Friday, September 11, 2009


death of socrates

We're really beginning to look like an Art History seminar, aren't we? From the Thinker to the Wanderer, now to the courageously and cheerfully dying Questioner.

Alain de Botton found Socrates at the Met not long before me. Jacques-Louis David's 1786 "Death of Socrates" is an impressive, imposing piece, well worth postponing a Nesquick for. In Consolations of Philosophy he attests to another philosopher steeped in self-confidence against the onslaught of hysterical opposition, a rational confidence "grounded in philosophy," extending to us all "an invitation to intelligent skepticism."

Socrates was unpopular with the unreflective crowd, still a majority of his peers (and judges). But that didn't faze him, and it shouldn't faze us (though of course it often does). "Errors in our thought and way of life can [never] be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition. What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us, but how good their reasons are for doing so." (That's an observation that should buoy the President's resolve on reforming health care, btw... but I hope he reads Michael Pollan on the subject too.)

This unwashed gadfly was prepared to hear (and evaluate) everyone's arguments. But he did not think that everyone's opinions were equally respectable. A bad argument is a bad argument, from whatever source. "One should respect the good ones..."

His accusers prosecuted him with atrocious arguments, yet he acceeded to the will of the majority and drank his hemlock. Bad choice, if you ask me. "We should not look to Socrates for advice on escaping a death sentence; we should look to him as an extreme example of how to maintain confidence in an intelligent position which has met with illogical opposition."


irene said...

One important point we failed to mention in class; to assert that those who engage in antics we perceive as inconceivable experience the emotion or feeling of happiness is at best a grave generalization.
I have read nothing stating that the act of cannibalism is an activity that in any way provides the diner with “happiness”. Many people all across the globe partake in rituals that are not intended to bring “happiness” or any sense of joy, but are merely acts of tradition or spiritual practice.
We grimace at the thought of anyone ingesting canine flesh, yet we thing nothing of having a beef burger for lunch. Does the burger bring us happiness or is it a means of sustaining life? As with the example of driving drunk, I doubt very much that anyone has ever thought to himself or herself, “Driving drunk makes me happy”, “I can’t wait to get drunk so I can drive.” or “I had such fun last night driving drunk”. Driving while drunk was merely a means to an end (All be it a unintelligent one). Having the ability to do something does not imply that that activity will “make you happy”.
It was also brought up the topic of infringing on a person’s rights. The idea or thought of having the “right” to engage in an activity may make you feel empowered but does it actually bring happiness it self? If taking a “right” away or having it stifled brings you discomfort, distress, or a sense of unhappiness, is it a forgone conclusion that it brought you a sense of happiness? I think not.
As for “all people being the same”, we are not the same. Being of the same species does not make us all the same. I concur that we are all human and therefore share the bond of humanity, but to think that because of this bond we could or can share a unified objective overview of any single inspiration or idea would na├»ve at best. If we are to search for and discuss the root causes of happiness we must have an understanding that not every action an individual engages in has a link to happiness
Irene Teesdale

Phil said...

Thanks for your thoughts. The "Sesame Street" book I used to read to the kids at bedtime got it about right, I believe: "We're different, we're the same." It's good to be different, variety spices things up etc. etc.

But when they come at you with the knives and forks and hungry eyes, it's also good to be able to say, with rational conviction: our DNA is the same, "eating people is wrong!" Accelerating Intelligence News