Socrates, Chomsky & the Taliban

12.13.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | The Academy | 11 Comments
Socrates is considered the foundational thinker of Western philosophy and a model of sobriety, substance and virtue. But I have a hunch he was more Noam Chomsky than Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Like Chomsky, Socrates lived in a rich democracy. Athens in the 5h Century B.C.E. respected talent and ability, and man-for-man it produced it in a way unrivaled by any other society, except perhaps Renaissance Florence. Socrates lived alongside Praxiteles, the greatest painter of ancient times, and such writers as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. He probably knew these men. He saw the Parthenon built and must have watched Phidias carving stone. While people in other parts starved, he saw his countrymen drinking wine and anointing themselves with olive oil.

Yet he considered Athens inferior to Sparta, Athens’ autocratic and militaristic neighbor.

Spartan life, of course, was brutal — and, yes, Spartan. There were few luxuries, and little art. The population was in decline, and few people from elsewhere wanted to live in Sparta. But then, unlike Athens, Sparta had little tolerance for foreigners and immigrants. Homosexuality was outlawed, but because separation of the sexes was a fact of life, it was also the norm. And, famously, its people routinely practiced infanticide.

Socrates, though, doubted that Sparta went far enough. In The Republic he outlined some of the aspects of his dictatorship of virtue. Music that did not serve an expressly religious function would be banned, as it produced unwanted and irrational passions. Realistic plays would also be banned. The ruling class would be trained from birth, and those born to be functionaries would be taught to like their lower status. Belief in religion would be officially promoted. Democracy would end. Socrates was little interested in economics, but he was aware that his society would not be one of great wealth. This, he thought, was good, since the possession of wealth by some caused inequity and encouraged immorality.

A modern regime actually implemented these policies, arranging itself such that a small cadre of people were trained from birth to rule, and others were encouraged to be happy in their ignorance and subordinate station. Life was purposely made hard, and luxuries rare. Homosexuality was cruelly punished, if, again, the norm. Religion was made not merely an essential but the primary facet of daily life. Foreigners were discouraged from ruining the happy state. Trade with other nations was limited at best.

The country was Afghanistan; its government the Taliban.

Defenders of Socrates, starting with Plato, have pointed to a brief effort on his part to serve Athens in war. This is not trivial. But free and democratic societies need intellectual defenders as well as soldiers if they are to continue. And it was Socrates who taught the traitorous Alcibiades, whose generalship was pivotal in bringing about the city-state’s undoing.

My hunch is that Socrates was a lot like Noam Chomsky. He was unhappily married, poor and perhaps generally resentful. Yet he had an overweening confidence in his own brilliance, insight and understanding. He loved to pontificate and to lecture. He knew a better way, one in which philosopher-kings like himself would rule for the benefit of all. Like Chomsky, he wasn’t money-hungry, but he also didn’t actually have any plans to live in Sparta, present-day Cuba, or any other autocratic hell-hole. Just as Chomsky enjoys his tenure in Cambridge while denouncing America and Michael Moore talks about how much better Canada from his swank New York apartment, Socrates chose to live where there was freedom. Mostly he spent his time hanging out with interesting, attractive young people. While he denounced drunkenness, he drank wine. While he opposed realistic plays, he went to the theater.

It’s probably in the nature of free societies to produce such self-righteous, self-aggrandizing people. But we should see them for what they are.

Would Socrates ever have been tried for impiety if he had not been associated with his Alcibiades? Likely not. It’s generally acknowledged that the leaders of Athens sought to force the philosopher into exile and not to kill him. They probably thought this was reasonable given the degree of damage they believed Socrates had inflicted to the freest and best society yet created.

But for Socrates the chance to die was too good to pass up. Here was theater. He was old and knew he’d probably die fairly soon anyway. His body caused him pain. His legendary ugliness had worsened. His wife wanted him to avoid death. (Could that have been reason enough?) Now he would have great fame, how much he knew not. It was time for his close-up.



Mr. Leaf writes:

"Socrates, though, doubted that Sparta went far enough. In The Republic he outlined some of the aspects of his dictatorship of virtue. Music that did not serve an expressly religious function would be banned, as it produced unwanted and irrational passions. Realistic plays would also be banned. The ruling class would be trained from birth, and those born to be functionaries would be taught to like their lower status. Belief in religion would be officially promoted. Democracy would end. Socrates was little interested in economics, but he was aware that his society would not be one of great wealth. This, he thought, was good, since the possession of wealth by some caused inequity and encouraged immorality."


I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but no one who knows anything about Greek philosophy identifies the contents of Plato's Republic with the views of Socrates. Far from it, scholars of ancient thought maintain that the substantive views espoused in Plato's dialogues are those of the writer, not the characters in whose mouths he puts words. Plato wrote the Republic, and it is to Plato that the totalitarian state is rightly ascribed.(Karl Popper wrote an excellent two-volume opus on the topic, "The Open Society and Its Enemies," the "enemies" being Plato, Hegel, and Marx.) Plato's model of the state follows more or less from his metaphysics--there is absolute Good, Truth, Beauty, etc., and some people are better equipped to access these immutable and eternal Forms than are others.

