Being a Good Old Gadfly: I Can’t Take It Anymore

“I am that gadfly that God has attached to the state, and all day long …arousing and persuading and reproaching…You will not easily find another like me.” – Socrates (via Plato)

I am not the next Socrates. Such a declaration would be haughtier than Kim Jong-un’s claims to divinity or LeBron James’ entire ethos. But I’ll be damned if Socrates doesn’t have a point. You see, part of the reason Socrates was arrested and put on trial is because he was training gadflies; his students were asking questions they weren’t supposed to ask. Some did so out of a simple disrespect for convention and unmitigated curiosity, but others were learning the value of philosophy, the value of being interrogative in helping to get others to understand their basic principles and assumptions. It is this last part that interests me. In a similar vein, recently I’ve been doing a lot of research for an upcoming paper. My interactions with other researchers along with my reading have rolled me toward that overwhelming question, the one to which Eliot must have famously been making reference: what happened to all the gadflies?

Some will respond: “But Chase, science is the gadfly. It makes us question everything and reduce everything and dissect everything and everything everything.” Unfortunately, such a statement would itself be an example of why exactly we need more Glaucons and Platos. We are told that our fundamental assumptions are shattered at a young age: “Billy, evil can’t exist in a world with a beneficent God.” “Tommy, you can’t have an understanding of the world enriched by your own cultural background or rooted in tradition.” “Kenny, stop eating glue.” And in some ways, these are important boxes to be broken. But how many things do we take for granted? Our liberalism is one of supposed tolerance for new ideas. This is not entirely untrue. Ours is the ideology that has given us general suffrage, more-or-less universal rights, and the cell phone. But how often do we hear things like: “what fundamental assumptions does your position presuppose?” “Can one actually distinguish a fact from a value or does a value underlie that entire idea?” “The social sciences are generally bad.” Survey says: we don’t.

Even as our horizons seem to expand, in reality they are diminishing. Without attempting a level of profundity of which I am not capable, I must declare that we are so far down the path of the modern experiment that ideas that existed before it or live outside of it are largely overlooked and forgotten. Some were rejected by modern thinkers for good reasons. The problem is we don’t try to understand the “why” of rejection. Others have been forgotten in the sands of time; have been swallowed up by the finality of our own becoming. There is some hope for us if more people read more Plato, but I fear that isn’t enough. We need Socrateses and Platos to chide us for our intellectual narrow-mindedness. My ears are filled with the rings of sophists echoing against the walls of my own reductively-understood mind. I can only hope that given some more time, some human voices may wake me and I may drown in the waters of a freer inquiry. It seems I was destined to end as pedantically as I began; it seems Socrates’ firmness makes my circle just and makes me end where I begun.