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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Pull the plug

I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet in law ought any man use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death, if a man is willing to say or do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death.

-Socrates, Apology of Socrates

I went jogging a few days ago. I do this every Sunday morning.  I’ve found that I am much like a dog; I need to be let out every so often to prevent me from becoming restless.

It was a cold morning, well below freezing and windy.  This made it a bit harder to motivate myself to get out.  I had to remind myself about it isn’t so bad once you start moving. Proper clothing helps a great deal.

On my way to the park I usually jog in, I pass underneath a freeway.  As I approached the overpass on this morning, I noticed something out of the ordinary.  I was able to see several makeshift beds at a distance.  They were mostly comprised of old rags for blankets, cardboard for mattresses, and random junk for pillows.  The “beds” all lined up in a row.  There must have been five of them on either side of the sidewalk. The makeshift hovels were crammed into whatever small shelter the overpass provided.

In a split second, my reptile brain alerted me.  I thought about changing course.  It told me it would be easy to find another route around this encampment.  I overrode this thought just as quickly; there has been little in my past experience these kinds of people that would justify fear.

Within seconds, I had passed them.  It is hard not to feel pity when faced with such destitution only a few feet from you.  The cold only exacerbated it.  They were barely recognizable as humans underneath the mountains of filth they piled on themselves to stave off the immense cold.  It was evident they had very little on their mind besides warmth.

Almost as suddenly as they came, these thoughts were pushed out of my mind.  It is hard to keep much focus when battling the elements with a pounding heart-rate.  It wasn’t until I was winding down and heading homewards did my thoughts return to the huddled masses underneath the overpass.

They clearly weren’t living a good life.  The essence of pity is empathy.  Empathy stems from being able feel what another feels.  Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I was certain I would never be in their situation.

They live a life beyond what I consider worthwhile.  Long before I ever reach that point, I would either force change upon my self or choose death.  I value living well too much to have it any other way.  Life for only for life’s sake is repulsive.

Modern society often takes the opposite view.  In almost every action modernity makes that deals with life and death, this is no distinction does not show itself.  Too often do people exist as former shells of themselves in nursing homes; they are simply waiting for death.  Universal healthcare is seen as a basic right; all must be taken care of at any cost.  Thousands of patients in hospitals around the world are dead to the world living in a vegetative state; they are only alive to the machines that give them a pulse.  The sole imperative of this mindset is just to keep life going at any cost.

The distinction between life and a good life is where difference between heaven and hell begins.  Societies with any sense at all instinctively know this difference.  Where absolutes rule, madness reigns.