The Mythical Socrates

I picked up a book recently called The Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2001). I’m interested in books like that, books that try to popularize philosophy. One of the things I love about teaching philosophy is that everyone has an interest in it. It’s not like teaching math or chemistry or some other special-interest topic. Everyone philosophizes, some people are better at it than other people, and some people take more pleasure in it than other people, but everyone does it to some extent. That makes it much easier to get a good discussion going in a philosophy class than it often is, I think, in other sorts of classes.

So anyway, as I was saying, I’m interested in books that attempt to popularize philosophy because I think that’s a very worthwhile project. Philosophers, God bless them, tend to be abysmal writers and hence real turnoffs to students who might actually be interested in their views if they could only get past the achingly awkward prose. I keep looking for a contemporary work that will take the time-honored insights of the great philosophers and express them in a way that is actually entertaining to read. Some of these new books do read pretty well, at least compared to Aristotle or Kant. I almost always give up on them though before I can finish them because they tend to be just a little bit patronizing and simplistic. The reason philosophers have been struggling with the same questions for millennia is not simply that they are perennial human questions. They are perennial human questions because none of them is simple and none admits of a simple answer.

That’s the difficulty with trying to popularize philosophy. There’s something about it, as a sustained activity in any case, that is inherently elitist. It’s difficult. It requires extraordinarily well-developed powers of concentration. I take great pains to explain this to my students. “You have to stick with it,” I tell them, “I know it’s frustrating and confusing, but if you just stick with it, it gets easier with time. You get better at it.” Reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (or the “first Critique” as we in the profession call it, to distinguish it from the second and third Critiques, those of Practical Reason and Judgment) used to make my head hurt, literally make my head hurt. And writing about that work, for the first time had an effect on me not unlike that of a hallucinogenic drug. Does “a priori synthetic cognition” actually mean anything I wondered with rising panic as I pecked away at my typewriter (oh yeah, that was back in the days when college students did their papers on typewriters). My thoughts seemed to have become unmoored from concrete reality, to have taken flight a là Munchausen into a fantastical realm populated with all sorts of fictional concepts that had no clear relation to anything real.

But then I read The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, which, despite the inclusion of the off-putting expression “metaphysics” in the title (I still don’t know what that means and endeavor simply to change the subject when my students ask), is much more accessible. It made me like Kant and figure that after all, there was probably some merit to the apparently impenetrable “first Critique.”

So I kept at it, not so much because I liked reading it, or writing about it (those are acquired tastes), but because, as I have written elsewhere, I liked talking about it and as with so much else in life, I understood that I had to take the good with the bad. I kept at it and got better at it. But it’s a lonely discipline in a way because it develops one’s analytical powers far beyond the state that everyday experience normally facilitates and so can cause one to find ordinary discourse enormously frustrating and counterproductive. I try to warn my students about this, particularly in my Critical Reasoning course where I endeavor not simply to help my students analyze arguments, but also to construct strong arguments of their own. I teach them to eschew such underhanded rhetorical devices as straw man and ad hominem arguments in favor of legitimate appeals to reason, but then explain with a certain melancholy that mastering genuine argument brings a very different kind of frustration from the one associated with the failure to master it. Once you get really good at this, I explain, you will find that there are relatively few people who will be able to appreciate your skill. People ought to be persuaded by the arguments you will make, but, many of them won’t be because they won’t be able to follow them. Many people will simply refuse, for example, to accept that the straw man and ad hominem arguments are not legitimate and will continue to use them and myriad other illegitimate argumentative strategies in response to your sound logic and you should not be surprised, I continue, if it happens that the majority of your audience assesses your idiot opponent’s argument as in fact stronger than your own. (I try to make this little speech before the official drop deadline. It seems only fair, and I often do lose a few of the less stout hearted at that point.)

Philosophy is thus an intellectually elitist discipline. I don’t know if it has to be that way. Differences of temperament would mean, of course, that even in an ideal society, philosophy would have more appeal for some people than for others. Ours in not an ideal society however. We seem to do everything within our power to impede the development of sound reasoning in the populace. We have been trying since the dawn of this “great nation,” to reserve genuine education not for those who demonstrate intellectual aptitude, but for the economically elite, and even they receive an education that is far too authoritarian to be optimally effective in developing reasoning powers. And as if the wretched state of our educational system were not bad enough, we add insult to the injury it inflicts on the minds of the citizenry by showering them with public discourse that is nothing buy empty platitudes and a parade of the very same fallacious arguments that are cataloged in informal logic texts, as well as with marketing strategies such as “branding” that are effectively a repackaging of the notorious technique of ancient sophists of making the weaker argument appear the stronger. It’s a wonder that anyone in contemporary American culture is able to preserve enough of his or her reason to understand the basic relations of cause and effect (and in fact, many do tend to confuse correlation with causation).

Sound reasoning is a skill that has to be cultivated and which it requires some time to cultivate. Most people are not, in fact, particularly good at it partly through lack of adequate instruction, and partly through lack of time. The average person has very little time to devote to such an esoteric enterprise and if that’s true now, it was even truer in Socrates’ day. That’s the first thing that put me off about Phillips’ book, The Socrates Café. His Socrates is a mythical reconstruction of what we know of the real man. Socrates, he asserts, talked with everyone, with the common man on the street. Socrates, he continues, didn’t think “knowledge was the rarified domain of so-called intellectuals” (8). The latter claim may be true, but the former emphatically is not. Socrates did not spend his time conversing with the man on the street. His interlocutors were aristocrats, important public figures, the wealthy, people who had time to hang out all day and talk, figures such as Critias and Charmides, members of the notorious group, referred to as “the thirty tyrants,” who ruled Athens after its defeat by Sparta. , Nicias, Laches and Meno, military and political leaders duiring the Pelopennesian war, Euthyphro, a recognized authority on matters of religion, and Gorgias a famous orator.

