The Death of Socrates and the Apathy of Philosophy

What do we talk about when we speak of “facts?” For those involved or interested in scientific, or more broadly, empirically-rooted fields, it is a thing that is indisputable; for instance, that gravity is a force that exists that keeps each and every one of us, as well as all other material things, rooted to the surface of the planet Earth. In these cases, facts are things that have been rigorously tested and examined and been found overwhelmingly to be the case; to this, we bind facts with the necessity of being true; there is no such thing as a fact that is not also true. So, while it is a fact that gravity exists and affects all of us, it is not a fact that unicorns exist, for the former has more than ample evidence for its existence, and the latter does not.

In philosophy, though, unless a member of the field is an adherent of the Vienna Circle, we find it harder to discern truth than those I have just briefly described. Particularly when our discipline takes up questions of ethics and morality, truth becomes a thing that is ultimately near impossible to ascertain given the metrics and rubrics of the sciences. The history of philosophy is ultimately one of the evolution and debate between certain men (and, occasionally, like a desperately needed breath of fresh air, women) over how it is best to think, and then later based upon that thinking, act. We are incessantly concerned with the thoughts of those long dead and buried unlike almost any other discipline; departments across the globe make hiring decisions based upon whether one focuses upon Kant rather than Hume, Aristotle versus Cicero, or Heidegger as opposed to Carnap. How well one is deemed to understand the writings of those deemed important by some and worthless by others determines entire careers, and to publish a philosophical text means to ceaselessly call back to our forbears in order to legitimize our own claims.

Yet, this understanding that is so highly valued is a kind of knowledge that is scorned outright by many in the sciences; we engaged with philosophy necessarily must think in abstract, changeable, evolving manners that must essentially spit in the face of notions of what constitutes factuality. If one person declares x thing about a passage of Spinoza, another will eventually come along and argue that said passage actually says something quite different, and the argument over which is the truth of Spinoza’s writing will span centuries, and likely never end.

However, the one absolute, concrete thing that all philosophers seem to universally call back to as a justification for what they do is the death of Socrates. The event occupies a special place in our minds; it is given special emphasis in near all of our classes, a legendary event that cemented our discipline’s ethos for all time. The great one, the true instigator of it all, we are told, willingly committed suicide by hemlock in 399 BCE because he wished to die for his ideas, his ethics, his moral code. He could not bow to the indignities demanded by small-minded government, for to do so would as well kill him as would the poison he drank. Whether we are to compromise our very being or die, the tale of Socrates tells us, the proper path is to drink deep; this preserves us, for all time.

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates.” 1787. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Since his death, times have changed drastically, and ultimately so has how philosophy goes about its way in the world. Our discipline is not particularly brave, and to claim that as a whole it ever was is questionable to say the least. Certainly, there are many philosophers who have famously fought against injustice and oppression, and have written books on the subject, but most of us are perfectly content to ignore the problems of the world, and make a life of inventing arguments as to why philosophy is special, existing outside the purview of the everyday, that only the most rarefied and excellent minds should ever be able to engage with us, and until the government comes breaking down department doors, we can safely ignore the affronts to free speech and human rights that occur all around us.

I recognize that this is a position that is, to say the least, controversial. And indeed, I should make clear that I personally do not oppose the ability of scholars to study things that are impractical and have little relevance for a wider community; were I to do so, I would be arguing essentially for the end of academia as it has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. In this paper, I’m not going to propose anything so drastic as that. In a series of posts to come, I will present a critique of philosophy that claims itself privileged, above the everyday, and argue for a sort of more ethical thinking that is tied with a realization of the necessity for action, a philosophy that is a part of, rather than a bystander, in the world.

Eichmann in Boston

This quarter, for my senior capstone class, i.e. the class taken for a major that is supposed to cap off our undergraduate studies, I am taking a course focused on Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, with the truly excellent Peg Birmingham, who has been one of my most important instructors during my time at DePaul. In our analysis of it, it has brought to my mind many stark lessons for our current predicaments.

We started our examination of Arendt’s works by reading Eichmann in Jerusalemthe book she wrote and compiled from her time sitting in on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who more or less facilitated the extermination of the European Jews by the Third Reich and who was captured, tried, and put to death by Israel in the early 1960s. Most of the book is concerned with the details of the trial, and the testimony of Eichmann and others, but on the whole Arendt attempts to use the man to assess the phenomenon of the Holocaust itself, namely the complete and utter moral collapse of the nations involved, and also what she refers to as the “banality of evil,” the thoughtlessness of Eichmann in his charge to fulfill the duty given to him.

The chilling aspect of the trial for Arendt, and for those who read her recounting of it, is not that Eichmann was some evil ghoul, maniacally bent on the destruction of a people, but in fact something quite different; the man was no such thing. He was not psychologically unhinged in any way; he described himself as doing his duty, having no ability to stop the horrors of the Nazi regime, and so instead he did as he was ordered, because he believed that doing so was the truly moral thing to do, going so far as to cite Kant’s categorical imperative as his driving ideal. He admitted no guilt, no antisemitism, and seems to have at least been not guilty of the latter.

