Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Socratic Humor

Freshman philosophy professors will sometimes discuss 'Socratic irony'. They'll maintain that Socrates would start discussions with people, asking them questions and arguing with their answers. According to these professors, who are only repeating what their elders taught them when they were freshmen, Socrates would pretend to be ignorant and ask questions in order to goad his opponents into trapping themselves into a contradiction. The irony here is supposed to be that good ol' Soc would only be pretending to be ignorant in order to expose the flaws in the thinking of those around him.

Freshman philosophy professors are known for their lack of imagination, and their absolute certainty in their lack.

Reading the dialogues of Plato, especially if you can get your hands on un-bowdlerized versions is revealing. The whole point of philosophy is skepticism - doubt. The constant gnawing away at what you think you know until you discover once again that you don't know anything you thought you did.

Let's not fool ourselves either. I'm not talking about poor bewildered Descartes, pretending in his Meditations and his Discourse on Method to forget everything he thinks he knows so he can start over from the beginning and rediscover everything he was trying to prove in the first place.

Reading through the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and even the Republic, we don't find a simple Socrates determined that he knew better and that he'd show everybody else how wrong they were. We find a lost soul, a man who thinks he might have a clever idea, but who is tormented by the Hell of never bieng sure. He begins dialouges with the others not necessarily with the sole goal of leading them into contradiction, but as a man haunted by the hope that someone else might hold the key to the certainty he's never had. When it comes Socrates's time to hold forth, one reads the air of a man who - if only to himself - adds a question mark to the end of every phrase and every sentence.

But alas, Socrates is truly the wisest of the Greeks, who knows that he knows nothing. Searching as he is for a mind that can set him onto the path towards certainty, he meets only those whose certainty rings hollow. They do not know that they do not know. So he mocks them. Throughout the Apology, he mocks them. Socratic sarcasm, directed at those whose false certainty leads them to judge his uncertainty as blasphemous and unworthy.

But this is not all of the humor of Socrates. The Symposium, a discourse on the nature of beauty itself begins with the participants praising and comparing the relative charms and f***ability of the young men about them, like construction workers on lunch break at a college campus. These are not ivory-tower dwelling ascetics divining the nature of virtue; these are randy guys at a strip club or bar talking dirty. The Republic begins with Soc and friends coming back from a parade, discussing when the last time each took a turn in the sack.

In the other dialouges, we see Soc on the street, battling it out like some casting-call reject from West Side Story. This is not a proud academic. This is a guy looking for truth by chatting up column fluters and midwives, artisans and workmen. Sure, from time to time he'll rub elbows with tyrants, kings, and demogouges, but he'll talk Love, Virtue, or Justice with anybody who'll show up. He's not waiting for someone to holdup a sign, saying "it's philosophy time now, so everybody put on your thinking caps." For Socrates, any time is a good time for philosophy.

So the next time someone starts babbling nonsense to you on the bus, just remember: that may be ol' Socrates, keepin' it real.


Googlebombing for a cause: www.minnesotangos.org

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