Socrates & Jesus vs the strongmen leaders

At the beginning of Book VI (l. 61) of the De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Lucretius reminds us that, when under stress, people tend “to revert . . . to their earlier superstitions”. Given that we are clearly in a time when all of us around the world are under great stress from the pandemic this is why in my piece for you last week called “Cool It”, I reminded you of the great value of keeping the use of reason and evidence at the very heart of any freethinking community such as our own which was born out of the intertwining critical traditions of Enlightenment-inspired philosophy and liberal religion. A close reading of our history gives us good reasons to be confident that it is only through the continued, careful and consistent use of reason and empirical evidence gathering that we can ensure superstition does not enter back into play amongst ourselves even though, alas, it is clearly seeing a resurgence in the increasingly stressed wider world.

But, even as we continue to employ reason and empirical evidence as a bulwark against the return of superstition, we need to be acutely aware that times of stress also increase the desire in many people for strong religious and political leaders who are prepared openly to claim that they have THE ANSWER and are, therefore, able to offer their followers a stress-free, coherent and contradiction-free life-style. The current crop of nationalistic and xenophobic movements in the world (many of which are explicitly tying their nationalism to traditional forms of religion) all claim to be able to give people just such a stress-free, coherent and contradiction-free life-style.

Perhaps, inevitably, this situation raises the question of what kind of leadership our own freethinking, liberal religious and Enlightenment-inspired philosophy is, or might be able to offer a stressed world? 

Since the eighteenth-century one of the answers to this question we have occasionally given is to point to the kind of ethical and philosophical leadership that was displayed by the wholly human, historical Jesus and by the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. To echo some words written by Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) whilst on his deathbed, the only analogy I have for what I am doing is Socrates. My task is the Socratic task of revising the definition of what it means to be a person who continues to take the example of the human Jesus with the utmost seriousness (cf. Edward F. Mooney: “On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy, and Time”, Ashgate 2007, p. 8)

Today, I’m not going to explore the model of leadership the wholly human Jesus might offer us, except to reiterate a point I often make, namely, that contrary to the claims of Christianity, there is good reason to think that Jesus taught, henceforth and forever, that God (or whatever ultimate concern we mean by the word God) was present only in and as one’s neighbour — including those neighbours whom we perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be our enemies. In so doing Jesus opened the door for us to begin the long process of dissolving all of religion’s former supernatural, superstitious and apocalyptic ideas into a simple, if always extremely challenging, ethical demand for justice and love for all creation, right here, and right now.     

I have no doubts that I’ll return at some point to this humanistic, existential and even a-theistic understanding of Jesus in other episodes. But let me now turn to the kind of leadership that was displayed by Socrates. 

Socrates taught that the best way for us to proceed was by the careful use of a basic method of enquiry which is, today, named after him, the “Socratic Method.” 

In Plato’s early dialogues it is the technique Socrates uses to investigate, for example, the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. It moves through the following four basic steps:
  • 1) Socrates’ conversation partner asserts a thesis, for example “Courage is endurance of the soul”, which Socrates considers false and wishes to challenge.
  • 2) Socrates then gets his conversation partner to agree to further premises, for example “Courage is a fine thing” and “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing.”
  • 3) Socrates then argues, and gets his conversation partner to agree, that these further premises contradict the original thesis, in this case it leads to, for example, “courage is not endurance of the soul.”
  • 4) Socrates then claims that he has shown his conversation partner’s thesis to be false and that its negation is true.
Each working through of the method leads to some new and, hopefully, more refined examination of the concept under consideration. Now it’s absolutely vital to see that anything approaching a full Socratic inquiry requires a repeated use of this technique which ends, not in possession of the final truth of the matter but, instead, in what is called “aporia”, that is to say doubt or puzzlement.

