Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 20: Athenian Prisoners Reciting Euripides Set Free

The Greek Way, Chapter 6, Question 5: What is the point of the introductory story?

The evening before battle, Pericles, Athenian statesman and military commander-in-chief, and his second-in-command fall into a literary discussion about the appropriateness of certain color-adjectives in describing an object, whereupon they cite various poets whose quotations illustrate their respective viewpoints. The next day they are victorious in battle. Hamilton mentions that such a sophisticated discussion about literary criticism between two military men before battle would be unimaginable in any other age or culture.

How would you explain these Athenian generals conversing about such aesthetic nuances more suitable to a graduate school seminar room between two doctoral students? What deeper point is she making and do you agree with her? What is this anecdote saying about Athenian society and the importance of leisure for cultivating the mind?

Perhaps a more telling example not mentioned by Hamilton is found in two passages from Thucydides (also here, VII.87) and Plutarch (Life of Nicias 29.1-3) regarding Athenian captives sentenced to death working in the stone quarries of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War. So fond were the Syracusans of Euripides' dramas that those prisoners who could recite lines from them were set free.

How would you explain the power of poetry among the Greeks that could so move the Syracusans that they freed these captives? What was it about the power of poetry that so transfixed them? What has happened in the intervening centuries that would make this kind of reaction impossible today? What does this say about the Greeks as a people and culture?

6. Why is certainty the end of thought?

Certainty closes the minds of those convinced that they already possess the truth. These individuals may even feel sorry for those who have the misfortune of disagreeing with them and try to persuade these unfortunates "to make them see reason" or "to save them from themselves." As history shows, they may persecute or try to convert them by force, or even banish, torture, or burn them at the stake. Certainty can be a very dangerous thing, and certainty among the powerful can turn them into monsters.

Some who convert others may do so to convince themselves, since converts confirm the converters' beliefs. Those who adopt more drastic measures of persuasion as mentioned above may be prompted not by certainty, but by an inner doubt so alarming that they try to silence it by projecting it onto dissenters or those "too willfully blind" to convert, whom they then execute as the embodiment of their doubt to find inner peace.

Such persecution, torture, and murder by execution have always been a problem with theocracies with no tradition of dissent, or with demagogues who ascend to power and force their ideas upon a free people, when dissent becomes treason. Pluralistic societies, on the other hand, have learned from experience that dissent isn't treason, but the soul of democracy. A government which oppresses a democratic people is no longer legitimate because it has lost the consent of the governed and rules by virtue of the Divine Right of Kings.

Let us consider for a moment such a tyrant as Dogmatist, the embodiment of closed-minded certainty. He is not someone of humility who realizes his own past errors, with the confident expectation that he'll doubtless err again; nor is he someone who modestly affirms his limited perception of truth and refuses to call it "truth from on high"; nor someone who's aware that several answers may be possible, and that his needn't necessarily be true; nor someone who allows himself to be counseled by seasoned advisors about which answer is best.

Nor is he someone who refuses to believe that a complex question can be reduced to one simple answer that happens to be his own; nor someone who realizes that many conditioning factors may predispose him to think as he does -- his upbringing and temperament; his age, gender, and race; his social class, religion, and nationality; his education, profession, and marital status; who realizes that all of these factors may be influencing him - indeed, even be doing his thinking for him! - and so adopts a live-and-let-live attitude toward those who disagree with him.

No, he is the Omniscient One, who through some mysterious dispensation has been vouchsafed the divine prerogative "to know" what is right and wrong, true and false, wise and foolish for all men and women in all times and places. He is the Enlightened One who, sitting enthroned in Olympian splendor, demands that all submit to his truth. Not only has he stopped thinking, but is enslaved by his own closed-mindedness, which he then imposes on everyone. He is the eternal Narcissus, so enamored of himself that he cannot recognize his view of the world as a self-serving delusion that is based on neither facts nor evidence, but on an act of faith in his own grandiosity.

However, we mustn't think that the Dogmatist appears only as an individual over the centuries. His spirit also animates groups and movements, institutions and ideologies, indeed, entire traditions with no less fervor.

