Socrates, Philosophy, and Why What is Popular is Not Always Right

I have commented before that popularity has no connection whatsoever with with what is right, wrong, good, or bad.  I am by no means, by any stretch of the imagination, alone in thinking that.  Often we can feel things to be true often before we know them.  I’m sure many of you have felt that.  Socrates would call this the difference between true opinion and knowledge, the latter being far superior.  I was reading about all of this last night in an excellent book called The Consolations of Philosophy.  The book is by Alain de Botton.

My Dad has long preached to me the benefits of philosophy when trying to figure out an ethical argument.  However, as much as I have tried to read philosophy, it often left me cold and confused.  I have read almost all of Camus’ fiction, yet found The Myth of Sisyphus to be extremely challenging.  I took one or two philosophy classes and while I learned a little, there was much, as there still is, that I don’t know.  My Dad had the benefit of some really great teachers that helped guide him through the impenetrable language that philosophers often communicate in.

However, the book by de Botton is a great way to understand philosophy at a entry level.  He not only describes certain philosophers ideas in an extremely simple straightforward way, but also applies the ideas to problems that all humans suffer with.

In the beginning he uses the life of Socrates, and Socratic dialog, to make you understand that what is popular is not always right.  However, even if many of us know this, he again takes us from that place of true opinion to knowledge through his examination of Socrates.  The whole chapter is worth reading, but here is one example where the writer talks about how we should listen to those that criticize us, but we only let them affect our behavior if we work out with reason if they are right (I have cut out a very small example that don’t make as much sense without reading the rest of the text):

True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning.  When we are making a ship, it is the verdict of those who construct triremes that should worry us;  and when we are considering ethical matters – how to be happy and courageous and just and good – we should not be intimidated by bad thinking, even if it issues from the lips of teachers of rhetoric, mighty generals and well-dressed aristocrats from Thessalay.  

It sounded elitist, and it was.  Not everyone is worth listening to.  Yet Socrates’ elitism had no trace of snobbery or prejudice.  He might have discriminated in the views he attended to, but the discrimination operated not on the basis of class or money, nor on the basis of military record or nationality, but on the basis of reason, which was – as he stressed – a faculty accessible to all.  

The idea, which is better demonstrated in the entire piece, is that many people have not properly thought through certain issues in any kind of thorough way.  Often things that we take for granted in society, laws or issues of common sense, are the products of tradition and have nothing to do with rigorous thinking about what is best.  Many people go through life without questioning why they are doing something.  So even if an idea or thing is popular, only if it can stand up to thorough reasoning should it be deemed good or right.  Often what is popular or deemed right is nothing more than the result of many people doing what has always been done, without questioning.  Slavery, during Socrates time and in the early history of the U.S., once had popular support.

The one other point that I would like to make, which the author also makes, is that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to outside criticism, even by those we don’t deem knowledgable about a certain issue.  Again, even a critic might know something is true through “true opinion” and not knowledge.  So we should again listen to criticism, but put it through the rigorous test of reason.

 

 

 

David Mitchell Interview

David Mitchell Interview

One of my favorite writers in recent years has been David Mitchell, who can seemingly do anything or go anywhere.  In some of his novels, epics like Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, he can use many voices, cover different time periods, and make each seem authentic.  Not only is he able to do this, but he is able to connect all of those voices to form a compelling overreaching narrative.  Meanwhile, in something like Black Swan Green, he is able to use a much smaller canvas, in this case a British school kid in the 80’s, and make it just as compelling.  One of the true originals of our time.  The link is a short piece accompanied by a longer video interview.

More Thoughts On Get in the Van by Henry Rollins

I am watching Sons of Anarchy tonight and I just came across the episode where musician and actor Henry Rollins enters playing a white supremacist.  One of my favorite reads of recent years is Rollins’s Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag.  Now many of you might assume that I love this book because it documents touring and music, because I am a touring musician.  However, trust me, one of the last things I would want to read while being in a van for eight hours is a book on touring in a van.  There is a darkly comic, vulgar insanity to the prose.  It was written as diary entries, that at least seem to be written without publishing in mind.  Many of the things said in the book are the kinds of things people think, but would never admit to the outside world.  Because of this there is also a strange truth to the book, even if it is not an enlightening one.  In the Leonard Cohen song Going Home, Cohen sings what is a great description of the endgame of art :

I want to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

At the time I was reading Rollins’s book I was going through a slightly dark period.  I loved Rollins’s ability to keep moving forward even in the face of constant defeats.  Rollins goes on horribly crushing tours, only to spend his time between them living in a shed with no AC, with only spiders as his company.  Yet despite this he still keeps going further and further out into the wilderness of the self, writing and self-realizing.  It’s like a self help book written by a complete masochist.  I don’t know if the book is inspiring or a darkly absurd comedy, but that its true charm, the straddling of seemingly disparate genres.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Getting Rave Reviews

