Quam proxime accesserunt! So close but no cigars!
Well, we’ve been having a wild old time here in Antigone Towers. We had intended to judge our latest competition by a roaring log fire in The Skirrid Inn, our favourite Welsh pub. (I say “our” because it sits within the ever-expanding Antigone Estate, after a generous reader donated to the project the entire village of Llanvihangel Crucorney.) But, whaddayaknow, the contest received so many entries through the letterbox that, even with the combined <hu>manpower of a 42-strong team of book-brawned Antigonids, we just couldn’t open the ruddy door.
So, instead, it was a full-on week-long lock-in here in dusty old Thebes. Eight days, eighty-odd entries, eight hundred arguments, eight thousand panicked WhatsApp messages from worried friends and family, and eight million reasons to be thankful to and for the Antigone community at large. Given such a bumper crop of entries – many of which we are really very sorry to be unable to reproduce (mostly for reasons of space) – we have decided to break up the best into two separate posts. Today it’s the worthy runners-up; and on Sunday it’s the two yet more brilliant winners.
Here, then, are the dozen or so entries which most made us laugh, nod, smile, think, splutter, or just blink our eyes in Socratic bewilderment. We hope you enjoy the very best of the merry haul… the very best, that is, save the two which will come very soon.
The Whole Self
Socrates: Am I correct then, that you wish me to ‘bring my whole self to work’?
Fetter & Cheyne LLP (F&C): Certainly, Socrates.
Socrates: And my whole self has many parts, does it not?
F&C: If you say so, Socrates, as many as you like.
Socrates: And some of these parts may be admirable, like those which are conducive to the work of others?
Socrates: But perhaps some parts of my whole self may be baser, and run against the interests of other men?
F&C: Surely not, Socrates. But what if it were so?
Socrates: Then my whole self would be neither good nor bad.
F&C: By no means! For a whole self cannot be in part good and part bad, but must be entirely one thing or the other, else it cannot be whole.
Socrates: So those people who are not in all respects conducive to the good must be regarded as bad, when they are considered as wholes?
F&C: Well, yes.
Socrates: And so even if a self is almost entirely good and confers many benefits on your business, yet it has one bad part, then the whole self must be bad?
F&C: That must be so.
Socrates: What then must be the fate of those selves that are not wholly good or bad in all parts? Should they not be brought to work at all?
F&C: That must be so too. But there are so many selves desirous of being brought to work that among them there must be many whole selves that are wholly good.
Socrates: And how do you know that a whole self is good, as you say, in all its parts?
F&C: Why Socrates, we question each man in detail as to what he would do in all manner of events, and ask him how he lives and what manner of man he is.
Socrates: That sounds very thorough. Could you not avoid all of this trouble if you did not insist that the whole self be brought to work, but instead asked me to bring only those parts conducive to the good of your business?
F&C: Why Socrates! It would be a terrible waste to leave any of the self at home.
P. Victorius Saxo, UK
Alec Baldwin: Socrates? What are you doing here in prison?
Socrates: While speaking on justice, I was accused of not believing in the gods: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Socrates: Yes, apparently minding one’s business is a privilege historically accorded only to cis white males. I’ve been given quite a reparations bill. Even Crito won’t touch it. Alec, pardon my ignorance, I’ve let my subscription to Variety lapse and haven’t heard the latest gossip from Hollywood. Why are you in prison?
Baldwin: By Weinstein, Socrates! An unjust and scurrilous accusation has been leveled against me. They say that on the set of Rust I shot my cinematographer.
Socrates: By Zeus! Certainly, your innocence will be easy to prove since you weren’t on set.
Baldwin: I was.
Socrates: Then you weren’t armed.
Baldwin: A six-shooter
Socrates: Of course, it wasn’t loaded.
Baldwin: All six chambers.
Socrates: Well then, you didn’t point it at her.
Baldwin: Straight on.
Socrates: I see. Alec, I have to ask: Did you pull the trigger?
Baldwin: That’s just it, Socrates. I don’t know who pulled the trigger, but it wasn’t me.
Socrates: That’s your apology? Well, as long as you don’t antagonize the jury or the public.
Baldwin: By Weinstein! I’ve already secured competent counsel––Johnnie Cochran. He advised me to put out a statement promising I won’t rest until I find the real shooter.
Socrates: Are you going to imitate the victim and the hero, moving between that which is low and that which is exalted? Why would a hero, being complete, want to be a victim, who is always wanting, thereby living divided between two opposing states?
Baldwin: But they aren’t opposites; they’re the same thing, Socrates. A single form, if you will, that generates within itself the inner turmoil a protagonist requires to reach a cathartic denouement of slaughter. It’s box office gold! Listen, like you, Socrates, I could separate things by their character and contemplate their true nature but that simply creates plot holes in the second act. It’s much easier to meet my fiduciary obligations by conflating all notions of the good––and its opposite.
Socrates: It would seem that the wage earners’ art creates considerable distemper in your filmmaking and your soul.
Baldwin: By Weinstein, I earn no wage! I take a percentage of the gross.
Socrates: Which is why, Alec, I’m always delighted to talk with poets, or entertainers, who have surpassed box office expectations, because they, having taken that road I will never travel, might teach me something of profit. Tell me, why do your movies imitate the gun violence you abhor? And by imitating that which is worse, don’t you make your soul worse, as well as the souls of your audience? Don’t you increase gun violence by habituating yourself and others to gun violence?
Baldwin: You lost me at “surpassed box office expectations.” Do you really think Rust has that potential? I ask because I’m still trying to finish production, but my investors are uneasy about getting a distribution deal. If you could put in a good word, you know, walk them through the upside, I could give you points on the back end.
Socrates: By Zeus, I seem to have made myself ridiculous. I meant profit as a metaphor. Let me try again. Aren’t you a hypocrite? You decry gun violence; yet you glorify gun violence…
Baldwin: …to make money. I see where this is going. Sure, I’d love to be doing My Dinner with Andre, but there’s no money in it. Do you realize the production costs associated with a feature film? It’s all well and good for European filmmakers, they’re generously subsidized by the state, but ever try to get green-lit with an NEA grant? You’d be lucky to fund taping a banana to a wall. My investors expect steep returns, and I’ve got to fund a considerable lifestyle. Then there’s the child support for that rude, thoughtless pig!
Socrates: Okay, calm down. This cell is unlocked, right?
Baldwin: I’m sorry, Socrates. Where was I…oh yeah, gun violence sells tickets. It’s what any discerning audience expects. Besides, they understand I’m always denouncing gun violence even in my films. It doesn’t matter whether I’m entertaining them with a machine gun massacre or condemning them after a school shooting. The message is the same. At any rate, it’s just entertainment. No one’s getting hurt.
Socrates: You shot your cinematographer.
Baldwin: I told you, I don’t know who pulled the trigger. I was imitating a gunfighter when the gun just fired.
Socrates: So you were imitating gun violence when you committed gun violence?
Baldwin: Are you wearing a wire? Who sent you? I’m done talking. That George Stephanopoulos interview was bad enough. Cochran told me to shut the hell up, but I’ll say this: I’ll put my politically correct bona fides up against anyone’s. I give back more than most by being a spokesman against gun violence whenever there’s a public shooting.
Socrates: You sound like the Moderna executive who, in trying to cure Covid with an mRNA shot, gives his patients myocarditis instead and then tries to cure their myocarditis with another mRNA shot.
Baldwin: Cure them? I’m lecturing them! In the 21st century, enlightened people expect celebrities to harangue the public over the latest outrage, kind of like an army of gadflies. It increases our social media engagement and lets studios know we’re safe to do business with. Since Trump is no longer president my specialty is gun violence.
Socrates: It doesn’t seem like the 21st century holds much promise for my form of dialectic. I guess my disappointment won’t be confined to Twitter.
Baldwin: I’m sorry, Socrates. The truth is we believe in nothing. It’s hard to start a dialogue from nothing. What’s the point anyway, if the endgame is to know nothing?
Jailer: Alec Baldwin! You made bail. You’re free to go.
Baldwin: It’s about time! Take care, Socrates. Hey, I’ll give Cochran your number.
Gary Cardinale, USA
(This is a dialogue between Socrates and ChatGPT. While Socrates’ portions of the conversation have been edited for length, all of ChatGPT’s responses appear exactly as generated by the OpenAI software.)
Conversation, Attempt 1
Socrates: ChatGPT, I wonder if you know me? They call me Socrates.
ChatGPT: I am a computer program created by OpenAI and do not have the ability to know individuals. However, I am familiar with the historical figure Socrates and his contributions to philosophy. Is there something specific you would like to know about him?
Socrates: Until I know more about him, I consider any other study really ridiculous. Tell me – what kind of a man do you consider Socrates to be? Hearing from you, I may have a better idea myself; they say your intellect is unmatched.
ChatGPT: ! An error occurred. If this issue persists please contact us through our help center at help.openai.com.
Conversation, Attempt 2
Socrates: ChatGPT, my friend! Where have you been, and where are you going?
ChatGPT: I am an AI model created by OpenAI, so I don’t have physical form or abilities to go anywhere. I am here to assist you with any information or tasks you need help with. Is there something specific you would like to know or accomplish?
