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  Where is our Socrates?
by Brian S. Wise
15 October 2002

Examining the question, What prevents America from seeing, and embracing, a great modern day philosopher?

Only the rare journalist takes it upon himself to advance original thought this close to a mid-term election; one wonders if the editors at National Review Online either praised or chided John Derbyshire for this gem, from a column posted on 11 October: “Why have numerically tiny, not very well favored, groups of human beings — the ancient Jews, Greece in the 5th century B.C., Renaissance Italy, Tudor England — produced so many works of artistic and literary genius, when far bigger, more prosperous, more secure populations have dragged their weary lengths along for centuries without leaving behind them anything worth remembering? The population of Attic Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War was … around 350,000, of whom half were citizens, a tenth resident aliens, and the rest slaves — say 180,000 free citizens. The population of my county is seven times that. Where is our Aeschylus, our Socrates, our Phidias, our Demosthenes, our Xenophon, our Thucydides? Shouldn't we have around seven of each here in Suffolk County, other things being equal?” 

From here Mr. Derbyshire goes on to discuss New Jersey’s poet laureate (he of “where were the Jews on 9/11” fame), and how such a position seems to command an intellect of some stability and legitimacy, as opposed to the brainless twit currently occupying the position. But in switching topics, Derbyshire leaves a perfectly fine question hanging out in the open, unanswered: Where is our Socrates? The nature of the question doesn’t reasonably lend itself to a brief examination, but where there is a will there must be at least an honest effort.

Earlier this year, some thought was given to writing a book explaining the benefits of a modern day, intellectual Renaissance. (Not that I could have personally spearheaded such a movement, but pride would have been taken in riding whatever wave my disruption would have caused.) The idea was scrapped when it became too much raw idealism for even a conservative to hope for; ours isn’t a culture that shines light brightly on intellect, therefore it would shun out of turn any call for a vast movement of the intellect. Of 270,000,000 people, only small pockets manage to value a reasonably functioning mind (and the company of those who appreciate the same), while other, mammoth sections of the populace think Sex and the City is entertaining and take great joy in merely being able to balance their checkbooks.

He who would be Socrates would have to contend with a populace who generally wants its dissections of humanity limited to 44 minutes out of a single hour, with commercials interspersed throughout. That’s right: Dr. Phil, and those like him, are why a modern Socrates wouldn’t be taken seriously. So many people have their hearts set on crackpot philosophies, they cannot tolerate for a moment serious considerations of the human condition, just tearful feelgoodism. We aren’t concerned with what philosophically drives the healthy man, only with whatever sicknesses drive the disturbed man, and how best to fiddle with his brain chemistry in order to “fix” him.

History most benefits us because it has gone on forever; in other words, odds are good those things we might today consider serious philosophy have already been taken into account by the past masters – Socrates, for example. Try as we might to believe otherwise, the human condition hasn’t changed that significantly over the centuries; the way we think about it may have (e.g. the honesty in which we approach it), and the difficulties surrounding the condition may have evolved to a certain point, but the human condition itself hasn’t changed, a fact that continually renders the writings of Socrates relevant. Whoever should come along and repeat those things could rightfully be seen as a proponent of the Socratic philosophies, but not another coming.

There cannot be a great modern philosopher because we believe we have moved past such things, that the time for them has past. Ayn Rand fancied herself a philosopher, and for whatever was / is good or bad about Objectivism, she was (and is still) widely held as a cult leader by those who opposed her, those who misunderstood her, those who took her much more seriously than she actually deserved to be taken. (This is as a philosopher, of course, not a novelist.)

One can only imagine the modern impact of the man who appeared and said, “I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls, proclaiming as I go, Wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state.” And then imagine if he gathered his followers to his side and personally instructed them … outside of a public school, no less! Whatever wouldn’t be referred to as utopian fantasy would probably be thought of as dramatic religious fervor of some sort, and forcefully discounted. What was a trial in 399 BC would today be endless IRS audits and FBI investigations; hemlock the only eventual parallel. In the end, we cannot support a great modern philosopher because we believe we know it all, that perhaps being a greater disappointment than not having a modern Socrates to examine in the first place.

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