The quote and the iceberg

Imagine you’re walking into town on a Saturday morning, planning to buy some things, and suddenly you’re accosted by a man wearing unfashionable clothes that look a bit dirty, no shoes and and a beard. He’s shortish and has a pot belly. His eyes seem to be quite far apart. He doesn’t want your money, but he would like to ask you a few questions on morals. How would you react?

Socrates, vu de face, by Nicolas Lagneau [public domain]

Socrates, vu de face, by Nicolas Lagneau [public domain]

Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BC. On the images that represent him, he looks like anything between Apollo and the village idiot. He practised philosophy without charging for his lessons and he never wrote any of it down. The fullest account of his philosophy comes in the works of Plato. According to Alain de Botton: “Socrates’ most curious feature was a habit of approaching Athenians of every class, age and occupation and bluntly asking them, without worrying whether they would think him eccentric or infuriating, to explain with precision why they held certain common sense beliefs and what they took to be the meaning of life.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

I found a short comment from the Guardian that places Socrates’ famous dictum in perspective in a way that was expected to make the educated readers of this English, left-wing newspaper exactly as uncomfortable as the scruffy man who wants to talk about morals on a busy Saturday morning. It starts innocently enough, with Julian Baggini’s explanation:

“Socrates is attributed with these words after choosing death rather than exile from Athens or a commitment to silence,”

Personal or political?

You might imagine this quote to be just about Socrates’ noble life. About him choosing death rather than to stop being a philosopher. It’s an unforgettable story that has made quite an impression on me. It’s the first consolation in Alain de Botton’s “The Consolations of Philosophy” and it’s a gripping read, even if you know the story.

Socrates went to trial and was convicted by a majority vote, but he stayed true to his philosophy and was fully prepared to die for it. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” An admirable quote that would elevate almost any blogpost. I’m sure it has been used quite often.

Iceberg at Baffin Bay, by Tech. Sgt. Dan Rea US Air Force [public domain]

Iceberg at Baffin Bay, by Tech. Sgt. Dan Rea US Air Force [public domain]

But what about other people’s unexamined lives? Baggini finds himself considering the implications for the people he lovingly calls the great unwashed. 

“The ideal of the examined life is noble for precisely this reason. It sounds unobjectionable: an encouragement to be fully human, to use our highly developed faculty of thought to raise our existence above that of mere beasts. For if we don’t think, we are no more than animals, simply eating, sleeping, working and procreating.”

If we stick our heads into the cold waters and examine some of the iceberg underneath this quote, we may suddenly find we’ve drifted away from the vast territory of the politically correct. The people who always have the interests of the great unwashed in mind. That might be one of the reasons why Baggini’s comment is placed under the heading Wisdom’s folly,” in the Guardian. He certainly knows it, because he goes on to say:

“However, there would be no need to exhort us to examine our lives if we did not think that there were human beings who do not, and so have valueless, bestial lives. The noble ideal has a harsh implication: some in the herd of humankind may as well be animals, or dead.”

In Baggini’s words this quote reeks of elitism. De Botton agrees with Socrates being elitist but goes on to explain:

“It sounded elitist, and it was. Not everyone is worth listening to. Yet Socrates’ elitism had no trace of snobbery or prejudice. He might have discriminated in the views he attended to, but the discrimination operated not on the basis of class or money, nor on the basis of military record or nationality, but on the basis of reason, which was – as he stressed – a faculty accessible to all.”

I’ve recently been struggling with the concept of elitism in the context of Nietzsche’s philosophy. I’m pleased to say that I no longer close my ears and start singing “tralalala” upon hearing the word. Part of my starting to unfreeze my mind on this was to seriously entertain the thought that everyone’s opinion is worth exactly as much as anyone else’s. Let me tell you a story to illustrate this:

How to get 10 000 followers

Flock of penguins, by: Polar Cruises (Flickr:) [CC-BY-2.0 (]

Flock of penguins, by: Polar Cruises (Flickr:) [CC-BY-2.0 (

Yesterday, I saw a blog with ten thousand followers. I follow blogs that provide me with interesting viewpoints, knowledge and humour and they generally have less than 300 people subscribing, so I wanted to know what made it so special. It turns out the person writing this blog has an opinion. It’s not based on any specific knowledge or experience; all he claims is that he has given the matter some thought before writing it down. I’m inclined to doubt that, because he generally manages to post several opinions per day. So why are his readers so enthusiastic?

