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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

Morality comes from the heart. How much sympathy and compassion we can feel for our fellow creatures and having a real sense of kinship with them determines how moral we shall be. Does ethical philosophy really have anything useful to say beyond this?

Thanks, A.S. from the U.S.A.

Dear A.S.,

Let me at once express my sympathy with your position by relating a personal experience, which, as it happens, took place only recently during my first visit to your country. I was staying at a small hotel and preparing to go to bed when all of a sudden there was a loud buzzing. I didn’t know what to make of it until somebody urgently pounded on my door and shouted, “Get out of the building! Fire alarm!” I went into the hallway where the sirens were blaring and the hallway lights blinking. Meantime the fire engines arrived, clanging and wailing. As I rushed outside, our shiny-suited saviours rushed in. What a commotion!

But it was quickly over. A fireman calmly emerged to report that one of the ladies on the staff had been frying some chicken in her room, which had set off the alarm. There was no fire. From her attire and abashed look, we guests could tell which of the bystanders was the lady in question. There was some grumbling as we all wandered back in and headed for our beds.

If you can believe this, not half an hour later the entire episode was repeated! This time the comments of several guests were hardly muted as they turned their burning gaze toward the woman. The implication was how stupid she must be to have tried to cook her chicken not once but twice under the circumstances.

At first I shared in the general reaction. But as I looked at the woman, a novel thought arose in my mind, or perhaps you would say, from my heart: this woman is hungry. “She doesn’t need a reprimand,” I reflected; “she needs somebody to give her something to eat right now, and to provide her with an alternative means of preparing her food in the future.” I could also see clearly that she felt very bad about being the brunt of everybody’s disapproval; heaping more scorn on this sore simply could not be what the doctor ordered.

The next morning at breakfast I was seated with one of your countrymen, who reviled the chicken-frier while he finished off his steak and eggs. Whereupon he was reminded of another bird, which was as dear to his heart, or perhaps now we should say belly, as that chicken had been to the charwoman’s. Alluding to your upcoming Thanksgiving celebration, this hearty reveller was trying to impress upon me, an obvious foreigner, the special succulence of the great American biped: I refer to the turkey.

“But, you know, that bird is as dumb as that woman!” he humorously intoned. Immediately I felt sympathy for the turkey (the feathered one, not the one who was speaking). I had just the day before looked one of these magnificent creatures in the eye as it stood on holiday display in a shop window, fattened for the feast. Meanwhile, that Yank across the table from me had with him a big white dog, who sat beside him. He lovingly rubbed its withers and fed it scraps while its tail pounded the floor.

All at once a vision overwhelmed me: I saw the unfortunate woman who stood at the hotel entrance, unable to cook her chicken… the chicken, fully conscious, hung by its legs and carried by a conveyer belt to be beheaded by an electric saw … the man’s laughter at the bird’s slaughter, and at the woman’s expense, who was hungry for her chicken – it was a mad melange of images, cyclic, synoptic – insinuated by scenes from a recent British Claymation comedy film about chickens in peril … and one of those selfsame cinematic hens urging us to “Eat more beef!” in an advertising promotion for an American fast food franchiser … the cattle in its turn being led off to its own mechanized butchery … the steak on the man’s plate … his hand on the dog, whose tail was slapping the carpet …

I tell you, Diotima could not have induced a more astonishing revelation in my soul! But this was not a blissful contemplation of Beauty; rather I viewed a crazy mix of appetite and suffering, indifference and cruelty, and felt the strangest range of emotions in my breast – compassion for the woman, the chicken, the turkey, the cow; contempt for the man. Yet the man doted on his dog; the woman fried her non-flier to almost cause a fire; and the animator who had championed the plight of poultry then parlayed his popularity into peddling meat!

Here is where I beg to differ with the implication of your question. For love is not enough! Cultivating our kinship with the whole of creation is indeed the key, but we mortals require the assistance of reason to do it right. Had I the facility in your language, I would be quick to question the man and the woman and the animator about the contradictions in their thinking, which, I now vividly see, divert their universal identity and love into narrower channels. I would also have to apply that reasoning to myself, and treat even my benighted interlocutors with kindheartedness; for – here I agree with you fully – one can philosophize until one is blue in the face but to no good end if there is not the least spark of love motivating that activity. But it is reason that helps me to have even this realisation.

In the end, philosophy is also love – love of wisdom! How could one disdain that kind of love and claim to be a lover?

Yours as ever, Socrates

Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: socrates@philosophynow.demon.co.uk Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.

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