Philosophy and the City

A few good posts on the polis recently.

One by Adam Robbert.

Another by Bill Thorn.

Re-thinking politics is something most Athenian citizens never had to do. They had common categories to guide them in the agora, as well as comedy and tragedy to form and re-form their feelings for them at the theater. But then Socrates started taking philosophical walks along the Ilissus with the city youth, asking them about Love and the Soul. He started asking about Goodness and drinking wine with them, telling stories about Beauty. He inspired a generation of intellectual critics of the city’s traditional ways. The comics laughed at him. The courts did not. He found himself called to testify. He was convicted of atheism and sentenced to death.

Philosophy is inherently disturbing to the ruling classes of all but the most ideal societies. It under-minds the politician’s sense of identity by forcing him to consider the ground of his own powers of persuasion, to reflect upon his own reasons for exercising power. This throws him into conflict with himself, a crisis of consciousness as well as conscience. Politicians always have to pretend not to have internal conflicts, not to have contemplative thoughts. They are to be creatures of immediate action only, of instinctual oughts.

Socrates was accused of being a sort of magician, a pharmakeus, charming the young with his psychedelic speech. I think philosophy, if it is to remain relevant and effective, must play a similar role in politics today. It is risky, of course. Bruno was burnt at the stake for practicing political magic. Cornel West was chased out of Harvard by Larry Summers for practicing theological sorcery on behalf of the poor and working classes. Not many academics and intellectuals take magic seriously anymore. Politicians and business leaders certainly do, which is perhaps why they have all the power in our society.

Wisdom bombs threaten to persuade people not to shop, to organize in public places for the purposes of self-governance, to protest the material conditions of their spiritual imprisonment. Philosophy is lobbing gnosis grenades into public places as often as possible. Philosophy bears the torch and is the light of every free mind. Philosophy shares with the polis a secret, that the ordered motion of the stars above is a sign from heaven, there to remind people what is Beautiful and Good here on earth below.