hours at some place other than their depressing homes or apartments.

These films get made simply because most people are, at heart, cowards.  We gather around the dining table or the living room and despair.  We know we should be doing something together.  However, it can’t be something that actually takes effort.  Attempting to do something meaningful is always hit or miss.  We’d much rather choose an activity where little effort.  If it turns out badly, at least we didn’t really try too hard.

This often means choose something that everyone will like.  Nobody should be offended by what is put in front of us.  They might blame us for that.  Instead, we appeal to the lowest common denominator.  A film that might require thought might upset somebody.

This often takes the form of some shared cultural relic from days past.  Filmmakers must go back to a time when popular culture meant something to everyone, since it no longer does today.  The past is our last refuge for understanding each other.  Remakes and sequels are powerful for this reason. They carry prior expectations of greatness by the culture that created them.

As modernity marches onwards, popular culture will continue to degrade. Not until it reaches previously unknowable levels of idiocy will it ever get better.  Only when things start of fall apart do we see the meaning in creating something new.  The adage “if something isn’t broke, don’t fix it” holds true, even for things as vapid as Hollywood movies.  It is only when confronted with the rampant desolation of something completely broken does true change happen.   Patching the holes in a sinking boat only extend the suffering of the desperate passengers aboard.