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Socrates, Plato and Modern Life

Socrates & Pre-Truth Politics

Spencer Klavan proclaims Socrates’ revolutionary answer to Nietzsche and Trump.

Recently the Babylon Bee, a satirical newspaper, published the following headline: ‘Culture In Which All Truth Is Relative Suddenly Concerned About Fake News’. Like most good jokes, it’s so accurate it’s almost not funny. Having committed to the claim that reality is what you make of it, many American pundits are now shocked to find themselves confronted with a president who believes exactly the same thing. We may think we’ve entered a radical new ‘post-truth’ era, exemplified by Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway’s offering ‘alternative facts’ about inauguration attendance figures. But actually, the debate about whether facts are flexible is an extremely old one. Thus any defense of truth against Trump depends on a thinker whose ideas are so foundational we’ve forgotten how revolutionary they are. That thinker is Socrates.

In its modern iteration, the attack on the objective validity of facts truly takes off in the late nineteenth century after Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886). Nietzsche’s idea that we never access a reality independent of our beliefs has become a widespread conviction. This idea leaves us powerless against Trump’s administration and its imaginary statistics. If Trump believes his inauguration was mobbed by millions of adoring fans, that’s his truth. Who’s to say he’s wrong?

Nietzsche sounds like a progressive, but he was really a reactionary. The relativism he exemplifies dates back to antiquity, and at times it’s been just as fashionable as it is now. Before Socrates, two of the trendiest intellectuals of Ancient Greece were Protagoras and Heraclitus. Protagoras’ famous slogan was “man is the measure of all things” – which amounts to saying that what every person believes is what’s true for them; an early version of ‘live your truth’. Heraclitus claimed that “everything is in flux” – suggesting that nothing is invariably true. The teaching of these star thinkers was in high demand when Socrates came of age, but he boldly contradicted the chic relativism of his day. Since he never wrote anything down, it’s hard to tell how accurate our records of his theories are. But his successors Plato and Aristotle both report that he formed his own thoughts by contradicting Heraclitus, whose ideas he found compelling but ultimately unsatisfactory. In dialogues such as the Phaedo, the Theaetetus, and the Cratylus, Plato depicts Socrates pushing back against Heraclitus, saving truth and knowledge from the chaos of constant flux.

To begin with, Socrates acknowledged that the things we see and hear are malleable, and that people can perceive them differently. The sky may be blue today and grey tomorrow, for example; and you and I may even see different hues in the same sky at the same time. But if everything is constantly changing, we’re left in an absurd world where, for instance, infanticide is wrong or right depending on whom you ask and when. So Socrates proposed, against Heraclitus, that human beings can come to know certain things, which are “always the same in the same way” (Phaedo), such as beauty, courage, and justice. Such eternal realities don’t change depending on how we see them; moreover, they lend their properties to the things and events in the world around us. That lets us confidently make assertions such as “infanticide is wrong” or “two and two make four.”

The Socratic notion of objectivity gained so much traction that by the time Nietzsche and other philosophers contradicted it, they looked like rebels challenging an outdated orthodoxy. But Socrates’ position on objective truth is not conventional or self-evident. It contravened what seemed obvious to his most cultured predecessors. And after Socrates’ death, the Skeptics denied that facts exist or could be knowable; and the Roman Pontius Pilate mocked Christ by scoffing, “What is truth?” So the twentieth century relativists weren’t breaking with precedent so much as returning to it, reanimating assumptions that first presented themselves when Western philosophy began. They knew this, too. Nietzsche quotes Protagoras at the opening of Beyond Good and Evil; and both he and Heidegger were fascinated by Heraclitus. Their new wave was really an old canard, and a return to the natural mind-state of man. Under Nietzsche’s influence, the academy reverted to that natural state: “Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative,” wrote University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom in 1987, in The Closing of the American Mind. Literary critic Christopher Derrick similarly observed that when a student arrives at college, “the best wisdom that the university can teach him is that there is no wisdom” (Escape from Scepticism, 1977). Over the course of the last century, scholars have accepted and disseminated relativism until it has become a common opinion.

But as Nietzsche himself knew, if nothing is true then the only voice that has a right to be heard is the loudest and most insistent one. The natural outcome of such a set-up is Donald Trump, who won the presidency not in spite of his lies but because of them. Without a belief in knowable truth, we are left at the mercy of any man brazen enough to dictate the facts by brute force. In this relativist dystopia, the president’s voting record, or net worth, or political ideology, is whatever he says it is. If he claims there was massive electoral fraud last November, or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or that up is down, there’s little we can do to say him nay. The lone alternative to this primordial relativism is the innovative oddity of Socratic thought. The tradition that Socrates inspired is anything but traditional. It’s a countercultural revolution against the knee-jerk disavowal of objective reality. We have lost the thread of this Western anomaly, this radical break from our original Heraclitean confusion, and as such our politics are becoming not so much post-truth as pre-truth. If we want to hold Donald Trump to account for his falsehoods, we have to posit that such a thing as falsehood exists. So we have a choice: Do we continue our backslide into relativism? Or do we resume Socrates’ defiant adventure, and believe in absolute truth? Those are our options. Vive la révolution.

© Spencer Klavan 2017

Spencer Klavan is an American lecturer in Ancient Greek at the University of Oxford: he’s either a gentleman or a scholar, depending on whom you ask. To read more, visit www.rejoice-evermore.com.

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