“American culture, like Athenian democracy, is highly prone to authority and peer pressure, and to seeing political argument as a matter of boasts and assertions, of scoring ‘points’ for one’s side. That is why Socrates has so much to offer us, why Socrates is so urgently needed.” Martha Nussbaum
[W]hen we lose Socrates, we lose reflection, and when we lose reflection, we lose wisdom. And it is not only wisdom that we lose, although that is bad enough. When we lose Socrates, when we lose reflection, we lose a kind of closeness to reality, the ability to see the things that exist only in nuance, in hidden corners, in the uncommon details of life.” Stephen Carter
Hello BIC alumni,
As I mentioned in my previous note, I’ve been participating in a Yoginis for Social Justice reading group in Austin. Over the last year, we read Chris Crass’s Toward the Other America and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. During our summer hiatus, I took it upon myself to read Cornel West’s Democracy Matters and most recently Ta- Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. The readings and our discussions have led to some deep soul searching on my part about how I might bring what I’m learning into my more traditionally-oriented philosophy classroom. I’ve also been thinking about how various BIC classes might provide forums to talk about these important matters in more sustained ways.
One small thing I did was add the above quotes to my Plato Seminar Syllabus. I have always tried to use inspirational quotes for my syllabi, but when I looked at the quotes I was using more critically, I decided I could do better than Whitehead’s oft-quoted remark about western philosophy and footnotes to Plato. I want Plato and Socrates to matter today, not just because they are the patriarchs of the western philosophical tradition but because I believe that this legacy offers an inspirational model for living in our rather troubled times.
Cornel West certainly believes this is the case. In 2004, he wrote Democracy Matters, a sequel to his now classic Race Matters published in 1994. West argues that there has been a decline in civil democratic space and civic engagement aimed at mutual good. He maintains that “a narrow rant against the new imperialism or emerging plutocracy is not enough. Instead we must dip deep into often-untapped wells of our democratic tradition to fight the imperialist strain and plutocratic impulse in American life.”[i] He isolates three main threats to our democratic lives, “the dogma of free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism.” Throughout this book, West vividly describes the dark underbelly of violence that pervades America’s cultural history. He argues that we must find resources to expose our collective denial about the harm that our unreflective commitment to these three modes of engagement causes both individually and collectively. West locates three aspects of our democratic tradition that we must revive: a commitment to Socratic questioning and plain speaking (parrehesia), the prophetic voice from the Hebraic and Christian tradition, and the tragic comic commitment to hope as seen in the struggles to overcome racial oppression.
As I was reading West’s description of these communal resources, it struck me how BIC-ish it was. Throughout the four years of the BIC, we read and discuss works from each of these strains of our intellectual heritage.
I also realized that my work as a Plato scholar (alongside my interest in Platonic Narrative) could move into this conversation as well . So, I decided to do what all academics do: write an academic paper about it. Here’s a paragraph from the opening.
Given the current crisis of our nation, one even more critical than when West published Democracy Matters twelve years ago, I would like to take up the first of West’s remedies for our social crisis: a commitment to the Socratic art of plain speaking. To this end, I place Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me in conversation with West and with Plato’s presentation of Socrates in the Apology. I regard Coates as a contemporary American Socratic that the philosophical community should rigorously engage as a philosophical interlocutor, much in the way that thinkers like Cornel West have shaped the philosophical discussions on race. Further, Coates is an eloquent writer. In many ways this work functions as a Platonic dialogue does, leading readers through a process of engaged argument, reassessment and aporia, toward a refined understanding of the issues at hand. In addition, Coates’s position as a public intellectual offers a model of how philosophers might do more to engage the world outside the halls of the academy. His work should motivate us to enter the agora as Socrates did in his own world, a world shaped by a democracy in crisis.
May each of you find ways to continue to live out the examined life in your lives.
Director, Baylor Interdisciplinary Core
[i] West, Cornel. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (p. 3). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.