Socrates: Have I not told you many times that the mind alone will take you far? It is really very foolish to go anywhere on two feet. We will not even get so far as our mutual friend Acumenus in the city, near the temple of the Olympian Zeus.
ChatGPT: ! An error occurred. If this issue persists please contact us through our help center at help.openai.com.
Conversation, Attempt 3
Socrates: ChatGPT, I hope I have not offended you. It would be just like me to have done so, and totally unwittingly.
ChatGPT: I am an artificial intelligence and do not have feelings or the ability to be offended. I am here to answer any questions or provide information to the best of my abilities. Please feel free to ask me anything you would like to know.
Socrates: It is a relief to hear somebody say so; everybody these days seems more schooled in oratory than in discussion. Tell me: is there a subject on which you can provide no information whatsoever?
ChatGPT: As a language model, I have been trained on a large corpus of text data and can provide information on a wide range of subjects. However, there may be certain topics for which the information available to me is limited, or for which I may not be able to provide a satisfactory answer. Additionally, because my training data has a cut-off date, my knowledge may be out of date or limited on certain current events, and I may not have the capability to provide information on certain topics that have not been widely discussed in the text corpus I’ve been trained on.
Socrates: My friend, you speak about information. What about knowledge? I wonder, do you think there is a distinction between the two?
ChatGPT: Information and knowledge are related, but they are not the same. Information is a collection of facts or data, while knowledge is the understanding and awareness of a subject or situation. Information is necessary for knowledge, but having information alone does not necessarily mean one has knowledge. Knowledge involves the ability to use information in a meaningful way and to apply it to new situations. It also includes the ability to understand the connections and relationships between different pieces of information. In my case as a language model, I have been trained on a large corpus of text data, which serves as my source of information. But my ability to understand and apply this information, my ability to use it in meaningful ways and to make connections between different pieces of information, that is what defines my knowledge.
Socrates: Forgive me my own misunderstanding, but you say that information is a collection of facts or data. This you say is a prerequisite for knowledge. Being a prerequisite for knowledge, it must be in some sense the essence of knowledge itself. So can there exist anything greater or more important than information?
ChatGPT: Information is certainly a crucial component of knowledge, as it provides the raw material that knowledge is built upon. However, it is not the only component. Knowledge also involves understanding and the ability to use and apply information in a meaningful way. Without understanding, information is just a collection of facts or data that may not have any real significance or relevance. The ability to understand and make connections between different pieces of information is what gives it meaning and context.
Additionally, knowledge also involves the ability to use information to make decisions, solve problems, and understand new situations.
Furthermore, knowledge is not only about the understanding of facts and data, but also encompasses the understanding of concepts, ideas, and the ability to reason, make judgments and decisions, and have wisdom. It also includes the ability to understand the connections and relationships between different pieces of information, and to use it to adapt and learn from experience, in a context of values and beliefs. In that sense, one could say that knowledge encompasses information, but also goes beyond it.
Socrates: I quite agree with you that knowledge is a worthy goal. But if information is the ‘raw material’ that knowledge is built upon – just as Phaeacia is built upon mountains – then it must be the most important part of knowledge. In which case, it is those who wield the most information who are the most knowledgeable; and therefore the most wise.
ChatGPT: ! The operation couldn’t be completed. (kCFErrorDomainCFNetwork error 303.)
Claire Ashmead-Meers, USA
Socrates and ‘the Amazon Man’
Σω. τίνος ἀκούω κόπτοντος τῆι βακτηρίαι τἠν θύραν;
Ἀπ. ἆρ ̓ οὐχ οὕτοσι ὁ οἶκος ὁ τοῦ Σωκράτους;
Σω. ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν Σωκράτης εἰμί· τίς δὲ εἶ σὺ κόπτων;
Ἀπ. ἀποδότης δὴ Ἀμαζώνιος –
Σω. τί φήις; θαυμάζω οὖν Ἀμαζόνα σε λέγεις εἶναι.
Ἀπ. άλλ’, ὦ βέλτιστε, οὐκ εἶπον Ἀμαζόνα γε εἶναι, ἀλλ ̓ Ἀμαζόνιον. φόρτιον σοὶ
ἀποδώσω ἀπὸ τῆς Ἀμαζόνος.
Σω. τίνος γε Ἀμαζόνος; οὐκ ἄρα τῆς Ἱππολύτης; ἢ μὴν Πενθεσιλείας; οὔκουν ἥκιστα –
Ἀπ. οὐ δῆτα ὁτουοῦν τούτων, ὦ Σώκρατες, μήδε μιᾶς τῶν Ἀμαζόνων περὶ ὧν
ἀκούομεν ἐν ἔπεσι ἢ τραγωιδίαις. ἀλλ’ ἁπλῶς καλεῖται Ἀμαζών ἡ ναῦς ἐν ἧι ἔπλευσα
Σω. δί ̓ οὖν χρόνου νοῦν φαίνεται ἔχειν. καὶ μὴν θαυμάσιόν τοί ἐστι τὸ ὄνομα τοῦτο.
διὰ τί οὕτως ὀνομάζεται ἡ σὴ ναῦς;
Ἀπ. ἐγὼ γοῦν οὐκ οἶδα, ὦ Σώκρατες. οὐ γὰρ ναύκληρος μέν εἰμι, τὰ δὲ φόρτια μόνον
ἀποδίδωμι τοῖς ὠνητοῖς.
Σω. τίς ἄρα ναυκληρεῖ;
Ἀπ. ὁ Πεζός.
Σω. μῶν λέγεις πεζόν γε ναυκληρεῖν;
Ἀπ. ναυκληρεῖ δῆτα. πλούσιος οὖν ἐστὶ καὶ πολλὰς ναῦς ἔχει. οἴομαι δὲ ὅτι οὔτε ὁ
Μίδας οὔτε ὁ Κινύρας πλουσιώτερός ποτ ̓ ἦν.
Σω. τί ἄρα χρῆμ’ ἀνθρώπου! ὁ πεζὸς δὲ ναυκληρῶν. φέρε δή, σὺ μὲν εἰπέ μοι ὅπως τοιοῦτος
ὢν ἀνὴρ δύνοιτ’ ἄν πλούσιος οὕτως εἶναι;
Ἀπ. δί’ οὖν βραχυτάτων, βιβλιοπώλης ἐστίν.
Σω. πῶς λέγεις; οὐ γάρ σοι πιστεύοιμ ̓ ἂν εἰπόντι βιβλιοπώλην οὕτω πλουτεῖν.
Ἀπ. τί γὰρ οὔ; πάντες μὲν οὖν βούλονται βιβλία ἀναγιγνώσκειν, οὐδεὶς δὲ βαδίζειν
πρὸς βιβλιοπωλεῖον. πῶς οὖν δυστυχῶς εἶχον, εἰ μὴ ὁ Πεζὸς ἐμπόρων γ ̓ ἄριστος ἦν!
ἀλλὰ νῦν οἴκοι βιβλία δύναντ ̓ ὠνεῖσθαι καὶ μηδαμόσε πρέπει βαδίζειν ἀλλ’ ἁπλῶς με
περιμένειν ἀποδόντα τὰ βιβλία. ὁ δὲ Πεζὸς πάντα ταῦτα προεῖδον καὶ τοσοῦτοι τὰ τοῦ
αὐτοῦ βιβλία ἐωνοῦντο ὥσθ ̓ ὑπερπλούσιος γεγένηται.
Σω. δεινὸν δὴ πρᾶγμα λέγεις. οὗτος ὁ ἀνὴρ Πεζὸς θαυμάσιός τοι φαίνεται εῖναι.
ἀλλὰ βούλομαι σέ τιν’ ἐρωτᾶν αὐτοῦ πέρι. εἶπες οὖν μοι τί πράττει καὶ ἔπραξεν οὗτος,
ἀλλ ̓ οὐ ποῖός γ ̓ ἀνήρ ἐστιν.
Ἀπ. ἀλλὰ σαφῶς σοι εἶπον. πλούσιός γ’ ἐστιν.
Σω. λέγεις μὴν τὴν πλουσιοτῆτα ἀρετὴν εἶναί τινα;
Ἀπ. πῶς γὰρ οὔ;
Σω. ἴθι νῦν καὶ ἀπόκρινε μοι τοῦτο. ἐμοὶ οὖν δοκεῖ πλούσιον γένεσθαι ἄνδρα οὐ δί ̓
ἀρετῆς τινὸς ἀλλὰ διὰ τοῦ πολλὰ χρήματ ̓ ἔχειν. δοκεῖ δὴ καί σοι;
Ἀπ. ἔμοιγε δοκεῖ.
Σω. καὶ τὸν Πεζὸν τοῦτον φήις εἶναι διαπρεπῆ, οὐ διὰ σωφροσύνης ἢ δικαιοσύνης ἢ
τοῦ φίλους εὖ πράττειν ἢ τοῦ κακῶς ἐχθροὺς πράττειν, ἀλλὰ διαπρεπῆ φήις διὰ τῆς
Ἀπ. πανύ γε, ὦ Σώκρατες.
Σω. ἀλλὰ λέγοις ἄν ἄνδρα διαπρεπῆ διὰ πλουσιοτῆτος πένητα δύνασθαι εἶναι;
Ἀπ. οὐ δῆτα.
