Specific truth claims purportedly revealed regarding the God of Israel and Christianity can be falsified. If nuclear war decimated the existence of humanity on Earth then I would take that as a refutation of God’s claim of desiring a renewed covenant with humanity. I would also see hard evidence, not speculation, that Jesus did not rise from the dead and that this claim was fabricated as falsifying evidence of the the God of Christianity.
I do not see the Nazi Holocaust or the Crusades as evidence against God’s truth claims, as these followed from the way in which Xty got Constantinized during the 4th century common era along lines that Jesus would not have approved of, based on the collection of critical biblical scholarship in John Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”.
I also believe the key doctrines of Xty are best understood as hypotheses whose truth value we cannot know with certainty until after we die. For to know the Truth of something goes way beyond merely failing to falsify it…
One of the consequences of our commitment to Socrates is nihilism, the idea that morality is impossible, and therefore, does not exist. The problem with the prospect of there being no morality seems so horrendous, if true, and so out of left field, as it seems so false, that people seldom take it seriously.
I want to look at one example of a brief exchange on nihilism. I want to suggest in what way the idea of nihilism, or that morality does not exist, is given short shrift. And then, I want to suggest what response we should make to it.
The following exchange can be found on a discussion board,
I would like to throw out a question:
Can nihilism ever be refuted?
Hmm, I dunno.
I only know the basic tenants of nihilism, so I wouldn't begin to understand how to formulate a refutation.
I would love to see one though; I am very intrigued by nihilism.
That is to say, its falsehood is plainly evident to each and every individual, and all our actions (even those of supposed nihilists) demonstrate our commitment to this obvious truth. It is assumed false in our careers, in mathematics, when we raise our children, by all our language, and in all our relationships. Every one of our actions and thoughts assumes nihilism false. Might we be wrong? If we are wrong, it is not the case that we are wrong. Or, well, it doesn't matter, anyways. So, why talk about nihilism? But, about what else will we talk? Can we find something about which to talk that matters? Why does it matter to talk about something that matters?
I have claimed that nihilism is a consequence of our commitment to Socrates. This is not apparent because people like John are not encouraged to explain why just thinking one is moral or that one thinks there are moral activities, that there in fact are such things. He does not try to go any deeper into what he’s thinking because, as he says, it doesn’t seem that important.
I want to go over again how Socrates argued us into nihilism. He believes the end or purpose of life is survival. The best way to assure survival is through the use of overwhelming force. This means that those who have accumulated power are best able to survive if they accumulate more force and keep the weak from being able to effectively resist. The best way to undermine the efforts of the weak to somehow resist the powerful is to destroy words and argumentation that depends on words. The destruction of words is brought about by undermining argumentation, by getting us to understand knowledge and values as matters of logical argument. It is this account of the basis of argument that makes knowledge and values impossible.
It would be impossible for some people to adopt an account of doing heart surgery which would, in effect, make heart surgery impossible. For example, suppose one’s account denied the idea that the heart was involved in the circulation of the blood. If we accepted such an account of the purpose and work of the heart, it would, in effect, make doing heart surgery impossible. People who accepted such a false account of the heart may just open up the chest and try to work on the workings of the heart without taking into consideration the fact that such interruption of the heart’s function would kill their patient. This case, then, demonstrates the importance of having an accurate account of the heart before one goes off and cuts people open.
In a similar way, we should have an accurate account of knowledge and values before we go off drawing conclusions about words, arguments, what we can get out of arguments, or what may be the significance of our lives if we so understand things that way. The question is what one might conclude from the account of knowledge and values as matters of logical argument. I will just say that the main implications to draw are that, on such a view, knowledge and values would be impossible. Arguments would be futile, the terms of what we’d have left as logical arguments would be manipulable by the powerful, and life so understood would be not worth living.
As I said, people would not accept such a view. They would not want to accept accounts of our hearts which would be so false and dangerous.
However, Socrates offers us an argument to the effect that we should adopt his account of knowledge and values despite its consequences because it if we adopt it, we would be eligible for valuable prizes, so to speak.
I have argued that the argument here is much like that given to Jack, who went to town to trade his family’s cow for a winter’s full of provisions, but instead came home with a hand full of magic beans. The problem was that he had promised his mom to do one thing, and was persuaded by a sharp salesman to do another. The prospect of making decisions based on knowledge and values is important enough to be careful. We need to be careful to avoid trading that in for the handful of magic beans that Socrates offers to us.
The people of Athens were not stupid. They saw that Socrates was offering them an argument that would make knowledge and values impossible. Their democracy and their lives were at stake because if they went along with Socrates then no one could then say to the tyrants that they knew better than the tyrants how to run the city. The people of Athens were not so much against philosophizing in their city. They just objected to the philosophizing that worked to make their lives not worth living.
The allegory of the cave is a picture Socrates gives us to explain what he means by saying that people only seem to have lives. When his audience initially rejected his account of knowledge and values as matters of logical argument they did so because they thought it would make knowledge and values impossible. They thought that they could not be true because in their lives they had countless examples of both knowledge and values. In response to that, Socrates replied that their response, though understandable, was not effective because people only seemed to have lives. The fact that they only seem to have lives makes their appeal to their lives useless as a response to the account put forward by Socrates. The Allegory of the cave is, then, offered as a more credible account of reality than the observation made that people’s live do involve knowledge and values.
One might wonder, then why people would choose to accept the thin excuse offered by Socrates when they would initially reject the claim that knowledge and values are impossible. Why would people adopt a view that made knowledge and values impossible while it also asked them to believe that their lives were illusions?
The answer to this question goes back to the reason why one would adopt the claim that knowledge and values were matters of logical argument. There are other options, of course. One well known option is to claim that knowledge and values were matters of rhetorical arguments. Thrasymachus or Glaucon or many of the Sophists might have promoted such an account.
I would argue that Socrates and the Sophists both shared the view that knowledge and values were matters of either rhetorical or logical arguments, but not both. It is important to see the differences between rhetorical and logical arguments. However, it is as important to see that there is another alternative not often considered. That is the view that knowledge and values are not just rhetorical or just logical arguments, but are a matter of both at the same time. The importance of this distinction is that whereas both Socrates and the Sophists advocate a view of argument that’s incomplete, the view involving both at the same time involves all the aspects of argument. In particular, logical arguments are not about issues, as do rhetorical arguments, and hence, cannot be compared or contrasted as can rhetorical arguments. An account of argument involving both rhetorical and logical argument would include all the aspects of rhetoric and logic.
It may be difficult to understand how the credibility of nihilism or skepticism depended on some account of argument. How does morality or knowledge depend on the complicated and abstruse studies of logic or rhetoric? Wouldn’t this be just to blind us with the complexity of philosophy? I am needing to get into some discussion of the nature of logic and rhetoric because the argument for the impossibility of knowledge and values (morality) depends on getting us to accept this sleight of hand. We may think that knowledge and values are indeed matters of argument. We are not too sure what the difference might be between logical argument and argument, in general. So, we have been bamboozled by a philosopher into adopting a view that commits us to there being no knowledge and no morality, despite our wish that it be not so.
To return to John. He seems to think that every time we do or say anything we show that there are values, and that we do know things. The point the account of a good account of knowledge and values, one where such things are possible, is to allow for the engagement of everyone in the discussion over the issue at hand. John does not show that he appreciates that idea. The subtlety of the account of knowledge and values pushed by Socrates allows that John and all his buddies may think they act or speak in accordance to moral values or known truths. However, it is still depressingly obvious that they could be acting on the opinions and prejudices of Socratic cave life.
