On this day in 1929, The Graf Zeppelin performed the first ever aeronautical circumnavigation of the globe. These dirigibles, which were so successful at capturing the public’s imagination, were in fact fairly rare and their golden period brief; the Graf Zeppelin was only in service from 1928 to 1937, a mere nine years of operation.
In some ways, dirigibles are the culmination of the Victorian era technological development, and so while they came into prominence after the period was over, they remain a quintessential steampunk image. They capture the ages spirit of innovation, discovery, and optimism that steampunk nostalgically represents. I dare anyone to look at the image and not feel the same.
Today is the 66th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in which as many as 140,000 people died. It was followed up three days later with a similar attack on the city of Nagasaki, for a total of more than 200,000 fatalities.
Today is the 47th anniversary of the second Gulf of Tonkin event, in which the overactive imaginations of a couple of navy sonarmen provided all the justification an American president needed in order to start a war in Southeast Asia. It was the weapons of mass destruction for Lyndon B Johnson, the smoking gun that anyone with more patience and less of an agenda could have discovered wasn’t smoking at all. A cautionary tale we had been warned of only three years before this incident in an almost prescient farewell address by Eisenhower.
In the Plato course I am taking this semester, we have been reading secondary material, each of which proposing various methods for discerning the historic Socrates from the body of literature available to us. And in each case the author (Vlastos, Kahn, Irwin and now Brickhouse and Smith), paints for the reader an attractively plausible picture of Socrates drawn skillfully from a range of materials which they frame as being generally trustworthy.
The problem with these accounts is that each of them seems to express an overly optimistic estimation of their ability to accomplish the task, an optimism most frequently expressed through a willingness to admit various textual sources as representing a core of reliable historical information from which to build a theory of the historic Socrates and upon which they can coalesce other, more questionable materials based on how well they correlate with this core of certain texts.
But is this any way to prosecute such an investigation, to admit various materials merely upon the assumption of psychological plausibility? Certainly not, for what will end up occuring is that these core texts will almost certainly define any further search and so dictate precisely what one will find, without any of the rigorous scrutiny that other sources will be subjected to. I would like to propose an alternate method, one based on a more skeptical outlook on the endeavor.
The first step is to admit that there is no core textual source upon which we can readily rely upon. There are a variety of reasons scholars have looked to Plato, and particularly Plato’s early dialogues, as being this core, but unless we are willing to subject these texts to the same level scrutiny and verification as other sources, then we have accomplished nothing but confirmed Plato’s idealization (and perhaps even fictionalization) of Socrates, and we have no reason for assuming that it is any more accurate than any other besides the fact that his writings are the most extensive we have on Socrates, and this isn’t a reason for trusting it. We cannot go into this investigation expecting to accomplish anything, and conversely, we must be willing, upon the completion of our examination, to come away with the conclusion that we really know nothing about the historic Socrates. Only then can we proceed to be convinced by the facts of anything regarding the person of Socrates.
Next, we have to proceed with a more rigorous method of investigation. This means that our primary core of information needs to come, not from one particular text or selection of texts, but rather from a set of facts. The highest order of facts are those which have independent verification from multiple contemporary sources. This will serve as the core to verify any further investigation, for either the inclusion or exclusion of supplementary material.
Next in the hierarchy of trustworthiness would be critical statements from supporters and/or positive statements from critics. This needs to be done contextually however, since clearly not everything that was seen as being a criticism or compliment then would be seen so today. In addition to this, we have to be cautious that these facts are independent, since a critic could merely be citing some incidental fact which they received by a positively biased source, and equal caution should be applied to incidental criticisms in the accounts of supporters.
The final source of information would be the uncorroborated, and uncritical, testimony of both supporters and critics. These sources should only be accepted with strong reservations and only as supplemental information to what has already been verified, preferably from our primary sources. I considered trying to work out a distinction between who might be more trustworthy between supporters and critics, but while I am inclined to see supporters as being slightly more helpful in determining historical information, I don’t believe the difference is sufficient to separate the two in our epistemological hierarchy.
Essentially, the problem I see here is that this issue of who Socrates was is not sufficiently being treated as a historical problem, and not a philosophical problem. Because of this, not all of the source material is being subjected to the same level of scrutiny, with a subtle bias being directed towards materials that favor or interest the philosophic mind. And even though the results of the historical investigation may have ramifications for the philosophical understanding of Plato and his dialogues, it is not a philosophical question and should not be treated as such.
Too much credence is given to Plato and his description of Socrates, and there are too many questions about the dates for his dialogues, his purpose for writing them, and just how much liberty he took with the historical person of Socrates. Clearly, even as early as the Apology, if that be considered one of the early dialogues (if not the earliest), Plato had already transformed Socrates from a man into his idealization of what a philosopher is to be. Thus, the beatification of Saint Socrates, patron saint of philosophy began early, and spawned a whole industry of hagiography centered upon the various projected ideals which nearly all of western philosophy found in him. Giving Plato, the leading evangelist for the glorification of Socrates, an uncritical and influencial voice in the investigative process will only hamper efforts to discern the Socrates behind the personification of philosophical ideals.
The Axial Age is a proposed period of time, roughly between 600 BCE and 200 BCE, in which the cultural foundations were laid for society up to this day. It included significant changes in a wide variety of intellectual fields, including major works of poetry, prose, philosophy, medicine, and religious thought. In addition to the breadth of cultural transformation, it occured near simultaneously within a number of cultural centers, including Greece, Iran, India, and China. This global transformation in many ways reflects the earlier independent, yet convergent, social evolution of complex societies along the Nile, Mesopotamian, and Indus valleys.