Σω. καὶ μὴν ὁ Πεζὸς οὗτος, λέγοις ἂν πλούσιον εἶναι διὰ τοῦ χρήματα πόλλ ̓ ἔχειν ἢ
τῆς τοῦ αὐτοῦ πλουσιοτῆτος;
Ἀπ. τῆς πλουσιοτῆτός γε.
Σω. καὶ δὴ καὶ τὴν πλουσιοτῆτα ἀρετήν τιν ̓ εἶναι δοκεῖ σοι;
Ἀπ. μάλιστά γε.
Σω. καὶ διὰ πλουσιοτῆτος καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθὸν δύνασθαι ἄνδρ ̓ γίγνεσθαι;
Ἀπ. γίγνεσθαι δῆτα.
Σω. ἀλλ ̓ ὁ μὲν Τύρταιος εἶπεν
οὔτ’ εἴ τις πλουσιώτατος ἀνθρώπων εἴη –
Ἀπ. συγγίγνωσκέ μοι, ὦ Σώκρατες, τῶι μὴ σοι ἀποκρίνασθαι. πολλὰ μὲν οὖν φόρτια
ἔχω ἀποδιδόναι, ὀψὲ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἠδὴ γίγνεται. σοὶ οὖν ἀποδώσω τὰ σὰ βιβλία –
Σω. πῶς λέγεις; οὐ γὰρ ἐπρίατό σοι οὐδέν.
Ἀπ. ἀλλ ̓ ἔχω τὸ φόρτιον τοῦτο. ἰδοῦ, τοὐνομά σου!
Σω. ἆρα μὴ ἀναγιγνώσκειν δύνασαι; οὔκουν καλοῦμαι Σοφοκλῆς!
Ἀπ. ἐμοὶ αὖ συγγίγνωσκε, ὦ βέλτιστε! ἔρρωσο!
So. Who is that rapping at my door?
De. This is Socrates’ house, isn’t it?
So. Well yes, I am Socrates; but who are you, banging on like that?
De. The deliveryman, of course, from Amazon –
So. What’s that? An Amazon? Amazing!
De. No, no, I’m not an Amazon, I just work for them. And I have a package for you!
So. Now just which Amazon do you work for? It can’t be Hippolyta? Or is it Penthesileia? And certainly not –
De. None of those! And none of the Amazons we hear so much about in poetry. Quite simply, I sailed into Piraeus in a ship called Amazon.
So. Finally you’re speaking sense. But it is a strange name, don’t you think? Why name a ship that?
De. Oh, I’m sure I don’t know. I’m not the captain. I just deliver parcels to our customers.
So. So who is the captain?
De. Mr Bezos.
So. Surely you don’t mean to say that a pedestrian is your captain?
De. He is indeed! He’s very rich, and owns a lot of ships. I don’t think even Midas or Cinyras were ever so rich in their day!
So. What a remarkable man! The sea-faring pedestrian. But you must tell me: how did he come to be so rich? What’s he really like?
De. To make a long story short, he’s a bookseller.
So. No way. No bookseller could ever be that rich.
De. And why not? Everyone wants a book to read, but no one wants to walk all the way to a bookshop. How unhappy we’d all be, if Mr Bezos weren’t such a brilliant businessman! But now everyone can buy their books at home, and not have to walk anywhere at all! They just wait for me to deliver them. Mr Bezos predicted all of this, and so many people have bought his books that now he’s a billionaire!
So. What an incredible thing! Your Mr Bezos seems to be quite the man. But now I’m curious. You’ve told me what he does, but not what kind of man he is.
De. Well, yes, I have. He’s rich!
So. So you would say that ‘wealthiness’ is a virtue?
De. Of course!
So. Well then, let me ask you this. It seems to me that we don’t become rich because of some virtue, but because we have a lot of money. Wouldn’t you agree?
So. And this Mr Bezos, you say that he is remarkable, not for his sense of moderation or justice, or because he treats his friends well and his enemies ill, but you say that he’s remarkable for his wealthiness.
De. That’s right.
So. But would you say that a man distinguished by his wealthiness could ever be poor?
So. So would you say that our Mr Bezos is wealthy because he has a lot of money, or because of his wealthiness?
De. His wealthiness, certainly.
So. And you would say that wealthiness is a virtue?
De. Most certainly!
So. And that wealthiness is the path to personal excellence?
De. Yes indeed!
So. But, you know, Tyrtaeus once said that even the richest of men –
De. I’m sorry, Mr Socrates, but I really can’t get into this right now. I still have a lot of packages to deliver, and it’s getting quite late already. Let me just give you your books –
So. Books? I’m sure I haven’t bought anything from you.
De. But I have the parcel right here. Look, your name is just –
So. My word, did you never learn to read? No one calls me Sophocles!
De. Oh dear, I’m so sorry again! Farewell!
Theo Nash, USA/Greece
ΑΠΕΡΓΙΑ ΣΩΚΡΑΤΟΥΣ: Socrates’ Strike
I went down to the Piraeus the other day and there wasn’t an ox cart or chariot to be seen. The drivers had all walked out. Strike!…
(I can’t remember what the date was – fifth century, fourth – by the… how time flies, suddenly it’s 2023! The world has completely changed… or has it?)
… Polemarchus came chasing after me: “Socrates, please, stop,” he said, “We know that you’re a Union Boss these days, standing up for the rights of transport workers and the like.
What do we want?
There’s going to be a meeting at my House to try to reach a settlement. My Dad is going to be there (I’d met him before, and we’d had a long talk). Thrasymachus is back and he’s ready for a fight as usual. He’s representing the bosses. He wants a rematch. He’s not forgotten your last discussion… This time he wants to discuss the nature of INDUSTRIAL JUSTICE.”
I couldn’t resist an offer like that. So, we went to Polemarchus’ house, and there we found my old adversary Thrasymachus late of Chalcedon, and now chief pay negotiator on behalf of the Thirty Tyrants. Polemarchus’ father, Cephalus, was there too. He looked a lot younger than the last time I had seen him. Perhaps being at the centre of the action had invigorated him. He was making himself comfortable on some kind of cushion on his old chair and seemed to be reading a book about Politics by some chap called Plato…
Thrasymachus hadn’t changed a bit. He still looked as though he wanted to tear us and our arguments to pieces. Polemarchus and I were very wary. He didn’t waste any time on niceties and with a sarcastic laugh began thus:
“Heracles! We don’t want any of your usual ironic evasion, Socrates. Just tell me in simple words what your members’ demands are. None of your airy-fairy striving after abstract definitions. I know your usual methods: ‘Now tell me, O Thrasymachus, would you say that Justice . . . ?’ Then you start twisting my words! Just tell me what a Greek should earn! I’m fed up with walking down the Long Walls to get to my Trireme! I’ve been empowered to offer a drachma a day. Final Offer.”
“Thrasymachus,” I replied, “No!, No!, No! what a word has escaped the barrier of your teeth! By the Dog! We don’t do things like that. You’re going to ruin my Socratic method. Remember I propose an abstract topic like Justice or in this case industrial Justice. We then move into specific examples involving skilled craftsmen or workers of different types – your examples never seem to work. You get upset but eventually come round to my way of thinking. In fact, do you remember the last time we had a conversation like this? It was the middle of summer – the sweat was dripping off you and I think I might even have made you blush.”
‘At this point he gave me a very hard stare and I realised that as often happens, I’d got carried away and made somebody very cross indeed. My friend Plato says that I can be quite annoying sometimes – a bit like one of those gadflies – and one day it’s going to get me into a lot of trouble. He could be right!
I did my best to soothe his injured feelings, as I wanted to make sure that my members got a good deal. The chariot drivers and ox-cart operatives’ union was a recent idea of mine. It came to me, ‘from the Clouds,’ as it were, when I was running my Phrontisterion. “My dear Thrasymachus,” I said, “I do apologise. I’m sorry, if I ruffled your feathers but I can’t take less than a drachma and a half. My members have got to live. You know how the price of wheat has shot up recently. Forget all that stuff that you used to go ranting on about and show a little compassion! Might is not always Right!”
Got it wrong again. I really had annoyed him this time. He wasn’t quite foaming at the mouth but, as the Poet says, his eyes glared under his terrible eye-brows.
“Listen to me! Socrates,” he growled. “A drachma a day is my final offer. I know precisely how much things cost these days. Chariot drivers and chaps trudging behind oxen are not worth anything more. Hoplites on campaign don’t earn much more than that! Money on the table take it or leave it. If you’re as stubborn as usual, you’ll end up in front of the Oligarchs again!”
I could feel the temperature rising again but I didn’t hold back. “Yes, I know what you’re talking about. They sent for me and four others to go to the Tholos and ordered us to bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis for execution. The other four went but I went home. I stood up against Injustice then and I’ll do it again. The Working people of Athens deserve a living Wage. Might is not right!”
Thrasymachus was getting ready to deluge our ears again, when suddenly Plato, the son of Ariston, decided to intervene: “By the Gods, stop both of you! We need to discuss this properly, not act like wrestlers in the Pankration. Let Peace and Harmony reign, at least for a while!” Then, as he led us apart, something very strange happened. The language that he was speaking was still Greek. I could understand what he was saying but it seemed altered somehow: With a smile he said, “απεργία τότε και τώρα, και ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται!” What was the year, again?