So, for example, in a case that we should think closely about, we are now involved in a war in Iraq. That is, the United States has invaded Iraq, destroyed its government, and killed many of its military and tens of thousands of its citizens. We have stolen its valuables. We have done this for certain reasons. There is controversy about what those reasons have been. There is controversy about whether we have been justified in what we have done. John has said that in everything we have done and all that we have said we demonstrated the falseness of nihilism, the idea that morality is impossible and therefore does not exist. Yet, in this case it seems there is a serious question whether what we have done is moral or based on what we know.
The fact is that our invasion of Iraq was made possible by the United States refusing to listen to the wise counsel of those who would argue that Iraq was not involved in any serious effort to injure the United States or its citizens. The United States used overwhelming force to settle a dispute, something which makes impossible any reasonable discussion of what to do about our planet’s dwindling energy resources, the spread of dangerous weapons, or the frustrations of many people over other unchecked violence in the world, among many other issues.
John says our actions demonstrate the falsity of nihilism, or skepticism, but he fails to consider the example of the wars our country has initiated and exacerbated and how those actions and their justifications show that knowledge and values become impossible and so cannot exist.
I will cut to the chase.
Philosophers have wanted to somehow figure out what is behind the distinction between illusion and reality. They want to know, for example, whether we are stuck with beliefs, and never able to attain knowledge. They think that there must be more to morality than just prejudice and preferences. Isn’t there something absolute?
I am suggesting just what is behind this distinction. The distinction is based on the general fear of brutal attack and the fear of intimidation. Basically, it comes down to there being an account of life behind the distinction between illusion and reality that makes such a distinction preferable. That is, life really involves confronting things which we’d rather not do. In a way, we can’t handle the truth.
There are, on this view, two accounts of the means and ends of life. One involves the example I’ve described of some number of people gathered to discuss what to do with their last sandwich. It is the discussion of that problem which defines the nature of knowledge and morality according to a character I’ve called the Teacher of Righteousness. I have some reason to believe the character called the Teacher in the Dead Sea Scrolls held the view I have here described. The other view involves the thug who steals the last sandwich and who can be understood in accordance with a number of examples, examples being similar, and advocated by Socrates.
The conflict between the Teacher and Socrates is over whether the process of discussing issues like what to do with the last sandwich, as advocated by the Teacher, or, on the other hand, thuggery using the force of a gun, for example, to steal the sandwich and kill or intimidate anyone from effectively objecting, as advocated by Socrates, is the proper or preferable ends and means of our lives.
On my view, this is what the Dead Sea Scrolls writers referred to as the war between the ‘sons of light,’ as the followers of the Teacher, and the ‘sons of darkness’ as followers of Socrates. On this view, the Teacher as an exponent of a philosophical position that armed its followers with knowledge and morality was known to them as the messiah, or in Greek, the ‘Christ.” Socrates, as the advocate of the philosophical position which proposed force as the most effective means to attain the goal of survival and whose position made knowledge and morality impossible, was known, accordinglyas the anti-Christ.
The explanation of these claims and their defense are important, but equally important is the claim that the dispute between these characters is important now in practical affairs. The war between light and darkness so understood is important because one of the arguments brought forward by the Teacher is that anyone, or any society, committed to the Socratic principles is blind, as they have no knowledge or morality, and hence in their blind rage, are a danger to themselves and others. The doctrine of the Apocalypse is the Teacher’s argument that Socratics end by destroying themselves and everyone and everything around them.
I also claim that the people who have their hands on the buttons that launch the nuclear missiles in this world are themselves Socratic.
The importance of understanding this war is that we cannot get people who are impressed by force, who believe their goal in life is to survive and that the best way to survive is to rely on overwhelming force, to change their minds on the basis of being met by some alternative or opposing force. Instead, you have to show them that the argument they think justifies their reliance on force does not, in fact or in principle, do any such thing. You have to show them that there are better ends and better means. In other words, it does no good to preach to the choir. They are already persuaded. The problem is with those who steal and kill on the basis of their argument that it is in their best interest to do so.
One such argument, among many offered by the Teacher, on my view, is that Socratic philosophy inevitably leads one to a bad end. The Teacher was asked about ends, and which we should hope for. He argued that the beginnings were more important to worry about, and that if one chooses the right beginnings, one’s end will take care of itself.
I have argued that the Teacher held that Socratic believe their world is evil and too they can rely on being saved from it by God, a superior being who can provide life after death and providential interventions in this life. According to the Teacher, such a view is based on one’s essential selfishness. It is selfish to agree that force is the only way to survive or to do nothing to aggravate those who are so persuaded. It is selfish because one goes along with this view to promote one’s own self interest at the expense of all others. Therefore, on his view, the expectation that one will be saved from one’s selfishness is a vain and futile hope. It is vain and futile because those who live by the sword, will proverbially die by the sword, and carry everyone else with them. Therefore, It is far better to choose to never be selfish in the first place.
This is an overview of my position. It involves at least the following goals,
Philosophers are surprised and sometimes put off by weird and bizarre claims like this. They think Socrates or his many lieutenants are the perfect models of decorum. Curious philosophers can and will look into the surprising as well as the traditional. One of the advantages of this view is that it proposes a connection between Athens and Jerusalem quite different from the usual sort. It proposes a unified philosophical account of….what? Philosophy, religion, politics, psychology: anything that has had any appreciable influence by Socrates’ vile arguments. This is a valuable proposal just because the same old thing has left us with unsolved problems; including skepticism and nihilism, problems which are unsolvable because of the unwillingness or inability of philosophers to see beyond Socratic press releases.
Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll in their text, Philosophy Made Simple, try to explain the Platonic account of ethics. This Platonic theory, according to the authors, can be summarized with two points. The first is that,
“It is generally assumed …that if we know what the good life is we will naturally act in such a way as to try to achieve it.” (Page 18)
In going on about this, they said,
“Plato or Socrates held the position that if a man knows what the good life is; he will not act immorally… According to this position, evil is due to lack of knowledge. If a man can discover what is right, Plato believes he will never act wickedly. But the problem is to discover what is right, or as Plato called it, “the good.” How can this be done when men differ so greatly in their opinions about the good life?”
The question that seems to the writers to press Plato the most is just the question how one comes to find out about “the good.” They explain,
“Plato’s answer is that finding the nature of the good life is an intellectual task very similar to the discovery of mathematical truths.”
The second point at the bottom of Plato’s ethical view is, as they put it,
“…is what contemporary scholars term his absolutism. According to Plato, there is fundamentally one and only one good life for all men to lead. This is because goodness is something which is not dependent upon men’s inclinations, desires, wishes, or upon their opinions. Goodness in this respect resembles the mathematical truth that two plus two equal four. This is a truth which is absolute; it exists whether any man likes such a fact or not, or even whether he knows mathematics or not. It is not dependent upon men’s opinions about the nature of mathematics or the world. Likewise, goodness exists independently of men and remains to be discovered if men can be properly trained.”
This is basically the view that Popkin and Stroll give us about Plato’s view. The question I have is why these guys have been so deferential to the philosopher they’re covering.
