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Odysseus Makridis, My Comments on Students' Responses to the Question about Socrates and the Absurd

Readings for this assignment were, Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd," and Plato, Socrates' Speech of Defense

[I am supplying the responses in my own words.] Most of the students' responses to the question 'why did Socrates 'fail' to see life as absurd?' fall under the following categories:

1. "Socrates just would not accept that life is absurd." It is not clear, in this response, if Socrates ever feared that life is absurd and then went into 'denial;' or, if he just couldn't get it that life is absurd. Let us take each one of these two possibilities separately. [You should be very careful, when you write papers or exams, to think about possible ways in which your point could be misunderstood and to try to be clear about your meaning.]

1a. This is a psychological response. If one wishes to be negative about it, one could call it 'psychologistic' - an inappropriate switch to psychology when we are discussing philosophical issues. I am not putting psychological explanations down; I am only suggesting tat they miss the point. I will explain what I mean. This is important because this is a common mistake. Many of you wrote, and have said in class, that one has to be a certain kind of person to pursue philosophical inquiry. This is a psychological explanation of what Socrates and other philosophers have been doing for centuries. When you say this you are being arbitrary: How do you know that this is the case before you study philosophy for yourself? Because it looks that way from afar? How can you know before you study those philosophical questions and the answers people have tried to give? You have to study for yourself - you cannot assume something arbitrarily; by assuming, you are begging the question as to whether philosophy is worth pursuing. You need to see for yourself. The only way to see is to take studying philosophy seriously. Also, think of this: Does psychology have anything to tell us about the types of questions Socrates and other philosophers pursue? Psychologists could examine individual thinkers, but this is irrelevant. If the thinker turns out to have psychological problems, this does not tell us anything about the value of what the thinker does. Many of you have seen the film A Beautiful Mind, partly filmed in front of our school's Mansion building. Well, what does the mental condition of the protagonist say about math? Do you have to have the same problems to do math - or to be good at math? Should you ask this question or just go ahead and study math? The same is the case with philosophy and with all the other important human endeavors. Well, let's go back to Socates: He was interested in investigating everything - trying to find the true and essential meaning, or definition, of everything that is important in our lives. So, how is it likely that he would fail to question the meaning of life? If he was in denial, then he should be avoiding all unpleasant subjects. But, in that case, think how limited his quest would be: Socrates would not be Socrates - he would not be investigating everything. Read your assignments carefully - the Speech of Defense Plato attributes to Socrates - and ask yourself if this is true. More important: What was Socrates all about?

1b. The second possibility is that Socrates just did not see that life is absurd. If you just leave it at this, you are restating my question, aren't you? Why did Socrates fail to see that life is absurd? Notice that you are also assuming here that life IS absurd - period - and Socrates just doesn't see it. Of course, you want to investigate the possibility that life is not absurd. Bring in arguments to support what you are saying. Nagel's essay is appropriate in this regard. The question remains unanswered: Why wouldn't Socrates see something that is obvious to Nagel?

2. "The notion that life is absurd is a subjective feeling." This response was also common. Here too there are two possibilities. Many students talk along these lines but very few have really thought about this in any length.

2a. One possibility is that you are thinking, as in 1a above, of a psychological explanation. Indeed, the word "feeling" in this answer suggests to me that you are probably thinking of a psychological explanation. See what I said above under 1a. Also think of this: We are not talking about feelings in this class. Feelings are truly private but THOUGHTS ARE NOT PRIVATE - we can share thoughts we others, we can try to convince others and make them "see" the same thoughts we have. Go back to Nagel's essay. He starts by saying that most people must experienced the feeling that life is absurd. Pay attention here: What comes FIRST? The feeling or the thinking about the meaning of life? Many of you believe that one has to be depressed first before he or she starts thinking about the meaning of life. This is not a good argument. We can get depressed about many things. We might even be depressed without knowing why. How do we know, then, that we are depressed about life being absurd unless we have thought about the meaning of life first? We could be depressed for some other reason. How do we know? I promise you that thinking about the philosophical question about the meaning of life does not necessarily make people depressed. Look at Socrates. Of course, he did not think that life is absurd. But he did think a lot about the meaning of life. And, he was not depressed at all. But, now be careful: We can't say that he was not depressed because he did not think of the absurd in life; we cannot say this because we don't know how he would react to Nagel's views, for instance. We don't go from emotions to thoughts. The thoughts are independent. They are important in themselves! They are important for all of us regardless of how we feel, what personalities we have, or how we live our lives. This is the beauty and important of philosophical questions.

2b. Another possibility - a rare one - is this: You mean that all thinking is somehow subjective. Read again 2a above. Feelings are private and subjective but thoughts are not! We are able to communicate, exchange ideas, try to convince each other about things by giving reasons and arguments - how do we do all this if everything is just subjective?

3. "Because Socrates wanted to investigate the meaning of life, he assumed that life has a meaning; if life has a meaning, life is not absurd. So, Socrates did not take life to be absurd."

This is an interesting answer but it has problems. You need to 'unpack' your thesis - you should always do that - to see if it works or not. What are you saying if you answered the question in this way? There are, again, two possibilities.

