Tag Archives: civilization

On Libraries

26 May

Civilization is doomed without libraries. Okay, I may be a bit biased in this hot take: I am the son of a librarian and spent large parts of my childhood in libraries. At their best, libraries are civic monuments that show a civilization values knowledge; I am who I am because of them. But they are also of incredible value for people who share little in common with me, a rare public space with something for all of us if we know where to look. Anyone who is bored in a library isn’t trying hard enough.

I can track my progress through life in libraries. I have vague memories of the Andrew Carnegie-funded Edgerton, Wisconsin Public Library in my earliest days, its card catalogues lining the wall in the basement. After moving to Duluth, my family lived two blocks from the Lester Park branch library, a little Carnegie-style institution that shuttered a couple of years after our arrival. As a kid, the library was a frequent haunt after school, with coveted slots on the children’s department computers and occasional forced labor to prepare materials for the annual summer reading program. In Mexico City, the Universidad Iberoamericana had an ingenious floor devoted to napping on surprisingly comfortable Ikea furniture, which I used liberally on the days I had a 7 AM class.

Libraries have been cultural centers for the better part of two and a half millennia. The ancients built massive collections like the Great Library at Alexandria, a fountain of early wisdom. Thomas Jefferson’s old library, preserved in the Library of Congress (an icon in its own right), gives a more complete picture of the state of knowledge in early America than any historical reenactment. Cities like New York and Chicago have libraries that can stand alongside any museum or government building in their grandeur. Carnegie’s libraries were one of the greatest philanthropic bequests in history: an extension of opportunity to cities and towns across America (and Carnegie’s native Scotland) with few strings attached that did wonders for literacy. Those old Carnegies, now often phased out as technological needs pass them by, had a welcoming, airy feel tinged with a healthy hint of must. Georgetown’s Riggs Library, a wrought-iron wonder inside Healy Hall, is the stuff of fantasy, and many universities have similar hallowed halls. These libraries invite people in to explore, open up worlds even when other worlds are closed off to us.

Alas, libraries are not always built with the enjoyment of their users in mind, and some are instead products of the artistic vagaries of men and women (mostly men) floating up on idealistic design clouds they find far more important than the people who actually use the building. Duluth’s downtown library is Exhibit A in this trend, an unfortunate attempt to be “architecturally significant” with myriad issues for its users and employees. And, sadly, a healthy chunk of my Georgetown days were spent not in stunning Riggs but in the friendly confines of Lauinger Library, an unfortunate brutalist take on its neighbor, the Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall. The neighboring apartments, which looked like little Lau spawn, were redeemed by their superb rooftop views of the Potomac, but Lau, despite possessing that same view, offered it only from one undersized lounge on the back of the fourth floor and a few stray sought-after windows (usually lacking nearby outlets) and carrels reserved for grad students. Modern libraries can work—in Mexico City I once paid a visit to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a window into what Lauinger could have looked like if they’d brought the modernist theme into the interior—but they cannot forget their fundamental mission.

Lauinger was an oppressive monolith, but I built a fondness for it anyway, perhaps spurred along by Club Lau, an annual soiree that turned a third floor reading room into a sweat-caked dance party. Early on I tended to inhabit Lau Four, with its respectable views on all sides and convenient access to the global history stacks that formed the bulk of my library checkouts; some friends preferred Lau Two, with its group study spaces and coffee shop. Later, a row of bland carrels on Lau One became my haunt for reasons that no longer seem at all clear to me. If one wanted deep isolation, the Lower Level—a full three floors below the main entrance on Lau Three—offered solitude in the catacombs, except when the automatic bookcases came to life and moved of their own accord.

After I graduated from college, I worked at the Duluth Public Library for two years, a job in which I schlepped books between the branches in a van and shelved them for a while each day. For a quarter-life crisis job, it was about as cozy as it gets: likeable coworkers, little interaction with unpleasant patrons, immersion in interesting materials that occasionally distracted me, a chance to sample library employees’ contributions to the break room treat collection in each of the branches. (Librarians are marvelous bakers.) The Duluth Public Library gave me a place to get back on my feet and out of the existential muck I briefly inhabited, and inspired some side projects along the way. I’ve since become a volunteer at its annual book sale, though nowadays I am mostly just a consumer, adding volumes to my own library, whose growing size is on the list of reasons my current apartment has grown inadequate.

