Plato’s Republic and Stephen King’s Carrie

One is a classical philosophy text which aims to determine what justice truly is, the next is a modern horror novel in which a tormented girl finds revenge through telekinetic powers. What can the two possibly have in common?

The idea that a person is shaped externally.

In the Republic excerpt I read today, Socrates sorted through various myths and thought over whether they are beneficial to the upbringing of his city’s (he and Glaucon are analyzing an argument on justice by hypothetically creating their own city) citizens or not. He drawls on and on through myths, analyzing whether it’s good for their citizens to see the gods as “human” or whether certain myths should be censored. To Socrates, these myths are vital because they will determine the character of his citizens when they’re grown.

Then in Carrie we find that everything Carrie knows is determined by the people around her. This is best seen is Estelle Horan’s story about young Carrie. “Very solemnly” (24) Carrie recites her mother’s views to Estelle as if they were fact. Then, there’s the story about Carrie kneeling to pray at her first public school lunch period. She’s shocked when all of her peers laugh at her and–because they do this–she refuses to kneel and pray in school ever again. Time and time again in this story, it’s clear that Carrie’s odd and malevolent behavior is a result of the things people have done to her. Her mother forced her into isolation, her peers harassed her and the adults in her life are too self interested to care.

It’s interesting that neither Socrates nor King give much credit to the idea of a “true self” that is able to develop in the way that it wants. In fact, I found myself wondering several times in Carrie if Carrie actually had a personality of her own or if she was simply molded by society (which was probably King’s intent so he did a great job there.)

Perhaps people give themselves too much credit in thinking that there is a “self.” Perhaps, as Sartre says, the self is our ability to choose how our environment molds us–or if it does at all. Perhaps, as Socrates says, “the only thing I know is that I know nothing at all.”

 

A Republic of Questions

As I was reading Plato’s Republic, a few quotes stood out to me as they seem to draw from the Christian conception of sin.

“It’s injustice that produces factions, hatreds and quarrels among themselves, and justice that produces unanimity and friendship.” 351d

“Whenever [injustice] comes into being, be it in the city, a clan, an army, or whatever else, it first of all makes that thing unable to accomplish anything together with itself due to fraction and difference, and then it makes that thing an enemy both to itself and to everything opposite and to the just.”351e-352a

“Except for someone who from a divine nature cannot stand doing injustice or who has gained knowledge and keeps away from injustice, no one else is willingly just…” 366d

Like Socrates’ definition of injustice, sin tears things apart and makes them incapable of functioning properly.

Questions and Answers

As I plod through more of Plato’s work, I have learned to appreciate the value of questions more than answers. Answers are things we presume to believe as fact–but, as many epistomologists and quantum physicists argue,  it’s very unlikely that we would be able to know facts, or objective truth, at this time in human history. If ever.

The only thing that is certain is uncertainty.

So answers are basically a lie which keep us from reaching this objective truth. Questions, however, acknowledge that we don’t have the answer yet and allow us to search for one.

I much prefer questions.

I Know and Am Persuaded…

While Saint Patrick wasn’t the first person to bring the gospel to Ireland, he was certainly the most beloved person to do so. Medieval Irish historians, Philip Freeman claims, loved Patrick so much that they attempted to downplay any missionaries sent before him so as to make his actions all the more amazing.

But what made Patrick so much different than his brothers?

After all, many of Patrick’s brothers would have been better versed in Latin and schooling, would have been under the instruction of the church for longer, would have been more confident speakers.

But Patrick is the one best remembered today.

Perhaps this isn’t so much because of what he did, but what he didn’t do. As Malachy McCourt says in his History of Ireland, “one of Patrick’s strengths in Ireland was his ability to integrate the Gaelic culture with the Christianity he was trying to bring. He did not, as other missionaries in other places would later, condemn the Celts as ignorant infidels or uncouth pagans. Instead, he took the Druidic world and tried to explain it in Christian terms.”

This, I think, is incredibly important.

In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul in Athens. Now Paul’s “spirit was provoked” at the sight of the idols that filled the city of Athens, but not once did he think of the Athenians as lower than himself. He “reasons” with the people of Athens and when speaking in the Areopagus, Paul begins by praising them.

