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.

 

 

 

80 Best Books Of All Time

80 Best Books Of All Time

Above is an Esquire list of the best 80 books of all time.  It is highly questionable, not only for its choices, but because it says specifically that every “man” should read.  To be fair it does claim that it is totally biased.  But I thought I’d post it anyway as anything that can jog the memory or possibly direct you towards a new book is a good thing.  I’ve only read 9 on the list.  (And yes, I am totally the asshole that counted.  At least I’m honest.)

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. 

The Benefit of Not Having Cable News

I have remarked many times that I do not have cable.  Especially with regards to cable news, it is very freeing.  No one needs 24 hours of surface news.  I have noticed that several republican candidates have declared.  I don’t need to watch endless public relations stories about people I don’t intend to vote for, or even people I do.  That doesn’t mean that I am championing staying uneducated about what is going on, nor am I claiming that all politicians are the same.  I think in a democracy that it is every citizens duty to pay attention to what is going on.  But cable news is the kind of thing you turn on for five minutes, hours later you have seen the same five stories a hundred times, and your blood pressure is way higher than when you started.  You can spend way less time reading a couple of in depth articles and you will find yourself way more informed.  You can spend all of that extra time reading books and actually learning about the world.   Or you can do things that you enjoy that actually bring meaning to your life.  At the very least you can space out for a couple hours and be far healthier.  You won’t be any dumber.  So be good to yourself and turn off the TV news.

Netanyahu Speaks to Congress

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Salon On Netanyahu Speech

Above is Salon’s take on Netanyahu’s speech to Congress today.  Although I tend to agree with them, my point today isn’t really to focus on this one write up.  At the end of the day it is one write up and you should be reading a bunch of them, mixing and matching, and trying to come to your own conclusion.  However, this is an event that you should be reading about.  A foreign head of state is trying to sway US policy.  This is highly unprecedented in the fact that this head of state actually spoke directly to our congress to try and change our policy.

I have long viewed Netanyahu as a thug and a bully whose intentions do not run in accord with the best intentions of our country.  Nor do I think that his intentions have long term Middle East peace at the heart of them.  I think he is someone that is about self-serving political and military power above all else.

But don’t take my word for it.  Read, read, and read some more.

Listening to the Cowboys/Eagles Game

While I was in Australia I listened to the Thanksgiving Cowboys/Eagles game online.  I obviously couldn’t get it on TV so it was my only option.  My dad is from Philadelphia and I’m originally from Pennsylvania, so I’m a huge Eagles fan.  Tonight I’m exhausted after four gigs in a row and a day in the studio.  It’s rainy in Austin, and I enjoyed listening to the game in Australia, so I thought I would listen to the game on the radio tonight.  I’m amazed at how much I enjoy listening to the games on the radio.  Watching them on TV is better, but I have to say that listening to them is better than watching them on TV without sound.  I can’t stand it when I go to a bar and my game is on, but it is not the one with sound on. At least for me I’ve realized that the sound of a game is just as important, if not more important than the visual side of it.

When you are listening to something, whether it is music or sports, the imagination takes over.  Radio really is “theater of the mind”.   It’s amazing how the human brain, if you are reading or you are listening to something, can create a whole visual world with simply sound or letters on a page.

Postscript:  It’s amazing how much swearing mere sound can incite.  

Ken Burn's The Civil War and Thinking Critically

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As I have said in prior posts, I’m watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  As a point of entry and an overview, I think it is outstanding.  I think it is an extremely well done documentary series that includes an incredible amount of information in an easily understandable way.  It is great TV.  I think it is good history too, as long as you view it as an overview.  One could make a documentary series just about the battle of Gettysburg, or any number of things that this covers.

I can’t help but feel watching parts of it though, that it is sanitized history.  I don’t necessarily mean this as a dig against the series.  When I was a history major in college I realized that the larger the period of time that you covered, the more the class was only going to deal with surface events.  If you took European History you would get names and dates and a couple of overreaching themes.  I took a class on just the years of the Third Reich leading up to World War II, for instance, and you got much deeper into the human mud of what was going on in that time.  So I think that in dealing with a subject as epic as the Civil War, only having eleven and a half hours to tell it, they did about as good as anyone could.

Let me diverge for a minute.  In the TV show Deadwood, which is a western TV show that takes place in the town of Deadwood, there is a scene where the army comes to town.  The commander of the army makes a speech that is the kind of speech you can imagine a commander making.  Meanwhile a deranged looking soldier mutters things like, “We ate our horses.”  In one scene you are getting the noble version of a story and the less noble truth at the same time.

Now before I go any further I want to make something clear.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t believe what they read in history books.  I’m not saying that every event has a conspiracy behind it and that traditional history is a deception.  In fact many history books are brutally honest.  But one should always read history with a critical eye.  Most of the time historians are doing their best to get at the truth.  But everyone has certain biases, only certain information might be available at anytime, or they just might have real world issues like certain time constraints upon their work.  Some people are just better writers than others.  As with most things in life approaching something from multiple viewpoints is the best way to get a well rounded portrait of something.  I read two or three books on Custer last year, I honestly can’t remember, and each book made the picture a little clearer.

