Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cool Hand Socrates

Talking of suicide, I came across an article today that I found quite entertaining. Called 'Escape from Anxiety' it is a discussion of existential anxiety as illustrated by the suicide of Socrates and the character of Luke (played by Paul Newman in the film 'Cool Hand Luke').

It couldn't help but peak my interest, considering that I had only recently learnt the story surrounding Socrates' demise. From Wikipedia:

[Socrates] was nevertheless found guilty for corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death by drinking a mix of the poisonous hemlock. Socrates turned down the pleas of Crito to attempt an escape from prison. After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his limbs felt heavy. After lying down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot. Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before dying, Socrates spoke his last words to Crito saying, "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt." Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, and its likely that Socrates' last words were implied to mean that death is the cure, and freedom, of the soul from the body.

According to Xenophon and Plato, Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. After escaping, Socrates would have had to flee from Athens. However, Socrates refused to escape for several reasons. 1. He believed that such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has. 2. Even if he did leave, he, and his teaching, would fare no better in another country. 3. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his 'contract' with the state, and by so doing harming it, an act contrary to Socratic principle. The full reasoning behind his refusal to flee is the main subject of The Crito.

According to Xenophon's story of Socrates' defense to the jury, Socrates' purposefully gives a defiant defense to the jury because "he believed he would be better off dead." Xenophon's explanation goes on to describe a defense by Socrates that explains the rigors of old age, and how Socrates will be glad to circumvent these by being sentenced to death. It is also understood that Socrates not only wished to avoid the pains of old age, but also to die because he "actually believed the right time had come for him to die."
And you can find a more detailed account here. What is the plot of 'Cool Hand Luke'? If you've not seen it (and it's an interesting film, with poker to boot!) here is a brief synopsis, from Wikipedia:
Luke is sent to the prison camp for cutting the heads off parking meters one drunken night, and when asked what kind of thing that is for a man to do, his explanation is "Small town, not much to do in the evenin'. Mostly just settlin' up old scores." His unquenchable spirit makes the other prisoners idolize (and idealize) him, and leads to his Christ-like martyrdom at the hands of the authorities.
Luke is a man who could've done so very differently, but chose the only way he could find...

So what what does 'Escape from Anxiety' have to say about it all?:
While Socrates' life teaches about virtue, Luke's life teaches about nonconformity. Though these topics are worthy in themselves, Socrates' and Luke's lives more importantly show the absolute necessity of the life-saving anxiolytic affects offered by belief. Life begins free of anxiety, but developing rationality soon leads to an anxiety-crisis. By erecting all-encompassing belief systems, anxiety is abated. Consequently, if this analysis holds true, then life is anxiety-free when lived according to a belief system and anxiety-ridden when it is not. Death is preferable to a life ridden with anxiety. Ironically, then, in the cases of Socrates and Luke, survival in a life of anxiety requires attaining a belief system that leads to the death of those who hold it.
It goes on:
With Socratic virtue, every action is to be judged and rated according to its virtue. The most virtuous act is then chosen. Also, as Socrates' discovered, even thought and speech must be rated on a scale of virtue as well. Given the enormous number of actions and thoughts, virtue-based philosophy admirably serves the purpose of combating anxiety. Lukean nonconformity similarly serves this purpose well. Nonconformity for Luke mainly takes the form of repeated escapes, disrespecting authority figures on both the inside and outside of prison walls, and refusing to accept a superior position in the prison hierarchy for himself. The great amount of energy, both physical and mental, required by nonconformity more than offsets life's inherent preponderance of anxiety.
And finally:
Claiming that survival depends upon a belief system that directly produces death may seem counterintuitive, but this couterintuition is based on the misunderstood meaning of survival. As Socrates' says, "The most important thing is not life, but the good life." (48b) Life in itself is not worthwhile, only living the good life justly and virtuously is of any worth. If the good life is the virtuous life, then the good life is also synonymous with the life that most efficiently distracts against anxiety. Yet, distraction is subjective, so each individual must choose the belief system that "fits" him best. The sociological factors that contribute to the decision to choose one particular system (perhaps a religious revelation or an injustice) are irrelevant; simply put by Luke, "A man's got to go his own way sometimes." The important aspect is the fact that without this one belief system, life is not worth living. Socrates and Luke thus choose to die happily instead of living anxiously.

As each person encounters the anxiety-crisis, a belief system must be erected in order to overcome it. Consequently, the level of meaningfulness attributed to a belief is not based on the tenets of the belief itself, but the degree to which the belief reduces anxiety. In this simple inverse relationship, the stronger the belief, the more anxiety is reduced. However, knowledge of the latent purpose of this strong belief may weaken it, increasing anxiety. Conclusion: do not read this paper. Or, less elliptically stated, question your belief system and you will suffer the dreadful consequences!
Ha! Dreadful consequences indeed. So here distraction is offered as the route to happiness, through the abatement of anxiety. It sounds a nice idea, to get 'lost in life', but isn't it all a bit silly; dying for cutting the heads off parking meters or stoically drinking poison because of your beliefs? Ignorance is probably bliss, but it's also definitely ignorant too...