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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,

I hate you. I know why they killed you. You believe you are a gadfly for the good of society, whose sting serves a greater good, but in fact you introduced a way of thinking into the world that has made life unlivable. “What did I do?” you might innocently inquire; “all I do is ask questions.” Oh yes, but those questions are intended to expose the assumptions upon which all human knowledge is built, and you know full well that once that happens, there can be revolutionary consequences. “That too is for the better,” you might reply; “if the foundation is rotted out, replace it with a sounder one to secure the future.” But the problem is that there is no such thing as a sound foundation. According to you there must always be assumptions; hence the questioning never stops. The only thing that has been ‘secured’, therefore, is your profession!

Meanwhile, society is left with perpetual uncertainty. Let me highlight just one example of the vile result. I believe that honesty is the most important thing in the world. A cynic might respond that its value comes from its exceeding scarcity. It is obvious to me why there is so much dishonesty: precisely because an automatic and healthy response has been replaced by a reflective one.

I am a teacher of teenagers, most of whom have been infected by the virus of doubt, just like the young Plato who was so fascinated by your method. When faced with a decision, a few of my students have no qualms: They choose to tell the truth and not deceive in any way. They do this without thinking, because this is what they have been taught from childhood is the right way, the only way, the traditional way, perhaps the religious way.

But for the rest of my students, it is a matter of calculation. They realize that there are many considerations, and the final conclusion is all about assigning them various weights. Thus, there is no predetermined outcome that favors honesty. How did this situation come about? All because these students, who include some of the brightest and most well-intentioned, have become aware of the assumptions that underlie the tendency to honesty. Sometimes, for instance, it is a belief in the word of God; but who is this God? Sometimes it is simply that it’s the right thing to do; but what is that? Different people believe different things are right and wrong, so what authority has anyone’s conviction on the matter? It is merely a feeling, or a habit caused by a particular upbringing. And so on.

While any one question that you may pose could be apt, the general practice undercuts the well-functioning of society. The seed of doubt has been planted, Pandora’s box has been opened, the genie let out of the bottle – we have many metaphors for what happens. No one can ever settle a question once it has been brought before the court of reason; everything becomes a ‘perennial problem.’ I conclude that morality is best left as it was, as something unquestioned.

Your prosecutor

Dear Prosecutor,

You have made a powerful case. I am almost ready to convict myself! But of course in the end I must disagree with you. What is curious is that I too favor the ‘old values’. Perhaps the difference between you and me is that I have more faith in their hardiness. I believe that it is precisely Truth that can withstand questioning. Since we all are brought up in different ways and in different cultures and have individual life histories and natural propensities besides, we cannot rely on accustomed judgments to reach universal agreement and discernment of what is right. There must be vigorous and continual questioning of one another’s (and of course one’s own) assumptions.

Is this not the way science proceeds? Suppose a counterpart of yourself were to argue that questioning in science is inappropriate, damaging? Their argument could be analogous to yours: “Continual questioning disrupts the smooth-functioning of science. We know exactly how to proceed on, say, Newtonian principles to reach the stars. Let us not be endlessly sidetracked from reaching our destination by doubting the truth that has been handed down to us.”

But of course we would never have any hope of reaching the stars in that way. Relativity becomes a factor that cannot be ignored on such long journeys. But if Einstein had not questioned the fundamental assumptions of Newton’s notions of space and time, how many goals that we have since achieved would not have been achieved? Or indeed, in some cases not even conceived of as goals? I think you discount the analogous progress that has been made in morals while you focus on the unsettling questioning that midwifed it.

I would agree, however, that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about questioning and doubting. Sincerity has always been the key for me. If one employs the technique of dialectic purely for reasons of personal gain, or as a form of intellectual adornment, or just to score points in debate, then one has succumbed to sophistry. Philosophy is wholly different from that; its single aim is truth. When one observes excessive ‘calculating,’ as by young people in the sort of situation to which you allude, one suspects its employment is merely serving some short-term self-advantage. That is an unavoidable hazard of any innovation: witness the fire that Prometheus brought to us.

Yours as ever,


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