“They are all fearful. They hide behind customs and opinions.” Nietzsche

Let’s go back to Greece for a moment and look at Socrates’ trial in a bit more depth. The jury was made up of 500 people and 220 decided Socrates wasn’t guilty, while 280 decided that he was. People’s opinions were influenced by the speeches of the prosecutors, who had much more time to speak than the defendant. Furthermore, Socrates had recently been ‘put on stage’ in Aristophanes’ play Clouds (423 BCE). This play was an attack on Sophistic thinking, because it spread uncertainty about the meaning and purpose of the world and about the nature of moral values. Socrates was not a Sophist, but he was Athens’ most famous philosopher at the time. In “The Greek Achievement”, Freeman describes how “Athens was facing a series of profound shocks from plague and military defeat.” People must have felt insecure and they were in favour of new laws and repression. Socrates knew he didn’t stand a chance at the trial, but he was unwilling to compromise.

De Botton says that even in this case:

“What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us, but how good their reasons are for doing so.”

And we should not be afraid to ask them questions to find out what those reasons are.

Sunset over the Negev, by Josef F. Stuefer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

Sunset over the Negev, by Josef F. Stuefer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

So I asked the blogger with the ten thousand followers, who will not be named here for reasons of privacy, a question. His opinion was that the US should send troops to Syria to prevent people from being killed. I know how similar missions have failed, so I asked him which of the warring factions should be put in charge of Syria. I didn’t mention the many other countries that have an interest in this conflict, either because they support one of the parties or because the war is useful to them in other ways. I knew if I wanted to explain the complexity of the situation I’d need an essay, or a book. With hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t bother. This is the answer I got:

“Simple. Pacify then figure it out. Or let them die while we figure it out? I don’t have that answer, smarter minds than mine may, but we can stop the killing right now if we wanted.”

I had a sinking feeling when I read the first word. “Simple.” Maybe it was unfair of me to expect an answer. After all, this blogger never promised anything but opinions. And most of his ten thousand readers seem grateful to read them. Surely it would be elitist of me to disagree.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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27 Responses to The quote and the iceberg

  1. I have been wondering about that 10’000 follower blogger myself and after reading his posts for a while I concluded that his opinions are problematic. When you have that many people willing to listen to you, you had better think very carefully what you say. It isn’t enough to put in a disclaimer and say that these are just opinions if people might just be willing to assume that 10’000 followers means that your opinions matter. In this case they don’t. This blogger is just commenting on what happens in his life from his US southern perspective (if we speak about the same blog – not that that changes anything).

    If popularity is no measure for relevance, then what is? I’m hopeful that in time, relevant thinkers will bubble to the top. But I am far from sure that this is so. How many great thinkers have dies anonymously and left the stage to loud voices that spout rubbish or worse?

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals. I think we speak about the same blog.

      I think popularity is no measure for relevance. We only have to look at what’s popular to know that. I’m also very sceptical about relevant thinkers bubbling to the top. They would be subtle and intricate in their thinking, when the hunger for soundbites increases every week. Still, it can be surprising sometimes to see how relevant thoughts don’t get lost completely. I’m currently reading about Schopenhauer: most of the first edition of his masterpiece had to be pulped, but if you make a list of the people who cite him as an influence, it’s clear that he hasn’t suffered for nothing. I guess we just have to forget about the big numbers altogether and be proud elitists…I look at myself as a miner following a lode: often it gets you nowhere but at times you strike gold, which is dazzling and makes you instantly forget the darkness around you.

  2. Like you I follow the trails that look interesting. As one traveller to another, the destination truly doesn’t matter.

