Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Philosophy

Bertrand Russell’s Message to the Future; ca. 1959.

“…in this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like.”

Man, this guy was just starting to see how information was being sent more quickly and at higher quality and said something so incredibly forward-thinking. That’s amazing.

Can you imagine showing this dude the fact that we can send cat-videos instantly? This would blow his mind.


Dennis Potter – The Last Interview

“We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene… Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.”

[Legendary Television writer Dennis Potter’s last interview (not so much an interview… it’s almost a monologue.) It was filmed shortly after he learned that he had pancreatic cancer (which he named “Rupert,” after Murdoch) and was not expect to live more than a few more months. His inflamed hands can barely hold his ever-present cigarette (which he refers to as a “little tube of delight”), and he alternately sips champagne and swigs liquid morphine from an antique hip flask (to ease the pain.) Potter talks of the clarity and beauty of life that impending death gives. He faces squarely into the prospect of his life’s end. No sentimentality. No pathos. Just honesty and integrity and insight. His comments on the basis for his serenity are deeply moving. It’s truly remarkable.]

Why don’t people realize that we rise and fall as a unified society?


I think the main problem at large is that people have forgotten (or simply don’t realize) that by living as part of a society you inherently sign a social contract. Everyone born into any given social community is opted in automatically without choice or consent. What this means is that you are, by right, part of the community, you benefit from the community’s gains, and you are protected by that community. Now, you can opt out; only if you remove yourself from the social structure and stop taking the benefits provided (i.e. stop paying taxes, move to a different country with a different social structure, become a cave hermit in the remote wilderness) But if you don’t, then you have taken on a set of rules and a responsibility that coincide with the right to all due benefits (the chief responsibility of our society being the stupidly cliché and simplistic “golden rule.”) If every member of the community is eligible, then every member must be responsible to ensure the benefits’ continuous availability. (Although it partly is, this is not solely about money; also respect, security, safety, happiness, and human-rights etc…) This is where the misunderstanding comes in. You aren’t being an ‘evil-commie-socialist’ by giving back to society. It is required of you by the contract, but it’s also in your best interest.

The principle is not based on actual or perceived need, but on potential need. Obviously, there are people that need a lot, as well as people who need for nothing. The important point, though, is that everyone has roughly the same potential to end up in need. Anyone could get sick, anyone could get robbed or cheated, everyone needs access to get an education, everyone will die, anyone could be oppressed. That is the point of the contract; it’s why we have formed our society like this and not a cannibalistic anarchy. By ensuring none of these things could happen to the whole community you are ensuring they can’t ever happen to yourself. No matter how safe and sound you feel, no matter how impermeable or untouchable you think you are, no matter what your station in life may currently be; things change, and tragedy can strike anyone anywhere at anytime.

I’m not talking about a utopia, seriously, just a completely attainable place where people finally understand what it means to live in a community. Just play your part and pay in your share for the society that got you to where you are (You didn’t get there alone, be honest. Everything from your school, down to the road worker and garbage man are deserving of your respect and a return for their labor.) Just imagine, for a minute, a millionaire (whether his money comes from a company he built, his parents, the lottery, or back-breaking work,) he could only have accomplished it on the shoulders of the investors, engineers, teachers, gamblers, doctors or neighbors. That person would not be a millionaire if other people hadn’t held him up; If a doctor hadn’t delivered him or immunized him, if his neighbor didn’t respect or trust him, if a stranger hadn’t lost everything thereby making an opening or an opportunity, if there were no roads or trash collectors or farmers. With out the support of a society in people’s lives, it would be impossible for them to be “successful” in the way most people imagine it to be. There is too much work to be done and too much at stake to try and survive on your own. You can’t have an empire without resources, you can’t run a bank without customers, you can’t be a star without fans. When treating everyone else as less important than yourself, you convince them they aren’t needed and they will start to treat you the same.