The sarcasm in Socrates’ protestations that he wanted to learn from his interlocutors is obvious to scholars who know anything about the history of Athens of the period, but is apparently lost on the general public. Phillips admits at one point that “in some instances [Socrates] seems intentionally to try to make those who claim to know ‘the way, the truth, and the light’ look bad, or at least silly” (18). I would argue, however, that he is nearly always doing this. Socrates, at least Plato’s Socrates was a ruthless exposer of intellectual ineptitude and hypocrisy and not merely in the abstract as was the case, for example with Nietzsche, but concretely. Socrates’ little dialogues were a kind of blood sport the victims of which were famous public figures. I’ve often wondered whether Plato’s Socrates was Plato’s way of avenging himself on the culture that had condemned and executed his mentor. There’s long been speculation concerning how closely Plato’s Socrates reflects the real man. Perhaps the real man was more benign than the Platonic reconstruction of him. The question, however, is merely academic because it is Plato’s Socrates people have in mind when they go on about how egalitarian and democratic he was, how he would converse with anyone. Few people seem to understand that the contemporary counterpart of one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues would be a public interrogation of Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, not the sort of impromptu discussion Phillips conducts amongst people who wander into the average Barnes and Noble.

Phillips claims he wants to converse with “everyman” and “everywoman” (8). If you actually try this, however, you will find it unutterably frustrating. Just because someone wants to talk, does not mean he’s going to talk sense. It’s not difficult to get together a group of people who enjoy spending an evening shouting platitudes at one another, or reducing sound statements to meaninglessness through over analysis . “[T]he one firm and lasting truth that has emerged from all the Socrates Café discussions I’ve taken part in,” asserts Phillips, “is that it is not possible to examine, scrutinize, plumb, and mine a question too thoroughly and exhaustively” (9). I would argue, however, that that it is possible to examine a question too much, that it is possible to dissect legitimate questions in such an arbitrary and capricious manner that they eventually seem meaningless. Much of what passes for philosophical dialogue is often just such chatter. It seems to me that sometimes when people think they are doing philosophy, they are really only exercising their lungs in the way physicians say babies do when they cry.

There’s a difference between liking to talk and wanting to get at the truth. There are many more people who enjoy the sound of their own voice than there are people who want to find truth. It’s a myth that you can do philosophy with anyone. You ought to be able to, of course, because, as I observed at the beginning of this essay, everyone philosophizes, at least to some extent. The problem is that most people do it poorly (whether because of nature or nurture, I don’t know). To assert, however, that philosophy is an intellectually elitist discipline is not to say that it is properly reserved for professionals. There are plenty of professional philosophers who are more enamored of the sound of their own voice than of the truth. To say that philosophy is intellectually elitist is to say that it appeals to a rarified portion of humanity–the real thinkers.

Part of my job, I feel, as a philosophy professor, is to increase the proportion of real thinkers in the population, to expose people to the joys of thought, of the contemplative life. It is impossible, after all, to have a taste for something one has never experienced. There are so few opportunities to experience genuine intellectual stimulation in our anti-intellectual culture that I assume many of my students will be encountering it for the first time. I try to bring the joy I take from it with me into the classroom because people are animals and can thus sense, on an animal level, when someone is excited. I figure if they sense I am excited about my discipline that they will assume there’s something inherently exciting about it and hence become interested in it.

I look at my students when I talk to them. I try to look at all of them, to make eye contact with each of them in the course of a single lecture. It’s a challenge though because by about the third class there is always this select little group of three, or four, or five, who are hanging on my every word, and not because of any particular affection they have for me, but because they have come, as Kierkegaard would say, under the sway of the idea, and I find myself almost irresistibly drawn to speaking to them rather than to the class as a whole.

That’s a beautiful thing to behold, a young face illuminated by the joy of thought. It’s this particular joy, I believe, that distinguishes human beings from other animals. Everything else we do, even making tools, would appear to distinguish us only quantitatively rather than qualitatively from other creatures. Only the capacity to become enraptured by thought appears completely unique to human beings. It’s part of our distinctive beauty as a species, like speed, or agility, or even cunning distinguishes other species. But if all human beings have this capacity, few seem to realize it. That’s a mystery to me. I like to think it’s more nurture than nature that’s the problem. I thus try, both in the classroom and outside, to make up for what I fear are certain deficiencies in the intellectual environments of my students.

I know though, I know going into a classroom, that there will be only a few in each group who will respond. It’s these few I look for as my eyes scan the horizon of faces. Kierkegaard was fond of referring to his “reader” in the singular. I used to think that that was just one of his eccentricities. It makes sense to me now though. There are always only a few genuine thinkers in every group. Socrates understood that. He knew that however large were the crowds that would gather at his spectacles of intellectual flaying, there were only a few who were really listening.

There are always only a few who really listen. Still, one never knows who those few will be. That’s the sense in which philosophy is egalitarian even if, sadly, it is not for everyone. Socrates understood that. He knew you couldn’t really converse with everyone. He was looking for those few real thinkers just as assuredly as Diogenes was looking for those few honest men. He never tired of that search though, and neither do I.

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