People who don’t spend much time in libraries can now be heard doubting the point of them in an age of instant Google and Amazon and Wikipedia. If one can just check out a book on to one’s kindle, what’s the point of these giant, government-run centers to hold the physical thing? Libraries are also often deemed non-essential: coronavirus has turned research librarians into curbside checkout clerks or even forced them into more extreme job functions; here in Duluth, half the staff has been laid off. Whether the cuts come from doubters or believers who think they have no other choice, they amount to much the same.

Allow me, then, to sing the praises of libraries. Librarians remain an underused resource for research, well-versed in digging through to find the things that are not so easily Googled. They are vital for historians, both serious and amateur, especially at the local level: there would be no histories of Duluth East hockey without the services of the Duluth Public Library, and some other libraries that chipped things in through an inter-library loan network. Their volumes will continue to provide marvelous value to those of us who don’t enjoy staring at screens all night. They have become resource centers in innumerable ways for people who have no other internet, no other connection to resources, and few public spaces that are safe, warm, and reliable. (The accommodation of these people is where those design decisions matter, and in subtle ways likely not obvious to casual patrons.) Across the country, libraries have developed creative programming, from rentable technology to seed libraries. I challenge anyone to attend a children’s storytime at Duluth’s Mount Royal branch and walk away thinking libraries are dying. The stereotype of librarians as shushing schoolmarms and utter silence applies only to small corners of them: they bring together and host community groups of all types and open up new possibilities.

And, of course, libraries remain free, a societal acknowledgment that truth and inquiry and learning matter. They are the rare public space that fosters knowledge for knowledge’s sake, create a home for both the most well-read salons and the neediest of residents. They are repositories of deep literacy, a skill that, per a lucid Adam Garfinkle essay, will be vital for any sense of a human future that values abstract thought or empathy. Preservation of such spaces is essential, and those who denigrate them are accomplices in undermining that capacity for the literacy a civilized society requires to function.

The Darkest Roots of Civilization

6 May

I concluded my last post with two lines from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’ve never read the thing, but it was one of those passages I once saw someone else quote somewhere that I felt compelled to copy down for my own later use. Here is the passage in full. Pimlico, for the curious, is a district of London that, when Chesterton wrote around the turn of the 20th century, was a downtrodden corner of the city. Neighboring Chelsea was (and still is) a high-income district.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

For what it’s worth, it seems some people came to love Pimlico. It was the home base for the Labour Party as it rose to prominence in the early 20th century, the home base of the Free French during the Second World War, and became home to many MPs, including Winston Churchill. Like much of London, it is now home to some fabulously expensive real estate, though it also retains a substantial public housing development, Churchill Gardens.

Granted, Pimlico has the perk of sitting a stone’s throw from Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Not every town or neighborhood that qualifies as a “desperate thing” has such convenient neighbors. But there are more roads to greatness than through proximity to power, and communities are more than their median incomes. For that matter, people may have very different ideas of what exactly constitutes desperation.

Whatever one may think of Chesterton’s Catholic apologetics in other contexts, this is one spot where his use of religious language adds a necessary dimension to his point. Rootedness really is in many ways a sacred act: while I’m always one to caution against the worship of temporal things, commitment to place goes deeper than commitment to so many of the other obligations that can come along in a life. Jobs come and go, institutions and beliefs evolve and undergo some drastic shifts, people are vital but mortal and equipped with agency that can lead them in any number of ways. But while their characters can change, cities and towns and neighborhoods almost always stay.

Relative permanence allows a place to develop a history: a language about itself, or a smattering of languages all feeding in to one sprawling, complex narrative. They may all be radically different, but they all share a place, and that is enough to give it a sense of direction through time. And people in these places can write themselves into these histories, whether as Chesterton’s worshipers pursuing greatness or simply as people who are content in a place where they can contribute in small ways. It starts with a commitment and grows from there, from a little community up to a civilization, with all the splendor and horror and contradictions that these human constructs entail.

Not everyone falls for places the way some of us do. We all have our objects of worship, and I don’t begrudge many others for theirs, especially if they are clear-eyed as to the limitations of these objects of affection. For me, though, the foundations of human possibility, of Hannah Arendt’s new beginnings, seem best grounded in a place. So let us all give a little more love to our Pimlicos: they need not rise up to be Florence, but they can be better versions of themselves, and that, for now, is enough.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

18 Oct

As usual, I try to avoid national politics on here; as usual, I can’t resist inserting myself. This cycle has drawn everyone in for more carnage, much in the way we fixate on train wrecks. I’m not much of an idealist, have no qualms for voting for the lesser of two evils; at the same time, I tend to believe apocalyptic thinking of any stripe is overstated, and am more inclined to laugh off ludicrous claims than to fear for the future of the country. But as I’ve let show, this is an instance in which I think the choice is a clear one. Donald Trump must lose.