  3. SilverSeason says:

    Socrates must have been quite annoying in his day. Perhaps that was part of his technique; you don’t scratch unless you itch.

    I recommend I. F. Stone’s book The Trial of Socrates for a careful look at the arguments at the trial and why Socrates lost. Stone believes that Socrates had a better defense available than the one he used.

    • Thank you for your comment, Silver Season! The book you mention sounds intriguing and I can easily imagine Socrates to have been persistent and annoying.

      I’ve recently read your observations on Helen of Troy’s character and found them interesting.

  4. makagutu says:

    There was a short time I followed a blog that had 10K plus followers and this blog was less than 6 months old at that time I was at less than 300 and had written much longer, I read the posts and still I can’t tell what would draw 10K plus people.

    Somehow I have never found that statement by Socrates elitist, maybe because of my little interactions with Jesuits which required a daily examination of conscience to see how we responded to god in the day that is coming to a close. Reading this post, however, I see the difference between what the Jesuits had in mind and what Socrates had in mind in that he[Socrates] wanted the Athenians to question the beliefs they held while the Jesuits were and are concerned with how I responded to god.

    • Hi Mak! Thank you for your comment. I’m not sure if you could decide that Socrates is elitist just from that quote by Plato. But I agree with the way De Botton sees it. There are many ways to be elitist and some of them make sense to me. In addition to your experiences, I think the Jesuits themselves are elitist as an order. They certainly value education and development higher than any other Catholic order I know.

  5. Ah, the irony. Annoying gadflies in the days of Socrates were offered a hemlock cocktail — today people are so much more civilized and just unfollow the blog. The method of dealing with people who get under our skins and cause an itch we simply don’t know how to scratch might have changed, what hasn’t changed a bit, though, is our attitude toward gadflies: Modern-day bipeds dislike them just as much as folks in ancient Athens, and for the very same reasons.

    For those who don’t like the elitist ideas of “the ignoble many,” “the herd of humankind,” the “ignorant beasts,” and “the great unwashed” Julian Baggini mentioned in his article — the solution is a rather simple one: Choose this very day not to be part of the herd by starting to examine your lives. For starters, you could welcome gadflies instead of shooing them away. Learn to live with an annoying, never-ending itch by using methods other than scratching. Common sense (and any doctor) will tell you that the solution to a persistent itch does neither lie in scratching nor in ignoring it.

    • Thank you for your insightful comment, Tongue Sandwich.
      I guess it takes lots of courage to be a gadfly (even if people unfollow your blog) and it takes courage to welcome them. I agree with you saying it’s a choice, a conscious decision not to be part of the herd. And you’ll definitely be surprised if you start to examine your life…

  6. holly says:

    Oh lively . :: happy sigh:: I enjoy your posts so very muchly 🙂

  7. dyssebeia says:

    Elitism can be healthy or it can be pernicious. Ultimately I think it might just be an issue where you have to be ambivalent: elitist at the right times, and democratic at the right times. To do away with elitism is to risk doing away with high standards altogether—elitism seems to be a natural corollary of having such high standards, since most people won’t meet them. But at the same time it can be problematic. Because I can’t help myself, I’ll mention that this is another case where Emerson’s journals are really fascinating. You can watch him struggling with just this ambivalence: one day he’ll make a very democratic statement about the universality of the potential for genius, and the next day he’ll bemoan how painful he finds the lives of most of the people around him.

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia. I’m fine with you mentioning Emerson whenever you feel like it. 🙂
      I’m sure you know Nietzsche is quite unequivocal when it comes to elitism. In “Schopenhauer als Erzieher” he wonders how people don’t hesitate to give up their lives for the state when it’s unacceptable to believe that the whole of society should be geared to its most valuable specimens. He asks: “For surely the question is: How can your life, the life of the individual, obtain the highest value, the deepest significance? How is it least wasted? Surely only by living for the benefit of the rarest and most valuable specimens, not for the benefit of the majority, that is, for the benefit of those who, taken as individuals, are the least valuable specimens.”
      Elitism is one subject where Nietzsche is not the slightest bit ambivalent, if you ask me.
      Your remark about Emerson makes me think of George Orwell. He was a socialist, he wanted to be a socialist, but meeting other socialists was the one thing that made being a socialist extremely hard. At first I thought this had to do with Orwell being a decent man and a subtle thinker, who would of necessity feel out of place almost anywhere. Now I think it shows why socialism doesn’t work. He definitely worked for the benefit of the majority and as a result he was marginalised.