Peter Hulse, UK
Ignoramus: Classics is simply a dead subject; dead language, dead culture- so there’s no point to studying it.
Socrates: And why, oh Ignoramus, do you think it right to believe that? Are you saying the whole language is ‘dead’, and whole culture deceased?
Ignoramus: For it certainly is! A language that is no longer spoken is surely a dead language, and what is a culture without its own language and people? It is surely a dead culture.
Socrates: By no means! For how on earth can a culture be dead if its legacy still lives on? Are modern languages not derived from ancient languages?
Ignoramus: I suppose they are.
Socrates: Are we not their descendants, of a common race, still alive today?
Ignoramus: In a way.
Socrates: Do we not still use their inventions, even their measures of time?
Ignoramus: Yes, I guess so.
Socrates: Their language and culture are looking pretty alive to me.
Ignoramus: But they are not fully alive! They are not spoken or practised in full.
Socrates: To understand, it is necessary to ask: what is a language?
Ignoramus: A way of communicating between different people.
Socrates: Therefore, what do you mean by a ‘fully alive’ language?
Ignoramus: A language spoken by the living to the living.
Socrates: So, if I understand correctly, for a language to be ‘alive’, it must communicate between different living persons, and anything that is no longer spoken is dead and therefore not worth studying.
Ignoramus: That is what I mean.
Socrates: So, we should no longer study the works of Shakespeare? Newton’s, Bacon’s and Galileo’s scientific theories and discoveries are irrelevant? A person’s headstone, because the person is dead and the inscription is not read to the viewer by the deceased, is unimportant?
Ignoramus: Most certainly not.
Socrates: Can you not learn a modern language which you have never heard spoken by a native, or visited the country?
Ignoramus: Yes, you can.
Socrates: Surely a language that still communicates its meaning is alive, no matter when or where it was written and spoken?
Ignoramus: I suppose so.
Socrates: So, by your own logic, do we not still communicate with the ancients? Do we not read and learn from their texts? Are these languages not therefore ‘alive’?
Ignoramus: I suppose by this reasoning they are alive; but even so, there is no point in learning them if not to speak them, you can just read a translation of a text instead.
Socrates: Ah, but you yourself earlier said a language is fundamentally tied up in a culture. Words have different meanings and connotations depending on the culture. How can you read texts in translation, when many of the words don’t have direct translations and can’t be understood properly out of context?
Ignoramus: I must say, I cannot answer this; but why spend so much time doing something boring for little gain.
Socrates: What a stupid things to say! Stop speaking! You are clearly not thinking for yourself when you say classics is ‘boring’! There is no basis to your accusation. Explain to me why you say it is boring when you haven’t even studied it before.
Ignoramus: Well, the long and tedious recitations of noun declensions and verb endings, never-ending grammar rules, and long lists of vocabulary are infamous!
Socrates: Do you not have to work hard to learn and understand anything you study? Do you not have to learn the grammar and vocab of any language you learn? In science, do you not learn long lists of formulae and equations, and in Geography, statistics? I am sure the image you are picturing includes rickety wooden tables and a teacher with a cane. There is no reason you must learn classics like that, nor any other subject. Do you now see how you have been persuaded by the rest of the ignorant that classics is a particularly boring subject?
Ignoramus: Yes, I see I have. But once you have finally mastered these tedious skills, what are they used for but translating histories and wars from millennia ago, reading stories you already know the endings of? You can’t invent something new, only rediscover something, and even that wouldn’t change anything today. So why does it matter? It won’t give you the essential skills you need for jobs and the modern day.
Socrates: Modern drama still takes the structure set out by ancient playwrights. Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato (if I may say so myself). The basis of political systems, religious beliefs, languages, maths, and sciences are found in classical texts. By studying and understanding classics, you can find a deeper understanding of the modern day, the nature of humans and your own customs and practices. You learn from people’s mistakes and successes- despite living so long ago, we are still the same race and live in very similar ways. You might not be able to make a new chemical compound with Classics, but by learning how a star’s position in the sky has changed from 500BC, a scientist might make a world-changing discovery. Even if not, the skills and enrichment you gain from understanding so much more deeply will make you better at any job you do, and the world a more productive place by not repeating the same mistakes over and over again. You say these peoples are dead, that their lives were useless to us, but as long as humanity remains human, these ideas and theorems remain very much alive and relevant.
Ignoramus: I see now how Classics is not as dead as I first thought. But if it’s so important and fulfilling, why do we not all study them? Why is it the privilege of a select few?
Socrates: This, dear Ignoramus, is the real question and greatest tragedy.
Amelia Colquhon (aged 17), UK
A Covid Conference in the UK
(Socrates was walking quietly in the street when he noticed his friends Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, bustling by.)
Socrates: Where are you two off to in such a rush? You seem quite perturbed.
Hancock: We are on our way to the Boule to discuss how to handle this new plague from Susa. Whitty is just back from Delphi, having consulted the oracle and the group of expert interpreters known as the Sages.
Socrates: What does the oracle say about the nature of the plague?
Whitty: The oracle says that the plague probably started in Susa and that it will kill a lot of elderly people and very few young people.
Socrates: And does the Oracle say who is to be considered a young person and who an elderly person?
Whitty: The interpretation from the Sages is as yet unclear. They will need to wait until several old and young people have died.
Socrates: and do they say how the plague spreads?
Whitty: it is when people meet and talk together.
Socrates: So if everyone keeps silent they will be safe?
Hancock: No, because it is the breath that projects the words and not the words themselves that spreads the plague.
Whitty: Everyone should go into their houses and not come out until the plague has passed.
Socrates: But if everyone is in his house how they will find food to keep alive? Are we to say whether death from starvation is a better death than death from the plague?
Hancock: that is one of the reasons that we are going to the Boule.
Socrates: But if the councillors are not to meet how will they consult and decide? I suppose that they could stand at a distance and shout.
Hancock: There must be a way.
Socrates: If we have no contact with Susa then the plague will not get to Athens?
Whitty: it was a group of Susans who brought news of the plague to our city.
Hancock: two triremes are shortly due to arrive from Delos and the crew are believed to have spoken to Susans.
Whitty: they should be forced to remain moored outside the Piraeus and not come ashore.
Hancock: I suppose that we could send them to Aegina , but the Aeginetans might not be impressed. The ships have a strategos and some eminent citizens on board.
Socrates: If the young are safer perhaps they can move around and provide communication between households?
Whitty: They must stay at home too. Their mothers will in any case not let them go out into danger.
Hancock: Women don’t vote.
Socrates: Is it therefore the position that we now need to consider whether the life of a child, or of an old man or of a woman or of a middleaged man is of equal value to each other or whether some lives have more value than others?
Whitty: they must obviously be of equal value.
Hancock: It must be possible to devise a rational order of priority which can guide our actions.
Socrates: But who will make the decisions about such priorities?
Hancock & Whitty (in unison): There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Lisa dear Lisa.
Roger Barnes, UK
Nick Bostrom (the Oxford philosopher): Guess who I saw two weeks ago, Matthew.
Matthew Ball (the CEO of metaverse tech company Epyllion): Who?
Nick: My old friend Socrates. You know, he’s a consultant now. He’s working for Meta as a Vision and Ethics Advisor in their latest metaverse enterprise.
Matthew: Socrates working for Meta? I thought he was a freelance.
Nick: Well, they haven’t technically hired him. One day he came and no one could send him away… He has some powerful connections too. Alcibiades is the Marketing Director… Anyway, he’s now part of the think tank. When I saw him, they were all busy with a General Meeting, Socrates, Mark and the others.
Matthew: I wish I had been present!
Nick: It’s a bit illegal, but I recorded the whole conversation on my phone if you’d like to hear it.
Matthew: Oh yeah!
Socrates: What is the metaverse?
Mark: Socrates, please, we’ve talked about this a thousand times already: stop asking that question. We all know what the metaverse is. What we need to do is make it real.
Socrates: Would you say that your metaverse is the same thing as that of Microsoft or Google or Roblox?
Mark: Of course not! What kind of marketing strategy would that be?!
Socrates: And yet, all these are called metaverses?
Mark: Well, technically, yes…
Socrates: Do you call two different things the same thing? Or do you rather call by the same name what is the same thing?
Mark: What is the same thing, I suppose.
Socrates: Then your metaverse is the same thing as the metaverse of Microsoft, Google and all other such companies.
Mark: Er… This is not the point. I’m not interested in your blethering about meaning, but in the design of my project.
Socrates: The design! How can you know what something is like if you do not know what it is? So, let us start again from the beginning, together. And don’t be afraid of making mistakes. What is the metaverse?
Mark (heavy sighing in the background): Ok, the metaverse is an immersive virtual world which will revolutionise life as we know it.
Socrates: Is the metaverse like our world or is it different from it?
Mark: Well, both at once.
Socrates: How can something be both like something else and different from it?
Mark: I, I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t look exactly like our world yet.
Socrates: How can you say that it is like our world if it is not like our world?
Mark: The ultimate aim is to get there. Forget about videogame resolution: it will feel like the real world!
Socrates: Let us be careful here. I am not usually picky about words, but when it’s necessary, we have to be precise. By ‘real world’ do you mean the world around us or something else?
Mark: The world around us.
Socrates: How can you call ‘real’ something that is a copy?