What, then, are we to make of Eichmann? He was not a monster, as is evident from reading Arendt’s account; but surely we should not exonerate him, as well. The message of his trial is that monstrous evil does not necessarily only come from the diabolical mastermind, bent on the destruction of all that is good and pure in the world, but instead that evil is easily done by those who are joiners, those who do not question orders, those who are too apathetic to care about what acts they commit or  enable, so long as they think it is correct, though that authority they believe may be a corrupt one. Moral collapse of the sort seen on the scale of the Holocaust is not, as we believe, an extraordinary thing, but rather one that can occur at any time, if, like Eichmann, we allow ourselves be the dupes of power, if we are not skeptical enough to question governments and ethical enough to make the right decisions.

The banality of evil can be seen today. We in the US have spent the past decade or so, if not more, watching our own government commit exceedingly immoral acts in the name of national security, while riling the population up into a fever over anyone who happens to fit the stereotype of being Muslim. It’s happening right now, in the aftermath of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. Long before suspects were identified by authorities, the media and average citizens leapt to conclusions, immediately assuming Saudis and anyone else who was mildly Middle Eastern looking to be the culprits; such reactions are catalogued here and here, amongst other places.

This attitude, the assumptions of guilt, are exactly what Arendt warned us against. But she also offered us a brighter truth; that against all of the horror of the Nazi war machine, there were those that resisted, such as the actions of the state of Denmark to save its Jewish citizens and refugees from the Einsatzgruppen, as well as those of Anton Schmid, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht who saved 250 Jewish people from the concentration camps. There are always those who make the moral choice, not the practical choice of saving their own skins, when the greatest adversity comes. Patton Oswalt wrote much in the same vein in the response to Boston.

It is in these stories that we must take hope from, and from the banality of evil, of the prejudiced assumptions, that we must constantly be on guard from. Our society has the capability to lapse into abjection and horror at any moment, if it has not already. We have stood by while innocent people have been illegally imprisoned by the people we elect to govern us, we have raised barely a peep against drone strikes on innocent civilians, and plenty of other moral lapses; as difficult as it is to do, we must look at ourselves, and constantly check our biases and actions. Ideology is what makes us blind, and so, we must do our utmost to not blindly follow ideology.

[Forward Thinking]: How Should We Punish People for Moral Failures?

In the newest installment of the Forward Thinking series, Libby Anne and Dan Fincke have asked this question:

How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?

I think that there is a problem with this question straight off; the very idea that the violation of one’s morals should result in punishment. I take from the prompt that punishment here means more than a simple pointing out, or the having of an argument over a point of ethics; the implication here is that we should have in and of ourselves a special desire to be, as it is said, “moral enforcers,” attempting to keep the people we know and encounter in line. And, frankly, that’s an attitude, even in a hypothetical as it is presented here, that worries me deeply.

What this prompt essentially asks for, in my opinion, is strategies that force people to conform to a normative system of beliefs about conduct, in other words socially acceptable actions. In this case, I believe that norms have to be questioned more thoroughly than perhaps any aspect of society, for, to borrow from Adorno, we know via our own experiences that our society does not really operate under any sort of widely held ethical truths; thanks to the implementation of capitalistic-driven mass media, amongst plenty of other reasons, any sort of social contract that Americans ever ascribed to certainly does not exist anymore. Consumerism and other material concerns have replaced any responsibility wider society might have felt towards their common man. With public ethics no longer having any objective core, we find ourselves in a state of nihilism.

Thanks to this, Adorno claims, claims about morality cannot be objective; only scientific statements, about fundamental empirical facts, can ever be given objective validity. Morality becomes prejudicial, making it impossible to make good decisions between opposing claims of ethical subjectivity. Thus, morality becomes a tool of power, useful only to make its espouser more attractive. And that influence created is backed not by ethical validity, but the material assets of the person backing a moral vision.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches are raised, I’m not claiming that Dan and Libby Anne are capitalist megalomaniacs seeking to bring us all under our rule. What I mean to do by quickly laying out part of Adorno’s moral philosophy to to indicate the danger of thinking, even in the abstract as it is laid out in the prompt, the idea that we can be so set in our morality that we then believe ourselves to have the authority to punish others for violating our own moral code. I cannot ever imagine myself being so certain of rights and wrongs that I would take it upon myself as a duty to discipline another because they did or said something that contradicted my views in some way. It seems like a position borne of ego, and not a terribly moral one in and of itself at that.

So, that’s my answer, and a question to all of you: could you ever be so certain of your morality, so affirmed, so unconcerned at the possible holes in your own reasoning, that you would take it upon yourself to become an ethical constable? I certainly don’t think that I could.