The Return of the Socratic Hemlock
Every November, Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) organizes World Philosophy Day. One of the main events marking this Philosophy Day will be a philosophy conference in Tehran. Now, according to philosophy professor Ramin Jahanbegloo (who spent four months as a political prisoner in Tehran’s Evin Jail in 2006), the venue is of poor choice, remarking that ‘no free debate or critical thinking is possible’ in Tehran.
The Italian magazine ‘Reset’ has organized an open letter of protest to the Unesco Director General which has been signed by over 50 philosophers, including such known philosophers as Jurgen Habermas.
The publication Philosophy Now has received a letter from a reader in Iran who for obvious reasons wishes to remain anonymous. I shall now provide the letter in verbatim:
‘After last year’s disputed election in Iran the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic blamed Philosophy as the root of the problem. Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judicial system of Iran, followed in his footsteps to blame western philosophy for corrupting the morale of the Muslim youth. Saeed Hajjarian, Iranian intellectual, journalist, university lecturer and reformist who was in jail for three months was brought on National TV to condemn, against his beliefs, philosophy, especially humanism, as corrupt. This show was particularly hard to watch since due to a failed assassination attempt 10yrs ago Mr Hajjarian is unable to speak with a clear voice, is still using a wheelchair and is dependent on the constant care of doctors and family. This was enough for over 40,000 students and professors to worry about their future. Now many professors and students are in jail and the office of higher education has announced that the universities will stop accepting students in Humanities including Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Social Science, Law and Arts. Kamran Daneshjoo, the Minister of Science, said that any university that goes against Islamic values should be demolished and his Secretary said that we do not need Humanities to be taught in the universities anymore. It is also worth noting that the publication of many books, especially philosophy books, which grew noticeably during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, is now banned.’
Okay folks; let’s juxtapose the underlined statements bashing Western Philosophy and Humanism with some wonderful statements by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a Time Magazine article from 2006. In response to a hypothetical question in which Bush and Ahmadinejad are conducting a televised debate, Ahmadinejad said, ‘I would ask him, Are rationalism, spirituality and humanitarianism and logic- are they bad things for human beings?’ Now along with such statements as these, in just this one interview, Ahmadinejad uses the word ‘logic’ at least four times in a two page, 19 question interview. The denier of homosexuality in his country (which unfortunately may in fact be true), responds to critiques of his ‘Holocaust denial’ by claiming that he ‘just raised a few questions,’ and if the Holocaust did occur then ‘it is a historical event’ which then requires the question as to ‘not allow independent research.’ Continuing his laughable elaboration, the President remarks that concerning historical events ‘everybody should be free to conduct research.’ (Time Magazine, November 25, 2006, ‘A Date with a Dangerous Mind’).
Now, as much as I disagree and am fully capable of refuting claims offered by Holocaust deniers, for all intents and purposes, such free inquiry should be allowed. We all laugh at the ‘Flat Earth Society’ and their claims, along with the passionate eccentrics who claim the moon landing was staged on a Hollywood set, yet as a ‘free society’ we freely laugh at them and probably even venture to their sites for reasons ranging from the drunken ambition to burst out laughing or a sympathetic approach to perspectivism. But here lies the difference. For political/religious reasons, the leader of Iran wants to have a free inquiry into the Holocaust, preaches at the argued ‘lack of logic’ in America’s approach to Iran, all the while abiding by the most fascistic, inhuman policies known to man.
Philosophy, my dear friends, is by definition, by translation, the ‘love of wisdom.’ ‘Wisdom’ can also be substituted with ‘truth’ and the pursuit of it. The pursuit of truth, if done responsibly, will undoubtedly lead to an appreciation of different methodologies, perspectives, approaches, theories, ideologies, and systems. The interview with Ahmadinejad conflicts massively with the current actions taking place in Tehran. There is a rich history of Islamic philosophers who have used Greek humanism in their philosophy. For example, take Ibn Miskawayh, Ahmad ibn Muhammad (c.940-1030), a Neoplatonist who argued that ‘Moral Health’ is reached through intellectual development and practical action. According to the letter provided by ‘Philosophy Now’ such philosophers need to be ‘demolished‘ as there is no ‘need’‘ for ‘Humanities to be taught in the universities.‘ Now, yes, Ibn Mishawayh did apply philosophy to specific Islamic problems, it should be duly noted that he rarely used religion to modify philosophy, which led credence to the claim that he was in fact an ‘Islamic Humanist.’ Such teachings go against the supposed claims that ‘Humanism’ and ‘Western Philosophy’ corrupt Muslim youth.
It has now come to pass that the infamous trial against Socrates has now been leveled against the whole cannon of Western Philosophy, including the meritorious periods of humanism such as the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Existentialism. With the Renaissance (re-birth), we find the ‘renewed study of Greek and Roman literature: a rediscovery of the unity of human beings and nature, and a renewed celebration of the pleasures of life… .’ (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, pg. 178). Now, regarding the infamous trial of Socrates and focusing on the charge that he corrupted the youth of Athens, one can more/less take two approaches. The first is to accept the charges thrown at Socrates and appreciate them in their historical context of Athens’ turbulent history. This would still allow you to appreciate his secular martyrdom and be a philosophy enthusiast today. The second approach is one of moral outrage at the charges. The ‘free inquiry’ of Socrates laid the groundwork for investigation still used by lawyers today. Socrates attempted to cut at the heart of popular norms and perceived rational customs in a time in which moral and political laws seemed somewhat obvious; especially to those in power. But from Romans like Cicero through current philosophers like Slavoj Zizek, the admiration given to Socrates is not one of martyrdom (though that is quite phenomenal as he is sometimes seen as the secular Jesus; dying for the attainment of truth), but of the willingness to pose the underlying questions of our assumed rational humanity. It is for this reason that Socrates is as big as he continues to be today. ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ encapsulates not only Socrates’ philosophy, but the adamant goal of all man. This includes the pursuit of free inquiry, as opposed to bashing theories as only being ‘evil’ by idealistic reductionism.
Iran’s supposed nuclear capabilities may be a threat to the world; President Ahmadinejad may be a nut, but the threat to free inquiry, abstract speculation outside of accepted norms place damage at the heart of what makes man unique in the animal kingdom. The ‘I’ that creates our individuality is staunchly smashed when we are told that our thoughts and studies must conform to a standard that bears no empirical validity, but only an acceptance of spirituality. Keep in mind that along with the charge of corrupting the youth, Socrates was also charged with being an ‘atheist’ which was a derogatory more than a (a) religious claim. This is known to be false if the charge is taken literally, but that is not the point. The point is, my fellow mental revolutionaries, is that limiting thought itself and disallowing attempts to understand will kill us inside.