Being Right When You Are Wrong
Reading the story of Socrates and his defense of his knowledge work in front of the Council of Athens this week has made me feel a little sad, but also resigned in the understanding that not much is different today than it was thousands of years ago. And there is not much you can do to make people smarter or improve your lot.
You can be right about many things— and idealistically right according to the cultural mores of the state — but still be considered wrong and immoral, if the desires of the collective state go against the actual ideal it is set up to follow.
This is what happened to Socrates. He ended up facing his own execution for the simple reason that, like a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, he had a fixed obsession in his mind to prove himself right or wrong, and would not stop until he had found an answer. The society around him, annoyed at his persistence, and annoyed by how skillfully Socrates would tear down their arguments, found there was something wrong with him, rather than believe that the preimse of their cultural ideas was fallacious.
This is something I have always found frustrating about life. Most arguments seem valid on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper, you find them to be invalid. Yet, because it is inconvenient to question and alter long-held beliefs, most people would prefer to enforce collective stupidity and ignorance. This is why you end up with things like deficit spending and bankruptcies, racism, and wars and genocides, as well as climate change that is irreversible and how many seasons now of American Idol?
Why was Socrates so persistent? Was it because he was just an annoying bugbear or something deeper? I think it doesn’t matter why. What matters is, could the result have been anything other than what it was: his execution?
According to his own defense in “The Last Days of Socrates,” written by Plato, Socrates had at some point learned from a friend of his that the Oracle of Delphi considered Socrates to be a man unmatched in intellect. This was quite bewildering to Socrates, who had always thought himself to be just a normal person who had question, but who, unnaturally, persisted in asking questions about the things that troubled him, because there was always more to the exploration that begged those questions.
According to Socrates’ defense to the council, he had a hard time believing this “unmatched” label to be true, but he wanted to see if there was some merit to it. So, he thought of a list of people in different trades who might offer a good test of his understanding of technical skill and wisdom. He then went about questioning those who were popularly considered unmatched in intellect.
And LO! He discovered that maybe the Oracle was right. These guys were pretty stupid. When you actually questioned them about anything deeper than superficial knowledge about things of which they had acquired wisdom, it was clear they had never considered most questions beyond their ken. This made them seem quite ignorant under the microscope of rhetorical questioning. If you have spent any time on Reddit or Twitter, you yourself may have experienced this among many emperors of many subjects. They are quite naked under the full glare of a webcam light.
As a result of this questioning and Socrates’ annoying habit of pointing out this ignorance, Socrates generated resentment, and this resentment led to widespread social grievances. So much so that another man, Meletus, felt it his duty to bring him up on charges of believing in false gods, and corrupting the youth. These charges, should you read any of the actual questions and processes that Socrates used, are patently ridiculous.
Set before him was an impossible task. Socrates found himself having to defend to a group of unquestioning rubes a host of methods that proved quite decisively that most people were unquestioning rubes. Bitter tragic irony. Ironic, because these were the Greeks; they are the people who gave us tragic irony.
Socrates’ death sentence was written before he showed up at court, and it would not be unwritten. It could not be unwritten. Because to acquit Socrates would be the same as persecuting the council, who rightly deserved it. But no jury would dare impugn its false sense of morality or truth.
We can look at this today and see it with fresh eyes. Yet, I think even in trying to see it with a fresh purpose, the result would be to believe that nothing has changed in civilization for these thousands of years.
There is really nothing that can be done with truth. It is perhaps a personal glory to have discovered a truth. It is perhaps a brief and fleeting joy to share it and have it believed. But.
The world is built to experience inertia and waste. We will all die a miserable, lonely, ignorant heat death, and all that will be left is a puddle of mediocrity, making the bland noise of ignorance — silence.