Socrates and Charlie Hebdo

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid got shot down in twitter-flames this week for referring to Socrates\’ writings, when defending freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  The thing is, as any classically-educated fule kno, that Socrates didn\’t write anything; that was Plato.  Cue lots of sneering. 

Well, fair enough, though the two philosophers are more or less identical for all practical purposes: Plato didn\’t write anything but dialogues in which Socrates was the speaker, and Socrates\’ philosophy is only recorded in Plato\’s writings.

More interesting, to me anyway, was the thought that even if Socrates was executed by the Athenians for his atheistic opinions, and his \’corruption of the young\’, he was far from being a believer in democracy and free expression (indeed, his association with shady oligarchs may have been one of the factors that led to his downfall).

For example, Socrates would almost certainly have banned Charlie Hebdo.  In his discussion of the just city, The Republic, Socrates presents it as one governed by a paternalistic \’guardian-class\’ of warrior philosophers.  Later in the book, Socrates expounds his theory of ideals (sometimes \’forms\’, but I think \’ideals\’ is less confusing).  Put very simply, everything that we see in the universe takes its identity from its imitation of, or resemblance to, a metaphysical ideal.  A table is a table in as much as it resembles the ideal Table; something is good in that it resembles the ideal Good.

This theory explains why, controversially, Socrates exiles poets (and depending on your reading, other artists) from his Republic.  Their art is an act of mimesis, imitation, but worse than that – it is an imitation of an imitation.  My depiction of a table is a poor copy of a poor copy of the ideal Table.  Socrates also suggests that art, particularly effective art, inflames the passions, and is therefore inappropriate material for his serene and ascetic guardians.  Anyhow, one way or another, the artists have to go, and certainly the publishers of satirical magazines would have had to go with them.

Socrates\’ conclusion troubled Victorian admirers (who had been happily going along with the rule by warrior philosophers up to that point), and it worried his interlocutors too; Socrates admits uneasiness with his conclusion, and challenges them to find counter-arguments.

I was reminded of this stipulation when listening to a man being interviewed about the prohibtion on images of the Prophet Muhammed last week.  Generally, this prohibiton is understood in terms of the strictures against idolatry found in the Old Testament – we shouldn\’t confuse workshipping a God with worshipping an (imperfect) image (like the Golden Calf or the Fish-tailed God Dagon, whose followers are so enthusiastically smitten in the Bible).

The interviewee went further, explaining the prohibition in strikingly Platonic (or Socratic) terms: Muhammed was such an excellent, virtuous and handsome man, indeed the ideal Man, that any attempt to portray him is bound to fall short of the reality, and will therefore represent a slander on him.  Plato (or Socrates) could hardly have put it better himself.

To be honest, I\’m not sure what this shows.  Perhaps it is a) that if you throw enough classical education at people, some is bound to stick (however imperfectly) even 25 years later; b) that if you follow any metaphysical theory far enough, logic will lead you down some curious cul-de-sacs; c) that those who die because of expressing their views are not necessarily liberals; and d) that irrational prohibitions are not the exclusive preserve of the abrahamic religions, but can be found in \’rational\’ Greek philosophy too.

Reality used to be a friend of mine

Just before Christmas, an age ago in internet time, a man called David Thorne published an email exchange on his website, apparently between him and an entrepreneur called Simon Edhouse, who wanted some free graphic design for a new venture. The (cruel but very funny) exchange was an internet hit (particularly among graphic designers, who seemed all too familiar with the scenario), but Edhouse quickly denounced it as a vicious fabrication by a former friend.

Browsing around, I found Edhouse\’s own website, where he was facing concerted internet heckling from people who seemed unconvinced by his denials. But it also contained some of his own thoughts: \”destiny is DIY\” and \”the map is not the territory\”. These curious pearls made me wonder whether perhaps Edhouse was actually a fictitious character, invented by Thorne for his own cruel amusement. Perhaps Thorne was fictitious too. They both seem to come from Adelaide, which may as well be Alpha Centauri for all I can do to verify the existence of either of them.

It reminded me of a university friend, studying philosophy and overwhelmed by cartesian scepticism, desperately gripping the lamp on his desk, seeking reassurance that it – perhaps alone in all the universe – was verifiably real. All that is solid melts into air.

Kicking against the BRICs

Compared to the hubbub over Google\’s threats, media coverage of the banning of China\’s first \’gay pageant\’ was limited, but gave an interesting snapshot of something. I\’m just not sure what.

The Guardian had reported on plans for the event on 10 January, with organiser Steve Zhang suggesting that police could yet shut it down. And so they did. But this seemed to be very polite repression: police were reported to have had friendly conversations with the participants, who were told that homosexuality was a \’sensitive issue\’. Very different in tone to Russia, where \’gay pride\’ and similar events are regularly and violently broken up by police (and nationalist counter-demonstrations).

If the demonstration had been by a political opposition group, the situation would probably be reversed. Russia is a democracy, albeit a compromised and autocratic one, and opposition parties are at least tolerated. The harsh treatment of pro-democracy activists in China shows that ideological pluralism is still seen as a dangerous threat to stability. You can bet that Google searches for gay dating sites would be far easier to get past China\’s internet censors than phrases like \’Tiananmen Square protests\’.

At which point one starts to wander dangerously close to sweeping generalisations about value systems and cultural heritage, confucianism and christianity. One culture is concerned about social cohesion and harmony, the other about personal behaviour and sin. Both can be repressive, but in different ways and to different people.