Socrates’ Challenge

The roots of political philosophy grew from Socrates’ lifelong frustration with all the politicians, rhetoricians, and sophists active and influential in the political arena, who through all his attempts to question and challenge them on this issue, could never provide one rationally plausible definition of politics’ essential concern, justice. In short, Socrates found that none of the men important in the political life of Athens — the most intellectually and politically advanced of communities — had any idea how to explain, logically, what they meant when they advocated their various schemes for advancing the cause of something they called “justice.” They could blather, obfuscate, or pontificate about what they wanted to do in the name of justice, but they could never tell you exactly why those proposals were just, i.e., what justice itself is, such that this or that “just law” or “just action” may be correctly described as just.

Twenty-four hundred years later, the source of Socrates’ frustration remains essentially unchanged: the problem of political philosophy, and the practical condition that proves the continued dire need for political philosophy, is that no one involved in the political arena in any sense can say what they mean by justice, which is to say they cannot explain rationally why they support this political result over that one, or why you should. Naturally, as always, these people have their incoherent, mostly implicit, notions of justice. But again, under any sort of modestly Socratic challenge, they display no capacity to explain what they are talking about.

Let us take the obvious example of the Trump faction, which, following its leader, has reduced democratic politics to its basest and least defensible rationale, namely that justice means winning — and winning for these people is as undefined as that term itself can be, since it involves no particular prize other than the perceived “victory” itself, as though elections themselves were the purpose of politics, rather than any ultimate goals to be achieved by means of election victories — as though politics were a board game which we merely fold up the moment one player reaches the “Finish” square, rather than a real-world fight for specific social outcomes. How can one even declare oneself the winner of this game without having any idea what political victory means? If justice is winning, but one does not know what a genuinely political victory would entail, then how is one to know whether one’s perceived “win” is not in fact an ultimate and ignominious defeat? And of course Trump’s term in office was an all too perfect enactment of the precise meaning of that question.

Meanwhile, of course, for the more ideologically driven progressives, justice means power. And power is another term for which none of its political advocates provide any coherent definition. They offer only borrowed Marxist lingo, mixed with a lot of twentieth century post-Marxist special interest drivel — feminist power, skin color power, even now the self-revealing absurdity of gender identity power — to pad out the inadequacies of the more straightforward and quasi-logical but historically antiquated Marxist ideas. In the end, this hodgepodge leaves the “power” in “justice is power” meaning, in effect, “whatever we need it to mean this year in our efforts to expand our personal, immediate control over the political scene.” In other words, this progressive notion of justice amounts in practice to the same thing as Trump’s reductionist definition, justice is winning. “Whatever we think constitutes a victory counts as winning. Whatever we think constitutes power counts as justice.”

There is nothing but flimsy sophistry to support the idea that the various things these people call power are in fact power properly speaking, let alone that this kaleidoscopic image of power equals justice; but they are going to call it justice, and you are going to accept their imposition of this irrational notion over all of your life, in the name of whatever facet of power they claim to be promoting on any given day.

Socrates spoke at his trial about his life-defining mission of questioning the prominent men of Athens in search of wisdom, only to find that they had none at all, and especially none concerning the very matters in which they were claiming to be wise. This “realization” — Socrates, the great ironist, only discovered what he knew very well he would discover — did not stop him from spending the last twenty-five years of his adult life in daily conversation with his fellow citizens, challenging them, chastising them, provoking them to reexamine their premises and doubt their certainties, usually without success. He was able to withstand this life of almost constant failure because Athens was an essentially civilized society, in which rational discourse still had a place. Today, I suspect, he would spend much less time in the agora, and much more time in his library.

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