When I was a 17-year-old freshman at the Cornell College of Architecture, I was required to take an elective in the College of Liberal Arts every semester. I suppose this policy was intended to make us little brutes “better-rounded,” but it had unintended consequences, at least for me.
I took Philosophy 101, and in it I was introduced to Plato’s “Apologia” (supposedly Socrates’, but written by his pupil, Plato). I thought this was pretty hot stuff and proceeded to read all the writings of Plato I could get my hands on. Then, to the consternation of my professor, a liberal academician of his (the early ’50s) era, I wrote a paper praising the works of Plato and espousing the very principles for which Socrates was asked to drink the hemlock. “The Need for an Intellectual Aristocracy,” I think I titled it, and I was roundly (and rightly) chastised by my professor for falling for such a line of bunkum.
I forgot the incident and Socrates’ indiscretion until some 40 years later when I read I. F. Stone’s “The Trial of Socrates.” Socrates, I learned, had been the darling of the aristocracy precisely because his teachings lent philosophical legitimacy to their own oligarchic impulses and had thus had a hand in fomenting three coups against the government of Athens in the last ten years of his life, prior to his suicide by popular demand.
We in the United States have fallen victim to another such attempted takeover. Unfortunately, history repeats itself but always with enough of a twist that present dangers are seldom recognized as having historical precedent. Today we are suffering from a new dementia. The connections with Athens in 399 B.C. are tenuous, but I see history repeating itself nonetheless.
We have Cheney instead of Alcibiades, but the same intellectual opportunism is at work. “The people are too stupid to make decisions,” they cry, “so we’ll make them for them” (and a pile of money in the process). We have a government not “of the people, by the people” but of Beltway “we-know-betters” who are smart but not wise, who think every thought extruded from their tiny minds to be pearls of wisdom, and a captive president perfectly designed (stupid but aggressive) to put their hare-brained policies into action.
There’s a fine old word for this, a Greek one as a matter of fact: “hubris.” In Greek mythology, hubris was the first step to self-destruction. Our technology is better, but we are no wiser than the ancient Greeks. We should listen to them.
Wright Salisbury is a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and founder of the Alliance for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Understanding. His son-in-law was in the first plane that hit the World Trade Center. This article is a chapter from Salisbury’s upcoming book, “Waging Peace in a World at War.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.