Thursday, March 10, 2011

I'm Not Socrates

Computer broken, I have been using the public internet terminals at UCLA. On the way there if you take the right path you'll see a sign newly posted on the gate to a construction site on campus. It lays down the rules for workers, which include - among no smoking, profanity, parking on site - "no talking to students". I try to obey that rule myself, but a couple nights ago heading towards a computer screen at the research library a student sitting just beside turns to look at me and keeps looking, finally saying we must know each other. From a cafe probably, I say, did I mention by any chance the subject of philosophy? He, it seems, has been a student of philosophy, also of Asian religion, and presently is a student of anthropology. I answer his question why I am there, what department I am associated with, with my usual statement I am nobody from nowhere, not associated with anybody or anything. I say I had been writing just the day before about religion and democracy, and how both made demands on how people speak to each other. - There was a lecture that night he would be attending related to the subject, he says, and shows me the notice for it on the internet. He says I should come. I say I have been going to lectures lately, questioning the professors afterwards, with not very good results. - Not good how? he asks. - They run away from me.

The student and I have a long conversation about religious experience, how to define metaphysics, university politics. And I decide I will go to the lecture.

The speaker is an attractive character, tall, slim, middle aged and cheerful. He begins by telling how he recently asked himself a simple question: As an anthropologist, he studies different groups of people, each of whom have a particular sense of morality, without however as a professional studying them himself applying any particular moral judgement. His question was, it is reasonable to believe someone not applying moral judgement,like an anthropologist, could understand the people he studies all of whom do practice moral judgement? It was of course out of the question at a modern university to say that the anthropologist's moral relativism was superior to the moral assumptions of the groups he studies.

Morality is implicit, he says, in any act of communication: there is a decision to be peaceful and talk, rather than attack. So morality has be included in the subjects studied by anyone looking closely at how people talk to each other. Using a well known and respected anthropological report, in which a man tells of his family's tragical history, the lecturer identifies many different ways in which morality enters in: the storyteller assumes he is moral, that others are not, he assumes he may be judged to be moral or not, etc. Morality is being used as a term measuring whether social expectations are met, or not.

The audience of students and professors applauds, and the first questions get right to the heart of the matter: why has the speaker defined morality as following rules, when concern over moralilty seems to arise only at times of disruption? Isn't morality something more, even some kind of rebellion at times?

He answers saying he is just beginning with this subject, but a rebellion to, a Socratic questioning of, the established order, can have its own group it speaks to, its own community of expectation it satisfies.

That answer especially does not satisfy me. I had resolved not to cause any more harmless speakers to run from their classrooms. But he goes on to say that he is very interested now in the subject of morality, and is sure it will lead him in interesting directions. I take him at his word.

I raise the objection that as the word morality is used, it is a comparison between two kinds of actions, and a conclusion that one is better than another. One kind of action is based on rules, or conventions, or on achieving a convention-based position of power in group. The other kind of action is based on the sympathy, good will, friendship that he began his talk in saying was necessary to there being any society at all. All he had done in his talk was to create two new social roles, the moral or immoral, when in fact as the word morality is used it refers to an attempt to escape from the destructive influence of social roles.

This is not the right moral tone to speak in, apparently, because the department head interrupts me here to say this would be a good point to end the question and answer period, and we can go out into the hall to eat.

While we are filling our plates and cups, one by one the professors and administrators come by to say hello to me, and ask me who I am. The answer nobody from nowhere gets them off quickly to more promising associations and back inside the classroom with their dinner. The Dean of Social Sciences comes out, and asks me what I thought of the lecture. I say I didn't like the policewoman arresting my words. That was his wife, he says, - she did it because she knew the lecturer couldn't answer me, and wanted to prevent useless dispute.

An Archeology professor from China comes over next and says he liked my observations. Since he is the third professor from China who has fearlessly on his own initiative spoken with me in the last week, and he has told me he is working at the moment on archeological records of Confusius in his birth place, I ask him if there was something about the Chinese way of life that makes them more open to debate, something like strong traditions giving them the security to be open to looking for practical solutions to problems raised in public life? Yes, that was Confusius, tradition and practicality, and was in part right about the Chinese people, in as much as they were Confusians.

The student from the library comes out and tells me that I seemed to have had an effect: while I have been exiling myself outside in the hall with the food and drink, inside the classroom they were now talking about Socrates and his moral investigations.

The student and I carry on our discussions that began in the library as we walk through the campus. He mentions Nietzsche's attack on Socrates as someone who suffered from resentment. I respond, that was only Nietzsche playing Socrates, as Socrates liked to play tricks, provoke, mislead. The student asks me if I was resentful. Not resentful, I answer, but maybe disgusted by life, as is usual I thought in getting older. Something Socrates also spoke about at his death. Explain that to him, the student asks. Explain Socrates' willingness to let himself be executed. I'll do that, I say.

Socrates' argument is more than complete. He says he does not know that death is bad, and there are some reasons to think it might be better than life. - What for example? the student demands. That the best, quietiest night sleep is more satisfying than the best day lived. - O.K. - Socrates says that what he has done his entire life is try to love with the aid of philosophic talk, to learn to love better what is most beautiful. If he cannot do that, his life would not be worth much. What he was doing all his life was something enjoined by an oracle. It was something divine, unselfish. He says he would be leaving behind him a bad example if he ran away from the laws of his city. He has lived his whole life in love for the city, it would be inconsistent of him to do the opposite at the end of his life, when he says he has only a little while longer left to live anyway. While in prison, he starts to write poety, putting fables into verse. It is as if he is saying, when you cannot safely rely on traditions, rules of home, to speak openly to those you love, when you are literally in prison, locked away from the possibilities to act out of love, you might as well write stories. This is his final argument: if he escaped from prison and was forced to leave his home, he'd not be able to live as he has always done, would have nothing to do other than the story writing he did in prison.

I write stories in the same way. They are a recourse, a second class sort of thing to do, a toy, game, reminder, exercise. They are what you do when the real thing is not available, or when you need a temporary break from it. It is not serious. What is serious is the morality of resisting falling into conformity with destructive rules, and having a home that, in returning to, you find your reward for your successful resistence. When you have no home to return to, it simply is not reasonable to voluntarily enter into the game. And whether rightly or wrongly I don't know, but as you get older, since the time you have left to enjoy the return is less, the effort required seems unjustified. Thus the disgust. Might as well play with art.