Ta-nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

I have been a longtime reader of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog over at The Atlantic.  Although I occasionally think Coates’s blog is too narrow in scope, there is no doubt Coates is an unusually gifted writer.  (Andrew Sullivan, who wrote alongside Coates at The Atlantic for awhile, was not only able to be an uncompromising advocate for marriage equality, but was also seemingly able to cover an unbelievably wide scope of topics.  I found that having a sense of how Sullivan viewed the wider world actually strengthened his arguments for justice.  Anyway, this is splitting hairs and is a topic for another day.  I would feel amiss if I didn’t say anything, but this is really an argument about format and outcome, and not quality of writing.)  Coates has a curious mind and without a doubt is someone that is always reaching for truth.  Before I found myself reading a lot about the Civil War, Coates own research and exploration of that time period was extremely fascinating.  I am happy to see that his new book, Between the World and Me, is getting rave reviews.  The above piece is not only about the book, but also a look at Coates as a man and writer in general.  It is a well written and interesting piece worth your time.  Also, if you are someone that reads several blogs a day, I would definitely add his blog to your list.

Shows, Recording, Joe, Stephen King, Voltaire, and Other Musings

It’s been another busy week here in Texas.  Last weekend was four show, this weekend there are four shows, and two of my three days off I have been recording.  Going on the road this week with the Shinyribs band:

Shinyribs Show Dates

I’m hoping to get a book worth discussing before I hit the highway.  Musically I have been living exclusively in the world of Jamaica.

Recording just a few songs with my good friend Mick Flowers who, aside from being an excellent drummer and producer, is also a prop master, and an amazing one at that.  I just saw the last movie that he did, Joe starring Nicholas Cage, and it was fantastic.  A gritty southern grotesque with a dark heart and an even darker sense of humor.  It’s on Netflix right now and it is worth seeking out if you like your movies jet black or if you are a fan of southern writers like Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor.  It was filmed around Austin and apparently many of the people in the film, although excellent, are not trained actors, but regular people recruited for the film.

In Austin we went from last year, where you couldn’t swim because all of the swimming holes were dry, to not being able to swim this year because the creeks are overflowing due to an abundance of rain.  I know better than to substitute weather for climate, but the weather sure has been strange down here the last few years.

The more I think about it the more I am extremely happy that I read Voltaire’s Candide.  It is a satire of the human condition of the highest order.  You will never hear anyone say, “All is for the best”, or “Everything happens for a reason”, again the same way.

Been reading Stephen King short stories the last couple of weeks.  It is amazing how prolific he is.  I know there are some critics that criticize his writing style, but he has an ability to tap into the uncanny in a way that few other writers can.  I like genre fiction, or songwriting, or movies, as long as they are done well.  There is something interesting about taking a certain genre, trying to work within its limits, and deliver surprises along the way that is appealing.  I always believed that a lot of creativity comes out of limitations.

Anyway, I am off to enjoy some rare sunshine before I head into the studio.

In the future, when all’s well…

Jeff

Frankenstein, Voltaire, and Time Warping

I just finished reading Frankenstein.  It has remained a classic for good reason.  There is not much I feel I can add to that.  However, I can’t stop being in disbelief that it was written by a 19 year old, especially a 19 year old woman in a time when woman were often treated as second class citizens.

The last book I read was Voltaire’s Candide, which was written in the 1700’s.  It’s like if George Carlin and Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book together.  Their work is still freaking out people now, one can imagine what those in Voltaire’s time period thought.

The thing is, history is not a constant march forward.  Maybe as a whole the world progresses.  But there are many places and pockets where things are moving forward and backwards all of the time.  Some places in our country are still in the 1950’s culturally.  Some people in third world countries live like the industrial revolution never took place.  (Check out these pictures from Mongolia, they will blow your mind!)  I think so many of the worlds problems come from different places, existing in almost different time periods, rubbing up against each other.  When the past and the present collide, things are bound to go sideways.

Reading and Travel

Whenever I travel, especially when there is a lot of actual travel time involved, I try to set the goal of reading a book or two in that time.  I try to not let the time being stuck in vans, airports, or trains go to waste.  On this trip I brought Frankenstein and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.  As well as being beneficial from any kind of learning standpoint, it helps the time go faster.  A ten hour van ride feels half as long.  It is also good for relaxing.  Forgetting yourself for part of the time helps you be less stressed when you miss that layover, there is a traffic jam, etc.  Trust me, I can definitely use all the help I can get in that department!  I almost had a meltdown today trying to get to the van on time as there was an accident on the highway this morning!

