Socrates on OWS

20 November 2011

Should the Occupy movement give up it’s leaderless and organic structure so as to become a meaningful, effective force in Society?  This is the very topic of an ancient Greek manuscript, a fragment of which was newly discovered recently in the ruins of ancient Athens.  In it, the familiar figure of Socrates spars once more with Protagoras.  Like so many of the Platonic dialogs, the matter is left largely undecided in the end, but the issues are explored for the reader’s edification.  Here is the English translation of the fragment:

Protagoras:

I have watched with joy, O Socrates, as thousands of young Athenians, many of whom are your followers, have made their camp in the Agora at the temple of Hermes to protest the wanton greed of the wealthy who oppress the workers, the poor and the slaves.  But I am troubled, my friend, that their leaderless and unorganized ways doom their effort to failure.  If they are to effect change, they need the structure and disciple of a strong and well-loved leader.  And who better to lead them but you, Socrates?

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Socrates:

My heart is warmed also, friend, to see these brave and dediated citizens coming to the aid of the 99%. But they are not followers of mine, Protagoras, though many of them are my good friends. It seems to me that they have succeeded far beyond expectations.  Why should I interfere in their affairs?

Protagoras:

Surely you have heard how men in power belittle them!  Rich and powerful senators say, “See! They are a rabble without goal or demand.  They know not what they want.  They are but a mindless force that seeks only to tear down  Athenian society.”  But if the protesters were represented by a respected leader like you, Socrates, this charge would be exposed as a lie.  For no one speaks more powerfully, clearly or pursuasively than you.

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Socrates:

You forget, Protagoras, that I make no claim to knowledge. If I know nothing, how will I instruct Athens in its ailments and cures?  And If I pretended to know what is best for our state, and with the assent of the protesters give voice to these proposals, the senators would say, “These notions are but the opinions of that old gadfly Socrates, and the mindless youths of Athens merely parrot what he puts in their minds.”

Protagoras:

If articulating the message were the only concern, perhaps I would agree with you, Socrates.  But there is more to consider. You discourse daily with the people in the street, and you know that many citizens of Athens would join Occupy if they could. But how can merchants, artisans, tradesmen, soldiers and slaves, all earning a livlihood for their families as best they can, drop their tools and turn aside from their wages to camp out in the Agora, singing songs and carry signs?  A leader, Socrates, would diversify the movement.  He would find tasks that could be done by all citizens who love the cause.   Some would speak in the Senate.  Others might write or distribute literature.  Some might organize meetings among their fellow workmen.  If the Occupy message spread beyond the Temple Square and infiltrated Athens at all levels, how many more worthy Athenians would join the cause?

Socrates:

Ah, but Protagoras, it is possible to shout down a few who disrupt the Senate.  And it is easy to dismiss those who pass out tracts or who shout out at town halls as tinfoil hat fringies. A “diversified” movement that is split into different areas of effort can be addressed and beaten in each of its smaller areas of concern. But it is impossible to ignore a mighty, unified army of protesters gathered together in the Agora who disrupt commerce and who howl so that all of Athens hears!

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Protagoras:

But don’t you see, Socrates?  Without specialization and structure, the movement acquires a poor image in the minds of many conservative citizens.  “Look at those dirty, disgusting people”, they say.  “See how they pee and poop!  Observe their unwholesame, profane, horny amd unmannerly ways!”  A leader like you, Socrates, could clean them  and make  them presentable to the polite society of Athens.

Socrates:

I have said those very things about them, friend Protagoras!  Would that the protesters took occasional leave for a bath! I am a man of the polis and of the logos.  I love order, reason and logic, and chaos nauseates me.  Many men who like to listen to me, such as young Plato, mistake my orderliness to mean that I think the universe is governed by order, geometry and perfect eternal Form. Yet it is not so.  The basic truth of life is chaos, Protagoras.  Life is squishy, squiggly, smelly, juicy, noisesome, randy and raw. Those who truly love life are the same.  They are horrible persons.  But remember that a persona is but a mask worn to hide who you really are.  I am an expert at wearing such a mask, so I am not a horrible person like the protesters. But I do not express my love of life, my compassion, my generosity of spirit, my openness or my love as well as they do, because of my persona.  I wonder if their way is not the better way. No, Protagoras, a rigid old man like me cannot lead such as these.

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