Another thought, part of the problem with some of these people is that they haven’t really thought through their priorities. Some of them tie up their happiness in the pursuit of money. If you achieve gaining more money than you need, but you still need to gain more because that’s what makes you happy, isn’t the never ending cycle obvious? It will never be enough, so you will never be happy. Once you’ve gotten to the point that you’ve made so much money that you and each of your children could never spend all of in your lifetimes (and it’s still not “enough”) you should probably try and find something that would actually bring you meaning and happiness (how about instead of living for the profit, you live for the happiness your product brings, or the adventure of scientific discovery?) Wanting money and being rich aren’t inherently bad things, at all. But it is bad doing so for no other reason than selfishness. Not saying you should give all your money away (unless you want to…?) But don’t continue to make a sport of making money at the expense of your community without ensuring other people the same protection and support you had. To those who aren’t millionaires but still have plenty to be comfortable; I’m not saying you didn’t earn your comfort, but as I said before, it wasn’t only you that paid for it. Make sure you aren’t denying others the chance to have your level of health, happiness, comfort, or respect. Tomorrow your house could burn down, your bank could collapse, you could be diagnosed with a brain tumor, an earthquake could destroy your city, a silent majority could try and put you beneath them, or you could be ripped-off, raped or beaten. Where would you be then if society at large wasn’t a force to enable you to stand back up and fix the broken pieces.

A lot of these feelings of overestimated strength, egotistical independence, selfishness, and indifference, are products of an earlier era where these were needed. It was a time where only the strongest or most cunning genes would survive. But it is no longer beneficial to behave this way, we have vastly evolved from the small social groups requiring militant selfishness and ruthlessness. To behave like this now sets you apart from the “new” shift in social structure, which is based on strength in numbers. It damages your relationship with the community, leaving you vulnerable if you alienate yourself. Just because it was/is justifiable on the basis of animal instinct, doesn’t mean that we have to accept it. We have evolved a consciousness that is able to decide to not behave like animals. We can do the right thing for the sake of it being right, not just because it benefits us (which it ends up doing in this case anyway) In all honesty one person wont make or break it. Whether you decide to play along or not, you will still be enjoying all of the rights and privileges that the community tries to make sure everyone has. Until you’re not. If enough people decided to play the game on their own then society will fail. Not for some distant stranger, but for you. In that case, good luck. You’ll need it.


I think Elizabeth Warren expressed my opinion on the social contract very well:


For the longest time, I always thought of myself as intelligent, but I’ve come to realize that I am, in fact, a stumbling moron. I tried my best to resist the urge to look at myself objectively, to stare at the abyss of my ignorance and feel the cold, tingling sensation of incomprehension creep over my body, but I finally succumbed.

I realized that I wasn’t such a smart kid, after all. Sure, it’s quite easy to think yourself intelligent in an undergraduate philosophy or english course, where the drivelling idiots make irrelevant arguments, are constantly being swept aside in tangents and engaging in debates wholly unrelated to the matter at hand. When you surround yourself with the majority of humanity, anyone with above average intelligence will feel inherently superior and even start to get the scary feeling of smug self-satisfaction (something I try to beat to death with a stick whenever I feel it creeping up on me). Obviously, the majority of the population is of average or below average intelligence (I mean, that’s what AVERAGE means, doofus). So it doesn’t take much to feel like you are God’s gift to intellect in a normal classroom setting, much to the detriment of my learning experience.

However, when I start talking to people who have doctorates in linguistics or physics or biology or philosophy, I suddenly realize what an incompetent loon I am, and I feel ashamed at the smug satisfaction I had begun to feel. When I read a book of philosophy, written by men who could outwit me in all possible ways, by people who could utterly reduce me to foolish backtracking and ad hoc replies, it makes me squirm in uncomfort. I am actually retarded!

Now I know what Socrates meant when he said he was only sure of his ignorance, and now I know that the power of philosophy is not the fact that it makes you more certain, more sure of yourself, and more intelligent…but that it makes you feel like a huge idiot, like someone holding on childishly to all these preconceived, unexamined notions, like some sort of baby monkey clinging to a wire-frame surrogate mother.