And contrary to what is usually supposed, the traditional ways of viewing the world are not the only offenders. One has but to survey the sundry creeds of modernity which pontificate their certainties -- Behaviorism, Psychoanalysis, Marxism, Positivism, Historicism, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, and Neoliberalism, which while grandiloquently calling itself the Inexorable Law of the Universe is simply old-fashioned plunder and exploitation. They all come to liberate humanity only to enslave it with a metaphysics all their own.

But no matter in what form he appears, the Dogmatist has a curious power over the credulous with a compulsive need to believe in someone like him, who can awaken guilt and fear unless they succumb to his Svengalian will. In leading these millions to himself he leads them to their own destruction as they, lemming-like, follow him over the edge.

Doubt and uncertainty, on the other hand, keep the mind open. They may even be part of an answer. One doesn't suppress but invites, encourages, and welcomes these doubts, listens to and converses with them to keep oneself free of the delusion that one alone possesses the truth.

So far we have been dealing with those who have permanent answers, but what of those who feel that some answers aren't meant to be permanent but outgrown? Is the answer one has as a child, an adolescent, a young or middle-aged adult or senior citizen meant to last an entire lifetime? Granted, some answers are, and must remain so. But aren't there other answers that are meant to last only until we evolve to the next stage of our journey? And aren't those answers, in turn, meant to be only temporary way stations until we feel the need to move on again? Aren't such answers that simply evolve over a lifetime the result of an ever-deepening wisdom into the nature of life that comes with growth and experience?

And what is it that effects a change, a cure, or a rebirth in ourselves -- the truth of that new answer we slowly grow into, or the belief in its truth?

Or does that distinction matter? Or does it matter very much since it is only the belief in an answer that permits us to grow and not the truth of that answer itself? What is it, for instance, that sustains a rationalist: the power of reason to explain everything, or the belief in that power?

But does this mean that the truth of what we believe in really doesn't matter as long as we believe that it's true?

Is believing that something is true, then, more important than the truth of that belief, even if what is believed is delusion?

And would this mean that one could grow as a person not only by believing in what is true, but also in what is false?

Are the reasons that prompt a particular answer, belief, doctrine, worldview, or ideology to be sought in the truth of that answer, or in the psychotherapeutic nature of our believing in that answer?

Are all beliefs, doctrines, and truth-systems, then, disguised psychotherapies which give their adherents direction, meaning, and purpose, and it may be for these reasons they really accept them, and not for their purported truth?

Or does any of this matter, as long as they're trying to be true to themselves?

If a new answer works for you, does this mean that it's necessarily true and has healing power?

Is its healing power all we need from an answer even if it mayn't be true?

Are attempts to critically examine or refute any answer or belief pointless, since its adherents need to believe in that belief to continue as functioning human beings?

Or is all of this dangerous reductionism, which explains away the truth of beliefs in terms of the motives for holding them, so that these motives are nothing but a series of disguised ad hominem fallacies?

Or are motives irrelevant to why we hold a particular belief, and so shouldn't be considered important?

How do these questions apply to the Dogmatist and his insistence that he alone possesses the truth?

Critics: "How do you know that your truth isn't delusion? If you were deluded, would it feel any different from your really possessing the truth? And if there were no difference between these two mental states, then how would you know that you weren't deluded? Inner conviction, since that too could be delusion?"

Dogmatist: "If what you say is true, then your truth, too, could be delusion!"

Critics: "You're absolutely right, and so we don't dogmatize! Doesn't the possibility of your being wrong concern you? Or are you more concerned about losing face by having to admit your error and bowing to the people's will? And what of all the needless suffering you cause to millions?"

Dogmatist: "But I see the big picture and have the good of our nation's future at heart. You see only the moment and live in the short-term, whereas I consider the long-term, as well. If there's pain today, so be it! We're working toward a better tomorrow!"

Critics: "But people live in the short-term! Is this cold abstraction of "the long-term" of more value than the flesh-and-blood human beings living today? Don't you realize that you exist for the people, not the people for you?"

Dogmatist: "You don't understand. For the sake of the future, you sometimes must sacrifice a generation or two!"

Critics: But why is the present any less important than the future, since the present is all people have? Humanity isn't a plaything to serve your own ends."

Dogmatist: "I steer the ship of state by a different compass, and that is the burden of leadership!"