I say this because I think sometimes philosophers should be more like sports reporters. I think Popkin and Stroll have just copied down Plato’s press release. Isn’t this story about the two bottom line points just a repeat of what we might hear from Plato himself? And if so, aren’t we being done a disservice that Popkin and Stroll did not investigate Plato enough to question whether we should just take his press releases at face value?
I can complain about these reporters’s negligence in writing a story. That is, I’m saying they didn’t write a story, they just copied over Plato’s own press release. I can make this complaint, but someone should eventually ask me to demonstrate that there was some big and significant story that should be told and which made copying Plato’s press release, so to speak, a disservice.
I am going to argue that neither of these fundamental points involving how we have to be educated about “the good,” or how “the good” is an absolute can be understood apart from the Allegory of the cave. After all, learning about “the good” is a matter of being unshackled from the wall of the cave, where most people live out their lives, and then standing up, turning around, and walking over to where the forms, including the form of “the good,” are carried in front of the illuminating fires. When Plato talks about discovering what is right he means such a discovery comes only when one goes from the shadows to the fires. When he talks about “the good” being an absolute, he’s referring to the idea that the views of the cave dwellers are relative, that is, about their own experiences with the shadows, whereas a form like “the good” is the same thing that creates shadows for everyone in the cave. Absolutism as well as relativism is explained in terms of the allegory.
Neither Popkin nor Stroll point out that Plato’s account of ethics depends on the allegory. Nor do they try to understand what relevance the allegory has to our understanding of what Plato says about ethics.
These guys are like reporters who talk about the great feat accomplished by an athlete without pointing out that, or even wondering whether, in order to achieve what the athlete did he had to be hopped up on illegal and dangerous drugs. Maybe the reporters thought that our understanding of Plato’s achievement would be spoiled if we found out that he was drug enhanced all the time, and so, as I believe they sat on this story, I have good reasons to think that their interest was more in glamorizing Plato than in doing reporting.
I want to anticipate some further responses to my sportscaster philosopher. Plato, for example, might grant that there is a story behind his ethical theory. However, the claim that it’s a story involving the allegory/drugs is far off the mark. As far as Plato is concerned, his ethical theory came directly from Socrates. There need be no other explanation.
I want to say that Popkin and Stroll should try to find out what all the stories are about his ethical theory and weigh each, or tell us how they can be weighed so we can evaluate the claims about them on our own. These philosophers are not doing more for us than repeating the press releases if they don’t at least look into their athlete’s background.
We would want the philosopher/reporters to find out which story about Plato would be true. Is he really such a great athlete, giving us weekly performances of his classical ethical theory, or are we seeing the corruption of philosophy and its drug enhanced performances? If Plato was taking banned drugs, it would matter to us. We have to know whether he was the real deal, or not.
Someone might wonder what difference it would make if we exposed some athlete. So what if they had some seedy secret life of deception. Sportscasters would bring up the consideration of kids. Do we really want our kids to look up to some dishonest schmuck of a hero? What’s more, what would happen to the arguments of other philosophers if the real argument of Socrates or Plato weren’t fully exposed? For all we know, our negligence would spawn widespread dishonesty and corruption from more and more philosophers. And, even if Plato no longer benefits from the drugs; without him being exposed, there would be the continuing influence of his undeserved reputation.
The world would be a better place if philosophers would have as much curiosity and concern about the credibility of their work as sportscasters.
I wonder how relevant is Socrates to us. I mean to question his picture of reality: the Allegory of the Cave.
I want to ask about a philosophical idea. Though, such talk might seem unfamiliar. Philosophical ideas may seem not as common as other kinds of ideas. So, we might wonder about the relevance of certain theories in physics, or economics. Someone might wonder about quantum mechanics. Given we understand what a theory of quantum mechanics is about, we might say that its relevance was in how it contributed to our understanding of the physics of our world, and how that might effect in a round about way the kinds of technologies we could develop related to such an understanding. Scientists might be able to develop an energy technology which could power our cities. We might be able to build a bomb that turns our planet into Mars.
There is a theory called “Peak Oil,” suggesting that there will be fundamental changes in our ways of life when we have processed or used about half of the planet’s recoverable oil. The theory suggests that this change has happened or will happen very soon. One might see that if such a theory were true, there would be changes in one’s life that you could see and have to address. According to the theory, the changes will not go unnoticed. They will change lives.
The relevance of certain theories can be explained and that they might lead to changes in our life. The first thing to understand is to see just what idea I’m asking about. Once we understand what the idea is, then we’ll be better able to tell how it might be relevant.
People have supposed that the Allegory of the Cave is relevant in many important ways. For example, many believe the Allegory is part of how Socrates explains how life is about improving the soul. John Partridge argues the following,
Imagine a dark, subterranean prison in which humans are bound by their necks to a single place from infancy. Elaborate steps are taken by unseen forces to supply and manipulate the content of the prisoner’s visual experience. This is so effective that the prisoners do not recognize their imprisonment and are satisfied to live their lives in this way. Moreover, the cumulative effects of this imprisonment are so thorough that if freed, the prisoners would be virtually helpless. They could not stand up on their own, their eyes would be overloaded initially with sensory information, and even their minds would refuse to accept what the senses eventually presented them. It is not unreasonable to expect that some prisoners would wish to remain imprisoned even after their minds grasped the horror of their condition. But if a prisoner was dragged out and compelled to understand the relationship between the prison and outside, matters would be different. In time the prisoner would come to have genuine knowledge superior to the succession of representations that made up the whole of experience before. This freed prisoner would understand those representations as imperfect—like pale copies of the full reality now grasped in the mind. Yet if returned to the prison, the freed prisoner would be the object of ridicule, disbelief, and hostility.
…Today the Republic (where this idea is first explained…) is the most influential work by Plato, and the allegory of the Cave the most famous part of the Republic. If you know that Socrates was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, or that Socrates thought that the unexamined life is not worth living, you may also know that Socrates in the Republic likened the human condition to the state of prisoners bound in a cave seeing only shadows projected on the wall in front of them. Transcending this state is the aim of genuine education, conceived as a release from imprisonment, a turning or reorientation of one’s whole life, an upward journey from darkness into light:
The release from the bonds, the turning around from shadows to statues and the light of the fire and, then, the way up out of the cave to the sunlight…: [education] has the power to awaken the best part of the soul and lead it upward to the study of the best among the things that are.
The allegory of the Cave gives literary shape to Socrates’ most fundamental concern, namely that our souls be in the best condition possible (Plato, Apology 30a7-b4).
Partridge makes a comparison between the allegory of the cave, a film called The Matrix, and our lives. He promotes the claim, as did Socrates that our lives are indeed like the lives of the cave dwellers and there is, in addition, a similar connection between us and Neo and the other characters seeking freedom in the Matrix films. Our lives are like the cave dwellers or the Matrix’s people of Zion because we too seek freedom and have a hard time finding it.
Many contemporary readers recoil at the awful politics of the Cave. Who, after all, are the “puppeteers”? Why do they deceive their fellow cave-dwellers? Plato has so little to say about them that readers quickly imagine their own worst fears; a totalitarian government or the mass media struck mid- and late-20th Century readers as an obvious parallel to the prisoners who move freely within the cave. But this gets the aim of the cave wrong, I believe, since it deflects attention away from the prisoners bound to the posts. “They are us,” Socrates says, and this is what is truly sinister: an imprisonment that we do not recognize because we are our own prison-keepers.