One other thing I find is that if you combine a trip with a couple good books it helps to make the trip itself more meaningful and interesting.  Scenes from a book fuse with the new places you are seeing in your imagination, and the world expands in front of you. 

You'd Think 'Twas a Crime to be Human

The following lyrics are from a song in Brendan Behan’s play Richard’s Cork Leg:

You’d think ’twas a crime to be human
To sometimes get scared in the park,
When a copper sneaks up there behind you,
And flashes his light in the dark.

To regard savage dogs with suspicion,
In case that the bastards would bite,
To be hauled off to jail on suspicion,
And scared of a scream in the night.

You’d think ’twas a crime to be human,
With sex education in bed,
And postpone your thoughts of hereafter,
‘Till after you are twenty years dead.

To work overtime with young Nancy,
And give her a coffee and roll,
And likewise whatever she’d fancy
By weight or the lump or the whole.

You’d think ’twas come to be human,
And go for a swim in the sea,
And dance with no clothes in the sunshine,
And drink foreign lager for tea.

To regard co-existence with favor,
And nuclear weapons with fear,
To want more return for less labour,
Fatter fish, cheaper chips, better beer.

Let the heroes all die for the people,
If that is what they want to do,
And we’ll struggle on here without them,
I’ve concluded, now, frolics to you.  

Why Are We Not Smarter Now?

I recently read Candide by Voltaire.  I will add my voice to the many over the years that have deemed it a classic.  I think I would even say it is one of my favorite books I have read.  If you were to tell someone to read a book that was written by a French intellectual in the 1700’s, many would imagine something dense and challenging.  However, despite the amazing wealth of ideas in the book, it is direct, accessible, funny, and full of truths that still resonate in the modern day.  I almost felt in certain ways that I was reading a precursor to Carlin or Vonnegut, people that are able to speak truth to power in very direct and clear way, while making you laugh out loud at things you shouldn’t be laughing at.

I was a history major at WVU for several years, before finally graduating with an American Studies degree from Penn State.  One of the things in history that always comes up is trying to justify or condemn someone for what they did based upon the times that they live in.  “Well so and so owned slaves, but you have to understand the times that they lived in.”  I think something like that is only completely true if you know how far thought had progressed in certain societies.  If slavery or some other evil is accepted by almost everyone, then you might not be able to judge someone if the light of truth hadn’t been shown on that particular evil yet.  On the other side, if people knew something was evil, or unethical, than you can judge those people in their own time.

Reading Voltaire makes me think that the argument, you have to understand the times, doesn’t hold water as much as I thought.  Voltaire satirizes almost all of the evils of his time and ours:  Violence over religion, colonialism, exploiting other humans for profit, violence against women, war, and on and on.  The book was written in 1759, before the United States even existed, yet there is a passage where he points out how absurd it is to treat those of another race cruelly, especially in the name of God and country.  He is constantly satirizing different religious sects for fighting with each other over beliefs.

The book basically follows the title character, a well meaning but naive man from Germany who is told by a court philosopher that all is for the best, that all is part of some natural order.  When Candide gets kicked out of the castle he is living in, for being with a woman that he shouldn’t be, his story becomes a downward spiral of the tragic and comic as one bad thing happens after another.  The language is very direct and simple, but the amount of terrible deeds listed almost becomes poetic in its scope.  It certainly is one of those works where things are so terrible it goes through the looking glass, where the awful becomes funny as a result of perceived absurdity.  The book holds a mirror up to the human race, asking the question, almost screaming, “What are you doing?!!!”

The forward to the book makes the case that above all, Voltaire was against superstition.  It was superstition, belief in things that have no basis in nature, that is man’s biggest folly.  He understood the cruelty that humans could do to one another through created orders like religion and nation states.

Although Voltaire doesn’t have any answers, he does have a direction by the end of the book that at least points towards ways in which humans could lead lives worth living.  Although this is a book largely of darkness, even if hilariously conveyed, this is not a book completely without light.

Although the world has progressed in certain ways since the time of Voltaire, many of these problems are still with us.  I couldn’t help but ask myself several questions:  How did he have such a clear view of the world before modern science and so much other knowledge existed?  If he had such a clear view of the world of the world, why were so many others in his time so lost in the dark?  If he had such a clear view of the world in 1759, why is it that so many of these problems still persist?  How is it that someone writing in the 1700’s could see the world, when so many people, SO MANY PEOPLE, of right now are so lost in the woods?  Why do so many idiocies associated with religion and superstition still exist, if he knew so much then and we have gained so much knowledge since his time?

Who knows such things…