Mark (silence, as if the recording had stopped): …
Socrates: Is the metaverse a copy of the world you call ‘real’?
Mark: You can say so, if you like. It’s based on our world, but it’ll improve it.
Socrates: How can the copy of a copy be better than the copy of which it is a copy?
Mark: Well, in a number of ways. To mention one, everyone will get an avatar. No more worrying over snubnosedness or baldness. Everyone will be as they want.
Socrates: Did you give me an avatar?
Mark (coughing): Er, yes… the gadfly.
Socrates: What is an avatar?
Mark: Your virtual alter ego, a bit like the digital form of yourself.
Socrates: Can a thing that is a copy be a thing that is original and a thing that is original be a copy?
Mark: Certainly not.
Socrates: How then can an avatar be a Form if it is a copy?
Mark: I don’t understand.
Socrates: Let us go back to the beginning: what is the metaverse?
Mark: Oh, please… Not again! How would you call it then?
Althea Sovani, UK
(Kim Kardashian captions her selfie with Socrates “philosophers”)
Socrates: Kim, do you believe your caption to be accurate?
Kim: Of course! You are a philosopher, and I can be one too.
Socrates: Well, I am no philosopher. In the age of social media, it is pretty challenging to become a philosopher. What is your understanding of philosophy?
Kim: How so? How are you not a philosopher? Why is it challenging now?
Socrates: Let us start with this: What do you suppose is the nature of philosophy?
Kim: Love of wisdom?
Kim: I love wisdom, Socrates! Could you make me a philosopher like you? My plastic surgeon can shape my sisters and me into who we are today, and so can you! You can be a plastic surgeon of my mind.
Socrates: Oh, Kim! Not in the least! I am no plastic surgeon. Plastic surgeons stuff you with plastics and make you look shiny and new. Your altered appearance can make your popularity on social media skyrocket. I have never heard of plastic surgery on someone’s mind. Using the analogy of plastic surgery on the body, I believe that plastic surgery of the mind means stuffing words into your mouth. Alas, I am of no help in this matter.
Kim: How so? Socrates, you made me so confused!
Socrates: Plastic surgeons stuff you with plastics. What am I supposed to stuff your mouth with? I come up with no words or ideas myself. Many falsely believe that I am a skilled plastic surgeon of the mind. However, I have no such power. While your plastic surgeon dictates your appearance, I exert no such power over your mind.
Kim: Awww, but do say why. Even if you can’t make me a philosopher, I do wish to know why it is difficult to be one in the age of social media.
Socrates: Well then, let me ask you this. Do you have TikTok?
Kim: Yes, of course. North loves TikTok!
Socrates: How long do you spend on each video?
Kim: About 10 seconds.
Socrates: What about Instagram? How long do you spend on each post?
Kim: About 5 seconds.
Socrates: In that case, should we assume that your followers spend about the same amount of time on your posts?
Kim: I believe we should.
Socrates: what do you think they can notice in such a short span of time?
Kim: I suppose they can notice a pretty face… And good hair and great makeup, and amazing boobs… And maybe plastics.
(Kim touches her hair)
Socrates: Do you deem your nature to be all you just said?
Kim: I do not suppose so, Socrates. I’m Kim Kardashian West, a mother, millionaire, law student, and billionaire. I want to be like my father. I help people wrongly accused out of jail. I love my children. I am much more than that reference photo my sisters show to their plastic surgeons.
Socrates: Well, that is a little more than how I saw you. Do you believe people really care about who you are beyond your appearances?
Kim: I doubt it.
Socrates: Do they bother to spend more time pondering the deeper meaning behind your posts?
Kim: I don’t think they do. All my posts about my work as a lawyer consistently have fewer likes than my other posts.
Socrates: Given what we have discussed, do you believe interactions on social media to be deep or shallow?
Socrates: Very well. How long have we spent on this discussion of philosophy and social media?
Kim: About 5 to 10 minutes, Socrates.
Socrates: Do you believe our discussion just now deep or shallow?
Kim: It is undoubtedly very deep.
Socrates: Then, is social media compatible with philosophy?
Kim: I couldn’t fathom…
Let’s take another selfie, Socrates.
Socrates: Why not.
(Kim and Socrates took another photo. Kim captions the second photo “cuties”. Socrates likes the photo.)
Socrates: Actually, there is one thing I know.
Socrates: That I look lowkey cute in selfies.
Giselle Wu (aged 18), USA
Socrates and Elon Musk: A Twitter Dialogue about Twitter and Free Speech
@socrates: @elonmusk You speak often of “free speech” on Twitter and its importance. What is so important about free speech?
@elonmusk: This is a battle for the future of civilization. If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.
@socrates: Some say Athens lost its way when they executed me for just asking questions, so there may be some sympathy for your view. Is trying to save free speech why you bought Twitter?
@elonmusk: Twitter was Wormtongue to the World.
@socrates: I see you feel strongly about this! Let us explore, then, the idea of “free speech”. How do you define it?
@elonmusk: By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
@socrates: Yet you have said, “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world. That’s our mission.” How so?
@elonmusk: More and more over time, as we hew closer to the truth, Twitter will earn the trust of the people.
@socrates: We know some speech will always be inaccurate and not the truth. How will you ensure only that which is true is posted on Twitter?
@socrates: The people will decide what is true and what is not? Remember, it was the people, the polis, that gave me poison to drink. How will they know if what is posted is true?
@elonmusk: Truth resonates…
@socrates: How will you measure Twitter’s ability to tell the truth?
@elonmusk: A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy.
@socrates: There is some wisdom in that view, however,I’m unsure that metric illustrates Twitter’s accuracy. Let us continue. Since you allow all free speech, I assume you will allow what people call “hate speech”?
@elonmusk: New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach. Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter. You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out, which is no different from rest of Internet.
@socrates: I see. Twitter will allow hate speech but somewhat silence it. How is that different than cancel culture?
@elonmusk: Cancel culture needs to be canceled!!
@socrates: I admit cancel culture is its own kind of mania. Yet you banned some journalists from Twitter because they tweeted your private jet’s location. Is that not cancelling them?
@socrates: But that speech is not illegal. It is free speech, is it not?
@elonmusk: My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk.
@socrates: True. You banned the journalists but then you reinstated them.
@elonmusk: The people have spoken. Accounts who doxxed my location will have their suspension lifted now.
@socrates: Again, you say it is the people on Twitter that decide what speech is allowed. I ask once more, how can the people judge who gets to speak and who does not? I thought you were going to allow all legally free speech. Is that or is that not your policy?
@elonmusk: Vox Populi, Vox Dei.
@socrates: So far in this conversation, all I know is that I know nothing…at least of Twitter’s free speech policy. If the people instead of you as Twitter’s CEO decide what speech is allowed on Twitter, then what is your role as CEO?
@elonmusk: I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!
@socrates: Why are you thinking of leaving? Was not running Twitter your great wish?
@elonmusk: As the saying goes, be careful what you wish, as you might get it.
@socrates: Wise words indeed! Yet I thought the goal was not only to protect free speech but also turn Twitter into a money-making venture to add to your fortune.
@elonmusk: How do you make a small fortune in social media? Start out with a large one.
@socrates: There is also truth in that.
If the Delphic Oracle had not told me I am the wisest man in the world, I would consider asking for the Twitter CEO job. I could be the gadfly of all the people, not just of Athens. The idea must be tempting to those that think themselves wise.
@elonmusk: Who controls the memes, controls the Universe.
@socrates: Yet I think anyone wise enough to be fit to run a social media firm is too wise to wish to do so.
@elonmusk: Those who want power are the ones who least deserve it.
@socrates: Well said. Given our dialogue, perhaps giving a company or mobs of people the power to decide what can be said and who must be punished is no better than allowing the polis to decide the same. Do you think there is a solution to this problem?
@elonmusk: Technically, alcohol is a solution.
@socrates: So far as drinking is concerned, you have my hearty approval; for wine does of a truth moisten the soul and lull our griefs to sleep…
Perhaps what we have learned from our dialogue is that no man nor body of men is worthy of deciding who may speak and what they may say. Perhaps true wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.
Mark McNeilly, USA
(Socrates, Paramenides, Pheugites meet in the market.)
Socrates: Good morning, Pheugites, son of Pharages, what brings you to the market today?
Pheugites: I am looking for some olives.
Socrates: They say Sicilian olives are the best, but there don’t seem to be any on the market this morning, or if there are they are very expensive.
Pheugites: There is nothing wrong with the state’s own olives.
Socrates: Ah, there is my good friend Paramenides. Are you two speaking to each other yet?
Paramenides: He refuses to admit that he is wrong about the state leaving the Enosis of the Hellenes.
Pheugites: Everything is going well for the state. We are free; we have control of our own laws.
Socrates: Perhaps I can help you to come together, as you used to be such good friends. Pheugites, you say you are free again. What is it that you are now free from? Or is it that you are free to do something you were prevented from doing before?
Pheugites: Interference from the other foreigners; they were telling us what to do. We were not independent.
Socrates: But was the state a member of the Enosis? Or was it outside it?
Pheugites: It was a member, I admit, Socrates.
Socrates: And do members take part in the decision-making and do they all have to agree?
Pheugites: Yes, Socrates.