But by sanitized history I mean that something paints a narrative that, while telling the truth, doesn’t challenge the existing order of things.  I mean Lee is constantly treated as revered.  It’s always mentioned that he had time for privates, that he was a good man at his core, that he was a brilliant general. But he fought for Virginia because he believed that is where his duty lay.  He let duty lead him to fight on the side of slavery.  Now I understand, and I myself risk simplifying things, that slavery at the start of the war, wasn’t the only thing that people were fighting over.  I also understand that you have to try to look at things in the context of their time.  But at the end of the day he did do just that, he fought on the side that wanted to protect slavery.  And while he was no doubt a brilliant general in a lot of ways, he sent many troops to their slaughter at Gettysburg in a terrible blunder.   Stonewall Jackson, in the book I am reading, is often sweet and good natured in his private life, but could commit acts of war with bloody ferocity.  Both his private kindness and his public savagery were allowed to exist because he, and many in the Civil War, believed they were instruments of God.  Well it would be a an incomplete picture to not present them as complicated, fully realized humans, that had both good and bad qualities, too often often history does not lay it out bare that these people were emotional mutants.  They could play with children and then send those children’s fathers to die for state pride at best, and the right to maintain slavery at worst.  It is true that Grant could also send large numbers of troops to die, but at that point emancipation was on the table, and that was something morally worth fighting for.

I think the show Deadwood, a work of fiction based on reality, does a far better job than a lot of history in terms of exposing the ugliness, and sometimes the human grace, in our past.  I mean these Civil War battles were truly things of the utmost horror.  Thousands of people were often shot down in mere minutes.  These were battles of butchery and savagery.  The documentary series shows dead bodes, and uses words like butchery and savagery, but I don’t think it makes it vivid enough how truly horrible these battles were.  They too often seem like things of the past, safe from the modern world.  These were our ancestors, only two human life spans away, that were dismembering each other in the most horrible ways imaginable.  This wasn’t the middle ages.  There was a scene in the episode last night where white and black Union troops were fighting the Confederates.  The Confederates were saying, if there were captives to take, “Take the whites and kill the niggers.”  That’s somebody’s great great grandpa!  I mean slave owners were selling people’s children off.  People that did that shit helped build this country!  Again, all of this stuff is talked about in the show, but there it seems to be treated almost too reverential at times.  While the show often acknowledges the horrible, it often doesn’t acknowledge the absurd, and these things are often disconnected from our present.

I actually think this is a great documentary series, despite my criticisms above.  My point is not to disparage the show.  I think, again, given the amount of material they had to cover in a given time, they did so in a truly extraordinarily way that is a great overview of this time in history.  But I think one can hold the contradictory opinion of acknowledging someone’s achievement while also criticizing it.  The filmmakers did an outstanding job, but the viewer must now do theirs in thinking critically about the information presented.

One of the Best Books of the Year?

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One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.  This book is an account of the Comanche Indian Wars that took place in Texas and the surrounding areas.  It was a book that was incredibly informative while also being an absolute page turner.  I just saw that Gwynne has a a new book out.  This book is an account of Stonewall Jackson called Rebel Yell:  The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  If it is anything like his last book then it is simply a must read as far as I’m concerned.

Here is a link to Gwynne’s website to learn more about the book:

http://www.scgwynne.com/rebel-yell-stonewall-jackson/

Authenticity and Doubt

Although I have been slacking off lately, I read a lot.  If there is anything that I have learned through learning, it is that there is so much I don’t know.  It’s unbelievable the amount of stuff that I see or hear about on a daily basis that makes me think to myself, “Jeez, I don’t know much about that do I?”  The world is an infinitely complex place.  At any one time there is more that we don’t know than we do know.  That’s why I respect people that are unafraid of doubt.  I also respect people that are authentic.  The two things go hand in hand really.

When I write here I try to be as authentic as possible to what I’m feeling in the moment.  However, don’t confuse being authentic with being right.  I try to “tell it like it is”, but there are times when I am acting on incomplete information, and other times when I just might be out and out wrong.  However, in trying to be authentic I believe there is value for the thinking person.  If you read enough of what I write, if you know my background, my biases, and so on, you can use what I write as a measuring stick against what you have read, and what other sources are out there.  It is only by comparing and contrasting many different things that we can even hope to get at the truth of a matter.  Everyone’s knowledge is incomplete.  However, for even this to succeed you need to hope that your multiple sources are authentic, in that they are at least trying to get as close to the truth as possible.  Someone that is trying to spin something or sell you on something is of no value whatsoever.  You see these kind of people all the time in the media.  If someone loves everything Obama has done or hates everything he has done, you can pretty much guess that they are not to be trusted, as an example.

Someone that I used to like to watch on TV, that I rarely agreed with, was Pat Buchanan.  Now I’m not vouching for his career in politics, but only on how he came across a couple years ago on MSNBC when I used to have cable.  (Although surprisingly he was friends with Hunter Thompson, who was a great bullshit detector.)  I couldn’t be more different in political thinking than him most of the time, but he seemed authentic.  He had enough sand to admit when he felt his own side was wrong.  You couldn’t necessarily predict his opinion just because he was on the right.  He seemed to be thinking through each issue as it came in front of him, instead of arriving at a preordained belief that was the result of groupthink.  Meanwhile when you watch a lot of political pundits you can pretty much guess where they are coming down on something, and you have no sense of what they really believe.  You can’t intellectually work with that.  Someone might as well be blowing fart noises in your ear.

I think if you want to figure out what is going on out there you shouldn’t look for people that just toe the line of what you believe, unless they seemingly get there by thinking through each issue.  But you should also try to read or watch or listen to people that have different beliefs as long as they are being authentic.  If they come from someplace true you can measure comments that they make against what they have said in the past.  And anyone honest knows that there are times they don’t know what the fuck is going on.  If someone can’t admit to having feelings of doubt at times, then don’t trust them.  Not for a minute.