Partridge argues that several key issues in our lives are explainable in terms of the allegory. He’s talked about the soul, that we are our own “prison-keepers,” and too, that education is seen as the way to free oneself from life’s illusions.
The allegory of the Cave issues a pointed challenge: in what way are we living lives of diminished prospect, resting content with our knowledge, failing even to ask the right questions? These are precisely the questions Morpheus puts to Neo. And like Morpheus, Plato’s pessimism about the human condition gives way to an optimistic view of the power of education to liberate anyone:
Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes . . . Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (518b7-c2, d5-7)
According to Partridge, then, a huge number of things that make up our lives, including our souls, the distinction between illusion and reality, and the role of education, are explained in terms of the allegory. The question about what relevance Socrates philosophy has to our lives might seem to be answered. If you accept the Socratic claim that our lives are like the lives of those who live in this cave the allegory then is how we understand our lives.
I have questioned whether Socratic philosophy actually begins with the allegory. I don’t think it does. And so, if there’s more to the Socratic story than just the allegory, won’t our understanding of its relevance be more complicated? I think it will.
The Socratic story actually begins back with Thrasymachus. The crucial claim is made that the powerful determine justice. In the Republic, Thrasymachus argues the following:
Tell me, Socrates, have you got a nurse?
Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather to be answering?
Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose: she has not even taught you to know the shepherd from the sheep.
What makes you say that? I replied.
Because you fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens of tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another's good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is more apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable --that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace --they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man's own profit and interest.
Thrasymachus here claims that powerful tyrants, the people he’s talking about, use violence, stealth, and deceit to steal what they want and kill or destroy anyone who would object or try effectively to stop them. What’s more, if they have the power to steal and kill without anyone being able to stop them, then they also have the power to make you think it’s the right thing to have done.
The Republic presents Socrates saying he’s opposed to what Thrasymachus proposes. Socrates says he’s opposed to the claim that injustice is more advantageous,
For my own part I openly declare that I am not convinced, and that I do not believe injustice to be more gainful than justice, even if uncontrolled and allowed to have free play. For, granting that there may be an unjust man who is able to commit injustice either by fraud or force, still this does not convince me of the superior advantage of injustice, and there may be others who are in the same predicament with myself.
Granted, Socrates says, there may be those who can get away with injustice, he rejects the further claim that this way of doing things benefits one more. That is, though one might be able to get one’s way, stealing and killing, so that one meets one’s goals, there is a sense in which such success is not the best for one.
I want to restate just how Socrates agrees with Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus proposes the view that the powerful determine justice. Socrates challenges this claim with questions about what Thrasymachus might mean. One response goes like this:
Well, he said, have you never heard that forms of government differ; there are tyrannies, and there are democracies, and there are aristocracies?
Yes, I know.
And the government is the ruling power in each state?
And the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.
Socrates allows that the powerful might use violence, stealth, and deceit, to get what they want, and make sure they keep their gains. He questions only whether this situation gives the powerful what’s best for them.
He questions the meaning of what Thrasymachus says. Perhaps Thrasymachus is too quick to allow that the powerful know what is in their interest. Maybe they might slip up and adopt policies that screw themselves, or the people they are supposed to be caring for. The fact that the powerful often do things that eventually go against their interests, however, shouldn’t be a surprise. So, Oedipus, for example, did things which ruined both himself and his country. The rulers of countries encourage the theft of large portions of the public’s wealth, with the thought that no one will notice, or be able to stop them. Yet, the theft so weakens the country that everyone suffers economic hardship and dissolution. The point is, Socrates does not challenge the truth of what Thrasymachus claims.
He does challenge the arguments, what arguments there are, that Thrasymachus offers to support his position. The strategy offered by Socrates here is to resist Thrasymachus by challenging his supporting arguments because he thinks Thrasymachus has no real support. The point of resisting Thrasymachus in this way is that he agrees with the claim that’s made about the powerful determining justice. He merely advocates a particular argument in support of that claim.
Thrasymachus present arguments on behalf of the powerful that deflect attention away from the fact that Socrates agrees with this view of the powerful and their ability to determine justice. In this way, Thrasymachus is a “stalking horse,” or,
stalk•ing-horse (stô k ng-hôrs ) . 1. Something used to cover one's true purpose; a decoy. 2. A sham candidate put forward to conceal the candidacy of another or to divide the opposition. 3. A horse trained to conceal the hunter while stalking.
Thrasymachus provides an account that Socrates would like to be seen to reject because he sees that his audience would reject a view where the powerful have whatever they want and seem to get away with it. Socrates himself allows that this is true, but true in the sense that opposition to what Gyges does would be irrational. That is, any opposition to the use of power to assure one’s survival would be irrational.
The account that Socrates agrees to is that the use of might does assure one’s survival and comfort. One way of putting this position is that knowledge and values, the basis for decision making, is a matter of logical argument. Logical argument is here a matter of making the consideration of criticism from other points of view irrelevant. This account of knowledge and values is promoted by Socrates to support his contention that might not only makes for survival and comfort, but that if one has the power to take what one wants and kill one’s critics, then one has the power to make it right to do so.
Socrates needs to use Thrasymachus as a stalking horse because sensible people would not only want to oppose the powerful when they used violence, stealth, and deceit to take what they want from the weak, but they had already fought a civil war in Athens during Socrates’ lifetime over just that issue.
The allegory of the cave provides a way of thinking of our lives so that one can imagine one can be saved from the illusions about reality that the powerful give us to support their rule without at the same time doing anything effective to challenge the powerful over their use of force. Whereas sensible people would reject the allegory if it was known that it was based on the fact that the powerful use force to take what they want and to destroy any opposition, the allegory appeals to people who do not want to bear the consequences of standing up to the powers that be. They do not want to stand up to people who are willing to use force to steal and kill anyone who stand sin their way. The allegory also appeals to the gullible who are interested in the promise given by the allegory that if one adopts the allegory as a true account of reality they can win valuable prizes. They can get life after death and the interest of God in them and their loved ones.
Socrates provides an account of our true predicament in that he agrees with Thrasymachus and his conclusion, though he disagrees with the argument Thrasymachus uses to support that claim. It may seem wrong to say that Socrates actually agrees with Thrasymachus. However, the important work done in philosophy in general and with Socrates in particular is by argument. This is true despite Plato arguing that philosophy is about what people say. So he says,
We must let our destination be decided by the winds of the discussion
(Plato Republic 394d)
Rather, our destination must be a matter of a determination of what issues are being dealt with and what positions the philosophers are arguing. Meno provides us with this corrective. If we don’t know what issues and arguments the philosopher is arguing, then we won’t be able to understand what the philosopher is saying even if we run over it on the road.
The great unstated argument made in the Republic is where Socrates takes Thrasymachus’s view and bases his comparison of our lives on the lives of his cave dwellers on the fact that as the powerful determine justice, as well as knowledge, values, and everything else, our lives are based on illusion. The fact is, if Socrates had rejected the claim made by Thrasymachus that the powerful determine justice, then there would have been no reason for Socrates to have said our lives are like those of the cave dwellers.
Given that we have adopted the allegory of the cave as our picture of reality, as Partridge argues we have, then we have to live with the consequences of that choice.
Now that I have shown a fuller account of Socratic philosophy, an account that not only presents the allegory of the cave as the picture of reality, but provides a background for understanding why we find the allegory compelling, we can better ask what the relevance of this philosophy might be to our lives.