      • dyssebeia says:

        You’re right that Nietzsche is hardly equivocal at all about his elitism. The only hint of a democratic sentiment in his work is the subtitle to Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Hidden in the thought that it is a book for all is, possibly, a sliver of democracy. But that subtitle is difficult to interpret and can no doubt be interpreted in ways that deny any role for slight equivocation here.

  8. David Yerle says:

    Great one! I remember that, one I was younger, I became extremely elitist, probably because I couldn’t relate to the rest of teenagers my age. The elitism faded with age but now it’s coming back with a vengeance. I wouldn’t call myself an elitist, though, as it’s not about who’s better. It’s just about who I’m willing to listen to and who I’m willing to spend time with. We have a finite amount of time on this Earth and I don’t want to waste mine with people who do not examine their lives or who talk about topics I could not care less about.
    Tongue Sandwich also makes a great point on this unfollowing trend: face to face, it seems OK to have friends we disagree with, but online it seems like disagreement just leads to unfollowing, thus creating a horrible confirmation bias. My post on science, for example, got me quite a bit of unfollows from fans of Rupert Sheldrake and his ilk. I am becoming more convinced that writing thoughtful posts has absolutely nothing to do with how many followers you’ll get. If you want a lot of followers, just adopt some extreme point of view and stick to it through thick and thin. The louder you shout, the better (didn’t I write a post on that some day?)

    • Thank you for your comment, David!
      I don’t mind at all whether someone calls himself elitist or not. That is just a label. What matters is what you do with your life, how you spend your time.
      I agree with you on the unfollowing and the way it creates confirmation bias. Why is it so hard to distinguish between criticism and a personal attack? On the one hand, you might not worry too much about fans of Rupert Sheldrake unfollowing you, but on the other it would be a shame if blogging lead to small circles of friends who find comfort in affirming each other’s opinions all the time. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always happy to see you write a post in favour of a certain concept one day and change your mind the next. That keeps us readers on our toes!

  9. Bastet says:

    An interesting thought returned to mind whist reading your post…and so, what if the majority and ergo democracy is fallacious. I often look around me and wonder…and remeber some of the old stuff I read long ago, was it Socrates whilst speaking of government who shuddered at the idea of the rule of the people, democracy. They may say that it’s defective but the best we have…I’ve got serious doubts though. Seems that “the people” are so easily swayed…hmmm. Thanks for your post, thought provoking as always.

    • Thank you for your comment, Bastet!
      I think elitism and the kind of government we choose have a lot to do with each other. Personally, I wasn’t happy to see that as soon as the Berlin Wall came down, people felt a kind of complacency. As if the end of communism was proof that our take on democracy was the only viable alternative.
      You living in Italy, I’m not surprised that you think about these matters. I don’t know how you feel about Berlusconi, but I’ve seen many Italians looking for an alternative to the current political system. The movement around Beppe Grillo shows how they want a change, but also how difficult it is to make real changes.

      • Bastet says:

        Oh my…the problem is they’r two different side of a single coin…the people seek answers from demigogues and complain when they are oppressed…I have no anwers to be sure. Only subtle worry that history repeats itself. And I agree with the first part of your comment whole heartedly!

  10. So very thoughful and thought provoking. Thank you for the effort of this level of engagement. It’s food for curious minds starved by pop culture.

    • Thank you for your comment, Stephanie. I appreciate it and I actually know the experience of having a curious mind that finds itself starving. It reminds me of times when I didn’t have access to interesting books because I was travelling.

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