“Men of Athens,” he says, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your woship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘to the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul observes the culture of Athens and instead of declaring it heathenish, he finds God hiding in it. As he says in Romans 1:20, “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever  since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Patrick, I think, understood that God wasn’t the God of Rome, just as Paul knew that “[God] does not live in temples made by man.” In every culture, in every science, in every genre, God is lying there in wait.

Although we follow Christ, although we are one body, we are still individuals. Our cultures have shaped us, our experiences have shaped us and (like as not) our families have shaped us. Often, we make assumptions about the laws of the scripture that aren’t there.

Patrick, for example, could have condemned Irish culture because it was nothing like his own. He could have gone in assuming that the way of the Roman church was the only way. But he didn’t. He looked to find where God was.

I think this is what we are called to do.

Every movie we watch, every book we read, every class we take, we have to look for God in them–even if it isn’t a Christian movie, book or class. Just because something is “Christian” doesn’t make it right.

In regard to non-christian books, John Calvin wrote, “in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.”

Calvin goes on to say that  condemning non-Christian literature isn’t just a choice, it’s actually an insult to God.

“If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would to avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we despise the giver.”

This doesn’t mean that you should read every book ever written by men, but that you should think twice before condemning them or claiming that they couldn’t be used for God’s glory. The same goes for different cultures or philosophies or abilities. Everything is given by God. Gifts will, of course, be perverted when they are used without God’s purpose in mind, but God can still use this for his glory.

As Paul says in Romans 14:14 “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.”

Saint Patrick knew and was persuaded. Are you?

Sartre and Martyrism

To the Ethical Egoist, a Martyr is a person who sacrifices themselves  out of self-interest. Rather than being motivated by  God or selflessness, Martyrs, they argue, sacrifice themselves to earn a good name for themselves, to earn a good name for their cause. Along these lines, the conversion of Christians in places and times of persecution can also be seen as an act of self-interest.

According to Sartre, however, this isn’t the case.

In Republic of Silence, Sartre, a Frenchman of Jewish descent claims that he was “never more free than during the German occupation,” despite having spent this time in a concentration camp. The reason why, he explains, is that his actions were not influenced by societal limitations or expectation–every action he took was of his own will and no other. His words to describe this are: “rather death than…”

In other words, during German Occupation Sartre found that his actions truly defined his person-hood because each action was preformed in the face of death. Using the example of the early Christian, “if I commit myself to this religion, I could–I will–be killed. But I truly believe that Jesus died for my sins and so I will follow it regardless. Better dead than caught denying God.”

Early Christians and Martyrs knew what it mean to take up their crosses. According to Sartre, their choice–made in the face of death–is a true decision, made in the face of death. Of course, one might argue that their decision wasn’t to mirror Christ but to prolong their own name in the process, so I’m not sure where I was going with this post, but I do think there’s something to Sartre’s logic.

Sartre’s Republic of Silence  excerpt may be found here.

Ressentiment of Religion

As I make my way through Nietzsche, I’ve discovered I have a love-hate relationship with him. His melodramatic writing style is beautiful, though. I wish I could write essays touching on the stench of the “entrails of a deformed soul.”

The most interesting idea I have uncovered in Nietzsche’s Geneaology of Morality–so far, anyway–is the idea of Ressentiment, or the directing of hate toward something undeserving of it. Nietzsche claims that Judeo-Christian societies use Ressentiment as a means to place the weak over the strong, that they blame all of their misfortunes and trouble on the strong in order to see themselves as “good” and the strong as “evil.” I, however, thought of something else entirely when I discovered the concept.

As an undergraduate student, I’ve found that most of my generation responds violently to Christianity. They scoff at Christian ideas and feel oppressed by Christian people. Some students claim to have “escaped” from Christian parents, others talk about being bullied and hated by Christians when they were younger–and yet, after hearing what they’re opposed to, I’ve never found that anyone is opposed to Christianity, itself. Just Christians.

Perhaps my generation experiences a different form of Ressentiment than Nietzsche’s? Perhaps my generation takes all of the neglect, all of the hatred, all of the isolation, they have experienced and blames it on Christians.

