The Greek philosopher Socrates (5th c. BC) famously said "The unexamined life is not worth living."
But Socrates did more than examine his own life -- testing the reliability of what his senses told him, even questioning the cultural assumptions, intellectual knowledge and religious beliefs upon which society's institutions and behavior were built. He spent much of his time questioning the people of ancient Athens about everything they thought they knew. They did not like it. So they had a democratic vote and told Socrates something like this: "You are one sick, sick anthropos. But if you swallow this drink made from a delightful little herb -- Ahhemlock! -- it will all be better."
The Socrates affair has crisscrossed the globe through the ages in many different forms, but with the same caution to the wise, the summation of which only the king's English will do.
Never expose unto the people that they knowest not what they thinketh they know. Neither reveal unto them the gaps between their vaunted ideals and who they are in truth. For thou shalt surely suffer for it, and that right smartly.
Perhaps this maxim is easier to remember: The truth shalt get thee in a pickle. Pray, therefore, to love pickles.
I have written elsewhere on the need for education as soulcraft. I am saying here that foundational to soulcraft is the examined life. I am saying here that examining self and society may be an important step in the salvation of both.
One thing that desperately needs examination today is the difference between what we think we know is going on, and what is going on. Another thing that needs examining are the gaps between our ideals and who we really are. Take, for example, our much vaunted ideals of liberty.
Some inconvenient truth here. When Jefferson said that "all men are created equal" and endowed by their creator with rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he did not mean black people, whom he himself owned as slaves; he did not mean women, who did not get the universal right to vote in the U.S. until 1920; he did not mean Indians, whom he called "savages" in the Declaration. Jefferson, and the other founding fathers who signed the Declaration, did not mean a lot of people.
However, the Declaration, despite its obvious shortcomings, was actually a more radical document than the U.S. Constitution that was constructed for the new nation. For the Declaration stated the Enlightenment basis for a revolution for liberty. The Constitution promptly codified inequality and denied liberty to many.
For example, the Constitutional Convention of the new United States not only refused to abolish the very antithesis of liberty -- slavery -- but to add insult to injury, the Constitution defined black slaves as 3/5th persons for the express purpose of legally denying them democracy while simultaneously giving the white southern elite strong democratic representation in congress (U.S. Constitution, 1789, Article 1, Section 2).
"The elite," the great Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar once lamented, "want liberty, but only for themselves." That sentiment has never changed.
The 20th century was characterized by three developments of great importance, said Alex Carey:
"the growth of political democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."In 2005, the international financial conglomerate Citigroup sent an equity investment memo recommending a strategy of luxury investment in the era of emerging "Plutonomies" which are, especially, the U.S., UK, and Canada. (See the whole document here.)
Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (1995)
"Income inequality", said Citigroup, is at "the heart of plutonomy". For example, in the U.S. 1% of richest households have some 40% of the nation's wealth, "more than the bottom 95%...put together".
Citigroup was careful to disclaim that it was not arguing whether Plutonomies were good or not. It was just stating the fact of their existence. The question for investors: "How do we make money on this theme?" But it seems that pesky democracy can ruin the whole investment opportunity. No, wait. Good news. The growing gap between the few haves and the many have-nots will likely never be challenged, as long as "enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant...the embodiment of the American dream". Translation? Plutonomies, their illustrious 1%, and you as a prospective investor in what the 1% luxuriate in, have little to fear that actual democracy by the other 99% will ruin your day.
Does anyone see anything wrong with this thinking? Is this a civilization that values anything higher than money -- when push comes to shove, in the final analysis? Are political parties of the right and left manipulated into demonizing and fighting each other for scraps from the tables of the Plutocrats while plutonomies may be the biggest threat to democracy in generations? What about this year's Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on corporate political spending? Do we really still believe there is one-person-one vote democracy in this country? Think again.
"We are now in a situation where a lobbyist can walk into my office...and say, 'I've got five million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against you."Why isn't government working for everyday Americans, asks Bill Moyers?
Alan Grayson, Dem-Rep, Florida (defeated in recent election)
"Because it's been bought off. It's as simple as that. And until we get clean money we're not going to get clean elections, and until we get clean elections, you can kiss goodbye government of, by, and for the people. Welcome to the plutocracy."The victorious rise of plutocracy is just one issue in a sea of troubling issues that face all people. I am challenged to my core to examine my religious beliefs and my life. To ask myself: is mine a faith that is heavenly minded and earthly good?
I think the reader can see that engaging in the examined life, let alone trying to get others to do so, is not a work for the faint of heart. One needs the strength of Hercules, the patience of a monument, and the conviction of a martyr.
The Hebrew prophets of old tried to convey to the world something of the realities of eternity. The world conveyed its appreciation by sending them there.
Jesus of Nazareth once said that "a prophet has honor except in his own country." His message, that right belief means little without right action, crossed a line. He ended up crossed.
But what of the claim of the resurrection? It is true that Jesus' resurrection for life in the hereafter has long been popular with Christians. It is Jesus' teaching about life in the here and now that historically has not been so popular. Following Jesus into heaven is one thing. Following him on earth is another.
And therein lies the paradox. Oh how people love and admire these prophets and teachers of rational ideals, religious verities and social conscience -- but from a safe historical distance, when there is often little at stake in loving and admiring them. This allows us to believe one thing and live another.
But where would we be without these gadflies of the world who examine self and society? What would the world have been like if people listened to them while they were alive? But there is still hope. For, if I may borrow a phrase from the Christian New Testament, "though they are dead, yet do they speak". What may the world still become if we would but listen to them now?