The crime of Socrates
(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).