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 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.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 followersYesterday, 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.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.