I’m not opposed to Donald Trump because I think he’ll cause great calamity. The risks might be somewhat higher, but he’s strongly constrained by the inertia of a powerful state. Nor do I fear the content of his provocative language: I’ve never taken the “build the wall” rhetoric seriously, and ultimately, I don’t think minority groups will see their fates be much different under Trump than they would have been under a standard-issue Republican. I’m less afraid of him doubling down on some of his claims than of him getting bored and losing interest in the whole charade.

Frankly, I struggle to see how anyone who’s tracked his behavior over the course of this cycle can have any confidence that he will actually do any of the things he says. While thankful, I also struggle to resist rolling my eyes at anyone who jumped off the bandwagon recently, as if he didn’t exhibit the same patterns of volcanic behavior all along. I see a President Trump as a bumbling clown, nutty but at least capable of reading off a teleprompter from time to time, all at the behest of his handlers, who step in to do damage control when he devolves into another tweetstorm against someone who’s offended him. (How is it that people who claim to oppose political correctness are so often the most thin-skinned?) To date I have little faith in the handlers’ ability to do that, but it’s not totally implausible to imagine Trump as a blustering figurehead and spinmaster-in-chief while a cadre around him implements its policies of choice, thereby avoiding a train wreck. Whatever you think of said policies, this leaves us right back where we started, with a group of political insider technocrats Making America Great Again. So much for the revolution.

Funnily enough, there are things about Trump’s policies (such as they are) that intrigue me. Foreign policy motivates me more than most voters, and I have deep reservations about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, which has been pretty reliably wrong over the past 15 years. On diplomacy, I prefer the calculating deal-makers to the liberal hawks, and while I have deep concerns about Vladimir Putin, he’s also a necessary partner in the Middle East and in other spheres, and handling him requires a bit more nuance than displayed in some Democratic Party circles recently. (How strange the world now seems: the Democrats are the hard-liners on Russian autocrats, while the Republicans are cozy with them.) While my takes on trade and economics are nuanced, I appreciate that Trump has prompted some good reflections on the state of the white working class, and an opportunity to have genuine debate about our blind assumptions about the Washington Consensus that have dominated both parties since the end of the Cold War. (I suppose Bernie Sanders gets an assist here, too.) A more polished version of Trump would have at least piqued my interest.

These are just a few of the policy areas where Trump sheds some light before going ten feet overboard. Arguments that immigrants hurt native-born Americans’ economic prospects are basically bunk, and I am glad to see many of the barriers to LGBTQ equality come down. But I’m also capable of putting myself in the shoes of people watching their world change so rapidly and feeling some sympathy. The immigration system does need careful management instead of wishful idealism, and people do need to be vetted some; religious conservatives have a right to worship as they choose, and raise their children in the ways they see fit. I don’t see the Clinton campaign acknowledging this reality. Her campaign makes occasional overtures toward a big-tent coalition, particularly during the Democratic National Convention, but so often appears motivated by a bunker mentality brought on by its candidate’s baggage. It fails to inspire, and the strategy seems to involve checking off boxes with all the interest groups it needs to keep happy.

My objections to Trump have much more to do with the way he has shifted the window for political debate in the United States. Or, rather, the way he’s shattered the window altogether. To be fair, Trump didn’t start this. Most popular media and cable news has been superficial garbage for a long time, and we can blame some of the toxicity on both a Republican Party that has subtly played off racial divisions since Nixon and a Democratic Party that has increasingly come to resemble a scattershot coalition of identity-based interest groups all trying to make a narrow claim at the table. But Trump has accelerated this, and brought it into the open with no apologies. Elements  of the left have sunk to his level, and political discourse, never pleasant, has degraded into self-reinforcing horror show. No figure is more responsible for this than Donald Trump.

We have the politics we deserve, and we can’t say the Greeks didn’t warn us. These are the timeless dangers of democracy, though I hastily add that I still find it the worst choice except for all the others. (I can see the Trump tweet now: “Korrupt Karl hates democracy. Sad!”) These are the consequences of dumbed-down celebrity politics, with messaging aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s a reduction of elections to a binary choice in which it is somehow our patriotic duty to choose, red team versus blue team, more about winning and losing elections than the tricky work of governance. It needs some inherent dignity to avoid collapsing into an entertainment complex. Trump exemplifies politics as the reality TV show, and his continued presence on the political stage would only set off a downward spiral of degradation. I don’t predict the imminent collapse of American democracy, but each spin down the toilet increases the odds that it won’t quite be the same afterwards.