Socrates, in stark contrast, is regarded more often than not as a skeptic, elusive and enigmatic, but never the person to whom you have attributed Plato's views. While I think that Socrates probably did commit suicide (no one, as far as we know, had to pry his mouth open to pour down the hemlock), I am sorry that the rest of your story is so at odds with historical scholarship. The radical distinction between the thought of Socrates (who wrote nothing) and Plato (who wrote many, many dialogues), is treated in virtually any introductory text on ancient philosophy. I encourage you to read one.
12.13.2004 | ts brock
I must concur with Brock's above statement, that it is commonly assumed that The Republic was Plato speaking and not Socrates. Also, it should be noted, that Socrates military service during the first Peloponnesian War at Delium and Amphipolis was considered extraordinarily heroic by his countrymen.

On the point of Sparta, it must be remembered that before the assent of Athens, during the Persian Wars, Sparta was considered the great State of Greece having had the first constitution and true equality among the ruling class. The respect for the state was so dominate that even in Thucydidies Peloponnesian Wars, excessive arguments are made for Athens's superiority. This impression far outlasted the times as attested to by Thomas Jefferson's statement "Always Sparta, Never Athens". It is not a sentiment I share.

Yet do not romanticize Athens, it was a slave state, wherein only a third of its population could vote. Also, by the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, it was thought to be an arrogant, unjust, imperial power, by many because of it's actions through the Delian League. It was also wracked by demagoguery, which is attested to in both the work of Thucydidies and Aristophanes (not to mention the trials he had to suffer for criticizing the war).

Not to debate similarities and differences, we move on to the happily married Chomsky. He has never said the Taliban was a superior form of government. In fact he never called it a form of government at all. He has described it as the result of multiple imperialist interventions, which is historically accurate. In his view military action in Afganistan is just a continuation of the same problematics that caused these issues to arise. That this, and Iraq was done to strike fear into the Arab world. A similar argument was made in here in NP not to long ago, but with a positive emphasis.

Chomsky has never supported, in any way shape or form, any dictatorship. To him this includes the USA. In fact the only government that holds any interest is Barcelona during Anarchist rule.

His critique remains valid, if only because it remains unaddressed.

I know: Athens -- Love it or Leave it
12.14.2004 | Constantine Constantus
That we know Socrates from Plato is hardly news. One might also point out that we have no evidence such as would be acceptable in a modern law court that Socrates was executed. Technically, it's all hearsay. We do have added confirmation of his existence and trial from Xenophon, and a seeming parody of his beliefs in one play of Aristophanes. I didn't address this because I thought it was less than meaningful. In discussing Socrates, we invariably assume that Plato was being mostly accurate in his depiction of Socrates. If we do not accept that, we have no basis for considering Socrates as a man or a thinker.
As to Chomsky, it may be that he has never expressly endorsed any particular dictatorship. So what? When the great genocides of our time have taken place - from Cambodia to Iraq to Rwanda - he has done nothing save claim that we Americans are the true mass murderers. His only sustained emotion is hatred of our society and all his thought and all his argument derives from this. He is perpetually incapable of making meaningful comparison between democratic societies and their enemies. He has nothing constructive to say, his arguments are slippery and his claims often wildly in error. He is neither a serious person nor a serious thinker. More than once, when speaking to his acolytes, I have asked them a succesion of questions culminating with: do you hate America? So far, I have had the same response every time. "Yes." The "yes" is then followed by an embarrassed claim that they didn't know why they said yes as they really meant no. But, of course, they did mean yes. Those attracted to his ideas are motivated by their profound anger and their supercilliousness, their feelings of alienation and their pretension, not by logic or reason. Socrates was their forebear.
12.16.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Jonathan, you ignorant slut.

(Know thyself.)
12.16.2004 | Socrates
Mr. Leaf's response to the criticism(s) that he has no idea what he is talking about would be funny if it were not so sad. But, there is one redeeming feature of his 12.16.2004 post:

Mr. Leaf writes about Mr. Chomsky:

"He has nothing constructive to say, his arguments are slippery and his claims often wildly in error. He is neither a serious person nor a serious thinker."

This seething condemnation self-referentially reflects none other than Mr. Leaf himself. What's more, it is Mr. Leaf who appears to be

"motivated by...profound anger and... supercilliousness [sic],...feelings of alienation and...pretension, not by logic or reason."

Touché!
12.16.2004 | ts brock
I liked Jon Leaf's article, and found Brock's response predictably stupid. (For those new to New Partisan, Brock is a regular commenter, whose writing tends toward such self-infatuated pedantry as above). What I've never understood is why a bright man like Leaf feels it necessary to take on such inanities, which only encourages Brock and his chumply ilk. Consider that Brock's second comment consists of nothing more than "Oh yeah, well so are you!", followed by arm-breaking back-patting on this "masterstroke."

