Sunday, November 19, 2006


I don't often post videos, but for some reason this one struck me - I never thought I would feel so strongly for a little animated Kiwi, but you'll probably understand what I mean when the video is finished.

At the very least, I'm reminded of how worthwhile certain idiosyncratic enterprises can be, even if no one else can understand them, even if they mean great sacrifice. You have to admire that little Kiwi.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Sophist and his Statesmen

Just in case anyone wasn't aware, I'm studying ancient philosophy at the moment, so please don't be surprised if many of my posts are in some way related to names like Plato and Aristotle, and possibly even Parmenides or Heraclitus, whose names you probably haven't heard - though if you have, I'm very sorry to hear of your misfortune. :)

With the elections coming up, a lot of my thought has been related to the current state of our political system and my near-complete lack of belief in the people who are a part of that system. Now for the philosophy: these people remind me of the Sophists, who were a group of thinkers who preceded and were in some senses contemporaneous with Socrates and Plato in ancient Athens. The Sophists were relativists - they believed that even if there was such a thing as "truth," it couldn't be grasped in any useful way, and so the best thing you could do was learn how to convince people of your point of view. After all, if there was no truth, the truth was just what any given person happened to believe, and if you could convince me that 2 + 2 = 5, then that was my truth! So the Sophists taught rhetoric, and their students were great public speakers. They used ambiguity in language to "win" arguments - much the same way as our politicians do the same to "win" debates. After all, the person who looks the most intelligent and appeals most to our values when pitted against his opponent is the one we perceive to be the winner of any argument.

So if you ever hear a subject being referred to as "mere sophistry," you can think of all those Sophists running around in ancient Greece, speaking their little hearts about about the most outlandish subjects (I'm not even going to go into them now - one of them was that no one could ever say something false, for example), and you can think of an argument whose force is not truth or coherence, but ambiguity and rhetorical tricks.

And of course, reading this and then CNN a few minutes later, I couldn't help but think: most politicians are nothing if not Sophists. They're barely good enough to be Sophists - they have speechwriters who do their speaking for them! It's as if you dressed up a model, stuck him behind a podium, gave him a script and told him he would be governor as long as he didn't offend too many people in his state. What kind of a person is this to be speaking for us, making decisions that affect us, and otherwise being recognized as an authority figure? I wouldn't trust my morning coffee to such a pale semblance of a thinker.

Plato had a vision of a Philosopher-King, one who had studied and reasoned enough to sufficiently understand what was good for his kingdom. This description does not attempt to encompass what he truly meant by "philosopher" in the fullest sense - suffice to say that a philosopher is one who is able to fully comprehend Truth (and this is a very necessary capitalization) in the most universal sense, and can apply it to all of the things with which we are familiar in the world. To put it more concisely, a philosopher is one who understands what and why things really are - the who, where, and how are all secondary, if not merely incidental.

Of course, the who, where, and how are all of the most essential nature to a king or a leader. So Plato's Philosopher-King in effect has two jobs: to think about the world and to actually act in it. This isn't asked of many people these days - most academic jobs (with the possible exceptions of legal professors) are positions largely sequestered from the outside world, while politicians exist in an environment composed largely of rhetorical spin and do their actual policy work through "think-tanks" of other educated people. But for someone to actually have the faculties necessary to make a sound decision, I would argue that he cannot simply have facts spoken to him by advisers - he has to understand the facts, really know how they form a whole system, and only then will the judgement address the important aspects of a situation. I believe that there are probably a few people in the Bush administration who have this ability, but not many, and certainly none who share my values.

Now, there is plenty in The Republic that seems idealistic and even dangerous to our conception of a happy state - the abolition of family units, for instance, or the emphasis against monogamy in the highest echelons of the population both seem geared toward a more effective functional unit, not more effective human beings. There is even good evidence to believe that Plato didn't even believe that his ideal state was possible in our flawed world - it was just a great experiment to see if such a thing could be reasoned out, and if you know Plato, you know that he'll take an abstraction over a reality any day. Still, there doesn't seem to be any good reason that a leader should not be a Philosopher-King, at least in some attenuated way, even in our own society.

Reading Plato, one's own idealism inevitably comes bubbling to the surface, and in my own case I was reminded of a younger version of myself, a person who believed that there might, in his lifetime, be elected a President who, as a leader, was concerned solely with the benefit of those he led. This younger man absorbed literature with a thirst for the ultimate truth, that guiding principle through which everything else would cohere and be made sensible. He was a very unrealistic young man, but despite his many flaws, I have to admit, I like him even now. We still have quite a lot in common.

So if for no other reason than this, I highly recommend reading a few of the dialogues - you might be surprised at what a wonderful experience it is. Maybe someone will get a start on their way to becoming a philosopher, or a king, or both.

But at the very least, you'll learn to hate those damnable Sophists.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Infundibulum Returns!

This certainly won't be one of my usual posts - I suppose I'm usually just not satisfied with short and sweet, but feel instead that people rarely elaborate enough on complicated subjects, so I'll make up for it. Some of you might respond that my "usual posts" consist of absolutely nothing at all, however, and given the regularity (or lack thereof) of my blog posts recently, this would be a fair reply. :)

But, by popular demand (and I mean the three or four of you who asked, "are you ever going to update your blog again?") I have returned! I have determined to try and make these things considerably shorter and sweeter, but as always, if you really want news, check out Val's page. She's the person of action between the two of us - she's the lawyer, after all, and (at least by the broadest definition) I'm the philosopher.

By the way, thanks, anonymous, for trying to "wipe some of the dust off" of this thing. A dust mite nearly took my head off when I signed in, but I think it's a little better now.