Monday, July 4, 2016

On the Need for Socrates

That's what I do. I drink and I know things.
- Tyrion Lannister

There is always a need for Socrates. But at some times he is needed more than others.

Now is one of those times.

How can you tell? Because there is very little of a true philosophical spirit about.

The philosopher is a lover of wisdom. As Socrates teaches us, this doesn't mean the philosopher is a wise man. The philosopher is a pursuer of wisdom, and you don't pursue what you already have. So the philosopher is a man not wise who is driven in the attempt to become wise.

The man who is already wise is not a philosopher because he is not driven to pursue wisdom - he's got it already. The man not interested in wisdom is also not a philosopher - he is not wise but doesn't care to become so, and so he does not pursue it.

Both of these latter types are prevalent today. And both hate the philosopher, whom they (ironically) condemn as arrogant and useless.

It is part of received "wisdom" today that the great philosophical questions cannot be definitively answered. Does God exist? If so, what is His nature? What is the nature and content of true morality? What is justice? Is there life after death? Is man really free or just a slave of nature and its laws? What is the best way to organize society? And many others. The futility of philosophy.

The philosopher, allegedly, is the man who thinks he has answers to some or all of these questions. And if he has those answers, then those who disagree with him are wrong. And that is the substance of the charge of arrogance. How can he be so sure he's right and everyone else is wrong? What makes him so special? Shouldn't he be a little more humble? The arrogance of the philosopher.

And while he is out pretending to know what others don't, he could be doing something useful to actually contribute to society. Instead he whiles away his time contemplating questions that can never be really answered, and never producing anything of value. The uselessness of philosophy.

Anyone concerned that these charges might be leveled at him may be consoled that they were the same charges leveled at Socrates. They are the perennial charges against philosophers, and will always be leveled against him as long as man persists. And yet philosophers persist.

The philosophical spirit never quite dies out. For there is always someone, when the received wisdom  concerning the futility of philosophy is proclaimed, who asks the question - how do you know that? How do you know that the great questions cannot be answered? Isn't the dogma that they cannot be answered itself a Great Answer, an arrogant assertion that unjustifiably claims to know that every great thinker throughout history failed? Isn't it possible that someone, somewhere along the way, found at least some answers? How can I dismiss a great philosopher, a Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas, without ever understanding anything of what he thought?

It's rather the philosopher who is humble, isn't it? For he proclaims himself to be ignorant, but doesn't have the gall to assert that everyone else - including everyone throughout history - must have been ignorant as well. How can one possibly come to this latter conclusion?

The one feeble argument made on its behalf is that philosophers still argue about the same questions they always have, and haven't produced any "results" the way science has, or any definitive answers settled once and for all. This is often thought to be a distinctively modern argument, but of course it was made in Socrates's day against him as well. One might call it the Argument from Disagreement, and it has a peculiar nature.

For one thing, it is self-fulfilling. Merely by disagreeing with a philosophical result, for whatever reason good or bad, I create disagreement and therefore evidence against the result. That certain philosophical results are still debated may only mean that some people are incapable of understanding them or be unwilling to accept them. And that incapacity and/or unwillingness surely can't prove itself merely by existing. It's not enough merely to note disagreement; it is necessary to show that any particular disagreement has a reasonable basis, and that means doing the work of actually understanding the arguments.  But then the whole point of the Argument from Disagreement is to dismiss philosophers without having to go through the work of actually understanding them.

For another thing, there hasn't always been disagreement among philosophers, and there are answers that have received general and enduring agreement. For instance, that harm to another may only be done in self-defense or through civil processes (i.e. a trial) is not something seriously questioned anymore (whereas one of the questions Socrates debated was whether morality consists in doing good to ones friends and evil to ones enemies, a live question at the time. It doesn't, Socrates answered, and his answers form the basis of much of what we take for granted with respect to morality, whether we know it or not).

Instead of the manifestly unsupportable conclusion that everyone in history must have been ignorant concerning the great questions, the philosopher only knows that he himself is ignorant. Whether others are ignorant as well is an open question, and he eagerly learns all he can from the greatest thinkers in the hope that maybe they actually did know something. (Spoiler: They did.)

Something Aristotle taught is that the truth is generally found between two extreme and opposing errors. And when the truth is lost, both the opposing errors become manifest. One of the errors, it seems, is thinking that the truth cannot ever really be found (and if we think about it, we could never reasonably believe this, because then it would constitute the truth we said we couldn't find.) The other extreme is thinking that the truth is found easily and without effort.

These extremes seem opposed, and they are, but they circle around and meet each other. For if we think the truth can never really be found, then all particular attempts to do so are necessarily futile, and we arrive at modern cultural relativism. I don't need to understand Confucius or Lao Tzu, Avicenna or the Bhagavad Vita because they must ultimately be as futile as Socrates and Aristotle. Justice and peace result from an acknowledgement of the relativity of culture, which masquerades as respect for all cultures, but is really a universal disrespect. If everyone would acknowledge that they can't know the truth, and that their way of knowing it is not and cannot be any more successful or legitimate than others, then the source of conflict would disappear. This degenerate form of humanitarian universalism is now culturally dominant, and it's easy to see it's appeal: It's a ready excuse to get out of the hard work of learning. The old Socratic way offered nothing but a lifetime of learning with no promise of result; the new degenerate universalism lets you do what you want without a guilty conscience.

But not really. Ultimately, that guilty conscience is why the philosopher is hated and why he is necessary. For man is a rational animal, meaning his nature is to know. The philosopher, merely by existing, reminds man of that basic fact of his nature and embarrasses him. The philosopher would not embarrass men if they did not already know, in a deep and hidden place, that they are meant to know yet they do not know. And he is hated because he exposes the easy answers that men have constructed to console themselves rather than face the truly terrifying fact that they don't have any idea who they are or what they are doing.

The modern existential philosopher might leave it at that, but he's a degenerate form. The best philosophers - starting with Socrates - offer hope that you might come to know what you are doing.

Let us, then, in the first place, he [Socrates] said, be careful of admitting
into our souls the notion that there is no truth or health or soundness
in any arguments at all; but let us rather say that there is as yet
no health in us, and that we must quit ourselves like men and do our
best to gain health-you and all other men with a view to the whole
of your future life, and I myself with a view to death.
 - Plato, Phaedo


1 comment:

Michael Beirne said...

This is great! Please keep writing!