Glawe: Socratic rebirth

Michael Glawe

These first few weeks of the fall semester have been bursting with pleasantly sunny weather (aside from those searing hot days). Unfortunately, the consequence of this is the free speech zone again becoming a stomping ground for charlatans and pamphleteers. It is somewhat comical to witness bystanders and passersby running the gauntlet of clipboard-holders and outstretched hands. What is not comical is the sermon-on-the-mount fellow stalking in the shadows, wielding his bookmarked Bible, ready to pounce on the first of the doubters.

I write not to discuss my own beliefs, but something must be said of the ongoing social capitulation to these dogmatists haunting our free speech zone.

I often listen to the religious debates outside of the library, and like most students, don’t quarrel with the preachers or their opposition. Perhaps it is nonchalance, embarrassment or maybe even a subtler form of appeasement that forces our silence.

Nonetheless, the merits of any particular religious belief can be debated exhaustively, and is often not limited to shouting matches. I don’t wish to critique any single person, but passing judgment onto others and purging the world of “sodomy” is too often cloaked in the socially acceptable clothing of “doing God’s work.” Why not allow your god to do the judging and end your surrogate status?

Credulity too often yields to people claiming to have God on their side (withholding truths unavailable to me, apparently). I say we replace these hucksters with a true arguer, like Socrates, whose reasoning did not solely rely upon divine grace.

The moral and ethical foundations of society need to be routinely shaken and criticized to test their current worth. Who better to do so than one who follows the Socratic method? Reasoning on this level does not attempt to instill guilt but instead strives more thoroughly for truth. 

I am reminded of an eloquent quote by Karl Marx: “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and cull the living flower.”

Whether Socrates existed or not is not my main concern. Evidence of his existence is about as loose as the existence of Jesus Christ. However, what we gain from Socrates is of much greater value to us than the Sermon on the Mount. The story of Socrates teaches us to think for ourselves and to challenge the norm, not to follow him or risk eternal damnation.

This is, in essence, Marx’s idea. In effect, humans operate under illusions (more acutely, a state of narcissism) when there is an absence of criticism. When criticism is applied, and reasoning well developed, the oppressed mind becomes disillusioned – humans shake free from what William Blake called the “Mind-forg’d Manacles.”

There is something about the stimulation of critical thinking, in a public sense, which keeps us humble. It is in eliminating the contradictions of our beliefs that the Socratic method allows for the vigor of honesty and frankness. The men roaming the free speech zone at noon, I contend, do not even allow for the same result.

Absurdly, the propositions put forth by the religious gain robustness when backed by a quote from the Bible. Again, this is allowed by somewhat of a social acceptance. Closer scrutiny reveals what we’re asked to believe, and the concluded logic perceived by many opposed is, “Indeed, what I say is true for it was written in the Bible, and the Bible is true because I say it is true.” In the spirit of the Socratic method, I find this to be a contemptible position and unworthy of public discourse.

A most honorable position is to admit one’s own ignorance, which is precisely what Socrates, after working his way through a logical maze, concluded, “I am the wisest man, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Indeed, it is arrogant to claim superiority in the realm of truth, and it is a betrayal of the mind to blindly accept the poisoned chalice offered. Let’s instead replace the preachers at the free speech zone with Socratic warriors. Wielding our reason, we may march forth “to mount the scaffold” and “advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect nonchalance.”