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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Socrates doesn't live here anymore

The consummate inquiring mind in history wrote nothing, accomplished nothing, and made his mark by standing around a rock, questioning people. His obsession was the nature of truth, of wisdom, of the good and virtuous life. It was a focus unsullied and undeflected by any desire for money, fame, or material reward. The truth was found by the questioning, the constant questioning of every observation, every premise. To Socrates, knowledge was not something you would merely sit back and absorb, like some mental sponge, but was to be continually tested and questioned. Not as efficient, but more stimulating, and it was the question that provided the motive and measure of truth.

Always questioning, to the end.

Socrates was in effect the first radio talkshow host, but without the radio, and without the agenda. Daily, he would reinvent the philosophical wheel, continually testing the shadow that we call truth, and providing the vital dynamic behind the development of western philosophy. Surprisingly, the Socratic approach is old hat; we practice it all the time. The vitality of democracy and the free market depend upon it. We debate matters continually to determine the shoes we buy, the food we eat, and the governance we choose. These choices flood us everywhere, forcing us to continually question our merchants, our politicians, and ourselves. It does make for a sort of insecurity and chaos, but that is the hallmark and enabler of a society that butters our bread.

To look at things from every angle, and at every level, and to pepper it with irony is an embedded tease of a question that makes for soap operas and Shakespeare. It doesn't anymore make for good philosophy, and that's a shame. I suppose you can blame that as well on the market, a value placed on sophistication, as a sophist would say. The sophists were Socrates' bane, and not just because they had to earn a little money. After all, knowledge does not necessarily come cheap. The Sophists were intellectual types in classical Athens who had to work for a living, and used knowledge to earn a living. They knew how to use language, and how it could be used to persuade and of course to earn money. Naturally, with such a pecuniary motive their interest would gravitate to using language, or rather fracturing language to generate a thousand truths. The cartoonist Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) likened this racket to a new economic model that he called a 'confusopoly'. that is, if you can confuse all the people all the time, you can charge folks for it. We know them now as college professors, politicians, and lawyers. And of course, we know them as psychologists. You can identify sophists from the fact that if the money is not there for them, they will not talk to you, and if they favored you with an answer. It was beyond debate.

We are well aware of the spectre of doubletalk, and how it can easily part foolish you from your money. But if that knowledge is necessary for survival, you have no choice but to question it often, think twice about its source, and never fully trust what you know. This makes for good shopping habits, whether it be buying calves brains or getting brain surgery. So we argue, and debate, and constantly inquire, and hopefully keep the politicians and lawyers at bay, and are all the wiser for it.

When an audience is interested in questioning the world, then nonsense blows away like a morning mist. However, if an audience is disengaged, then anything goes, and verbiage builds like an impenetrable fog. Minding your own business allows you to ignore academic poseurs who strut about naked in intellectually threadbare arguments. Whether or not they have clothes is of no matter to you, unless of course you are forced to move your eyes to comprehend their nakedness. It is then that you have to question things and to say at first blush that the Emperor has no clothes.

Wisdom begins with an admission of that you know nothing, a naked admission indeed!

We cannot as human beings avert our eyes from the questions raised by our mortality, our psychology, or the ultimate meaning of our lives. But such questions are not practicable because our insitutions have made them undebatable. And for this I say, bring on the clowns! Socrates made simple minded observations seem foolish by taking them to their ultimate and contradictory ends, and thus made intellectuals fall on their own verbal swords. The road to wisdom after all is as full of pratfalls as pitfalls, as nature has bestowed on us an eye for a joke. The modern view sees it differently, and we are led by our culture into a world comprised of scores of events that are beyond debate. Whether it be the origin of the universe or the origin of the species, we are dealt cold dead facts that suffocate us with their certainty. Socrates would have demurred, and would have introduced the possibility of flat earths and genesis floods to compete with our Newtonian and Darwinian certainties. Better he would have thought to render it endlessly debatable, and to charge the mind with with an endless fountain of questions. Ultimately, individual minds must think for themselves.

So get rid of the facts, toss them away. The truth will come out in the end anyway. It always does. Mix pixies and vengeful gods with your natural selection, and let inquiring minds find the way. It's after all the Socratic thing to do.

Any questions?

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