Socratic philosophy is relevant in a complex way. We are asked to believe that philosophy and our understanding of reality is about the allegory of the cave. This is why philosophy is supposed to be important to us. It is supposed to be an investigation of reality provided to us in terms of the allegory. It’s about the allegory, and the allegory is about our lives.
Yet, the allegory is based on an unstated account of knowledge and values as matters of logical argument, an account that is based on the idea that swords are more powerful than words and better able to assure one’s survival. This is the view that explains why Socrates claims that no one knows anything. He tells us about this in Plato’s Apology,
When I heard the answer, I said to myself, what can the god mean? And what is the interpretation of his riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After long consideration, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him,' Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.' Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him, his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom first among I selected for examination, and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and because I heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: conceit of Man, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.
It is the view that makes our lives like the lives of his cave dwellers. It is the basis of the allegory yet it is unstated because our lives would be like those of these cave dwellers only if people let the powerful run all over them without putting up a fight. Another way of saying this is that by adopting the allegory, and committing oneself to the Socratic account of knowledge and values, one divides up the world into the few who are powerful enough to determine justice and the many that go along with them, the few who wear the boot, and the many who kiss it.
The allegory is compelling because it isn't so much true, but we give the underlying unstated truth that the powerful will use force to take what they want and kill or destroy whoever tries to effectively stand in their way power over us. Instead of resisting the powers that be, people commit themselves to these Socratic principles. They become enablers of these unspoken powers.
Whenever we ask about the relevance of philosophy to our lives there are two stories going on. On the one hand most of Socrates’ audience has adopted the allegory as their account of reality, and so philosophy which is about the allegory does reflect what people are thinking about the mess we’re in.
However, on the other hand, the allegory is only an excuse to get people to adopt something that is too difficult for most people to resist, but provides no way to address the issues that people really face. In this sense, philosophy is not relevant to our lives. It provides a way for Socrates to destroy resistance to his own account of the ends and means of life. That is, if one adopts the view that knowledge and values are matters of logical argument, the unstated view of Socrates, then knowledge and values by implication become impossible, argument that would lead to knowledge and values becomes futile, words are destroyed and the terms of the logical arguments we are left with are manipulable by the powerful, and life so understood becomes not worth living.
We are asked about the relevance of philosophy to our lives because people have a sense that the world is going on and philosophers, despite their best efforts, aren’t talking about it. Philosophy cannot talk unencumbered by the dead weight of Socrates' allegory about the issues that face us, like the torture of children, for example, until they recognize that there is an unstated background to the allegory, and that the background is a view of the ends and means of life that we can and should reject.
I thought I was doomed to wander aimlessly through the religious night, garments rent, hair tousled, to fall into my grave and then there would be a little whisper: “Stupid son of a bitch, he didn’t pay attention.” Not a happy prospect, I admit.…
What I think I see is that it’s possible to think about Judaism in a way that makes it okay for me not—at the moment in any event—to worry about the synagogue and to worry about rules of kashrut and so forth. It was a genuine question: “How should Judaism be understood?” The level of my ignorance was so profound that it had never occurred to me that the rabbinical Judaism that I was “taught” was in fact just one version of Judaism. It might be the normative version of the world I inhabited, but it certainly wasn’t the only possible one. And there have been all kinds of people who have tried to rethink all this.
It seems to me religion is as interesting as hell. I mean, I have found myself thinking much as Stephen Elkins says here that Judaism, for example, is important and has some profound things to say to us, but for some reason it has been traditionally expressed in confusing or misconceived ways. One might think that for me, not being Jewish, I should pay more attention to the Christianity in my own life. I’ve done that. I have the same sense of wanting to reject it. And, given all the things I’ve thought about Socrates and how I think Christianity is based on the acceptance of Socratic principles, no wonder I keep it distant.
However, there is a connection between Athens and Jerusalem. I have argued that Christianity would be one of Socrates’ big supporters because they would not want his philosophy to be rejected. They would not want it rejected because its rejection would be about giving up on Jesus as the Socratic Hero.
One of the arguments against my reading is that Christianity did not arise out of considerations of Socratic philosophy, but instead of considerations of Judaism. With this in mind, I have suggested that there are reasons to think that Judaism itself as it has been understood is based on Socratic principles. I have mentioned the thoughts of Moses Hadas in support of that claim. I have tried to argue that the idea of the Allegory of the Cave and the parable of the absent landlord are two ways of saying the same thing.
I understand that it will be difficult to make arguments about something I’ve never experienced in any way that Jews themselves might take seriously. My thought is that if Judaism is as important as Elkins says it is to his life, then it should be something that non-Jews should be able to understand and assess for themselves.
Despite the various roadblocks, I will try to make a case for the claim that Judaism as it has been understood for a long while has been influenced by Socratic principles and that this explains many of the problems that people like Elkins have had with it. My purpose in asking questions about Athens and Jerusalem has to do with my own thought that there is something right about studying the "words of God," and caring about the “kingdom of God on this earth” that comes from my character the Teacher of Righteousness that is crucial for us. I want to say this character needs to be more to us than just a Jewish voice directed primarily at a Jewish audience.
One central idea of my attack on Socrates involves my example of people trying to decide what to do with their last sandwich. I suppose hungry people get together. They’ve got one sandwich. They all try to decide what to do with it to somehow address the fact that they are all hungry. However, in the shadows and away from the group, there’s a guy who’s been biding his time. At the right moment, by his lights, he pulls his gun and robs the group. He takes the sandwich, maybe shoots someone trying to protect the sandwich, and gets away with it.
I have resisted Socrates because he takes the side of the thug. Socrates believes it’s a fact that the powerful rule. He goes along with Thrasymachus who believes that the powerful not only steal what they think they need to survive, but can make people believe it’s a good thing that they do so. It is this fact about life which makes him propose the Allegory of the Cave as his account of our lives so ruled by the powerful, and his idea how we can be saved from such a situation.
Our lives are like the lives of the cave dwellers because our understanding of reality is as false as the cave dweller’s.
The powerful feed us with lies about what’s true and moral in order to support their own needs. The cave dwellers too have only opinions and prejudices because what they experience is false. Their lives are about shadows and echoes which are false and do not tell them about what’s really going on.
My attack on Socrates is based on the idea that the Allegory cannot present us with any solution to our predicament because it does not address the problem that the powerful use force to intimidate us into allowing them to get their way. Socrates is only telling us to go along with their extortion and console ourselves with the idea that maybe someday a hero will appear to save us from our troubles. The prospect of such a hero is a smelly fish that has obscured our understanding of the argument. First, if we want to know about what to do with one’s last sandwich we have to figure that out for ourselves, and not rely on someone else, no matter how wise, to do the work for us. Secondly, if we want to save ourselves from thugs, we have to challenge their idea that the goal of life is personal survival and the best means to that goal is the use of force. We cannot expect to meet their force with our force, if we should think to try such a response. After all, for good reason, they are strong and we are weak. Without challenging the reasons the powerful have that justifies their stealing what’s valuable and killing anyone who would object, we should not expect them to give up what seems to give them so much success.
Well, that’s my argument against Socrates. I can imagine there may be great puzzlement about what it is I think I’m doing. One might wonder, for example, how I could possibly accuse Socrates of such terrible designs. He’s philosophy’s poster boy. He wants us to be all we can be. He argues against all the things that I here say he actually pushes. How can I say such terrible things about such a nice guy?
