Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more…]

Socrates as entrepreneur: philosophy as a tool of war

CHAPTER FOUR: PHILOSOPHY AS A TOOL OF WAR

But why are we talking about Socrates? If you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in practical wisdom to help you deal with contemporary crises and challenges. What could possibly be relevant in the story of a philosopher who died 2400 years ago? Isn’t this perpetuating the bad habit of looking to the teachings of long-dead white men for answers in a young, multi-ethnic, post-feminist world? Worse, it seems to be celebrating that hoary old intellectual chestnut, ‘reason’ – and reason has earned itself a bad reputation in recent years, deservedly so. The twentieth century saw reason applied to abominable ends: the rational extermination of millions of people in death camps; the establishment of the technocratic state, which claimed the right to socially engineer its populace in the name of rational gain; the ascendency of neo-liberal economic management, which posits every individual as a rational, value-maximizing agent (and too bad for you if you don’t fit the paradigm); the invention of the atomic bomb, turning war into Mutually Assured Destruction and international relations into game theory.

Why should we think about Socrates in the middle of cleaning up the mess that has been made by his descendants? Sure, Socrates is interesting – as a relic. But here in the second decade of the twenty first century, we have more important things to do than reflect on things that happened in the long-distant past.

I hear these kinds of views from people all the time. I agree with the criticisms to a large extent. Still, I think that, in this particular case, there is good reason for us to delve into the story of a dead white philosopher. The story of Socrates has immense value today, especially for those people concerned to address the challenges of the present and our transition into a sustainable future. [Read more…]

Socrates as social entrepreneur: who is Socrates?

CHAPTER TWO: WHO IS SOCRATES?

He was not pretty and he was not well bred. Socrates was a plebeian, of common stock, which set him at a disadvantage in the aristocratic world of ancient Greece. Socrates was a muscular, thick-set man, with a snub nose and heavy brow. He had served, at some point, in the hoplite infantry, but whatever physical presence he possessed was diminished by his self-depreciating sense of humour and unmanly instinct for philosophical discussion. Socrates would make a practice of wandering barefoot about the marketplace, chatting to the people that he met. When he was alone, he’d stand for hours lost in thought. People thought he was very strange. He was polite, for the most part. But he didn’t seem to fit in.

Socrates did not charge a fee for his services, unlike the Sophists, the professional thinkers of the time. Unlike the philosophers who came after him, he did not establish a school or training institute. Socrates wrote nothing and he claimed that he had nothing to teach. Yet Socrates, more than any other ancient philosopher, is responsible for creating philosophy as we know it today. [Read more…]

Socrates as social entrepreneur: a visit to the oracle

CHAPTER ONE: A VISIT TO THE ORACLE

Chaerephon of Athens trudged up the Sacred Way toward the temple at Delphi. Soiled clouds hung across the face of Mount Parnassus and the limestone facing on the steps was slippery with rain. Chaerephon kept one hand on the balustrade, sounding out each step with the tip of his staff. He paused at the tier of Athena to catch his breath. Ah, Delphi! It was a splendid view from the spur of rock upon which the ancient temple sat across the flank of the mountain and the valley. One could imagine Apollo flying down that flinty slope to choose the location for his sacred temple. In the valley below, Dionysus and his nymphs had cavorted in the days when deities walked the earth, when the myths were as alive as the forests and the corn in the field.

Chaerephon the Elder rapped his staff resolutely on the ancient stone. He had to stop Socrates. Gathering his toga about him, he continued up the stair. The sun was breaking through the clouds and Chaerephon had a date with the oracle. [Read more…]