We witness the greatest human horror acted out for the good of an idea. Lives, societies, countries can be fractured, mutilated, deeply and inconsolably scarred by the embodiment of an idea. In turn, we worry about the harm ideas can cause. We fear they will mess with our heads, bend wills, break hearts.
So last time (excluding the special edition), when I suggested that we imitate — that is, imaginatively act out — ideas that are not our own as our own, I also acknowledged the worry that we risk being damaged, corrupted, by the bad ones.
However, I want to show that corruption does not directly follow from our imitation of ideas, even bad ones. Imitating is not the same as accepting nor agreeing; we are not automatically adopting the ideas as our own. This is no brain-washing exercise primarily because proper philosophical imitation is not and should not be engaged in independently of philosophical practice as a whole. Indeed, that is, the very practices that I discuss throughout this blog — especially, the serious examination of and reflection on your self, and the guiding principle ‘what are we doing and why are we doing it?’ Remember, too, imitation, as I have set it out, is to make it possible to properly understand, actually ‘hear,’ ideas prior to assessing their worth, particularly, their worth as grounds for changing our mind.
I accept that once what is seen cannot go unseen, what is heard cannot go unheard, so the consequence of imitation is never entirely risk free. But I suggest we face a much greater risk by not inhabiting ideas for ourselves at all.
On Virgil’s telling of the ancient myth, the Trojan priest Laocoön famously warns ‘I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts.’ Cassandra, too, foretells that the Greek gift of a horse will be the downfall of Troy; Homer also tell us that Helen, guessing the subterfuge that the wooden horse concealed Greek forces, near thwarts the plan. Nevertheless, as the fates prescribe, Priam, Troy’s King, takes his enemy, the Greek soldier Sinon’s word for it and hauls the horse inside the city walls. Fooled by appearances Troy is destroyed.
The important point here is that Priam never feels the need to investigate the wooden horse for himself. He takes what looks from the outside just like a horse to be a horse. Moreover, above all others he takes the word of his enemy that what looks like a horse is just a horse. Our understanding of ideas can work this way too. We take what looks like the idea, what we are told is the idea, to be the idea. And here the real danger lies.
To do philosophy is largely to do the history of philosophy. Presently we are simply the most recent participants in the conversation that was already old well before Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the Athenian youth with it. Yes, that’s right — the great forefather of Western philosophy was sentenced to death for his ideas. Even though politics were involved, Athen’s ‘gadfly’ had pestered the wrong powerful people for too long, still at the time it appeared, it really looked like, Socrates’ ideas corrupted. Or at least his ideas could be made to look like they corrupted.
And it is this possibility that ideas — any idea, every idea — can be made to look like they corrupt is the reason that we need to investigate for ourselves what the actual idea is. It need not always be as dramatic as looking like an idea corrupts, simple misrepresentation can lead to misunderstanding and unjust prejudices.
Throughout its historical conversation philosophy has produced a ceaseless roll call of ‘-isms,’ catch-phrases, and idioms. All represent some idea, approach, view, forming a valuable philosophy short-hand. Most originate with a particular thinker, with many named after that thinker — yet, few, potentially none, straightforwardly represent their original thinker. Some no longer look like their name-sake at all. It is an ongoing question to what extent does any idiom represent its originator, let alone any group of thinkers or thoughts? Say, just how much of a Platonist is Plato, Hume a Humean, Marx a Marxist?
Also as philosophy’s conversation goes on (as all conversations go on) certain idioms and their associated ideas evolve, come in and out of intellectual favour, be associated more or less with virtue or vice. For instance, the same ideas that condemned Socrates in Athens are now keenly taught to our children.
So like the Trojan horse, what appears like one, seemingly obvious, idea on the surface can encapsulate and obscure a multiplicity of views developed, shaped, appropriated by its ongoing historical conversation. This goes for philosophical thinkers too. If you really want to know what Plato actually had to say go read some Plato, the same for Hume, Marx, whoever — go imitate them at source. Because no matter how astute and nuanced a representation of an idea is it remains only what it looks like, and only what it looks like to someone other than yourself.
Of course, it is impossible to inhabit, rightly imitate, every idea for yourself. There will be times when you just have to trust the judgment of others. But the worry is that you fail to inhabit any ideas for yourself at all; you trust everything to the judgment of others. Forget messed heads, bent wills, broken hearts, it is here, in certain blind trust, that the worst in us act out the great horrors.
In future, then, when philosophers come bearing ideas like Trojan horses, unlike Priam, you should not simply take anyone’s word for it.