3a. One possibility is, unfortunately once again, that you are trying a psychological response. [Those psychological explanations are a real curse, aren't they? They prevent you from seeing the light of philosophy.] You might be saying that Socrates so much wanted to investigate the meaning of life that he had to assume that there is something there for him to find. The emphasis here is on 'wanted.' He was in denial about the possibility that life may be absurd because he just wanted to keep looking for life's meaning. See above for my response to this kind of psychologistic explanation.

3b. Or, this answer means this: Socrates said to himself: 'I am looking for the meaning of life, ain't I? Well, how could be I looking for something that does not exist? So, life must have a meaning - life cannot be absurd.' Here, you make Socrates commit a serious logical mistake. He is saying, 'since I am looking for something, it must exist.' Can you see that this is a logical error? Isn't it possible that we are looking for something because we are mistaken in thinking that it exists? How can we assume that something exists only because we are looking for it? Then, anything could come to exist only because someone is looking for it? [And we are not talking about existence in the mind - existing in an idea - but about what we mean by 'exists' in everyday life.] How could Socrates make this serious mistake? Wasn't he smarter than that? Let me also say this: Socrates had independent reasons for thinking that life has meaning. He did not just assume this. He had objective reasons for believing that life is meaningful. Go back to the readings: can you see what I am talking about?

4. "Socrates did not take life seriously. He could laugh at it and even, in the end, throw his life away. Maybe, he lived for the moment. So, he couldn't ever realize that life is absurd."

There are different ways in which one might 'not take life seriously'. See, for instance, what Nagel says about this. One of his definitions of the absurd is that the notion that life is absurd results from taking life too seriously and then coming to realize that, in sharp contrast, there are too many arbitrary and contingent elements in life. Then, one could lower one's level of 'taking life seriously or tragically' and life seems less absurd. This is more closely related to - better expressed in - response 6 below. It seems to me that the point this response is making is this: You are making Socrates a 'party animal' - one who lives for the moment and is perhaps too inebriated to think of anything. If we don't think of anything, we obviously can't think of life being absurd either. Now that I stated this way, you can see this is implausible. The portrait of Socrates we get from our reading does not support this view. But, what if Socrates had decided to act this way after he realized that thinking about the long run is, ofr some reason, problematic? If this is the case, then notice this: You are pushing the question I asked you one step further. What would it be that made Socrates decide to start living for the moment? What did he find out about the meaning of life? But, is it plausible that Socrates lived in the present? Well, it does not sound plausible. Remember, one of the main characteristics of Socrates was that he was searching for definitions and meanings: does this sound like Socrates caring only about the moment? Was Socrates a 'party animal,' caring only having fun in the present moment? This is not true either. Socrates was not unhappy; he could outdrink everyone and he loved crashing parties: but what he did once there, was start talking about those deep and always important philosophical questions. And, guess what - no one took him for a 'nerd;' in fact, he was greatly admired. The philosophical questions he was dealing with were not questions of the moment - or questions for the moment; those are questions human beings always asked and will always ask for as long as they can think.

5. "Socrates took himself too seriously. Therefore, he could not see life as absurd."

There are problems with this response. It is not even clearly phrased. It is possible that you are thinking here, again, of a psychological explanation. See my comments above in that case. Also see Nagel's essay. Nagel seems to think that, by taking life too seriously, you are more likely to find life absurd. So, is Nagel wrong? [Nagel has to be wrong for you to be right.] Why is Nagel wrong? More generally, why does 'taking one's life too seriously' make the absurd go away? Is the absurd, then, the opposite of taking life seriously - does life seem absurd when we don't take life seriously? It is also possible that what you have in mind in this response is similar to 3 above. Read my comments there. Major problem here is that the response is vague and remains 'unpacked.'

6. "Socrates did not deny that life is absurd but was just defiant - he kept on living life and searching for meanings, shaking his fist as it were at a silent universe."

This comes out of Nagel rather than our reading on Socrates. It is an intelligent response; it is also historically inaccurate as a characterization of Socrates and Plato. The response starts one step after where it should have started: You are assuming that Socrates would agree with Nagel that life is absurd. You need to investigate this. My question asked you to think about reasons why Socrates did not see life as absurd. Here you claim that in fact Socrates did see life as absurd. You need to convince the reader that this is the case. I will bet you that you would not be able to convince us that Socrates saw life as absurd.

7. "Socrates did not know enough about the universe to realize that life is absurd."

This is an interesting answer. It looks down on poor Socrates - in the way people who believe in progress and science and technology and ongoing improvement look down on ancients and primitives and less advanced eras. When it comes to philosophical questions, this is not necessarily the case, though. Socrates' view on the meaning of life is as fresh and relevant today as it was when he propounded it. But, this response is intelligent and informed. It is only the beginning. What is it about modern 'knowledge' about the universe that brings about the notion that life is absurd? This is a very important line of thought. I see it as the threshold to deeper thinking about the question I asked you - 'why doesn't Socrates see what Nagel thinks so easy to grasp - that human life may be absurd?'