Sunday, March 19, 2006

Take a Bow for the New Revolution

The following is more rhetorical and hortatory than my usual fare. But I think that the topic deserves it.

In reading Plato, I've been struck by how much Socrates' arguments depend on the concepts that were obvious to his interlocutors: things like virtue and art, nature and form, which we don't use in nearly the same ways. At first I thought, if Socrates were alive today, he would have a much more difficult time getting us to agree to anything. But then I realized that if he were in today's world, he would instead use the concepts that we take for granted, the ideas that are beyond argument, the many things that we think are obvious which were never taken as such before.

That's when the similarities started occurring to me.

We once were convinced that the physical phenomena that mystified us were the effect of strange gods or spirits, whom we named and thus knew. How far we have advanced; now we are convinced that the parts of human nature that mystify us must be caused by some primeval evolutionary advantage, or failing that, caused by psychological disorders, which we name and thus know.

We once were certain that we were to propitiate the gods by sacrificing humans to them, and that if we did this wholeheartedly they would reward all with unending prosperity. How far we have come; now we sacrifice our poor to our economic system, certain that if we let the invisible hand of capital and the free market do as it wills, we will all be rewarded with unending prosperity.

We once were satisfied that a drugged maiden on the Pythian seat could tell us the deep truths, how we ought to live, even the future. How far we have grown; now we are sure that every question of truth, ethics, and prediction can be satisfied by a repeatable scientific experiment and nothing else.

We once found it obvious that certain acts were ugly and wrong, no matter whether they hurt any person; and if you tried to argue the opposite, you would speak to them only nonsense. How wise we have become; now it is obvious to us that if an act hurts no person against their consent, it cannot after all be that wrong; and if you argue the opposite, you speak only foolishness.

We have become so sophisticated, you and I. We count ourselves superior to the ancients whose idols were painted representationally, in the forms of beasts and men. For now we paint our idols abstractly, as are Democracy and Privacy, Capitalism and Science, Liberty and Psychology. We know that our age is right because it sits in judgment on all the false notions of prior ages, and we are certain that the ages to come will only ratify our judgments.

Socrates would have a field day in the universities.

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