Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

The crime of Socrates

with 16 comments

(or is it the curse of Cassandra?)

Andrew Marr’s History of the World is the latest BBC programme featuring the eponymous presenter (although the word Human is clearly missing from the title somewhere). The second installment was broadcast in the UK on Sunday night and, I have to say, it was an improvement on the first.  Some may ask, “If you thought the first was bad then why did you watch the second?”  Well, the answer is that I was almost willing Andrew Marr to prove me wrong.  You see, I suspect he is peddling a libertarian agenda; but I am hoping that he is not.

The first programme in the series covered the emergence of Homo sapiens from Africa 70,000 years ago – and their subsequent conquest of the entire planet (and the extinction of Neanderthals in the process) – up to the emergence of agriculture, urbanisation and civilisation 7,000 years ago. The worst thing about the programme was the repetitive – and almost subliminal – message that climate change is natural and we cannot stop it.  Wheareas Marr emphasised the way in which Homo sapiens were almost wiped out by natural changes in climate; he appeared to gloss over a complementary truth:  Modern civilisation only came about – and has only persisted – because of the relative stability of sea levels and temperature over that last 7,000 years.  I suspect, therefore, that Marr has been having too many lunches with the likes of Lords Monckton and Lawson.  Whatever the case may be, episode 1 does not seem to have impressed Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent newspaper either.

In the second programme, this ‘climate change is natural’ meme made a brief appearance at the start; only to be juxtaposed with the suggestion that, although nature has been a tough adversary, human beings are their own worst enemy.  Even though I not misanthropic, I am much more content with this assertion than the one that says climate change is natural and/or we must adapt to it:  This is an utterly fallacious argument that can only be sustained by ignoring the fact that the change now underway is much faster than all previous natural change because human activity is causing most of it.

Nevertheless, I think Andrew Marr redeemed himself somewhat in this second episode:  With his usual amiable style of delivery, he talked the viewer through the history of human civilisation, visiting places like the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the Persian city of Babylon, the Lydian city of Sardis, and the Greek city of Athens.  Also thrown into the mix were brief accounts of the rise and fall of the Phoenicians as a maritime trading empire; the emergence of Buddhism in India and of Confucism in China; and Alexander the Great’s admirable early attempts at cosmopolitanism and globalisation (nice ideas; shame about the outcome).

However, as indicated by the title of this post, the thing that grabbed my attention was the emergence of what we now call democracy in Greece (i.e. in Greek, Demos = people; and Cratos = power); and how contingent our concept of democracy is…  If the Persians had not gone down to such a highly-implausible defeat in a battle 26 miles from Athens, we might be missing a lot more than just a name for the longest event on the athletics schedule at the Olympic games:  Had the Persians beaten the Athenian army at Marathon, the course of human history would have been very different indeed!

So why have I focussed on the case of Socrates, who was effectively accused and convicted of being dangerously subversive in 399BC and, having been found guilty, was required to kill himself by drinking poison…?  Well, leaving aside the bizarre method of “execution”, what exactly was his crime?  According to Andrew Marr, Socrates merely raised questions regarding the limitations of democracy and/or how dissenters should be dealt with.  According to Wikipedia (link above), Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of the city and of impious acts (namely “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”).   Socrates philosophical musings were clearly seen as subversive and anti-democratic.  However, all Socrates appears to have been guilty of is being one of the first to recognise the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas.  He basically challenged the notion that majority opinion will always be right; and championed the idea that expert opinions should carry more weight. He also held unusual religious views.  He was, in essence, a free thinker, a non-conformist, and anti-Establishment.

Modern science has much for which it should be grateful to Socrates; and so have Environmentalists:  In essence, environmentalism is the consequence of thinking outside the box; it arises from pursuing the consequences of science wherever they lead; and refusing to be prevented from reaching any particular conclusion simply because it may be politically inconvenient.

Nowadays, fortunately, those who challenge the received wisdom of our political leaders are not executed (by poisoning, hanging, beheading or any other unpleasant means).  Unfortunately, however, we just seem to be ignored instead.