Sometimes you just have to stare at the hunk of wires you are clinging to and discard it. So what if it helps you feel better about yourself? So what if thinking yourself intelligent makes you happy? It’s not the truth. I’m an idiot, you’re an idiot, we’re all potential idiots. There is something you are actually ignorant of, to a very large extent. It’s amazing to think about. And it’s really not much of a consolation to look at a drooling child, or someone watching a soap opera with impatient interest, and to say to yourself, “Well, at least I’m smarter than THEM!” It is like consoling yourself by pointing to a clump of dirt and assuring yourself that you are more intelligent than it.

So everyone, say it all together:


Evidence that Socrates existed:

There are many avenues of testimony that are close in date to Socrates’ lifetime.

  • Four comic plays ranging from the 420s to the 400s BCE: a character satirically representing him appeared in Aristophanes’ Clouds (423-419 BCE) and Ameipsias’ Konnos (fragmentary, 423 BCE); one of his circle, Chaerephon, is a character in Aristophanes’ Birds (414 BCE); Socrates gets mentioned as a well-known public figure in that play and also in Aristophanes’ Frogs (405 BCE).
  • Plato’s Socratic dialogues.
  • Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues, and the Hellenica (ca. 380s to 360s).
  • Evidence that at least six other members of Socrates’ circle wrote about him, though the works themselves are lost: Lysias’ Apology (almost certainly earlier than Plato’s and Xenophon’s Apologies, which appear to be replies to Lysias in some ways); numerous works by Antisthenes; seven dialogues by Aeschines; six by Euclides; two by Phaedo; and vague reports of writings by Aristippus. Of these, Lysias is better known as a legal speechwriter (several dozen of his speeches survive); Antisthenes was regarded as the most important of Socrates’ pupils for the first few years after Socrates’ death, and was firmly opposed to Plato’s philosophy in some important respects; Euclides’ philosophy was, according to the report we have, closely similar to Socrates’ own; Aristippus went professional and took payment for his teachings, and taught (as Epicurus also did, later on) that pleasure was the highest goal in life.
  • Copious evidence of other members of Socrates’ circle who had political and other historical significance during Socrates’ lifetime. Alcibiades was one of the most significant generals in the Peloponnesian War; Critias was an ally of Alcibiades, and went on to become one of the Thirty Tyrants whose short-lived regime brutalised and terrorised the people of Athens in 404 BCE; Charmides was involved in a high-profile court case near the end of the Peloponnesian War, and a minister for the Thirty Tyrants, and he and Critias were involved in an attempted coup d’état in 411 BCE. Critias is also the author of a play, Sisyphus, of which a substantial fragment survives that is radically atheist in tone.

And from about 350 BCE onwards:

  • Aeschines Against Timarchus 173 (shortly after 346 BCE; not the same Aeschines as above)
  • A letter from Speusippus (Plato’s successor as head of the Academy) to Philip of Macedonia
  • A statue by the fourth century sculptor Lysippus, which survives in Roman copies
  • References in the writings of Aristotle, Arcesilaus, and several Stoics
  •  A strong biographical tradition attested in later sources (like Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, and others) which is definitely not derived from Plato.

Aeschines’ testimony, in particular, is useful for interpreting the events surrounding Socrates’ death, which are otherwise reported only by allies of Socrates. Aeschines confirms that Socrates’ execution was closely linked to his association with Critias and Critias’ crimes. This is obviously a very different picture from that painted by Plato’s Apology: Plato’s version of Socrates attempts to derail the prosecution by trying to imply that the real target of the charges is an illusory figure, like the caricature by Aristophanes.

The problems with Socrates’ biography are similar to those surrounding Jesus to the extent that his followers mythologized him a great deal. This can be seen particularly in their extreme defensiveness with respect to his trial, and their insistence that he stood up to the Thirty Tyrants when they instructed him to arrest and execute one of their political opponents. Whether that story is true or not, it’s obviously not the whole story: the fact remains that Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides were all closely linked to Socrates, they all tried to subvert the state in some important ways, and his own hands simply cannot have been totally clean.

His situation is very different from that surrounding Jesus in the sense that Socrates was linked to numerous figures who loom large in historical accounts of the period, and indeed served as a hoplite in two well-attested battles of the Peloponnesian War. But mythologization by followers, and ties (or lack of ties) to political figures, have never been good reasons to dismiss available evidence as though it were wholly made-up.