Friday, November 13, 2015

Our Politicians and Pundits Should Take a Page From Socrates

Ah, the things you unexpectedly run across learning about an unfamiliar topic.  Ancient Greece, for instance.  Looking through Xenophon's Memorabilia, his recollections of Socrates (Xenophon was a pupil of Socrates) for what he says about Socrates and the failure of Athenian democracy, I can across the following delightful passage in Book Three, Chapter Six in which Socrates persuades a young hothead to learn something about public policy before running for office:
Ariston's son, Glaucon, was attempting to become an orator and striving for headship in the state, though he was less than twenty years old; and none of his friends or relations could check him, though he would get himself dragged from the platform and make himself a laughing-stock. Only Socrates, who took an interest in him for the sake of Plato and Glaucon's son Charmides, managed to check him. 
For once on meeting him, he stopped him and contrived to engage his attention by saying: “Glaucon, have you made up your mind to be our chief man in the state?” 
“I have, Socrates." 
“Well, upon my word there's no more honourable ambition in the world; for obviously, if you gain your object, you will be able to get whatever you want, and you will have the means of helping your friends: you will lift up your father's house and exalt your fatherland; and you will make a name for yourself first at home, later on in Greece, and possibly, like Themistocles, in foreign lands as well; wherever you go, you will be a man of mark.” 
 When Glaucon heard this, he felt proud and gladly lingered.
Next Socrates asked, “Well, Glaucon, as you want to win honour, is it not obvious that you must benefit your city?" 
“Most certainly.” 
“Pray don't be reticent, then; but tell us how you propose to begin your services to the state." 
As Glaucon remained dumb, apparently considering for the first time how to begin,Socrates said: “If you wanted to add to a friend's fortune, you would set about making him richer. Will you try, then, to make your city richer?" 
“Would she not be richer if she had a larger revenue?” 
“Oh yes, presumably.” 
“Now tell me, from what sources are the city's revenues at present derived and what is their total? No doubt you have gone into this matter, in order to raise the amount of any that are deficient and supply any that are lacking.” 
“Certainly not,” exclaimed Glaucon, “I haven't gone into that.” 
“Well, if you have left that out, tell us the expenditure of the city. No doubt you intend to cut down any items that are excessive.” 
“The fact is, I haven't had time yet for that either.” 
“Oh, then we will postpone the business of making the city richer; for how is it possible to look after income and expenditure without knowing what they are?” 
“Well, Socrates, one can make our enemies contribute to the city's wealth.” 
“Yes, of course, provided he is stronger than they; but if he be weaker, he may lose what she has got instead.” 
“Therefore, in order to advise her whom to fight, it is necessary to know the strength of the city and of the enemy, so that, if the city be stronger, one may recommend her to go to war, but if weaker than the enemy, may persuade her to beware.” 
“You are right.” 
“First, then, tell us the naval and military strength of our city, and then that of her enemies.” 
“No, of course I can't tell you out of my head.” 
“Well, if you have made notes, fetch them, for I should greatly like to hear this.” 
“But, I tell you, I haven't yet made any notes either.” 
“Then we will postpone offering advice about war too for the present. You are new to power, and perhaps have not had time to investigate such big problems. But the defence of the country, now, I feel sure you have thought about that, and know how many of the garrisons are well placed and how many are not, and how many of the guards are efficient and how many are not; and you will propose to strengthen the well-placed garrisons and to do away with those that are superfluous.” 
“No, no; I shall propose to do away with them all, for the only effect of maintaining them is that our crops are stolen.” 
“But if you do away with the garrisons, don't you think that anyone will be at liberty to rob us openly? However, have you been on a tour of inspection, or how do you know that they are badly maintained?” 
“By guess-work.” 
“Then shall we wait to offer advice on this question too until we really know, instead of merely guessing?” 
“Perhaps it would be better.” 
“Now for the silver mines. I am sure you have not visited them, and so cannot tell why the amount derived from them has fallen.” 
“No, indeed, I have not been there.” 
“To be sure: the district is considered unhealthy, and so when you have to offer advice on the problem, this excuse will serve.” 
“You're chaffing me.” 
“Ah, but there's one problem I feel sure you haven't overlooked: no doubt you have reckoned how long the corn grown in the country will maintain the population, and how much is needed annually, so that you may not be caught napping, should the city at any time be short, and may come to the rescue and relieve the city by giving expert advice about food.” 
“What an overwhelming task, if one has got to include such things as that in one's duties!” 
“But, you know, no one will ever manage even his own household successfully unless he knows all its needs and sees that they are all supplied. Seeing that our city contains more than ten thousand houses, and it is difficult to look after so many families at once, you must have tried to make a start by doing something for one, I mean your uncle's? It needs it; and if you succeed with that one, you can set to work on a larger number. But if you can't do anything for one, how are you going to succeed with many? If a man can't carry one talent, it's absurd for him to try to carry more than one, isn't it?” 
“Well, I could do something for uncle's household if only he would listen to me.” 
“What? You can't persuade your uncle, and yet you suppose you will be able to persuade all the Athenians, including your uncle, to listen to you? Pray take care, Glaucon, that your daring ambition doesn't lead to a fall! Don't you see how risky it is to say or do what you don't understand? Think of others whom you know to be the sort of men who say and do what they obviously don't understand. Do you think they get praise or blame by it? And think of those who understand what they say and what they do. You will find, I take it, that the men who are famous and admired always come from those who have the widest knowledge, and the infamous and despised from the most ignorant. Therefore, if you want to win fame and admiration in public life, try to get a thorough knowledge of what you propose to do. If you enter on a public career with this advantage over others, I should not be surprised if you gained the object of your ambition quite easily.”
This should be required reading for all Presidential candidates!  I also highly recommend it for all pundits interviewing candidates or moderating debates.  Maybe they should use them as a model for questions to ask the candidates.

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