In my youth Socrates was my hero, an intellectual superman, questioning everyone and everything, and his dignified but unjust death at the hands of the Athenians made him my favorite ‘good guy’ in history. Now, older and humbler, I am not so sure.
Antifragile:Things That Gain from Disorder, the latest book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, contains an imaginary dialog between a street-wise, earthy character called Fat Tony, and Socrates. “The problem, my poor old Greek,” Fat Tony tells Socrates, “is that you are killing the things we can know but not express…You are taking the joy of ignorance out of the things we don’t understand. And you have no answer.” Fat Tony tells Socrates that he is being put to death because he is making people miserable by his persistent questioning of cherished beliefs. Socrates specialized in getting people to admit that they did not understand the concepts they were using, but in a scathing attack on the view that the unintelligible is the same as the unintelligent, Fat Tony asks Socrates whether a child needs to understand what is in mother’s milk to need to know to drink it. Fat Tony concludes by telling Socrates that life must not be limited solely to what we can understand.
Taleb’s critique of the overuse of rationalism is not original. Friedrich Nietzsche devoted his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, to criticizing Socratic thought, which he identified with science and modernity, and the view that everything is ultimately knowable. Science, he wrote, had started in optimism but had arrived at pessimism, because science now doubted both its own infallibility (nuclear Armageddon, grey goo and artificial life anyone?) and it’s foundational integrity (the Kantian critique that all our knowledge is filtered through our perceptions so man knows nothing about the world as it would be if man’s “head were cut off”).
Both Edmund Burke and subsequently Friedrich Hayek, argued that inherited social institutions embody a “super individual wisdom” which is not available to the conscious, reasoning mind. Similarly, Michael Oakeshott claimed that the rationalist erred in awarding theory primacy over practice, because the theoretical understanding of an activity is always the child of practical know-how, never its parent. More recently, the philosopher, John Gray has argued that:
“Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.”
Even if the Socratic method fails to survive this withering barrage of criticism, surely the man himself, the upholder of free thought, free speech and liberty in general, remains a secular saint deserving our reverence? Not according to I.F. Stone, who wrote a remarkable book called The Trial of Socrates, in which he accused Socrates of being, among other things: a lousy husband, a deadbeat, a narrow-minded hypocrite and an elitist snob. There is no proof that Socrates wrote anything so most of what we know of him is learned through the dialogs of two of his students, Plato and Xenophon. In these dialogs Socrates is portrayed as showing contempt for democracy and never ceasing to praise the totalitarian government of Sparta. Socrates repeatedly scoffed at the notion that ordinary people – workers, merchants, farmers – could possibly govern themselves as wisely as a caste of ‘experts’ who had philosophical training.
At his trial, Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of the day, but these youths were the spoilt children of wealthy oligarchs, who had never reconciled themselves to the enfranchisement of the middle and lower classes. These same aristocratic students showed themselves quite willing to put Socrates’ elitist teachings into practice through murder, treason and theft, providing at least one convincing reason why Athens, against its own traditions and customs, might have been persuaded to get rid of Socrates. Stone eventually concludes that, in a final act of recalcitrance, the 70-year-old Socrates actually sought his own conviction and execution rather than acknowledge any virtue in popular sovereignty. However, by doing so he also condemned his wife and young children to a life of poverty and social humiliation. From this perspective his willingness to die seems not brave but irresponsible.
Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he’s pissed.
Monty Python’s “Philosopher’s Drinking Song”