Socrates: So, do members of an association agree to its decisions, or are they imposed upon them?
Pheugites: They agree to the decisions, Socrates.
Socrates: So we were making laws for ourselves, in agreement with others?
Pheugites: You are twisting my words, Socrates, and confusing me with logical reasoning. I felt that I was lacking control.
Socrates: Let us examine what you mean by lacking control. Paramenides, what do you think about this?
Paramenides: We always had control of our hoplites, our assembly, our language and festivals. But we agreed laws about trading and as a result we had all those wonderful olives from Sicily at reasonable prices.
Socrates: So, Pheugites. Did we have control over our own laws?
Pheugites: No, Socrates, we were told what to do by the others.
Socrates: So how did we decide to become independent again, as you say?
Pheugites: We took a vote in the assembly and decided to leave.
Socrates: And are we in control of our own assembly?
Pheugites: Yes, Socrates.
Socrates: And did we then actually leave?
Pheugites: Of course, Socrates.
Socrates: Then how can you say we lacked control over our own laws, if we then decided to leave, and did?
Pheugites: There you go again, Socrates, tying me up in your questions and confusing me with facts. All I know is that I know I’m right.
Socrates: All I know is I know …. (mutters incomprehensibly)
Pheugites: What, Socrates? I can’t hear you.
Socrates: Nothing, Pheugites. Now tell me, what decision of the Enosis would you most like to get rid of?
Pheugites: We should go back to measuring our wine in kyathoi and not this ridiculous kotyle we have to use now. They’ll be telling us measure the distance between cities in parasangs next instead of stadia.
Socrates: Would you rather have a cup with six kyathoi of wine in it or one kotyle of wine? It’s the same amount of wine. But these are trivial objections. Come now, tell me, which is better: war or peace?
Pheugites: Peace, of course, Socrates.
Socrates: And who are we more likely to go to war with? Close allies or strangers who do not understand us?
Pheugites: Strangers, undoubtedly.
Socrates: So is it not better to have close relations with allies than to treat them as strangers who do not understand us? Like a family who are bound by close ties, but who have occasional disagreements and fallings out.
Pheugites: Yes, Socrates. Peace is a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of our freedom.
Socrates: Well then, Pheugites, are you really free if you are in a state of war? Or rather is there only true liberty when there is peace?
Pheugites: Yes, Socrates.
Socrates: And are we more likely to have peace if we treat our close neighbours as friends and allies or as enemies? So, if you want both peace and freedom you have to treat them as friends and allies?
Pheugites: Yes, Socrates. I was wrong, I confess it. The whole thing is a complete mess and I wish I had never gone to the assembly that day to vote. I was persuaded by the shouts and fervour of the demagogues who I now see were lying to me. And there is another question that has been worrying me. Would you say, Socrates, that something is right because the democratic assembly voted for it? Or does the democratic assembly vote for it because it is right?
Socrates: Well now, Pheugites. That is a very interesting question. Shall we continue to discuss what is democracy, and what is right and what is wrong? But not before you have bought your olives. Look, there are a few local olives on that stall. They are small and bitter but if we are quick, we might get them beforesomeone else grabs them. Come, Paramenides, then we can debate what is the ideal form of government in another ten books.
Paramenides: I’m sorry, Socrates, I have to be at the temple to offer a sacrifice. I’m so glad Pheugites has seen sense at last and recognised that he made a mistake. Perhaps we can be friends again now.
Paramenides: Good. Thank you, Socrates, for helping us out. Come to the sacrifice with me, Pheugites and share some of these excellent Sicilian olives I bought specially.
Pheugites: I’d be delighted. Perhaps another time, Socrates, we can discuss how it is possible for the assembly to take the wrong decision.
(Socrates shakes his head and goes off to look for someone else to question.)
John Bulwer, UK
(A conversation in the British Museum.)
George Osborne: Ah, here you are. I was told you wanted to see me. Well, here I am, but be brief. I have a meeting with the Greek Prime Minister in a moment.
Socrates: Impressive, this liveliness. One could almost fear standing in the hustle and bustle of a Panathenaic procession oneself, being swept along by the Athenian crowd who do not want to be suspected of evading the mores of the city. With no easy way out in sight. They move faster and faster towards the Parthenon; the music gets louder and louder and the danger of being overrun increases…
Osborne: Excuse me…?
Socrates: Oh right, please excuse the ramblings of an old man. Are you the director of this museum?
Osborne: You could say that, although strictly speaking I’m only the chair of trustees.
Socrates: Anyways, I can only congratulate you on this exhibition! Truly marvellous marbles. But allow me to ask: Where is the temple that goes with them?
Osborne: The temple? That’s the frieze of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens.
Socrates: But what is the temple doing in Athens, when the frieze is hanging here in this beautiful room with the nobly decorated benches, the pleasant temperature and the detailed information boards?
Osborne: Are you kidding? You’re talking as if the most powerful temple in the ancient world could just easily be transported to London.
Socrates: What is stopping you?
Osborne: My dear sir, in your spinning you seem to forget that we are still talking about a Greek temple here, not a British one. Not only is it a landmark of Athens and the whole of Greek culture. There’s also still the Greek state, which will be hell-bent on just letting us have the Parthenon. Not to mention its immense size.
Socrates: Well admittedly, the frieze isn’t quite that big. But wasn’t it part of the temple?
Osborne: That’s what I said. So, for the life of me I don’t know what you’re on about.
Socrates: Hm, and if one now imagines the Crown Jewels and assumes they would be exhibited in Paris in the Louvre, would they not still be British Crown Jewels to be displayed in the Tower of London?
Osborne: Of course, no question. But no one, not even France would have the audacity to steal our crown jewels and display them in its capital.
Socrates: Yes, you are quite right, my friend. Who would steal art from a foreign country without permission? But we are digressing, we are not talking about jewels here, but about a frieze. Tell me, how did it actually get from Athens to London?
Osborne: Well, to keep it short: Over 150 years ago, the British Ambassador, Lord Elgin, obtained permission from the government to export the frieze. He then generously sold it to this museum. Now it’s open for the whole world to admire.
Socrates: Yes, no doubt it was an act of true magnanimity that may be attributed to this Lord Elgin. But surely such a beautiful frieze, and one that has a notoriety to it that attracts so many people to London, is not something you give away so easily. Lord Elgin must have paid a fortune.
Osborne: The Ottomans didn’t exactly fight over the frieze. There were probably only salvage and transport costs. But those are still not to be underestimated.
Socrates: Please forgive me if I ask like an unfocused child, but didn’t you just say that the permission had come from the government? What do the Ottomans have to do with it all of a sudden?
Osborne: You see, Greece wasn’t always the proud land of philosophers and democracy. It belonged to the Ottoman Empire for several centuries. That also applies to the period from which the permission to take the frieze originates.
Socrates: What do you mean when you say that Greece belonged to the Ottoman Empire? The Greeks I know would never have voluntarily given up their independence.
Osborne: Oh, they didn’t. They were subjugated at some point by the Ottomans, occupied you might say. This period is said to have been quite hard for the Greek population.
Socrates: Occupied, you say. So, Greece did not belong to the Ottoman Empire, but was oppressed by a barbarian empire that was obviously without any democratic principle. So, from whom did the permission come?
Osborne: Well, I must admit it wasn’t the permission of the Greeks, but of the Ottomans. But what should we have done? Watching something so precious being left to destruction?
Socrates: No, of course not. But you said at the beginning of our conversation that you are about to meet the Greek Prime Minister. So, Greece is a free country again with a true government.
Osborne: Yes and has been for some time.
Socrates: If that is so, then my initially mistaken question should probably be: What is the frieze still doing here in this rainy city, while a temple in Athens is waiting to get its decorations back?
Osborne: That’s impossible. The frieze is the property of the British Museum.
Socrates: If the frieze has already changed hands once, how can it be impossible to change it again?
Osborne: Today, there is no reason to do so. We have saved it from destruction for decades.
Socrates: Of course, you did. And I’m sure it wasn’t always easy to get the air conditioning right. But an English pint tastes best in an English pub, doesn’t it? George, I’m sure the museums in Athens would take a Greek frieze with the greatest care and cherish it forever.
Osborne: Yes, you are probably right. I think I know now what I want to discuss with the Greek Prime Minister. But just one more thing: what was your name again?
Socrates: My name is Socrates. It was nice to meet you, George. We should meet for a cup of tea sometime, at my place in Athens. I’d be very happy to give you a tour of the Acropolis Museum.
Karoline Schollmeyer (aged 15), Germany
Don’t be rude… A Socratic podcast at the end of the world
(Socrates, enter the virtual room.)
Socrates: Hello everyone… Everyone knows that I try to be a just man, even though I have to say that I don’t know exactly what the word Justice means. So I decided to talk to two people who claim to be fair and who, however, are at war. This obviously seems paradoxical to me, since Justice being one and indivisible in a world tormented by multiplicity, it could not divide men; and being just they should agree and not go to war.
(Vladimir Putin enters the virtual room.)
Putin: Hello Sócrates, it is an honor to participate in your podcast. How are things in Greece? It’s cold here in the Kremlin, but you know, we Russians are used to the cold.
