Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, May 20, 2016

Socrates: The Anti-Doctrinaire

 What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
But they're really saying I love you

I hear baby's cry, and I watched them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself what a wonderful world

Hidden in the last verse of Louis Armstrong’s hit “What a Wonderful World” is a bit of Aristotelian philosophy—what F. M. Cornford noted as the “philosophy of aspiration.” In Armstrong’s poignant, magical and dare I say platonic performance, the last verse leaves us with evanescent optimism: we’ll know more tomorrow that we do today. Arthur Herman in our text dubbed Aristotle “the first great advocate of progress” (p. 52).

Also, there’s a touch of Aristotelian teleology tucked in the first verse, where trees and flowers have a purpose, which is to bloom for me and you. Is this true, or does it have to be? English poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson seems closer to the mark in his poem “In Memorandum” when he penned that nature is red in tooth and claw. The truth of the matter is immaterial to Armstrong’s point, which I think is this: we’re only here for a little while, so make the best of it while you can. Richard Dawkins made this point more candidly in “Unweaving the Rainbow,” stating that “we’re all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” If we look at life that way, it truly is a wonderful world.

Louis Armstrong paints a utopian picture of reality. But this is art. If we discover the true or true-as-we-can-know nature of things, would that distract from Armstrong’s performance? As we trek through the footnotes of history, I’m beginning to see a deeper schism between Socrates and Plato.

If we imagine Socrates the gadfly, claiming to know nothing, questioning anyone in the agora who claims to possess knowledge and will stand to listen, as we see in the earlier dialogues, I find a Socrates that I can live with. Plato’s Theory of Forms seems to betray the Socratic Method.  

Notable English Classical Scholar F. M. Cornford, in his book “From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation,” recognized the emotional aspect of the supernatural.

"Philosophy, when she puts aside the finished products of religion and returns to the ‘nature of things,’ really goes back to that original representation out of which mythology itself had gathered shape. If we now call it ‘metaphysical,’ instead of ‘supernatural,’ the thing itself has not essentially changed its character. What has changed is, rather, man’s attitude towards it, which, from being active and emotional, has become intellectual and speculative."

The emotional need for certainty about physical and metaphysical “facts” led both Plato and Aristotle away from their teacher Socrates. Given the advances of modern science as a method and a body of ever-changing knowledge, both were wrong about nearly everything. Herman notes that even Aristotle’s disciples found themselves having to “save the appearances,” as noted by their contemporary Simplicius, whereas they noted the contradictions with reality, and “scientists began rigorously applying [Aristotle’s] methods instead of his doctrines” (p. 95).

So here, the unappropriated Socrates comes out the winner.

I can envision him in the agora, questioning the sophists—red (or orange) in the face they may be—still asking the same question: what is justice? Louis Armstrong says we'll know more tomorrow.

What a wonderful world, indeed.

DQs:  Chapter 7 is entitled "Knowledge is Power." Given the current political climate, is this true? Aristotle was a champion of knowledge and also wrote a book on rhetoric. Is rhetoric more powerful than knowledge in politics? Is Thrasymachus' "might makes right" the norm?


  1. I think that in today's political climate rhetoric is power much more so than knowledge. A great example would be the current election. Trump supporters flock to elect a an who has no governing or political experience. Hillary supporters are aware of her ongoing legal investigation into criminal acts, yet follow her anyway.
    I'm no supporter of Thrasymachus' Might makes right, but it sure seems to get results.

  2. And that's just where I like my utopia, where I can enjoy it without having to refute it: in a song!

    Notice, btw, all, that Dean tucked a DQ in at the end. If you guys get into the habit of including QQs, DQs, links, &/or comments with your weekly essay posts I'll bet you'll find it easier and faster to rack up the runs. And again, if you go over 5 on a given day be sure to still log those "extra bases" in your personal log for "moral extra credit".

  3. I like that sentiment! Seems like a good home for utopia.