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Are You Meletus Or Socrates?

Each of us, right now, is presented with a choice: to be Meletus or Socrates. Most of us haven’t heard about Meletus and so, to be on the safe side, we may incline toward Socrates. But that is the dangerous option, as will be seen shortly.

Meletus

Meletus is one of Socrates’s accusers in Plato’s Apology, the dramatic text whose protagonist Socrates will be tried and convicted–perhaps–for corrupting the souls of the youth and for believing in other gods (or for not believing in any gods at all) or perhaps for reasons of slander or perhaps for political reasons.

In his cross examination of Meletus, Socrates is groping for a concept that, I suspect, was not yet available to Classical Athens because, I conjecture further, it hadn’t yet been invented. Among other things, Socrates charges Meletus with “dealing frivolously with serious matters,” and what we see, in the brief dialogue that ensues, is just this–and a whole lot more.

Meletus panders to the jurors, cheerleading them, saying whatever is most likely to achieve a guilty verdict. You might think: “Well, that’s just how the law court works,” and without a doubt you have a point. Yet, it can be seen, Socrates is trying to make a larger point stick.

This starts to become clearer as Socrates demonstrates that Meletus is not being consistent. In the initial charges, Meletus alleged that Socrates believed in divine beings that are different from those in Athens. In the trial, however, he states that Socrates doesn’t believe in any gods at all and thus is what, in later centuries, would come to be called an “atheist.” For one engaged earnestly in Socratic dialogue, falling into contradiction means something. It means that some premise must be false, and often it implies that the initial proposal must be discarded or revised. A contradiction has consequences, has teeth.

But not so for Meletus. He just doesn’t care. Specifically, he just doesn’t care either way. Tell the truth? Good enough. Lie? All right. Confabulate? Fine by me.

Are you starting to see Socrates’s point? Meletus is essentially a bullshit artist, and bullshitting, as Harry Frankfort sought to show in On Bullshit, is not only pervasive in modern culture; it is also pernicious. The truth gleaned from The Apology is that if you have no care whatsoever for the truth and if, to boot, you’re too thoughtless to even want to care one way or another about investigating the truth, then you can have no care for the souls of the youth. We can generalize this conclusion: then you can have no care about the souls of any human being. Worse, your carelessness and thoughtfulness, once these become grist for bullshitting, actually corrodes others’ characters.

Using the words available to him, Socrates calls Meletus “a jester,” but Meletus is much worse than that. Because a jester recognizes that he’s acting in jest and thus holds onto some point of reference called “truth” or “truths” whereas a bullshitter does not.

If you think that Meletus is just a fictional character or a historical personage, think again: Meletus is all around us. Observe on social media, in organizations, in political forums how a lack of any genuine care for the truth makes possible the power-driven theatricality–the optics of Instagram, the kudos for leaders at Google, the strict bullshit of a Trump–that Alasdair MacIntyre sought to skewer in his book After Virtue (1981). The Meletuses of the world are like acid: given enough time, they’ll eat through everything but not because all becomes strictly frivolous. No, because all becomes idolatry as the frivolous masquerades increasingly in the guise of “serious matters” or “ultimate concerns.” In the end and by such means, the ultimate becomes veiled.

Or Socrates

Much can be said, and has already been said, about the figure of Socrates, but one seminal, albeit oft-repeated, thing must be reasserted in this context. “Socrates” or “Socratic” is the name we give to anybody who relentlessly investigates her own beliefs with a view to realizing that she doesn’t know what she she thought she did. These were just presumptions or strong convictions–all the way down. She’s empty-handed. Period.

If you’re Socratic through and through, then you start to see–at first dimly but then with greater clarity–that you don’t know how to live; that you don’t have any reason to believe that others do either; that, to be utterly candid, you’re pretty much clueless and therefore–and this too is certain to you–routeless. To say that you’re confused is an understatement.

(I do not say that all of one’s life will be purely Socratic, but I do say that some periods of one’s life, if it to be wholesome and good, ought to be.)

But why call this the “dangerous option” as I did at the outset? Simply because Meletus achieves wealth, status, and power, and Socrates (had he not had a Plato and had he not died in the dramatic way he did) would likely have remained a nobody. If you care more about gain, then be Meletus, the proto-Macchiavelli. No one will be the wiser anyway. However, if you care about ultimate things, about the quality of your soul, and about the quality of others’ souls, then dare to be Socratic. Nota bene: it does come with one hell of a warning label: your life will be turned upside-down.

After Virtue 40 Years Later

I think this is the third or fourth time that I’ve read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). What surprises me–each time–is just how good the book is. How insightful. How spot on. How prescient even in 2020.

Here’s a brief summary of the first half of the book (since I haven’t finished it yet):

  1. First, MacIntyre posits that modern culture is mired in moral incoherence owing to the loss of Aristotelian teleological virtue ethics. This moral incoherence, the result of fragments of different traditions, issues forth in interminable moral disagreements and in shrill voices yelling above the din.
  2. Next, he seeks to establish what actual social life is like in the light of this moral incoherence. In brief, the loss of a shared conception of the good entails the preeminence of power. Our time is theatrical, performative, rhetorical, mask-like.
  3. At this point in time, we are faced with a choice: either the Nietzschean will to power baldly endorsed or the reconstitution of Aristotelian teleological virtue ethics for our time.

In the second half of the book, he will make his case for the latter.

‘That’s Too Good For Me’

Who here hasn’t been prideful? Who, right here, isn’t prideful still?

Who hasn’t said: “That’s too good for me”? Who hasn’t gotten huffy, murmuring under one’s breath: “That’s beneath me.” Whose anger isn’t slowly brought to a simmer, only to remain on a low boil?

