Philosophy, Reason

Socrates the gadfly

Monday, 21st November 2016

From Nov. 21, 2016

This Socrates fellow might have been on to something. Some of the charges at his trial included that “Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own. Such is the charge…”

Doer of evil? Well, if thinking is evil, ok. Corrupt the youth? I haven’t really thought of myself as doing that, but I’m coming to the conclusion that higher education corrupts one’s sense of certainty (or it least, it should). It teaches the use of mechanisms to be self-critical. It teaches that it’s ok to revise one’s opinion, when there is a good argument and evidence to do so. A lack of education, on the other hand (even worse, a suspicion towards anything but the most basic education) teaches pride, of the worst sort. The sort listed as a deadly sin, the kind that goes before a fall.

So, did you find yourself bristling when you read what I just said? What did you think to yourself – I know lots of arrogant university people? People on the right are more genuine!! See, that’s the thing – I never said that all people with education are automatically self-critical. Of course that’s not true. And, sure, lots of people without education are genuine, and some are even wise (at about the same rate, I think, as anyone else). But if you can’t use basic logic to see that what I said doesn’t automatically lead to what people might think, it’s very easy to substitute one’s own conclusion for what was actually said. It’s basically starting with a conclusion, and looking for evidence to support it. Anyone can do that – our beliefs are strong. But education teaches us how to resist that. It teaches the value of scientific method. It teaches a respect for a community of people who will argue against you, and force you to defend what you say. Despite what detractors think, it’s not a monolith, either religiously, politically, culturally, or any other way. Like anywhere else, one can put themselves in an echo chamber there, but the methods that are taught work against that. And that, by the way, includes the humanities.

So, corrupting the youth, sure, maybe. Corrupting their sense that they already know how things work, and suggesting that they work harder and look closer and listen better.

What’s the other charge? Socrates doesn’t believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own. I think we have gods in this state right now. Maybe idols is a better word. A lot of people think they know what a “real American” is, what an individual is, what freedom is, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. We are in a state that definitely has its gods. We have a base of people who voted in perhaps the least moral, least knowledgeable, least qualified person in the history of the country to its highest office, and in many cases did so over the explicit statements of their own faith against trusting and following such people. If that’s not idolatry, I don’t know what is. I keep going back to the core of the Christian faith that so many claim, but have so clearly abandoned: “Love the lord your god with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” Who is my neighbour, the Pharisees asked, wishing to justify themselves? The answer is clear – everyone. So, voting for someone who scapegoats Muslims, Mexicans, gays and lesbians and transgendered people, and everyone else, is without question an abandonment of faith.

So, no, I don’t believe in those gods either, and they clearly at this point seem to be the gods of the state. Other new divinities? As it turned out, Socrates had no divinities. He had his daemon, the inner light that drove him on and caused the Delphic Oracle to call him the wisest man in the world, because he was the only one who knew that he knew nothing (see: earlier point). But no, not another god. Just questions. Better questions. The unwillingness to take the statement of the majority as truth just because they thought it was true. Unwillingness to bend, just because someone filled with pride was too afraid and ill-equipped to actually question their own thinking.

Everyone will see themselves as Socrates in this little tale. It’s pretty much universal at this point that every side in the cultural wars sees itself as unquestionably right, everyone else as deluded sheeple. But not everyone has respect for the tools of reason. Some will start with a conclusion, and then go find evidence to support that, ignoring anything else, whereas some will be willing to alter their conclusion if the evidence shows otherwise.

As for me, I think the job of a philosopher is what it always has been – to be the gadfly, as much as possible. That doesn’t mean arguing with everyone. That means trying to unsettle certainty wherever possible. Ask people to ask better questions, and model how to do that. Ask people to be relentless in their own self-questioning.

It worked out pretty well for Socrates, didn’t it?


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