The most facinating aspect of the Axial age is not merely that cultural revolutions were happening concurrently and in multiple locations, but that many of the intellectual achievements themselves, the concepts and theories that were developed were themselves paralleled in these divergent locations, with little apparent exchange between the cultures, which would indicate the independent development of these ideas with minimal cultural borrowing. This in itself is remarkable and worthy of a thorough inquiry into the factors that allowed the growth of these parallel social developments for anyone interested in understanding the shape of the world today and the processes that delivered it to us.
The figures who moved in this age read like a veritable world culture pantheon: Socrates, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Mahavira, Zoroarster, and numerous other luminary intellectual and religious figures (I apologize for my list, it obviously betrays my ignorance as well as prejudices in who it includes as well as excludes), and many of the works produced by these figures continue to be foundational classics in their respective cultures to this day. I myself have been facinated with this period and its personalities for some time now, and could not recommend strongly enough the many works of philosophy, poetry, and morality that were generated during this period in history.
Nquest wants to know why white America has yet to answer this question posed by James Baldwin. I initially stated that I didn’t feel that I knew enough to even attempt an answer to the question, to which Nquest responded:
As far as you addressing Baldwin’s question… just because you “haven’t studied whiteness or white people nearly enough” is no excuse not to deal with the question. Your lack of study didn’t stop you from making this thread. Instead of saying you hadn’t studied enough then you decided that the subject matter there was something you had to explore.
My approach to the referenced post was self-reflective and questioning, and not really about having an answer. Thus, any attempt at answering Baldwin’s question is going to have to be the same way, because I believe to actually answer his question would require a much more thorough knowledge of white history than I currently hold.
To be quite honest, I have actually never felt a need for the n*gg*r, either as an individual or as a white person (with whatever limited experience I have had at conceiving myself as part of the white collective). I have never felt that attached to either my Americanness or whiteness, and until very recently, my identity has been bound by religious parameters. I grew up in a thoroughly white, rural, conservative, protestant environment. Whiteness was all around me, and outside of the media (which did an excellent job of introducing PoC in a way that left whiteness untouched), so unbroken as to present itself as invisible. Thus, it could not serve as an identity. I never felt the need for an “other” in order to know myself. I was a Christian, and everything I knew or thought about myself revolved around this.
I say this in order to offer some background information, as a way of explaining part of my difficulty with this question. Now to offer my speculation.
Europeans coming to America were not originally united. They weren’t white. They were French, English, German, Dutch, etc., and they fought amongst themselves even as they eliminated the Native American population. But by the time of the American rebellion from British rule, an identity that could be rallied around was obviously needed if there was going to be a single country. This identity was readily available in the Enlightenment concept of the atomized individual, a primarily mental being whose starting point was the “tabula rasa”. This was the identity, but not the reality. The reality is that this idealization was really for the propertied male, for only these were thought to actually have a stake in good governance. Thus there was already a division between “citizens” and the rest (the masses, hoi polloi, basically commoditized labor). But even before the country was created, it needed to be released from English rule, and the question is how to convince the majority to fight for your (the elites) right to free itself from monarchial economic exploitation when you were currently exploiting the very people you now needed to fight for you.
The solution was to win them over, convince them that they had a stake in the fight, but without actually surrendering any of the actual power held. There are two, concurrent and complimentary strategies towards this end. The first is to offer a token stake in the new nation, hence some small, and quite nominal property holdings were offered (with the obvious implication that there was the potential for more and the hope of rising to join the ranks of the elite, the beginnings of the “American Dream” as it were).
The second scheme was to introduce a contrast to this token share with the disenfranchisement of another group, one that would simultaneously obscure the empty nature of the offer being made while at the same time undermining it, thus further strengthening the economic and socio-political position of the elite. In this respect, racism and black slavery perfectly accomplished both of these goals. As history progressed, and the “American Dream” continued to foster the lie it always was, the lower class whites became more and more addicted to the other as a means of maintaining the illusion that they were still somehow stakeholders in the Republic.
This need, it seems to me, is inextricable linked to the rise of nationalism in Europe and its influence on the creation of the United States. Nationalism replaced the previous political structure of explicit power, where the extent of the political entity, and its identity, were bound up in the ability of the ruler to impose his will. But with nationalism, a different identity was forged, an ethnic/racial identity, and this identity needs more than just the self-referential in order to overcome the rather arbitrary boundaries that existed (since the political boundaries hadn’t changed that much and the political realities were still based on the ability of the ruling elite to impose their will). What was needed was a contrast, that the people of the newly christened nation were not like those other people across the border (no matter how much the facts on the ground insisted otherwise).
Out of this political context emerged the United States, without a common identity. One needed to be forged, a new racial/ethnic identity had to be created in order to form a common entity, and this is where the needs of the elite (as delineated above) and the needs of the majority coincided, with the creation of the “white” identity. But in order to make this newly constructed identity work, and to mask all of the internal divisions it was supposed to hide, this new American ethnicity needed a strong contrast, and so the n*gg*r was invented, a being who contrasted all of the values imported into whiteness, mental vs physical, rational vs emotional, logical vs intuitive, and the most obvious, free individual whose humanity was intact vs homogenized property whose humanity was at best questionable.
Thus, the answer to the question of why the n*gg*r was necessary is that the American nation (based on a common ethnic/racial identity) could not have been formed within the prevailing European (and America was and is an extension of Europe) political theory without “the other”.