Therefore, even though all we are really doing is embracing the Newtonian reality that all actions have consequences (especially when it comes to issues surrounding waste, pollution, and recycling), we seem to have swapped the philosophical legacy of Socrates for the mythological curse of Cassandra (whom no-one would believe).

16 Responses

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  1. What was exposed here is the first order description of what happened according to the plutocratic fascist friendly Plato. (For more on Plato see Sir Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies”!)

    In truth, it was quite a bit more complicated than that. Indeed there even had been an amnesty, so Socrates should not have been prosecuted. So why was he prosecuted nevertheless, and why so much rage against Socrates? Well, it’s probably high time for me to remember that Martin told me to “go play something else”. Truth is rarely simple.

    Ah, another point. As no less an authority than Isaac Asimov pointed out, Socrates was anti scientific, so methinks he would have been on the side of money in the pollution debate. side of money, as he was 24 centuries ago. Very sorry to break the spell. Good story, though, well written…

    Patrice Ayme

    2 October 2012 at 06:09

    • Thanks Patrice. For once, your use of the phrase “fascist friendly” may be appropriate because the free men of Greece (i.e. the only ones with a place at the table of their democratic feast) do seem to have been very intolerant of alternative opinion. It is just as well (IMHO) that they had become more tolerant by the time Saul of Tarsus arrived at the Acropolis 51AD with his strange new message of “the twin gods” of Jesus and the Resurrection.

      That is an interesting suggestion that Socrates was anti-scientific and might have been on the side of the fossil fuel lobby today. Good story, well written… However, so as to keep religion-bashing and comparisons to Hitler out of this discussion, I hope we can just agree that:
      — Socrates did not deserve to die (even if he did choose to die out of some misplaced notion of it being a noble death)?
      — We are lucky the Roman Catholic church (please exercise restraint when answering this one) did not execute Galileo (who had no such desire for a noble death)?
      — Fake sceptics today are not like Socrates of Galileo because they are not fighting against a tyrannical, obscurantist and anti-scientific elite. Whether they realise it or not; the fake sceptics are actually fighting to preserve it.

      Martin Lack

      2 October 2012 at 10:34

      • As much as democracy is the best we can do, I do rather side with Plato in feeling that a republic made of philosopher kings [read -intelligent elite] would be making the hard decisions and ignoring the rabble. In a true democracy we would still have the death penalty and the criminalisation of sexuality.


        2 October 2012 at 10:51

        • That may be so but, does that mean Socrates would have been on the side of the powerful elite? As a philosopher (as opposed to scientist), he may have had some odd ideas (and invented his own deity) but, the fact remains that, he would never have got into trouble in the first place if he was such a social conformist. That is a good point you make about the death penalty. However, I suspect the benefits of true participatory democracy – exercised at a local level – would outweigh the disadvantages; especially if the nation state still had sufficient oversight to prevent a return to the law of the jungle.

          Martin Lack

          2 October 2012 at 12:54

      • Martin, a few remarks, pell-mell. Plato, a mini plutocrat, stayed for years, in the begining of his own volition, with the tyrant of Syracuse. At a time when Syracuse was at war with Athens. Athens lost half of her population, in part – or wholly – because of the activities of people Socrates was literally sleeping with, although they were 50 years younger, meaning Socrates could be presumed to have corrupted their minds.

        Saul, to my knowledge, burned books. Not many, but he advocated that, and was first to do so. So much for tolerance. The Catholic church burned others of Galileo class, and terrified the rest (Kepler). The Catholics also buried the heliocentric, part Newtonian theory of Buridan, well known in 1330 CE.

        Patrice Ayme

        2 October 2012 at 17:09

        • Patrice, I guess it was a forlorn hope that you would not indulge in yet more axiomatic religion bashing. However, for the record, I was not putting Saul forward as a paragon of tolerance; I was expressing my relief that the Greeks were more tolerant of him than they were of Socrates.

