Sunday, September 24, 2000

Socrates Hates Democracy

Looking back over the last 100 issues of Real Change, it occurs to us that we may not be loved by all. This makes us sad, because despite all our tough activist posturing, we are still desperate for approval.

But facts are facts, and facts must be faced. Not everyone thinks the words “homeless” and “empowerment” belong together in the same phrase. There are those who believe the homeless should simply become the non-homeless, and barring that, should just shut up and stop bothering the rest of us.

Socrates would probably have been among them.

We at Classics Corner have always found the Socrates/Christ conflation quite unfortunate, since their opinions regarding the poor couldn’t have been more different. For those unfamiliar with their respective philosophies, we’ll clarify: Christ loved the poor, and said so regularly. Christians still occasionally recognize this odd quirk of his, but more often than not prefer to do so in the abstract.

Socrates, on the other hand, was an elitist — ‘scuse our French — sum’mobitch, and despite the fact that the world around him had gone rabidly democratic, still believed in the rule of kings. Let’s be clear. Aristocracy, for Socrates, was too democratic. Rule by the people, he thought, was dangerous, wrong, and just plain dumb.

Socrates would have found the opinions expressed in Real Change annoying at best.
The issue of democracy, for Socrates, revolved around the idea of whether virtue could be taught. He didn’t think so. People had virtue or they did not, and generally speaking, the better one’s breeding, the more virtuous one was. He therefore despised the sophists, or wisdom teachers, of the time, who were busy teaching the rising Greek middle class how to effectively reason, debate, and get their way in the public assembly, which he also despised.

This is why the Protagoras is our favorite Platonic dialogue. Protagoras was a famous sophist, and he and Socrates clash over this very question. Oddly, Socrates loses.
Protagoras relays a lovely creation myth in which Epimethus, the god who peopled the world, makes all the animals first and forgets to save any of the good stuff for us.

Prometheus, to his later peril, tries to save our pathetic asses by stealing art from Athena and fire from Hephaestus. This helps, but it’s not enough. When we try to live in communities, we just fight and kill and make a mess of things in general.
Zeus brilliantly sends in Hermes to give us mutual respect and a sense of justice.

The messenger asks who he should give these talents, and Zeus says “to all.” Protagoras’ point is that democracy works because we all have the potential to participate.

Socrates gets all pissy and diverts the conversation to hairsplitting word games until everyone, including the reader of the dialogue, just has a big headache. But Protagoras’ argument stands unchallenged: There is something about the democratic process that makes us complete. We are born to it. All of us.

So what’s our point? Love us or not, Real Change is here to stay. Join us next time, when we ask, “Does Slade Gorton have a soul?”

Thursday, September 7, 2000

Sappho Junction, Washington

“I think that someone will remember us in another time.”
—Sappho of Lesbos, circa 600 BC

It’s sad but true. When we read Sappho, the Lesbian poet of seventh century BC, we find fewer poems than pieces. They are mostly teasing little bits, like “Eros arrived from heaven wrapped in a purple mantle,” or “with what eyes?” It’s not a lot to go on.

We know that Sappho was born in about 630 to an aristocratic family, was orphaned at six, had a daughter named Kleis, and died in around 570. She is said to have been short, dark, and ugly. While her woman-centered poetry was widely known, very little survived the Dark Age.

But the poet’s memory happily lives on at Sappho Junction, a little town in the Olympic Peninsula at the intersection of U.S. 101 and Highway 113.

Here, behind the Texaco, stands one of the more unlikely literary monuments in Washington State: a chainsaw sculpture of a toga-clad, dark-skinned woman with pouty lips and big wide eyes.

“I needed something for the tourists,” admits Texaco owner Sam Gaydeski. “I could have had a fish or a bear or something, but Sappho being Sappho, I had her carved instead.”

Sappho, population 13, could have been the shipping center of the upper Quillayute valley, or so hoped town founder Martin Van Buren Lamoreaux, who moved there in 1889. After Seattle’s Great Fire, Lamoreaux decided his land near Lake Union was a bust and took a chance on the middle of nowhere.

Lamoreaux, his wife, and their eleven kids took a steamship to the Pysht Indian Village on the Straits of Juan de Fuca, hiked through 20 miles of wilderness, and homesteaded their claim. In Lamoreaux’s town, each member of his family had a good job: postmaster, hotel owner, general grocer, hospital administrator, and so forth.

According to several sources, Lamoreaux named the town Sappho because he felt Sappho’s poetry, with its “intense but controlled emotion expressed in everyday, down to earth language,” struck a nice tone for building a life in the Olympics.

The town founder was jailhouse lawyer as well as an amateur classics scholar. Locals called him “The Judge.” Despite his lack of a law degree, he became Justice of the Peace.

Lamoreaux died in 1901. His family gave it up and split for Vashon in 1909.

Yet Sappho persisted. It was a timber town of sorts, and hosted a logging camp from the 30s forward. By the early 70s, the advent of the logging truck rendered the railway, and the town of Sappho, more or less obsolete. That’s when the post office and the town tavern closed down for good.

Now Sappho is Sam’s Texaco, a junk shop about a mile down the road run by a guy named Biff, and a nice old couple who raise Australian Sheepdogs. “It’s not much of a town really,” says Sam. “Just a big old name on the map.”

But what a name. On any map of the Olympic Peninsula, you’ll find Sappho, just a big as Forks, or even Port Angeles. There isn’t much left, but we at Classics Corner are happy she’s there.