One of the great appeals of the Thessaly series is the implicit invitation: join us in Socratic dialogue beneath the lemon tree, arguing practical philosophy with the best company from all of history. But I am not a philosopher king, and definitely not a Gold of the Just City. As evidence, between the first and second sentences of this paragraph, I took ten minutes to reassure a baby who’d pinched her finger in a dresser drawer. Over the past couple of days I’ve engaged in crafts and cleaning, cooking and political argument and snarky write-ups of old horror stories.
All of which speak to my soul, and all of which feel like part of The Good Life even if I sometimes wish the temporal ratios were different.
The question before us today, then, is whether the hands-on practice of everyday life and creation make us better philosophers—by grounding our flights of hypothetical speculation, by enriching the compost out of which ideas are grown—or make us worse philosophers, by interrupting the flow needed to make ideas bloom, and by limiting the time in which we can do so.
Bear with me as I track the question by way of a tangent. In addition to not being a philosopher king, I am also not a philosopher—though I might have been by Socrates’s standards. My training is in cognitive psychology, which uses experimental methods to address ancient philosophical questions about the nature of the mind, perception, and consciousness. Arguably, that focus on evidence gives us better answers. Inarguably, it gives us a different perspective on the questions. And we still argue over how important it is to ground our methods in the experience of everyday life, which we are pleased to call “ecological validity.”
Of course, experiments are usually limited in scope. The more complex and long-term the social interactions you want to find out about, the more difficult it is to control random factors and hold variables constant. Most studies involve one person sitting in a lab for an hour or two.
(At this point I put down my blogging to feed the baby lunch and make a Craigslist run to Virginia—Iron work during which my wife and I had a long conversation about how the most focused intellectuals we know have highly physical hobbies like running, the equivalent of the Golds’ time in the palaestra. It makes a difference that even in the stratified Republic, philosophy is assumed to include physical as well as intellectual Excellence.)
The limitations of lab-based “philosophy” increase the appeal of a vast thought experiment made flesh—even if I do rather want to see Athene run the whole thing by a human subjects review board. The Just City is every bit as intriguing as she says, and “how will it fail” always a vital question for human society. And though it’s not the question most real world societal experiments set out to ask, it’s one they often answer.
A while back the BBC ran an experiment with some startling similarities to Athene’s. (Startling because Jo knew nothing about it—I asked). It was intended to replicate and improve on the more famous, and infamous, Stanford Prison Experiment. By the time they got through, they’d made both a more ethical study and a better designed one. They stuck a couple dozen young men in a warehouse together, divided into “guards” and “prisoners,” with the guards having nominal authority, better quarters and food, and so forth. The distinctions were ostensibly based on tests of leadership ability; in reality they were arbitrary.
After a few days, two things happened: the prisoners learned the truth about their caste distinction, and a new prisoner joined the mix. “Socrates,” in this case, was a union leader with long experience at organization and negotiation. He brought the two sides together, helped them create a more equitable division of resources in the warehouse… a just arrangement which broke down as the now-empowered leaders started to create new and nastier hierarchies. At this point the BBC stepped in, Zeus-like, and ended the experiment. (Just sending them home, alas, because no budget for an interstellar colony.)
Every experimental community, commune, and collective, tries to answer these questions. What makes a good life? How can people become their best selves? Most fail, and those that last even a generation rarely maintain their starting rules and principles. Just Cities adapt, to greater and lesser degrees, to the realities of human psychology and to the inevitability of change. Even the most timeless philosophical truths play out differently in different contexts. And the ability to admit mistakes and risk confusion—things that Socrates forced everyone to face in the Last Debate—is the best answer we have, so far, to what makes a society last.
Which ties back to the question I laid out at the start. If a truly just, and stable, society, requires leaders who know how to change, what sorts of experience make that possible? Is it more important to focus on the study of leadership and philosophy, with most of one’s time devoted to following the free flow of ideas, in depth and fullness? Or do parenting and cooking, fishing and jewelry making and tending sheep, make a vital contribution to flexibility that’s worth their divisive effect on one’s time and concentration?