          I would like to think that, by now, you appreciate I would never defend any actions taken by the Catholic Church at any time in its history. However, the fact remains that, although built on the brilliant work of early Arabian and Chinese scholars, the success of western Science was – eventually – facilitated by the Christianity (and the Age of Enlightenment) whereas it was killed-off within the domain of Islam (which seems to be at least 500 years behind Christendom in its adherence to obscurantism and many other aspects of medieval life).

          Martin Lack

          2 October 2012 at 17:38

  2. Despite deniers mixing apples with pears I do think the story of human history and climate is a story worth telling. Yes- the climate has always changed- but not this fast but the story of humanity has been moulded by climate, in fact I would argue that we are the civilisation we are today because of climate.

    In my book [shameless plug] I even argue that our religion stems from the antics of a close proximity comet dust loading the upper atmosphere 3,000 years ago that caused a cosmic 20 year winter and climate disruption. At the time Ramsis III spent a huge amount of resources building temples and carrying on the traditions of the past to prove business was normal. The truth, hidden in documents, revealed mass migration, war, political intrigue, striking tomb workers and the ultimate collapse of Empire. In Greece the old Minoan empire collapsed and the void was filled by the proto Greeks, a patten that appeared across the globe, check ‘Bronze-Age Collapse’.

    Climate change appears to have hastened the collapse of the Romans following the 10 year cosmic winter of 540 c.e. causing crop failures, famine, epidemics and mass displacement. The Romans and the Egyptians and it seems most civilisations considered themselves eternal and ultimately had a rather nasty shock.

    In the long run these breaks in civilisation have been exploited by the next flowering of humanity and each time the changes [after a dark-age] push humanity further. So in the long run there will be winners in a 4-6c warmer planet, the great civilisations of today will collapse to bump along the bottom [after spending all their resources trying to adapt and fend off the migrating hordes and hastening their demise in the process] and in a couple of hundred years a new improved civilisation will emerge and tell strange stories of a great empire with the power of gods that sank beneath the sea.

    We are Atlantians and will one day be a distant myth and a moral of human stupidity.


    2 October 2012 at 10:45

    • Thanks for commenting, Jules. It seems we share a similar perspective on the contingent nature of what we call civilisation; and the fact that we have now upset the apple-cart by pumping too many pears into the atmosphere!

      However, we may not share the same perspective on religion: I may not be the evangelical Christian I once was but, I suspect I will always be on the side of those who choose to believe in God; rather than those who would dismiss all religion as being mere superstition (i.e. the ‘god of the gaps’ fallacy) – Stephen Hawking being a case in point:

      Despite 7k years of relative climatic stability, there was significant change 5k years ago, which caused the Sahara desert to begin to form; the big game to all head south; and the humans to migrate to the Nile valley… However, I have not heard of this comet 3k years ago nor the 20-year-long winter it caused. Can you give me a link to more info.?

      The biggest problem we have today – apart from the common appeal of conspiracy theories to absolve us of all responsibility and/or give us someone to blame for bad things that happen – is the belief that humans can solve any problem Nature throws at us. There is just one problem with that idea; we are the main cause of this problem; and it is now almost certainly well beyond our capacity to control it. What I really don’t understand is why people try and deny that fossil fuels will run out one day; it bears a striking resemblance to the common aversion to contemplating one’s own mortality.

      Martin Lack

      2 October 2012 at 12:32

  3. The 1159 b.c.e [BC for you Martin!] event is documented in Clube & Napier ‘cosmic winter’ and the dendrochronolgist Baillie’s Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets.