It’s a good question.
The advancement of what Socrates really wants to get done depends on his being seen as a lovable old coot, someone who would rather die honorably than give up doing philosophy.
I want to respond to this puzzlement by making three points.
One is that philosophy is about the arguments and not so much about what people have said or our impressions. It is not always the case that our first impressions based on what philosophers have said reflects what we should conclude about that philosopher based upon what they’ve really argued. Being able to expose the falsity of our first impressions requires, I believe, being able to put Socrates into our own words. The point of rethinking Socrates is to find out if his arguments justify what everyone says about him.
Two is that we should be more curious about the philosophical ideas that he has presented to us. They may look or smell nice and be pleasant tasting on the way down, but one can make the argument that the way he makes us think about our lives has made us sick. I’m here thinking about the Allegory of the Cave, his idea that we need to define our terms, or that we really know nothing and have no values. We should be curious about what really is behind what he has given us.
Three is that it cannot be true that we could exist without philosophical ideas. Some have thought, for example, that the notions of philosophers are mistakes that we’ve made in our thinking at a very deep level. If we just expose those mistakes, then we could learn to avoid them in the future. This is to underestimate the importance of philosophy and to therefore underestimate the importance of Socrates. I am not saying that I think my opposition to Socrates should make him irrelevant. He argues that we all must decide what life is all about and in answering that question realize that we’d best be thugs or their slaves. I think we need to understand how to reject his argument.
The Trojans held out for years against the Greeks army. At the end they found a statue of a horse standing outside their city’s gate. The Greeks had left. The horse was the city’s most revered religious image. For many reasons, it was a much desired and appreciated thing. So, the gates were opened and the horse was quickly dragged inside. Later, as the people slept, the Greek soldiers hidden within the horse emerged, opened the gates, and helped the returned Greek army destroy Troy .
Our engagement with Socrates is like the way Troy thought of the horse. The Trojans were more interested in what the horse represented to them, how it looked, what its relationship to their Gods might mean to them, instead of asking the more pertinent question what were the Greeks doing giving them gifts. They should have looked their gift horse in the mouth, so to speak. The Trojans were incurious about why the Greeks would have left them such a religious icon when for years they had been intent on destroying them.
We have been incurious about the foundational of our civilization despite the fact that Socrates was a bright guy whose buddies were the tyrants of Athens.
Are there soldier arguments hidden inside the religious icon that’s Socrates?
The importance of Socrates has to do with the ends and means of life. Arguments about what we should do are everywhere…always. We’d like to think that our lives were about how arguments resolve conflicts. Socrates is important to us because he makes the argument that if you want to survive, then you should be a thug, or obey one. Socrates is important because most people unfortunately are Socratic.
The questions I have now are about the example of the sandwich and whether it’s better to forget about arguing and just take it.
Go back to the gathering where everyone is talking about what to do with the sandwich. One question might be, well, isn’t it impossible to feed everyone with only one sandwich?
Suppose the gathering is rather large, say 500 or a thousand. You can see that it wouldn’t take even a large number of hungry people for the sandwich to disappear, leaving nothing for most of those left. This presents a real problem. We are now running out of oil, land, water, food, and all the other essential commodities. How are we going to make do with dwindling amounts of what we need to survive?
The beauty of considering my example here is that the process of making sure that everyone has some input into this discussion makes it more important than whether or not they get fed, or, in the long run, survive.
I want to point out that I reject the Christian interpretation of Jesus as a Socratic hero. Part of why I say that is that what we hear about what Jesus said often presents us with relevant points made about my example of the sandwich. I will bring up two here. I think Jesus would have us place respect and love as more important than getting oneself fed or even survival. So he tells us,
Love or respect others as you would have others love and respect you, and this is the most important of God’s commandments.
The other saying has to do with bread,
Man does not live by bread alone…
Where here we could take him to mean that though sandwiches would be important, we should not make the means to satisfy our hunger, or our very survival, as more important than the respect and love we share with others.
I take him to be saying that we should not put ourselves into the position of the thug who thinks that he needs the sandwich to survive. It is more important to have the love and respect of others, according to the position pushed in these sayings, even if it turns out that one does not get any of the sandwich.
I resist the Christian interpretation of Jesus which would tell us that he would never have to worry about the process of discussing what to do about scarcity because he can feed 500 with a few fish and a loaf of bread. The idea that Jesus here would push is that scarcity means nothing for someone who’s created the universe. Here he would undermine the argument made by Jesus as the Teacher of Righteousness that we must love and respect others, as we want others to love and respect us, in addressing issues with arguments.
What would the thug say about God?
Wouldn’t the thug argue that his God told him it was alright to take the sandwich? He could say that God thinks he’s something special and that makes it important for him to get what he needs. He should get what he needs despite the fact that if he gets the sandwich under such circumstances no one else gets anything.
The answer to this question depends on who you think is talking to God.
There are two possibilities to consider here. The first is the idea that the point of coming up with knowledge and values as a result of argument is that we then what we do is just what God would have us do. I suspect here that The Teacher of Righteousness has his own idea about the Torah. The second idea is pushed by Socrates, for one, who tells us the Gods are those who have experience of the Forms, who may be the Socratic Hero who comes back to the cave to inform of knowledge, morality, and what’s real.
Do we go with the first idea with those who say they rely on God’s words to arrive at knowledge and morality to decide such questions as what to do with the last sandwich?
Or, do we go with those who resort to violence, stealth, and deceit to take what they want. In doing so it would be unfortunate that knowledge and morality would be impossible, argumentation futile, where God’s words would lose their meaning so that the terms of whatever remained would be manipulable by the powerful, and life so understood not worth living. But, on such a view one could make oneself content with the suggestion that a hero would make everything come out alright in the end.
The Teacher’s position on this would be that thugs always face terrible consequences for what they do. Thugs never come to any good end. Instead of assuming that some supernatural hero will save one from the consequences of one’s selfishness, the Teacher would have us never be selfish in the first place.
Doesn’t the thug have a point about the efficacy of smash-mouth force?
We could allow that the thug could argue that since force works, and given enough violence, stealth, and deception, you could always get the last sandwich; wouldn’t you be crazy to do anything differently?
This is a good question because it is behind what Thrasymachus tells us about his own position. It is also an unstated argument behind the position Socrates pushes. We might agree with Socrates if we did not take into consideration the rest of the story wherein thugs consider using force. Those who are hungry are arguing about what to do. That is, they make a claim about some relevant issue and provide the best support they can foir that position. By using force to settle the question the thug makes knowledge and the morality of the discussion impossible. Once the thug steals and kills to survive he’d be the one that wouldn’t be rational. He’d be the selfish one who would use brute force to protect his selfishness. It would not be irrational to refuse to go along with the thug or crazy to try to maintain the words of God, so to speak, any more than it would be crazy to resist not want to be a slave or to protect your loved ones.
The point of resisting the thug is that it to give in would mean to give up on love, justice, God, and a life worth living.
Can’t the thug argue that Socrates was right about the Forms, whether or not he started by endorsing thuggery?