“This is who I am.” They say. “And it is the Christian’s fault that I am unhappy, for the Christian does not accept me.”

But often “who they are” can have disastrous effects in it of itself. Someone who drinks risks making horrible decisions, for example. But often when confronted with these consequences, my generation blames Christians or God. The man who gets into an accident will think, “if there really was a God, I wouldn’t have gotten into this accident” or “if my parents weren’t such hypocritical Christians, I wouldn’t have gotten into this mess.”

Like Nietzsche’s generation, many of us have forgotten the idea of “personal responsibility” completely. Epictetus says that it is not things, themselves, that upset us, but our judgement of them.  That we are responsible for our own happiness. That we are responsible for our own actions. My generation doesn’t understand that. We blame God, we blame our parents, we blame anyone but ourselves, refusing to believe that we’re better than the action we’ve preformed. That we’re more than it.

I wonder why this is?

McHappiness

“Some things are up to us,” Epictetus says, “and some are not up to us.”

He explains that there are internal things (things like “opinions, impulses, desires and aversions”) and external things (things like “bodies, possessions, reputations and public offices”) and that we should only feel responsible for the internal things, the things he describes as being “up to us.”

Happiness, as Epictetus sees it, is not an emotion but a decision. It is a decision to keep the external events from overwhelming the psyche. We aren’t in control of what others do, Epictetus explains, so why let what they do dictate the direction of our day?

I was so fascinated by his Enchiridion that I just had to try putting his ideas to work.

I work at McDonalds, see, and this morning was a particularly terrible morning. I got very little sleep last night and we just so happened to be understaffed today during a hectic rush.

But all of those things are external, aren’t they?

So I had to focus on my internals.

“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgements about the things.” Epictetus says.

In McDonald’s terms this would probably mean something like this: the lack of sleep and lack of people and the overwhelming amount of customers are not terrible things in it of themselves. It is my judgement about them that makes the experience so miserable for me. So it is the judgement of the experience that I need to change in order to change my perspective.

I have yet to understand what the correct way to look at these externals is but I thought about “as long as people come I can keep my job” which did seem to turn the day around after I focused on it for long enough.

I can’t wait to practice again this weekend!

Socrates Guest Stars in a Quick Introduction

“As for me,” Socrates said, “all I know is that I know nothing.”

Coming from the man whom Apollo’s prophets deemed “the most intelligent man in all of Athens”, this maxim has well outlived its father and even taken on different form–and for good reason too. Very few phrases can describe the fascination attributed to the human dilemma of solving problems only to discover more questions, a Hydra-like phenomenon.

Personally, I find that the phrase ‘Undergraduate Studies’ constitutes a close synonym, however. Think about it.

Before college, we students are weened on a false doctrine. We are taught that there is black and white, that there is a right answer that cannot be argued against. We are taught that the Dark Ages was a time where the world was temporarily destroyed and that Thanksgiving was filled with Turkeys and peaceable relations between “Pilgrims” and “Indians” (they don’t give us a specific tribe name, either, but, judging by the pictures, they seem to be the same fascinating fantasy tribe that movies and colouring books are quite fond of featuring.) We are told that the Crusades were all Christianity’s fault and that the Civil War was only about slaves.

And then we go to college.

We discover that some questions have no answers, that we’re supposed to make our own judgments about the world and its history without having the clumsy footholds that were there for us in the college days–the figurative training wheels are taken off of our figurative bikes.
We are frightened without these training wheels. We are doubtful of our ability to ride without them.
We fall and hit the pavement.
Hard.

It is through college, however, that we learn to accept the lack of unquestionable truth, the lack of facts. It is through college that we learn how to cope with uncertainty, that we learn to love learning.

That is, if we’re doing it right.

This is why I have decided to devote a blog to my studies in the realm of history, culture and literature. I know nothing about any of these fields and what I do know has been corrupted by following the false doctrines of high school. Through this blog I not only plan to undergo a process of detox (from the historical and literary mythology I clung to so tightly before college) but to learn to love studying the fields I wish to dedicate the rest of my life studying–even though I haven’t the slightest idea of how to combine them.

Socrates may have been adamant on insisting that he knew nothing, but he was just as passionate when asserting that “a life unexamined is not worth living.”