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From scavengers to sovereigns

Dan Sportiello | Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Roughly 300 years before the birth of Christ, in a Corinthian alley, two very different interpretations of the legacy of Socrates came face to face.

“I am Alexander, King of Macedon,” said one of them. He had, until four years earlier, been the pupil of Aristotle, who had been the pupil of Plato, who had been the pupil of Socrates. Aristotle had taught Alexander — alongside his companions, the men who would become his generals — to see in the world not particulars bearing changing relations to one another but rather the eternal law that governs them. Aristotle taught Alexander to see, that is, not a chaos but rather a cosmos — a world in which justice ruled not just men but even the stars.

It seems this gave him ideas. Within 12 years, Alexander would be dead. But within 10, he would conquer the known world and crown himself the King of Kings, making his vision of brotherhood among all men, whether Greek or Persian — at its heart, a deeply Platonic vision — a reality. His visit to Corinth, where he won the command of the Greek forces arrayed against Persia, was merely the first step toward this end.

But Platonism was not the only interpretation of the legacy of Socrates: Living in Corinth — specifically, it seems, in a barrel lying in an alley — was Diogenes, who had been the pupil of Antisthenes, who had also been the pupil of Socrates. Diogenes represented Cynicism — that is, Dogism, so called because he, well, lived like a dog: He slept in the street owning nothing and eating only what scraps he could find as a protest, it seems, against the injustice of the hypocritical society in which he found himself.

He was not, even for a King, someone to miss. “I am Alexander, King of Macedon,” the aspiring Platonist said to Diogenes. “What can I do for you?”

“You can get out of my light,” said Diogenes.

Something like this story may well be true. But its truth or falsity is beside the point: The story illustrates something larger than itself.

The world is periodically given great philosophers — men who synthesize the apparently contradictory insights of their predecessors and employ those insights to challenge the existing moral, cultural, and political order. But the students of each great philosopher face a choice: What does it mean to be faithful to the challenge of their master?

Some — call them Platonists — conclude that they have a duty to work within the system in order to make the vision of their teacher a reality.

But others conclude such change within the system is impossible — and, indeed, any attempt at change within the system will mire one in complicity with it. Such others — call them Cynics — conclude they have a duty to define themselves in radical opposition to the system as it is—at which point the only choice is between revolution and death.

This is a tension that replays itself throughout the history of philosophy: Consider, for example, Hegel and Nietzsche — two philosophers representing very different interpretations of the legacy of Kant. Socrates himself — at least as he is depicted in Plato’s Republic — seems to wrestle with this tension on just about every page. “The things we have said about the city and the regime are not in every way prayers,” he states, “they are hard but in a way possible” — specifically, if “the true philosophers, either one or more, come to power in a city.”

Far from heralding the reign of Alexander, however, Socrates soon subverts his own words: A hypocritical society is such that no opinion, especially a true one, could ever come to govern it — for such a society hears all argument as the interplay of power and will therefore hear an argument to the contrary as just another power play. Socrates expresses this worry in his metaphor of society as a ship: “They praise and call ‘skilled sailor,’ ‘pilot’ and ‘knower of the ship’s business’ the man who is clever at figuring out how they will get the rule, either by persuading or by forcing the shipowner, while the man who is not of this sort they blame as useless … [for] they don’t suppose it’s possible to acquire the art and practice of how one can get hold of the helm whether the others wish it or not, and at the same time to acquire the pilot’s skill.” A sailor who argues the ship is sailing in circles is unlikely to be effective if those at the helm hear his talk of destinations as mere jockeying for rank. The only solution is for the sailor to struggle for the helm himself — but this is just for him to become like them.

Is it worth it? One’s answer will decide as to what kind of philosopher one will live — and die — like. The question, in the meantime, waits in the breast of each of us.

“If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,” said the aspiring King of Kings. Perhaps Diogenes reached a parallel conclusion.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.