Socrates in America: Arguing to death
From The Economist – 12/17/09
This article comments on the sorry state of discourse in politics and public policy in America as it might be seen by Socrates if he were around today. For those who are interested, the full article provides a primer on the life and times of Socrates (Athens of the fifth century BC).
[Socrates] life…was dedicated to the love of wisdom…It was [he] who made the momentous “turn” of Western thought away from speculation about the composition of the physical world and towards the liberal questions of morality, justice, virtue and politics.
Socrates would…interrogate America’s politicians, talk-radio and cable-television pundits in search of honest discussions that lead to truth, and thereby expose their confusion, contradictions and ignorance. He would avail himself of America’s…freedom of speech, and simultaneously be horrified by the speciousness of the speech that Americans choose to make.
Visiting America today, Socrates might have dropped in on last summer’s “town hall” meetings, in which members of the public allegedly came to debate the reform of health care with their elected representatives. Socrates would have beheld hysterical firebrands shouting that America’s president and senators were Marxists, Nazis or both.
In America today, Socrates would recognize sophists and rhetoricians in partisan spin doctors such as Karl Rove and David Axelrod or equally in talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann. [Suggesting that] a master rhetorician unqualified in medicine could get himself elected as surgeon general over a qualified doctor who is not rhetorically gifted.
What is missing in both public and private discussions of political, economic, and social issues:
Socrates’s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it. It is a joint search…He hoped to bring all involved to a higher state of awareness.
An interesting take on being a radical:
But nonconformism is not an absolute virtue and easily veers off into sedition, subversion or other actions deemed unpatriotic. Psychologists suggest that people make constant trade-offs in social settings between, on one hand, insisting on their notion of truth and, on the other, the cohesion of a group. Sometimes truth and virtue require dissent and rebellion. Other times the survival or security of the group takes precedence and requires solidarity. If Socrates the free thinker belonged to a team, a club, a firm or a country today, he would never compromise his values, but he might well compromise his group.
Challengers such as Socrates exist to test society in its commitment to freedom and, if society fails the test, to remind it of the virtuous path.