In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre must have seen pride as the great vice of that sovereign self, the one with emotivist colorings. In After Virtue, he points out that the Aristotelian account of teleological ethics had three components. One, a state of “untutored” human nature. Two, the proper telos for an excellent, full human life: a condition of (call it) “cultivated” nature. And, three, the salient virtues, which–make no mistake–are not just the ethical “means” by which one is transformed from untutored to cultivated but also that through which one is constituted. The virtue of caritas drenches us in love, in loving charity.

Pride, so lauded among the Classical Greeks and rightly criticized by medieval Christians, has, in modernity, become the accompaniment to human beings’ inviolable autonomy and autarchy. As a result, untutored nature remains untutored, glorifying at the same time in what were once vices: greed (now calculating self-interest), vanity (now fitness and physical attractiveness), excessive wealth (now financial freedom and then some), lust (now perfectly ‘natural’ sexual desire’ to be satisfied by porn or in the flesh), and envy (now, for the one so envied, ‘impressiveness’ and influential-dom).

Of course, the remedy for pride is humbling the heart. But from what source today? Which Zen master or Benedictine abbot will humble the young, headstrong one? Who–tell me: who–will mop the floors? Which leader in the C-suite will just listen as others stumble over their lines (unless, to be sure, he has learned that it’s part of “vulnerable leadership” to be engaged in “appreciative inquiry”)?

Pride, giving a free pass to the tyranny and ubiquity of the ego-self, is sanctified in liberalism and libertarianism. The former upholds pluralism, the latter the inviolability of the body and the freedom of the mind. Consequently, anything goes.

Without regnant, widely shared conceptions of the good, for what, in view of what will we humble ourselves? For what reason?

Joined by ignorance, pride sees that there is nothing whatsoever the matter. Wisdom, were it to be heard, would tell us otherwise.

The Best Thing Is To Be Told That You’re Full Of Shit

The best thing another can do for you is to tell you that you’re full of shit.

And now, alas, for all the carats and qualifiers…

  1. The one telling you this shouldn’t be acting out of ill will, anger, or aggression. Buddhists call this “the second poison.” Instead, he or she should be acting with a wholesome intention.
  2. Moreover, this person must really see something that you do not. What he or she sees is the truth.
  3. And that truth should be expressed at the right time. Remember: timing is almost everything.
  4. And you must have ears to hear. That is, you must be really ripe to the point of being open and ready to hear it and, in waves, to take it in.

Suppose 1-4 are the case. Then what is revealed is not just how clueless you are about the matter at hand but also the fact that you’ve been pretending to yourself and to others that you aren’t clueless.

And what is the gift being offered here? To show you your bullshit. To give you the opportunity to see how often this piece of bullshit spews from your mouth. To stop bullshitting yourself and others, at least about this matter. To experience genuine humility and for that humility to reorient you away from looking smart and toward caring about the truth. Perhaps, above all, to be overcome, if only momentarily, by a sense of helplessness.

Helplessness? For just in that moment when you hear it, you may be pierced deeply: I am totally clueless; I don’t really know how to live my life; I am powerless. The veil of autonomy, which had led you to believe that you are the sole agent responsible for your life, may, if only for a moment, be lifted. And that is the best gift of you.

The Confessors

The confessors out there do love their confessions. I don’t know who we have to blame for this shadowy development. The Romantics from whom the cult of interiority began? Or, as we come to our native soil, Emerson, who once wrote, “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to this or that; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it”)? Or, back to the Continent, the existentialists, so taken as they were by authenticity? Or the Freudian and post-Freudian heritage of endless self-analysis? However it happened, here we are, with countless people, in private and public (what’s the difference anymore, right?), confessing what are now open secrets–revealed, broadcast, recorded, and archived.

Whether it’s the recent Kanye West disclosure of his bipolar disorder diagnosis or whether it’s former George Washington University professor Jessica Krug’s recent tell-all about her passing as Black doesn’t, for the purposes of my discussion here, make a difference. All these confessionals, I submit, are of a piece; all bare the contents of mind, or soul, in a way that indicates a peculiar combination of torment, pride, anguish, desire, vanity, supreme self-centeredness, and–dare I say?–shallowness. Perhaps, right here and lest we think the phenomenon in question is just a topic for celebrities, we do well to remind ourselves of the subtler, and more mundane, confessionals written daily on Instagram: the struggles with looking good, with feeling good, with experiencing moment by moment joy (as if such were humanly possible!), with that nebulous notion of “spiritual growth,” or, really, with whatever.

The truth is that the confessors are living in a groundless moral universe without knowing it. We are all: knowledge of that groundlessness I call “the meta-crisis.”

Blind to this groundlessness, confessors anchor themselves to the constant manufacturing and production of a certain kind of self, one that can be displayed, jeered at, lauded, envied, gawked at, whatever: perhaps it does matter, but in a way it hardly matters. The best confessors are the best performers. To them, it’s all theater.

Except that, uncannily to them, it’s not. The best confessional actors are, n doubt, the most convicted; for them, can it really be theater all the way down? Groundlessness, accordingly, is hidden by the endless theatrical performances and by the masks that, to the confessors, long ago ceased to appear in the form of masks.

When the common good and the life of contemplation were, over the long march of modernity, slowly eroded, guess what came in their stead? In therapeutic culture, the influencers, the therapeutically well-versed, the life coaches, and the therapeuticized facilitators all, likely unbeknownst to themselves, have an agenda: to get the rest of us to become confessors too. That way everyone can finally become a star.