    I don’t agree with all their conclusions but it makes for interesting reading, the other source online is the defunct cambridge conference network which carries a number of papers by astronomers and Bronze-Age collapse. But here is the irony it was set up by Benny Pieser, although he doesn’t do the talking which is left to some very big astronomy scientists. The biggest invisible conflict was between historians and science: historians don’t like catastrophe in their histories, perhaps it is a left over of early Christian influence of the flood or Victorian Atlantis groupies. A question I wonder is Benny’s role- does he crave to have academic credibility [beyond sports science] and stuck lucky with ancient climate change as it attracted significant support and tried it again with the AGW deniers – A big argument with the deniers is the climate system is too big, too robust to have a problem with us little ol humans yet CCN focused on how dust loading could change both the weather and the course of civilisation.

    The 5000 bce climate shift is related to the very long cycle of pole tipping [which you know] when the Arctic summer lasted even longer and the Sahara was even hotter, but conversely had an Indian type monsoon making it wetter. By driving the population into the Nile Valley, climate moulded humans in to a large cooperative nation. If I was being optimistic perhaps our current crisis will force us to start putting our differences aside and build a united civilisation of humanity.

    As for god, the universe is a pretty extraordinary place with room for lots of invisible things, and kittens and pizza, good deeds and bad, so perhaps the universe is more than it appears but why would the cosmos choose one or two individuals, on a tiny planet on the out skirts of just one of billions of galaxies as its representative, then declare one group superior to another and then not interfere when we started breaking all of its rules as we beat each other to a pulp.

    If I was to have a god it would be a whole lot more cosmopolitan.


    2 October 2012 at 13:48

    • Thanks Jules. My understanding is that humans lived in the Sahara until about 5000 years ago (not 5000 BC/bce). It is also my understanding that, around the same time, rapid changes occurred to glaciers in the Andes. Interesting webinar tomorrow:

      Christians would argue that God tried intervention as a policy 2000 years ago.

      Martin Lack

      2 October 2012 at 14:47

      • The Egyptian civilisation 3100 bce [oops 5000 years ago] marked the end of the wet/hot period of the Sahara. About the same time megalithic complexes in Ireland and Europe appeared although rudimentary stone ‘circles’ also date from around 5000 bce and can be found in the Sahara, a time of abundance and grassy savannah. Hence my error. Although the climate shift was slow as it was linked to pole direction dendrochronolgy, albeit, working at its extreme also indicates a sudden shift in climate around 3100. With major climate events in 3100, 2200, and 1159 it may have given ancestors the notion that disaster [dis=bad+aster=star] occurred every thousand years making 0bce/0ce a particularly frantic point when the end was near. Read the fun pack gore fest of Revelation and the description [well all 6 of them crammed into 1] pretty well matches dust loading by a comet, right down to the modern understanding that fireballs [i.e.] big dust react with atmospheric nitrogen to produce stinky nitric acid rain- wormwood. As it happened a minor climate/dust loading event is recorded to have occurred 200 bce.


        2 October 2012 at 16:44

        • Today, if nothing else, I have learnt where our word “disaster” comes from. Thank you.

          My favourite piece of early Jewish prescient commentary is the suggestion that God “…knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

          Martin Lack

          2 October 2012 at 17:50

  4. Sorry. As to the point of your post, thankfully humans are optimistic; and we thrive on a challenge. But the reality, if things go the way of plus 4 to 6 Celsius, is that we, or our civilisation, will not be the winning team. Humans will most probably cling on for a few hundred years before a new era of growth.

    Following the collapse of the Roman world it took 500 years for technology [and population] to get back to its pre-collapse level and, in the meantime, the Arabs took the opportunity to fill the void with their conquest.


    2 October 2012 at 13:54

    • Agreed. Civilisations come and go. It is just a shame that those who most admire what modernity has achieved are now those doing the most to lengthen the gap between our Carbon Age and that which will follow it.

      Martin Lack

      2 October 2012 at 14:51

  5. […] weeks ago, I posted a blog about episodes one and two of Andrew Marr’s History of the World.  Last week, I forgot to watch the third episode but […]

  6. […] political bias.  For those who have not read them, I would recommend you first read my posts about episodes 1 and 2  and episodes 3 and 4.  However, because of its synchronicity with the current state of global […]

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