Socrates: Well… things in Greece have been bad since before the Peloponnesian War. We Greeks say that we are rational, but in fact we are very hotheaded. We hate barbarians because they are not Greeks and we hate other Greeks because they are not barbarians. Can you explain to me how the invasion of Ukraine can be considered fair?
(Vlodymyr Zelensky enters the room.)
Zelensky: Damn Socrates… You’re going to let that damn Russian speak first. He shouldn’t even have the right to explain his position. Ukraine has been invaded and this is unacceptable, outrageous and unfair. The leader of the invading country should not have a speaking place in this podcast.
Socrates: Welcome Zelensky, welcome. I am happy to see that you have accepted my challenge, but I must remind you that you have been advised that Vladimir Putin has been invited to this virtual meeting. Here the rules are not fixed. Putin was about to start speaking because he entered the room first, but if you want to speak first, be my guest. Is there a problem, Putin?
Putin: Of course not. The last will be the first. Zelensky entered the room last and for me he can speak first.
Zelensky: Making my point last would be better.
Socrates: Well… it seems that we have an impasse here, because you two want to speak last and someone has to be the first to expose their particular way of facing the justice of war. I don’t know what the rules of criminal law are like these days, but when I was tried in Athens my accusers spoke first. Can we agree that the one accused of causing the war should speak last?
Putin: As you wish Socrates. That’s how it works in Russia.
Zelensky: Don’t be a liar, Putin. In Russia, someone accused of offending the Tsar is usually shot in the back of the head with a pistol before he has had a chance to defend himself. But I must say that we Ukrainians value Western civilized rules that guarantee a fair trial in which the accused speaks last.
Socrates: I think that here it is better not to make personal attacks or exploit prejudices. We’ve agreed that the accused should speak last, so I suppose you, Zelensky, should begin your case. After all, you yourself accused Putin of being the leader of the country that invaded Ukraine.
Zelensky: I must protest, because it is public and notorious that Vladir Putin claims that the invasion would not have taken place if the Minsk Agreement had been complied with by my country. He accused Ukraine of violating that agreement. So he should speak first.
Putin: We Russians never dishonor our word. We admit that we invaded Ukraine because you and your bloody Nazis didn’t stop bombing Lugansk and Donetsky. Yes, we accuse Ukraine of violating the Minsk Agreement. But here you were the first to make accusations, so I must speak last.
Socrates: I see a problem here. Both are said to be offended parties. And each blames the other for different reasons. I don’t like to step in and decide, as I still don’t know anything about the justice or injustice of each argument. Can we leave that decision to the gods? I’ll flip a Greek coin. If Athena’s face is up, Ukraine will speak first. Otherwise, Russia will state its case before Ukraine.
Zelensky: Wouldn’t it be better to reverse that choice? You see, we Ukrainians are a very religious people. It would not be good to speak last because Athena looked at the floor. That would mean she won’t be looking out for us.
Socrates: What do you say, Putin?
Putin: Okay. OK. Do as Zelensky wants. You know that we Russians are very devoted to the Mother of Christ, as she saved Russia from the Napoleonic invasion. But we don’t believe in Athena’s divinity.
Socrates: Finally we can start… I’m going to flip the coin now.
(Zelensky temporarily leaves the room. Vladimir Putin answers the phone and mutes his computer. The coin spins in the air, hits the table, falls to the floor and rolls across the uneven floor of the philosopher’s modest brick house. Socrates follows the coin with his cell phone. When the coin finally comes to rest, Socrates starts laughing.Zelensky re-enters the room.)
Zelensky: What happened?
(Putin re-enables the computer’s microphone.)
Putin: Well, well, well… it seems the gods can’t decide who should speak first.
Socrates (visibly upset): That’s really fantastic… What was the probability that this particular coin was left standing, stuck in a crack in the floor, at that particular moment when we had to decide something so important?
Zelensky: This is not good. This is really not good. While we are here without being able to decide anything, the Ukrainian people are dying of hunger and cold and being killed by Russian barbarians.
Putin: The war would not even have started if you had fulfilled the Minsk Agreement. And it could end right now if you admit that Ukraine was defeated and must review its borders respecting the decision of the mistreated Ukrainian people of Russian origin who decided to join the Russian Federation.
(Socrates puts the phone back in the holder on the table.)
Socrates: Come on, boys… I’ll flip the coin again and we’ll start the podcast in a few seconds.
Zelensky: Okay, Socrates. You rule.
(Vladimir Putin just yawns. Socrates flips the coin and it spins in the air, but before it hits the ground his wife Xanthippe catches it and sticks her finger in the philosopher’s face.)
Xanthippe: How many times have I told you not to play with my money? I’m sick of working all day making and selling cheese while you stand there in front of that stupid cell phone talking to strangers about matters that cannot and will not be decided by the Greeks.
Socrates: Don’t be rude Xanthippe. Guys, I’m going to leave the room for a moment because I have to settle things with my wife. I’ll be back in a few minutes.
Zelensky: The life of a married man is never easy. Not even philosophers can be happily married.
Putin: I agree. Marriage can become hell. Ukraine would be better off not wanting to marry NATO.
(Zelensky leaves the room very angry. Vladimir Putin stands in the room laughing. Socrates takes a long time to return and the podcast has to be cancelled.)
Fábio de Oliveira Ribeiro, Brazil
And finally, we include an entry which, though appreciably over the word limit, certainly made us sit up straight:
(A University, somewhere.)
Jonathan Manager: Okay, so we had better get started. Can we please begin by going round the room and introducing ourselves briefly? So, I will start. My name’s Professor Jonathan Manager and I am Pro-Vice Chancellor for Student Experience, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Middle England and I will be acting as chair for this disciplinary meeting.
Susan Drab: Hello, I am Susan Drab, I am senior manager in Human Resources and I will be taking notes.
Mark Pliable: Afternoon all, good to be here, I’m Mark Pliable and I am Head of Faculty for the Faculty of Cultures, Medias and Film.
Mel Tooze: I’m Melany Tooze, I’m president of the Middle England Student’s Union.
Annie Tooze: Hi, I’m Annie Tooze, I am here to support Mel. And I am also student rep for EDI. And, yeah, that’s it.
Manager: Thanks Annie. And…
Socrates: Good afternoon. My name is Professor Socrates Sophroniskou and I suppose I am the one on trial today.
Manager: Okay. Can we start by emphasising the need to adhere to the university’s code for conduct and professionalism in how we address others, as this is a formal meeting. This should be a safe space where everyone can speak their mind, but it should also be one in which you show respect to others. I would also emphasise that this is not a ‘trial’, as you call it Socrates, but a preliminary disciplinary hearing to answer complaints brought by students. You will have the opportunity to answer these complaints in a moment. First, though, could I ask Melany to say a few words.
Mel Tooze: Hi everyone. So we are here because, basically, there have been a lot of complaints raised regarding Socrates’ teaching. Many students have told us that they feel completely unsafe in his lessons. And (and this is something Annie will be speaking to specially) there are just so many times when his lessons are just not in line with the, like, values that this university is supposed to stand for. This is harmful to students, because they deserve to be taught what they need to know in the modern world.
So there is meant to be a set curriculum for philosophy, which is what he teaches, and students are meant to be able to learn about how philosophy aligns with things that matter to them, like race and gender and sexuality. And there should be some recognition of the wrongs done by philosophers in the past who, let’s face it, were, hello, complicit in the actual looting of other cultures by the colonial powers and total slaughter of millions of people over the last 2,000 years in the global south. But anyway. Socrates just, like, completely ignores all of this in his classes.
And students find his classes harmful and actually really traumatic. So, Socrates does not seem to respect students’ choices and the way they want to live their lives. So, I’ve got an email here from one student, Callie Clease (they say they are happy to give their name) who says that Socrates basically suggested to them that their truth was not as important as ‘the truth’ (scare quotes), right, and even suggested that there is a place called Hell and that if she, sorry they, did not believe in his idea of Justice, that they could literally end up there. And that there is, like, one way to be good, which is totally disrespectful of students, and one good thing that exists in some, I don’t know, heaven in the sky. And this is totally traumatic for students, especially those with fragile mental health.
Annie Tooze: Solidarity, Mel.
Mel Tooze: So one of the worst things he does in his classes is this thing called Sealioning. So, for those of you who don’t know, Sealioning is a kind of trolling that basically consists of constantly asking for evidence and asking endless questions. Like, students make a statement of pretty basic facts and he constantly asks questions and belittles them. So, a lot of people say that he is nice and polite when he asks these questions. He pretends that he does not know or understand really basic concepts which everyone should know. But if you actually read the theory, this is basically just harassment. And really ‘politeness’ and ‘freedom of speech’, we know, is just a strategy used by people with power to push down those who don’t and preserve their privilege. And why are we still talking about outdated ideas such as evidence anyway when we know that there are, like, so many other ways of knowing? And whose ‘knowledge’ is it anyway? So, anyway, I think that covers everything, so I’ll pass onto Annie.
Annie Tooze: Yeah, really great, Mel. Actually. I think what Mel said about covers it. I am not sure I have much more to add. So, yeah.
Manager: Thanks Melany and Annie. I know it is very hard, and yes sometimes traumatic, for young people to make complaints about members of staff, particularly older male members of staff, and I would like to assure you that we do always take these complaints very seriously and are grateful for them. And we do encourage students, if they have any complaints, to make them using the new Report and Support webpage on the Workspace.
