Two Reflections On The Fate of the Soul

In the eternal battle between cats and birds, I am always on the side of the birds. Make no mistake, though: I know the battle is eternal, which is to say that it is both essential and without hope of ultimate resolution or victory. I have chosen my side nevertheless, or rather perhaps I ought to say that I have been chosen by my side, as I suppose we all are in such things. Few sights in the animal kingdom bring me more profound satisfaction than watching magpies fend off a cat that has positioned himself near a tree where the birds have their nest. Remaining bravely on the ground, hopping around the cat and chattering at the invader incessantly, even taking little pokes at his body with their beaks to annoy and frustrate the beast into finally giving up and walking away, and, best of all, standing directly in front of the cat and turning their backs on him, deliberately tempting him to make his move as a way of dislodging him from his dangerous location — at these moments, the magpies are truly heroic, and I identify with their struggle absolutely. By “their struggle,” I mean the intractable and irreducible battle of the soul to rid itself of the body once and for all.

Socrates, in his trial and on many other occasions detailed by Plato, describes his (and by implication any philosopher’s) inability to speak to a crowd, rooted in the fundamental divide between truth-seeking dialogue and public rhetoric, rational investigation and emotional persuasion. Imagine a man of peculiar insight and a unique voice trying to make himself heard and understood, in all his subtle and idiosyncratic twists and turns, amid the steady hum of ten thousand amalgamated voices, murmuring the collective and familiar chant of popular belief. Now imagine that lone, strange voice of unexpected turns speaking amid the digitally amplified buzz of a billion collectivized voices, endlessly churning out mindless reiterations of everything everyone has ever said, that lone voice itself included in the collectivized catalogue of generic and barely differentiated sounds. Such is the effect of our ever-accelerating dependence on information technology: artificial intelligence, internet algorithms, social media intellectualism, digital translators, and the dreams of a microchip in every brain. As though information were the intellect’s natural goal, and wisdom nothing but an old-fashioned word for the most comprehensive collection of sensory input.

Nothing is sadder than a profound statement reduced to popular cliché. “The unexamined life is not worth living” spouted by a million undifferentiated graduate students, as if “the examined life” were the simplest thing on earth, rather than Socrates’ final statement of defiance to a world he believed largely incapable of taking up the challenge. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” issuing from the lips of every infantile adult facing the abyss of a break-up after a two-month sexual relationship, or every student who suffers the indignity of a B grade on a test. Such reduction indicates the stifling of a liberating idea by a method far more complete and effective than the mere refusal to listen, namely by the absorption and normalization of the shocking and strange within the unobtrusive soundscape of comforting truisms, the voice of the rousing gadfly transformed into a soothing lullaby. Socrates warned that the voice of reason could not be heard amid the crowd. But his warning was less a lament than an enticement to the alternative setting, the realm of private conversation or quiet contemplation. When that realm itself has been conquered and converted into just another subsection of the popular space — when the language of wisdom has been reduced by the dynamic compression of technological democratization into just another shade in the general array of lifeless colors — then Socrates’ ironic stand against the chatter of the crowd, or Nietzsche’s brave acceptance of his spiritual agony before mankind’s approaching nihilism, become superficial routines, and the world, in turn, becomes an infinitely darker place.

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