Trumpism, to the extent that it exists, taps into a Nietzschean energy: the world, instead of three interlocking circles that explain everything, is reduced to winners and losers, with sharp lines between them. Its most fertile intellectual ground is in the dark corners of the internet, where young men, probably around my age, assume ridiculous Latin pseudonyms and peddle their profound ressentiment of those who oppose them. (Oh, the Nietzschean irony.) Trump’s election wouldn’t bring them to power, nor would his defeat silence them. But the whole Trump phenomenon runs the risk of normalizing them, of empowering this narrative of fire and brimstone, of tribe and ideology over common American future.

In a way, I’m sympathetic. I get that urge to rise up in a crusade for greatness through politics. It’s what drove my eighteen-year-old self to Washington. I understand that longing to smash the day-to-day drudgery we inhabit and unleashed a repressed inner soul in all its erotic glory. It’s hard to beat that rush, and that side of human nature never will—and never should—go away. But channeling it in ways that trump up a mediocre establishment as an existential threat endangers American exceptionalism in the best sense of the phrase, this belief in a national project that won’t ever die. Lord knows this project has had its dark patches through history, but through it all, we are all awfully lucky to be here in this day in age. It’s cute to think we’re standing on some precipice of looming demise, and probably empowering to pretend one man can change it, but, alas, real heroism for the vast majority of us probably involves something both much closer to home and much more radical than checking a box on a Tuesday in November.

Some argue it’s a good thing that certain political currents, long suppressed, are now out in the open. I’m skeptical. One often hears Trump supporters say they’re glad he tells it like it is. I hate this phrase as much as I did when I first heard a public figure in Duluth utter it some years ago.  A layer of civilization is necessary for governance within political systems—especially the American one, with all its checks and balances—and there’s a need for consensus instead of silos of self-affirming certainty about what one already believes. No one has a monopoly on truth. Our elites have failed us many times, certainly, but we are blind to how far we have to fall. It’s more than a little disconcerting to witness the sort of political awakening one expects out of dispossessed young men in the Middle East coming out of a middle-aged couple in Youngstown.

And so I turn to Hillary Clinton: embattled, dogged by scandal, uninspiringly wonkish, too far to the left to sweep to a broad mandate, but too ensconced in her establishment cadre to inspire the energy to advance a more progressive agenda. She promises four more years of technocratic plodding, vicious right-wing opposition to anything she proposes, and shady, sheltered practices that, whether justified or not, will continue to court media attention. This only drags Washington further into the muck, perhaps ups the odds of a stronger counter-reaction in two or four years.

I reassure myself in a few ways. One, whatever Clinton’s flaws, they are predictable, and nothing in her political history suggests she will do anything unexpected or drastic. Give me a mediocre status quo over the revolution any day. Two, while she certainly won’t devolve power from Washington, she has neither the charisma nor the political capital to centralize it much more either, and at least pays lip service to bringing everyone to the table instead of saying “I alone can fix it.” Three, while the Republican Party has a very complicated reckoning to come, there is at least some hope that the coming dust-up allows the party to salvage itself in a way that it never could with a floundering President Trump at the top. In the long run, his defeat may do more good for the more sanely-grounded elements of his cause, since they’ll be part of the national conversation, but not tied to an absurd, distracting figure.

I sometimes say my time in Washington jaded me, but I think a more accurate summation my takeaway from four years there was a revelation over the smallness of it all: how much life could go on without worrying about it, and how much the people in charge are stumbling in the dark and guessing, just as we all are. This doesn’t mean that some political rookie can roll in and shake it up, though. It also takes experience, and knowledge of how to play the game to at least move policy, which does still matter enough that we can’t laugh the whole thing off. Only in reality TV shows do Trump-like figures march in and prove effective.

The Yeats poem that gives this post its title, oft-quoted this election cycle among intellectuals lamenting our political fate, claims the best lack conviction. Maybe, instead, the best know that obsessive conviction is misplaced. For my part, it’s time to stop reading FiveThirtyEight, make peace with the Clinton slouch, and get back to work here at home.