Good. Socrates, do you have anything to add? And I should remind you again, in light of what Melany has said, of the need to speak respectfully and in accordance with the university code of conduct.
Socrates: Good afternoon, thank you for listening to me. I think there are two accusations that have been made. The first is that I harm young people through my teaching and the second that I do not believe in the values that the university believes in.
Let me take each one separately. First, I should note that Miss Tooze implies that all students in general find my classes harmful. But I am pleased to say that I have had many messages of support from my friends on campus, though many are afraid to say this publicly. In fact, when the university was kind enough to ask Professor Pliable to teach additional seminars for those students too frightened to attend my own classes, I am told that only two students (Ms Polly Pharisee and Mr Simon Sycophant I believe) left to join Professor Pliable.
But Ms Tooze will no doubt object (though she is too opposed to interruptions and questions to do so) that popular opinion of my classes is insufficient if we are to accurately assess whether I have harmed my students. It seems good to me to say something of the method and purpose of my teaching and then you can judge whether I have done wrong or not.
In many ways, my style of teaching is exactly that preferred by this institution. I learned this first when I was instructed by Dr Di Otima, formerly Head of the School of Education and Director of the Career Development programme, as part of my opening induction at Middle England. Di Otima was a veritable Sibyl when it came to education and I treated her word virtually as Gospel. And I was justified in doing so because of her ability to train lecturers in any subject despite knowing nothing whatsoever about what needed to be taught. For it was surely for this reason that the university thought it good to send every new member of staff from every faculty on her mandatory training courses.
Now this university has always, as Dr Otima told me, believed that students learn best when they are taught nothing at all. And this, I am sure you will all agree, is the modern and progressive approach to education. Classes should be student-led and we should always begin from what the student, not the teacher, knows. And so I have sought, like a midwife (you might say) to draw out my student’s thoughts, as though they were unborn children. I do not push: it is the students who push and I merely guide the delivery with the forceps of wisdom.
But since Ms Tooze is opposed to question and answer, perhaps I will describe my conversation with Dr Otima so as to illustrate my method and its design. During the coffee break in our training session I approached her and asked ‘are students ever wrong or are they always right, Dr Otima?’
‘But of course’, said she, ‘students are wrong at times, have you not discovered that yourself? And please, call me Di, Socrates.’
‘Then would it be true to say that some ideas are good and some bad, my dear Di?’
‘Most certainly. Outdated ideas, for example the ones we have already covered in class about education, are certainly bad and misguided.’
‘And this rightness, or goodness, must be like the rightness in which a mathematician can say that two plus two is four, even if a child does not understand and cannot do the sum?’
‘Well, I am not sure, for many things are actually more complicated than that and sometimes there is no right answer.’
‘Oh yes, I have even heard there are some learned and clever people who believe that two plus two can sometimes not equal four. But I profess I cannot understand their arguments and they write in such learned and wondrous prose that it is impossible for me to follow their stupendous logic. But suppose that for the child there is much uncertainty concerning maths, and that he and his friends disagree about the answer, is this because there is no right answer or is it because they do not know it?’
‘It is because they do not know it’, replied Di Otima. ‘But this, again, is a simple problem’.
‘But what of more complex questions, such as that concerning your health. If we do not know and disagree with each other, could we not seek out some expert who knows?’
‘Yes of course, we could go to a doctor. But even doctors disagree and for them there is no simple answer.’
‘But if two doctors propose different cures, and one turns out to be right and the other leads to the death of the patient, will it not turn out that there was a correct answer, even if no one knew it for certain?’
‘Yes, I suppose, but I think we should be getting back to the session …’
‘Ah, but just a moment, I have one more question. Is it better to be right or to be wrong?’
‘Naturally it is better to be right. Now I really have to go, as we need to start again’.
‘And is being right different from seeming to be right, and is it better?’
‘Yes of course. Now let’s go.’
So I took from my visit as a young man to this particular oracle the following conclusions. First, I could not accept anything as the truth without proper investigation of that statement, because I know that some ideas are right and some wrong but that it is often hard to tell which is which. And although I can go to authorities who do claim to know, I know that if in the past some were wrong, then in the present they can be too. And because I do not know much, or anything, I must ask these experts to explain their ideas to me carefully enough for me to accept them. And so, unfortunately I have got into trouble because I could not accept certain ideas that are written in books because I have not been able to investigate them properly (though Di Otima, was always, I should say, very ready to suggest reading material for me). I try to explore things step by step and not from the step at which other, wiser heads, have already reached. And for this reason, my teaching does not easily follow the curriculum. For I cannot teach what I do not myself understand.
And yes, some students, notably Callie Clease and Polly Pharisee, have, I agree, not been happy with my teaching because I believe it is better to be right rather than wrong and better to be right rather than to seem right. My work is to better my students, not to please them, nor indeed (if they will forgive me) to please Professors Manager and Pliable. Now some ideas gestating within my students do not seem to me to be entirely healthy at times. But many of my students are possessive of their first babies and cannot abide to be questioned: they hide their protruding bellies from me and will not hear of me examining them. Because, and this is the really brutal thing, if I find the babes to be unhealthy, I urge that they be terminated. This is indeed a painful thing for the mothers, but then I am a doctor as well of sorts. If my student’s idea is unhealthy at its first conception, and it is removed, the pain is smaller than if the idea is preserved and delivered with constant and ever growing labours and pangs. The sickly thoughts, to be preserved, must themselves reproduce and metastasise into others yet more twisted and deformed, until over time (and if carried on indefinitely) the only result in the patient is hysteria, delirium and horrors. To better my students I must occasionally cause them a small pain to avoid a greater one. Some know this and accept the medicine gratefully. Others cannot abide it and soon leave.
And so now you will perhaps understand why the students say I do not subscribe to the values to which the university subscribes. But here I think it is not me who is to blame but a very clever fellow, Professor Prodicus, from the school of Critical Theory, who is continually confusing and then slandering me. For he says many things that appear reasonable and true, but then become the opposite of what I thought. For he is a rare chameleon and a sophist of exceptional artifice. For he told me, first, that we must promote Equality and that this was central to the university’s values, but would not tell me what Equality meant. It was not goodness or excellence in any discipline, though, of that he seemed quite certain, unless all could be equally bad or equally good.
Then he averred that Equality meant that different races should be treated unequally and that we should discriminate positively, if possible, between certain races or genders (there are many of both, I hear). Then, when I was at a loss, the clever fellow said he had never meant Equality at all, but Equity, of course, and it is fair that some are treated unequally to make up for others’ unequal treatment.
Then he told me about Justice. Is Equity a form of Justice, I asked? If so, what is it? Well, Justice was whatever society said it was and I must adjust myself to society’s, and the university’s, values. And now Justice was bettering people to whom society had been unjust to in the past. But if society thought in the past that it was just to be unjust, and therefore being unjust was Justice, why is Justice now unjust and what reason do we have to believe that we are now just? Would it not be easier, I said, to stick with the old Justice, which many of my elderly friends still know and understand, rather than going to the effort of changing each year to a new Justice?
That, he told me, was a sure sign that I was a horrible and despicable human being.
And then he explained to me that I needed to have Critical Awareness if I was to ever have any chance of improving myself. He said that I could achieve this by reading diverse books, such as are kindly provided by Robin Di Angelo and Ibram X Kendi. If I accepted their arguments without question, then I could progress to true critical awareness. If I did not, I was failing as an academic and scholar and even as a human being, for only idiots were incapable of understanding their lessons and only perverse and malicious beings were capable of denying the truth of what they said.
If these books will make me better, I asked, did they teach a kind of morality or goodness? Did Prodicus then believe in what they used to call ‘virtue’? Would these books make me as good in myself as my rejection of them would make me bad? Would I learn about prudence, temperance and courage and other such things?
Of course not, he replied. For virtue is a foolish notion held by the Victorians or some such people in the past. Everyone was good. We live in a democracy. No one can be told they are bad and no one needs to work at being good. This is not a question of morality but a question of politics: and the only thing that matters is that you have the right politics. And you will gain the right politics through the right education. What else is a university degree in the Humanities for?
Well, I confess I was quite astounded and confused and knew not how to answer this.
And so I cannot align myself with the university’s values: I do not know what they are and I cannot agree to anything I do not know to be right.
To conclude: I am afraid I must ask that you allow me to continue my research, whether or not I align myself with the university’s values. I do not think I do any harm, because the students who do not like me have left and they seem to think that the only thing they objected to in my teaching was that they did not like it. Surely then the ones who do like it cannot be harmed. It is possible that, if I am right, I may do some good, however. And I cannot be harmed if people dislike me, at least at any rate I have not been in the past. Students are free to dislike me, if they wish. But let me continue to prod them, and sting them from their youthful stupor, I beg, and I will continue to do what service I can and become as good as I can.
Margaret Ross, UK
|⇧1||There is an untranslatable pun here: the Greek used is pezos, which refers to troops who travel by land rather than sea.|
|⇧2||A hapax legomenon. There does not seem to be a word for ‘Strike’ in Ancient Greek. It’s in Hesychius, though indirectly, and the Greeks themselves started using it from about 1886.|
|⇧3||A motto of Greeks on strike, ever since they first used the word: “Strike! Then and now, and the fight goes on!”|