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.