The thug might argue that it doesn’t matter about where we get moral standards or what we’re supposed to think about the objects of knowledge. The fact is that Socrates was right that there are standards and objects of knowledge and no amount of argument should get us to take skepticism or nihilism seriously. Hence, there is no reason to take this argument about the last sandwich seriously. The fact is, God exists and is the source of knowledge and morality despite the thrust of this argument by your Teacher of Righteousness. You are trying to argue against the way everyone understands knowledge, morality, and God. We need not pay any attention.
The Teacher can point out that philosophers have not taken skepticism or nihilism seriously as philosophical ideas because they’ve thought that since their lives involve knowledge and morality then the claim that knowledge and morality do not exist cannot be true. The fact is though that philosophers have been incurious about what justifies the Socratic claim that our lives are like those of the cave dwellers. They have not allowed that the use of force to settle disputes could be the source of the Socratic Allegory, not recognized that so long as thugs rule knowledge and morality are, in fact impossible. That is, conflicts cannot be resolved by argument. This is important when we imagine what might be the consequence of the powerful relying on violence, stealth and deception to get what they need for them to survive. The Teacher, by the way, argued that the end result of relying on Socratic principles was that such people are a danger to themselves and others. It’s about the destruction of everything.
Paying attention here is about coming to see that if we have a good beginning, the endings will take care of themselves. If one gets off on the wrong foot, then no wonder one will come to no good end. You can’t ignore the connections between the two.
Bertrand Russell wrote, in his Problems of Philosophy,
In this chapter we have to ask ourselves whether, in any sense at all, there is such a thing as matter. Is there a table which has a certain intrinsic nature, and continues to exist when I am not looking, or is the table merely a product of my imagination, a dream-table in a very prolonged dream? This question is of the greatest importance. For if we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects, we cannot be sure of the independent existence of other people’s bodies, and therefore still less of other people’s minds, since we have no grounds for believing in their minds except such as are derived from observing their bodies, Thus if we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects, we shall be left alone in a desert – it may be that the whole outer world is nothing but a dream, and that we alone exist. (Page 17)Russell is here concerned to get us to see that there is a real question about whether what he calls the ‘external world’ really exists, or whether instead we dream it up.
In a later discussion of the same problem found in his Understanding Human Knowledge, Barry Stroud in his essay “Taking Skepticism Seriously,” writes,
Those familiar considerations about knowledge and perception which have traditionally been thought to lead to philosophical scepticism have not occupied as central a place in the philosophy of the last twenty years or so as in the forty or fifty years before that. It is not that the best philosophers used to believe or advocate scepticism and that they no longer do so, but that, in the past, scepticism was seen as a constant and profound threat, and the urge to understand precisely how it is to be avoided was a motivating force in philosophy. Generally speaking, that is no longer so. With a few notable exceptions, contemporary philosophers do not take scepticism seriously, or seriously enough. (Page 38)On the one hand, we have a philosopher who is somehow thinking that his arguments make him conclude that matter may not exist, that he may only exist, and that maybe only in a dream, and basically, that the external world does not exist. On the other hand, we have a philosopher pointing out that his more contemporary colleagues think Russell’s concerns are overblown. Philosophical skepticism is really nothing to worry about.
I have my own take on the question.
Plink…Plink…Plink…Again I’m harping on Socrates
Socrates introduces us to ideas which became famous and influential. I’m here thinking of what he says in the Republic about knowledge and the differences between knowledge and belief. We can remind ourselves of his discussion of the divided line, the Sun, and especially his Allegory of the cave. I am drawn toward the Allegory because it involves so much of his argument. Whereas most philosophers think Socrates did some good, few of them allow that he did bad. I want to make a case that he was, despite our initial impressions, a very bad boy.
The case I want to make is that his arguments made us the skeptics and nihilists that we are today. All the concerns that Russell had about the external world he gets from being committed to the main notions pushed by Socrates. All the presumptions of being fine and doing well that the more modern philosophers noted by Stroud are “whistling in the dark” as they have not addressed the arguments that Socrates made or the fact that people are Socratic.
My own view is that The Teacher of Righteousness is a must read
I want to speak on behalf of Socrates’ great nemesis, the Teacher of Righteousness. The view I will try to here speak for is a reconstruction. It is the argument that must have been made. I say it must have been made because its having been made explains the fact that you can’t find it advocated anywhere. In a world where people are so deeply Socratic, in the way that I will shortly describe, no wonder any and all evidence of any effective argument against Socrates would be erased, the memory of its advocates corrupted, the people who paid any attention destroyed or intimidated into silence, and the nemesis himself killed.
I want to talk about skepticism as the claim that knowledge is impossible, so we should therefore be skeptical about any claims that it exists, or that one could find an example of it. I also want to talk about nihilism as the claim that morality or values are impossible, where we should doubt that one can be moral, or appeal to what we might take to be of value. I will argue that both Socrates and the Teacher are engaged in a dispute about the ends and means of life. The position that Socrates takes is not only seductive, but its full expression is a mystery. Socrates doesn’t want to be clear about what he’s trying to do. He wants to be mysterious because your commitment to his project entails the impossibility of knowledge and morality. He thinks that if his audience suspected he was up to no good, they would never get near him. He was right about that. The Teacher, however, is interested in making sure that all of Socrates’ argument is exposed to our examination. The idea would be that the corruption would wither and die if exposed to the purifying rays of the sun.
Stroud seems correct to point out that people discount the importance or full weight of skepticism and nihilism. Philosophers surely discuss the problems that their dead predecessors came up with, but discount them, even though they may not have any reasonable argumentative response because they believe skepticism and nihilism is refuted by the fact that people’s lives are full of examples of knowledge and morality. The point of bringing up this argument is to say that skepticism or nihilism can not be credible or real problems if it is so easy for us to point out examples of knowledge and morality. This argument would seem to be a good response if one was arguing against someone who was saying, for instance, the birds and the bees don’t exist. Someone might claim this, whereupon you could point out all the birds and bees that do exist all around the forum. However, Socrates is not pushing anything like the idea that commonly found things can’t really ever be found.
Philosophers have no street cred.
The philosophical parts of people don’t care about skepticism and nihilism because they don’t see that either is at all about their lives. They don’t see that they could be real problems because no one has pointed out how commitment to Socratic principles entails them.
Socrates likes to present himself as having presented a state of affairs about which he has kindly provided the beginnings of some fruitful explanations. So, the Allegory of the cave is his great beginning and we are left with the question how we should explain its many puzzles. For example, “How do we account for the Forms?” Or, “How do we make sense of language?” And, “How must we understand the Gods?” In each of these questions we can see the beginnings or our concerns about epistemology, theory of meaning, and ethics.
Socrates does not like to have anyone point out that the ideas he’s here given us have made us sick. For example, we have had unending conflicts over all these questions, what do we know, what about meaning, or what of morality. We have the right to ask Socrates to tell us where he got his Allegory. Why should we think, as we are told to think, that it presents us with a picture of reality?
What’s it all about?…A good question even if we don’t ask it.
There is another view. I’m saying that Socrates and the Teacher are engaged in a dispute over the proper ends and means of life. It’s a question that everyone gets dragged into. Everyone has a life. There’s a path through that life. One has to choose where they want to go and how they want to get there. The Teacher argues that the end of life, our purpose in it, so to speak, is to bring about, what he calls, the “kingdom of God.” This is a place where conflicts are resolved by argumentation alone. Socrates argues that the end of life is personal survival at all costs. The most effective means to achieve that end is the use of force. It’s Socrates who endorses the idea that swords are more powerful than words.