To pursue philosophy in this fashion is, therefore, to drink deeply a strange mix of disappointment and wonder. Disappointment that one’s initial ideas have turned out to be mistaken, but wonder at the process by which (and the person through whom) one has discovered this and been able to learn something new or, at least, something more nuanced about our world. In short, whilst continuing to love and seek wisdom, the person following Socrates’ method recognises that they neither possess this wisdom nor, in all probability, ever will. It keeps the future radically open and free for them and, importantly, ensures that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

The art critic, media theorist, and philosopher, Boris Groys (b. 1947) makes it clear that through these dialogues Socrates has no intention of producing coherent and paradox-free speech. Instead, Socrates is content with discovering and revealing the paradoxes in the speeches of his opponents. And rightly so, says Groys, for simply 

“ . . . by exposing the paradoxes hidden beneath the surface of sophistical speech, evidence of such intense effulgence shines forth that listeners and readers of the Platonic dialogues become fascinated, and for lengthy periods are unable to tear themselves away from [Socrates]. It is entirely sufficient to point out the hidden paradox, to uncover it, to disclose it, for the required evidence to arise. The further step of formulating a contradiction-free discourse is unnecessary” (Boris Groys: “The Communist Postscript”, Verso, 2010, p. **).

So, to return again to a point I made at the beginning of this piece: what worries me is not “aporia”, i.e. doubt or puzzlement but, instead, that in times of stress there are always so many people out in the world who, for one reason or another, are willing to claim they can put an end to doubt and puzzlement, and can produce for you coherent and contradiction-free speech. These are the sophistical people who have some kind of end product to sell us whether it be a political program, a Mercedes or a metaphysical religion. Once you have bought into the life-style/product promoted by the sophists their further aim is always then to close down for as long as possible any further critical questioning or thought so that you will remain loyal to this or that political, commercial or religious brand. In some real way, then, sophistry and the idea that there can exist contradiction-free ideologies/discourse is always and only about gaining power over other people’s feelings and behaviours.  

Right at this moment, in the midst of a global pandemic and amidst the kinds of stress-making political and cultural confusions caused by things like climate change, COVID-19, Trump and Brexit, it’s as plain as a pikestaff to me that there are both a lot more people than usual desperate to buy into any institution and/or person who can claim to be able offer them such a contradiction-free ideology/discourse, and also a lot more people and/or institutions than usual willing to make that claim.

It seems to me that we who remain committed to the continued existence of an Enlightenment-inspired free-thought and/or forms of liberal religion must be very careful not to fall prey to the temptation of ever thinking that, perhaps, we should somehow be entering into this dangerous market place of ideas by producing and promoting our own “distinctive” liberal brand of a putatively stress- and contradiction-free ideology/discourse. 

Instead, in these stressful times, I, personally, think we best and most effectively show appropriate leadership in two, straightforwardly humanistic ways.

The first humanistic way is by continuing bravely to encourage people to continue to follow in the footsteps of Socrates. We do this by conversationally challenging any and every form of speech which, by pretending to offer a completely coherent and contradiction-free blueprint for living, reveals it is really only seeking to stop people from seeing that the world is, in fact, a highly puzzling, complex, plural and always moving domain, and that to negotiate it as well as is possible, it is always necessary for people freely to be exercising their faculty of reason in seeking out new clues and empirical evidence about how the world is and our current place in it.

The second humanistic way is by continuing bravely to encourage people to continue to follow in the footsteps of the wholly human Jesus by dissolving all of religion’s former supernatural, superstitious and apocalyptic ideas into a simple, if always challenging, existential, ethical demand for justice and love for all creation, right here, and right now.

Importantly, very importantly, when we as individuals and together are able confidently to embody these two intertwining examples of leadership, we do not, thereby, help to deliver up to our already overheated and increasingly superstitious and authoritarian-minded world just one more putative single, completely coherent and contradiction-free blueprint. Instead, we simply offer a genuinely free, cooling, companionable, reasonable, just and loving method by which diverse kinds of people may freely and creatively imitate in their own lives the same kind of free and creative footsteps once made by Jesus and Socrates.