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?”

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