Mario Vargas Llosa in Winter

22 Jan

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We  are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

These words came to mind as I wrapped up Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest essays, Notes on the Death of Culture, in which he exercises his prerogative as a grumpy old man and complains about what has gone wrong in the world. His lament here is on the decline of high culture and its replacement by a sorry substitute of an anti-culture of the masses. He is unashamed to defend the old elites and use terms like ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ to draw distinctions between the good and the bad. His diagnosis has nuance, but it boils down to this: the democratization of culture has left us with incoherence, and no means of elevating truly great work above the rest of the noise. We live in a society of spectacle, in which the biggest, flashiest sights eclipse all work of any quality. In spite of our great advances in technology and political progress in many parts of the globe, the cacophony may drown out the narratives we need to sustain our societies and thereby jeopardize the entire project.

Vargas Llosa is a classical liberal figure, one that was never in vogue in his native Peru—alas, he lost the 1990 presidential election to eventual autocrat Alberto Fujimori—and his type has become increasingly endangered elsewhere, too. He’s unique among Latin American literary giants of the late twentieth century in his firm embrace of open markets and rejection of leftist revolution. He is also one of those intellectuals with tremendous respect for the religious and the societal role of faith who nonetheless does not identify with any place, perhaps revealing the weakness of his stance in the process: if faith is just some guarantor of social order and does not place any demands upon its adherents, why should anyone else buy in? He knows he takes a lonely stance, but also knows that people like him have long served as the curators of culture, and worries about what may come next.

This worldview leads the Peruvian Nobel Laureate to embrace some fairly standard positions that prioritize a secular political order and existing institutions, including critiques of Muslim headscarves and WikiLeaks. Regardless of his positions, this is hardly the most gripping part of the book; authors philosophizing are a dime a dozen, and Vargas Llosa is witty but never revolutionary. His work is stronger when he delves deeper into the trappings of faith and in a mediation on the death of eroticism (cue Rollo May), which are somewhat more transgressive themes. Here, he mounts a defense of ritual and the private sphere in an attempt to keep some sense of mystery and wonder alive in the world.

Vargas Llosa is at his best when he talks about the arts, and the value of the canon in which some of his finest works (Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goat) surely belong. The excerpted section that concludes Notes on the Death of Culutre made bolder leaps than his 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address that pondered some similar themes, but it does better drive home the thrust of his argument: that literature is particularly suited to inspire reflection, rebellion, and the pursuit of ideals, and does so in a way that newer technology cannot. Here we see the depth of his mind, and how he has taken many great works and used them in ways that again prove their greatness: by serving as windows into the soul, an inspiration toward human action in the service of a greater cause. This, he tells us, is how a curmudgeonly “dinosaur in difficult times” can still impart some wisdom.

Our intrepid author is otherwise short on advice for how to sustain culture; he even admits that the future does not concern him much. (This must be much easier when one is 79 than it is when one is 26.) This, perhaps, is what brought me back to MacIntyre today: the need to build communities (and I use that term loosely) that can preserve the best of this great cultural inheritance, even as we make our way in a modern world that often has no regard for it. We do this not to repeat the past or stay stuck in it, but to make sure we don’t lose touch with the more insightful things people have said in the past, and to ensure we stop and reflect on the broader narratives in which we situate our lives. I suppose I ought to get to work.

Dead Greek People II: A Project Is Born

8 Oct

This is Socrates. Socrates was the first of the great Athenian philosophers of that city’s Golden Age, and thus gets blamed for pretty much everything that came afterwards. To be fair, Socrates asked for it.

Or so it seems, at least. We don’t know all that much about the real Socrates. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, none of his writings survived, if he even had any. Instead, we have to rely on a lot of other people—namely, Plato, whose dialogues usually involve Socrates making fools of several debate partners. Because of this, it can be hard to separate the real Socrates from Plato’s rather idealized version of him, and to know which ideas are original to Socrates, and which ones Plato might be sticking in his mouth.

Still, there are worse things that could happen to a person than having Plato become one’s interpreter. Plato quite clearly loved his mentor, and did everything in his power to immortalize his thought. Seeing as we’re still talking about him 2400 years later, it worked out pretty well.

Socrates was nicknamed “the gadfly” because, much like small annoying insects, he went around bothering and questioning everyone. While Plato and Aristotle founded academies and spent much of their time with people with somewhat similar interests, Socrates would chat up anyone. No one’s presuppositions were safe from Socrates, and that is what made him so radical: while he clearly enjoyed spirited debate with other philosophical folks, he wasn’t one to retreat to some ivory tower.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes people who go around questioning everything, and Socrates made himself some enemies. Eventually, he was put on trial for promoting false gods and corrupting the youth. (People do tend to get rather defensive over their faith and their children, even in a city like Athens, which was incredibly tolerant for the time.) His critics accused him of sophistry, or the preaching of confusing immoral nonsense designed to undermine the order of things.