I don't generally write comments, because of people like Brock and Constaine, who consistently lower the level of discourse. Which is a shame, since many of the articles here deserve more serious criticism and discussion.
12.16.2004 | Master Peas
Master Peas,

You will note that I attempted a serious discussion of Mr. Leaf's misattribution to Socrates of Plato's view in my first post above. Mr. Leaf did not respond. Instead, he waved his hands about how *everyone* knows that our knowledge of Socrates derives from Plato. Hello? Did Leaf even read the criticism?

I am sorry that you and Leaf, like Bush and Cheney, are so hostile to all those who point to problems with your own private fantasies. (How about that "Mission Accomplished"? What a success story!)

I realize that you think that I am a pedant, and that is just fine with me. I'd rather be a pedant than an incompetent punditaster with a grossly overinflated view of the value of his pathetically ill-formed opinion.

Have a good day.
12.16.2004 | ts brock
Allow me to continue to lower the discourse for a moment.
Mr. Leaf,

Let us leave the Socratic Issues. I am sure that Socrates would also find any such discussion meaningless. If there are those who wish to defend the man after he has already apologized, then I am sure they will.

What remains: Your argument is that a parallel could be drawn between the (Platonic) Socrates appreciation of Sparta and the (Kantian - Cartesian) Chomsky and his appreciation(?) for the Taliban.

1 - Your discussion of both Socrates and the Spartans rests on a highly ethnocentric presentation, which I feel is a hindrance to understanding. To view it through a clearer lens would help history speak clearly to our age.

2 - Chomsky reinvented modern linguistics and broke Behaviourism's strangle hold on American thought; nearly single-handedly. Yet, in the entirety of his extraordinary corpus, I have never seen him say:
Those Islamic Fundamentalists are a bunch of great guys. The whole world should be like Afghanistan. The problem is that they do not go far enough...

If this thought is comic, it is because it is unthinkable for a commie atheist (let us not mince words) like Chomsky to say something vaguely akin to it. If I have missed it please give an example.

Chomsky has a particular view of the world (Anarcho-syndicalist), which addresses certain realities that centrist perspectives do not. You may disagree, but if so, then said phenomena must be addressed. I invite you to because there is no shortage of horrors that demand our attention.

Personally, I find Mr. Leaf's response on far surer footing than his article. Here he says plainly that his problems with Chomsky originate with him being Anti-American. Yet, that is not the argument of his article.

Still it would be in bad faith, for some who believes what Chomsky believes, to be pro-American. It is in his hemming and hawing, after his admission that we see his true heart. If Chomsky was Anti-American he would not have jeopardized his place in history to criticize the nation. He would not have performed the responsibilities of a citizen who does not agree. Chomsky betrays his love of country in his hesitance.

After having plunged the discourse down to unfathomable depths, I now invite Minor P to raise the discourse with more brilliant insights. If that would be a waste of time, perhaps an interpretative dance would suffice.
12.17.2004 | Constantine Constantus
CC: I am afraid that you have missed Harry's point entirely. Harry and Jonathan are not interested in lively intellectual debate about their pontifications. The only sorts of comments that they value are those that reaffirm what they already believe.

There is a saying in English about these kinds of creatures:

"You can dish it out, but you can't take it."
or, better yet,
"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

What do these neat little maxims mean? Among other things, that people who regularly excoriate everyone and their mother, sometimes in ways empirically indistinguishable from garden variety slander, should at the very least be prepared to receive vituperative criticism in response. This does not mean that they are obliged to acknowledge the weaknesses and inconsistencies in their own views, nor their complete contradiction of even thousands of years of historical scholarship (in the case of Leaf's picture of Socrates). But someone like Leaf really should not be so shocked when critics step forward to inform him that the world is not exhausted by the contents of his cranium.

Plato's allegory of the Cave might be edifying in this connection, but I'll leave an elaboration of the analogy as an exercise for the reader.
12.17.2004 | KC
"Chomsky has never supported, in any way shape or form, any dictatorship. To him this includes the USA. In fact the only government that holds any interest is Barcelona during Anarchist rule."

Actually Chomsky's support and defense of the Kmher Rouge in Cambodia is well documented. Whether or not he has supported dictatorships in the past is beside the point though, because like Plato's Republic, if you were to implement his 'ideas' about society to their natural conclusion, the only realistic outcome would be dictatorship, tyranny, and bloodshed (or as Chomsky would say 'atrocities'). That is the point, I believe.

nice essay
02.8.2005 | Utah thinker

Bear in mind that there exists a full wikipedia page dedicated to Chomsky critism, virtually All charges aren't supported by evidence. The critisism made here is very similar.

02.18.2010 | leojeen

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