When one examines the Republic, where Socrates introduces the Allegory of the cave, one finds that it isn’t Socrates who pushes the idea that “might makes right” or that the meaning of life is about personal survival and advancement. We find Thrasymachus or Glaucon making those kinds of arguments. It is a mystery how one is to understand the Allegory. As I put it, something like Thrasymachus’s view would support the Allegory, but Socrates is seen to reject such a position.
What’s the mystery of this tale of woe? What does he know? When does he know it?
It is important to note that the view Thrasymachus proposes is rejected. No one in Athens would endorse the proposal that the powerful should rule their city in the interests of the powerful and against the interests of the people of the city. In fact, the people of Athens fought a civil war against tyrants who proposed just such a thing. However, just because Socrates argues against Thrasymachus’s view does not mean that Socrates could not have held the view that I have argued he had.
I’m saying Socrates held the view that force is a more powerful means to achieve one’s goal of personal survival. What Socrates rejected was the rhetorical argument that Thrasymachus used to support his position. What he accepted was the idea that might makes right as a matter of logical argument. The Socratic position would be that knowledge and values are matters of logical argument, not rhetorical.
Socrates also could have rejected the claim that the powerful should determine what justice is because he would have understood that no one in Athens at the time would have supported anyone who advocated for the rule of tyrants. However, such a position would not make impossible the argument that irregardless of what the powerful should do, they in fact, do determine what we say is justice, as well as determine everything else using their power.
The reason Thrasymachus made an appearance loudly proclaiming his views about the powerful and what constitutes justice is that Socrates needed a decoy to deflect disfavor for what he was going to argue off onto someone else. If anyone would have connected the Allegory as a response to Socrates advocating a Thrasymachus-like view, they would have rejected it almost out of hand.
I suspect that the trial of Socrates was based on many people making the connection that Socrates tried to keep a secret.
One may wonder why the first book of the Republic was presented at all if it contained even a hint of the real background for the Allegory. Why would Socrates or Plato provide the explanation for how one should understand the Allegory, if all they really wanted was his audience to accept the Allegory without question?
The Allegory could not be understood in the way that Socrates wanted it to be understood unless it was seen as having a certain nefarious background. He wanted to say, perhaps, that because some view like Thrasymachus’s or Glaucon’s is true, reality is the way the Allegory says it is. Life is about selfishness, which is a fair description of life for people in the cave. And yet, according to the Allegory, there is hope because it is possible for people to break their chains and work their way towards the fires, there to get some idea our true situation. Or, we could be saved by someone who knew about the fires and was willing to come back into the cave to tell the rest of us about how things really were. The comparison between our lives and the lives of those living in the cave as Socrates described it becomes credible only if one thinks that our lives fictions determined by the powerful who how we understand things.
I’m thinking here of how it is said the media tries to determine our opinions by what they say and how they tell us about the world. Think of the “manufacture of consent.”
Socrates manipulates his audience and keeps us in the dark about his argument.
Socrates would like us to think that he rejected the view that Thrasymachus and Glaucon proposed. He would like us to think that he opposed it but was willing to allow that though it was a terrible idea, it was true. It was true and so his Allegory was built upon its truth. The Allegory was his hopeful response to the grim truth pointed out by Thrasymachus and Glaucon.
I doubt that Socrates himself rejected the thrust of Thrasymachus and Glaucon’s position. I say this because Socrates goes on to advocate the idea that everyone has no knowledge except him. The only thing he knows, which puts him one step better than every one else, is that he knows he knows nothing. The reason he knows that everyone knows nothing is that he agrees with the thrust of Thrasymachus’s argument, that the powerful determine justice.
My argument is that Socrates does not agree with the rhetorical argument which supports Thrasymachus’s position. The mystery of the Republic is that we are not supposed to suspect that Socrates believes, with Thrasymachus, that the powerful determine what we call justice. He must endorse the idea that knowledge and value are not matters of rhetorical argument, but are, instead, matters of logical argument. He must have such a position because you couldn’t understand the Allegory unless it is a response to the claim that the powerful determine for us how we understand things like “justice.” One has to accept such a view to be able to say that, yes; our lives are just like the lives of those Socratic cave dwellers.
The fact is…a gun to the head will make argument futile.
As Socrates endorses the claim that swords are more powerful than words, he is acknowledging the fact that the use of force to assure one’s own survival does make knowledge and values impossible. This can be seen in examples like where a discussion takes place between hungry people to determine what to do with their last sandwich. The result of such a discussion would be that the people taking part would know what they should do with the sandwich because their process was carried out in a fair, shall we say “just,” way. However, if a thug comes up, pulls a gun, and steals the sandwich, then both the knowledge (of what to do) and the morality (that it was a just process) of the discussion became impossible.
This piece is supposed to be about why we should care about skepticism and nihilism. So far, I have explained from my point of view, some of the background behind the claim that knowledge and morality are impossible. If they are impossible, then no wonder we should be skeptical or doubtful about anyone claiming knowledge or values existed, or that they could point out examples of them.
We should care about skepticism and nihilism because both are true problems, knowledge and values are really impossible in a world of Socratics, and because of that we are in great danger. Both are true because we live in a world where the powerful rely on violence, stealth, and deception to steal; what they need to survive and kill or intimidate anyone who would effectively resist. The weak, who also subscribe to Socrates, refuse to stand up to those who use force to get their way. Knowledge and morality are impossible in a world where there are only two kinds of people: the few who wear the boots, and the many who kiss the boots.
The Teacher can deal with objections.
There are those who argue that we should not bother ourselves over the fear that knowledge and morality may be impossible. They say that skepticism or nihilism could not be credible fears because, contrary to the claim that knowledge or morality are impossible or do not exist; we have lives which are filled with examples of both knowledge and values. We have all the things that philosophers have been skeptical about. Even though this argument has given people the impression that skepticism and nihilism are nothing to worry about, it is really not a good response. If no one does anything to resist the Socratic temptation to use force to settle disputes, i.e., the effective mechanism that makes knowledge and morality impossible, no amount of wishful thinking is going to save us from our certain self-destruction.
There are others who might think that skepticism and nihilism were, unfortunately, really credible problems. They might think that God would have to save us. Maybe Jesus would intercede for us and our loved ones. I believe this is a vain hope. The Allegory tells us that a Socratic hero who knows of our situation in the cave and who has seen the situation with the forms and the fires will come back to the cave to enlighten us and help us overcome our confinement. I have argued that this is the way that Christianity has in fact understood Jesus. When we are faced with powerful people stealing what they would like and killing those who object, determining the terms of our existence, terms like “justice,” “knowledge,” or “morality.” we are tempted to retreat to a fantasy world involving us as cave dwellers and Gods as heroes who will save us from our tragedies in the next life if not in this. The hope that God or his messenger would save us is only a part of Socrates’ fantasy intended to bribe us into adopting his account of the ends and means of life. He lulls his audience into submission by giving them no inkling that he has a credible opponent in the Teacher. He intimidates them into thinking there’s nothing you can do against the powers that be except kiss boot. He gives them the idea that if they go along quietly they will receive wonderful prizes: life after death and the love and attention of the creator of the universe.
It’s a lot about the war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness.
We should care about skepticism and nihilism because they are our true condition in a world where our survival is said to depend on violence, stealth, and deceit. The problem is that without knowledge or values we are blind and then a danger to ourselves and others.