Socrates was tried by a jury of several hundred Athenians, and he put on a show. He professed his own ignorance, and explained how he’d devoted his life to resolving the paradox of how he could be the wisest man on earth (as an oracle had once called him) if he also knew how ignorant he was. He played games with his accusers and was completely unrepentant for his alleged crimes, jokingly suggesting his “punishment” should involve free meals for the services he’s offered. Even after he’d been convicted, the general assumption was that he would just run off into exile, and the Athenian authorities were quite content to look the other way and let it happen. Much to everyone’s annoyance, however, Socrates had different ideas.

If we are to believe Plato, Socrates’ refusal to run stemmed directly from his relationship with Athens. He had no desire to make a mockery of its legal system, and he couldn’t imagine a contented life in another city. Only in Athens could he find as much freedom to pontificate as he did, and it was only because a substantial number of its citizens knew of his sincerity that he was allowed to go as far as he did in challenging everyone’s assumptions. (The vote to convict him was a narrow one, and he had plenty of people who were willing to fight for him.) People aren’t really sure if he was a supporter or a critic of the Athenian democracy. Some of his pupils and supporters hadn’t held it in very high esteem (including Plato, with his philosopher-kings), and one could easily see Socrates as a martyr for regime change, trying to show how perverse the Athenian system was. (How could majority rule be any good if it sentenced the wisest man on earth to death?) In my completely un-expert opinion, however, this only gets at part of the truth; Socrates is too complex to be a political revolutionary, and nothing more. He probably did intend to point out some of the flaws in democracy—he was an eternal critic, after all—but in spite of that, his loyalties never flinched. His refusal to leave stemmed from his love affair with his city of Athens, even though he knew it was far from perfect.

He didn’t have much desire to grow old and wither away, either. Socrates saw his body as something of a prison for his mind and his soul, and he believed that a life lived in accordance to virtue was far more important than a long life. The ultimate proof of this, he figured, was a willing embrace of death. And so Socrates drank the poisonous hemlock juice and died at the age of 70.

By most standards, Socrates’ choice was a crazy one, and akin to suicide. The Greeks found him just as nuts as we would today. But if he’d done the “rational” thing, we wouldn’t remember him all that much. Socrates’ scheme (or, perhaps more accurately, Plato’s scheme) was to suggest that humans should hold themselves to a higher standard. Socrates’ story is a celebration of the power of civilization. He needed a city like Athens in order to live the life he did, and only in a culture that respected his freedom to explore great ideas would he be immortalized. Humans are flawed, certainly, but they have some potential to move toward justice, and the difficulty of the project in no way invalidates it.

It’s easy to throw stones at Athens today. We can point out the abuses of slavery, the subjugation of women, and the failed military campaigns, and make a pretty good case that the ancient Athenians weren’t all that enlightened. We could gripe about how that one city has come to dominate the foundations of Western philosophy ever since; isn’t it just a lucky accident that the thought of one city wound up being perpetuated across the known world by the conquering armies of Alexander?

Perhaps. Other parts of the world developed their own robust philosophies, and some of them survive in some form. The Athenians of the fifth century before Christ had plenty of influences, both Greek and non-Greek. Still, it’s hard to fight the notion that something different was happening in Athens when Socrates began his project.

Aeschylus, an Athenian playwright who predated Socrates somewhat, might have the answer. In his Oresteia trilogy, Athens is just like any other place, and is ruled by the Furies, who are rather shrill goddesses whose idea of justice always involves vengeance and endless cycles of violence. Thankfully, Athena, the goddess for whom Athens is named, sweeps in and spares the hero, Orestes, from such a nasty fate. Reason comes into being, trials are henceforth conducted by juries instead of vindictive goddesses, and everyone goes home happy. Athens put on Aeschylus’ plays every year as part of a big civic festival. The Athenians were more than a community of producers trying to sustain themselves, or even an honor-bound band of brothers pledged to defending said community; they were willing to reach for something even greater.

The Athenians didn’t get it right all the time, as they showed with Socrates’ trial. But at least they tried. In 399 B.C., that alone made them revolutionary.

Next: Aristophanes and Diogenes

Image from New Religion and Culture Daily. The painting is called “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Luis David.