On Corrupting Youth (its what I do)
Perhaps someone may say, But surely, Socrates, after you have left us you can spend the rest of your life in quietly minding your own business. (Plato, The Apology).
While the age range and definition of ‘youth’ has altered over the millennia, and while its current designation surrounds a more physiological conception, that of ‘adolescence’, what has remained within this phase of life are its social stakes. Youth represent an unfinished present, an unused voucher of the future, an investment as yet uncashed. And the rest of us are joint stock holders, collective stake-holders in this investment. But what is the character of the portfolio itself? In what company do we invest, and the more so, in whose company do we thus keep?
I am a social philosopher, by trade and by character, and as such, am a nominal member of a guild whose apical ancestor is Socrates, the smugly annoying interlocutor and critic who, on the charge of corrupting youth, was executed by the Athenian state. Now there were numerous philosophers before Socrates, usually referred to as, unimaginatively but appropriately, the ‘Pre-Socratics’. Most luminous perhaps of this clique were Heraclitus and Parmenides. But though tantalizing fragments of this the earliest period of Western thought remain, it was in Plato that we first meet the character who would revolutionize the arts and acts of thinking, That he did so with others, in dialogues for the most part, was also a first. And that he put first to test and thence to shame almost all of his conversation partners, representing as they did a great diversity of both popular and learned opinions on all matters and comers alike, underscored the advent not so much of a public personage – the official rationale for Socrates’ sentencing – but rather a way of being; that through reflective reasoning what passes for belief, value, and institution may be brought low, even entirely vanquished.
This was the truer reason for murdering the messenger, as it were. Since one cannot kill an idea, the proponent or even the mere vehicle for such ideas is abruptly at risk. And since young people are indeed the future of society and thus as well the future arbiters of social reality as it stands upon its majority epistemological rule, any institution, especially any State, might well be suspicious of the individual who apparently seeks to disarm and even sabotage the smooth transitioning from one generation to the next. For it is not production per se that is of the highest value, even in capital, but rather reproduction.
The status of stasis in all known human societies follows this cardinal rule. What is, is what must be, and what must be again. And though it is certainly also part of the evolutionary human character to be an innovator – at least relative to our cognitive apparatus; the toolkit, for example, of Homo Erectus remained essentially unchanged for about two million years – such inventions, improvisations, and even spontaneous actions occur by far only in the realm of the technical. Today, this for the most part constitutes the applied sciences, and with the ever-accelerating pace of technological change by itself, we cannot help but note the ever-widening gap between what humanity is capable of doing and what we are capable of being.
This sometimes gaping disconnect between the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ was noted first by those very Pre-Socratics, when the gap was so much smaller as to be almost unnoticeable. And yet, the earliest thinkers asked a simple question, which we still can ask today: “Why am I doing this?”. This is not the same question as the inventor asks of herself, “Why am I doing this, this way?”, but rather speaks to an ontological puzzle that may be spoken more starkly as “Why am I doing this at all?”. Now we can understand perhaps a little better why there is an implicit threat within such a question. For here, we are not being asked to design a better means of accomplishing the same or similar end, as the applied scientist or technician is so asked, but rather to imagine a different, perhaps better, end in itself. And when we ask this much more radical question, everything else opens right up. Not, ‘why do I have to go to school?’, but instead ‘Why are there schools at all?’, ‘What is the purpose of schooling and why this purpose?’ ‘Why reproduce what we already know?” Why be the people that we have already been?’ ‘Why believe in what our ancestors believed?’, ‘Why is our society something that must be defended?’, ‘Why do I imagine that I am superior to others?’ ‘What is the truer nature of truth?’.
There is no space within the formal social fabric wherein such questions as these even get voiced, let alone seriously discussed. It may seem a risky, even reckless, condition to be in; to promote a society or a culture that seeks only the expansion of its present guise, the reproduction of its current values, and the conversion of all infidels who might range against its destiny. But it was the same in Socrates’ day. The Athenians, and the Greeks more widely, held that they were the only culture of value in existence; that they were by default the chosen people, and all others mere ‘barbarians’. And even some of the greatest minds of the Hellenistic period following Plato kept up this charade, including Aristotle himself. The thinker is still a child of his time, yes, but by engaging in authentic dialogue and serious reflective thought, he begins to realize that his assumptions are often mistaken, especially about others to self. Young people the world over exist, momentarily, in a cultural space which is liminal. No longer children, not quite adults, ‘youth’ in all times and places since the beginning of mass civilizations experience something quite palpably that in no other life-phase is as menacing to their persons. That experience is one of doubt.
Because the only other time we experience existential doubt is while we are dying, we arrive at the space of radical doubt either too early – the teenager can do little enough to push her doubts to the level of social revolution or even social critique – or too late – one is about to become permanently absent from the human experience – doubt as a force of being must be accessed in some other manner. Fortunately, and thanks to the Pre-Socratics and Socrates specifically, we do have this other means at our disposal, if we would only use it. For it is through philosophical doubt, the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, as Paul Ricoeur called it, upshifting itself into an ‘effective historical consciousness’, as his hermeneutic German counterpart Hans-Georg Gadamer had it, that a human being can practice doubt as a matter of course throughout the life course. And it truly is a practice, not unlike some other regular set of actions taken in light of other aspects of our human health, such as yoga, meditation, or even diet. To regularly engage in reflection charged with a reasoned doubt which is not sourced in either neurosis or common anxieties, is to begin to alter one’s consciousness of not only what society is and is made of, but also about what is; that is, of our shared existence and equally so, our possible shared fate.
But to do so, and especially to do so publicly and with others is not without its patent and potent risks. And to deliberately do so by engaging young people is fraught with positive danger, as Socrates so discovered. I myself have encountered the signs of this danger. For in invoking suspicion directed against social institutions and their agents, it is to be absolutely expected that suspicion of oneself will be directed right back. Since I retired from my professorship and chairpersonship in a large university setting, I have been summarily rejected by the schools, by NPOs and NGOs that sponsor youth activities, by publishers too concerned about the commercial repute of their catalogues to publish my work, refused by a library which stated that the content of my fiction was ‘unsuitable’ for youth – even though it was written for that audience and the UK publisher itself suggested an age range of 14-24 – and no news media will publish my editorials. I have had civil servants tell me quite uncivilly that my ideas are not welcome in ‘their’ public institutions, and even had the police called on me for handing out my business card to a parent walking with her teenage child. And while I hope I am not naïve about the improbability of being assassinated by the latter-day State, at least, I am struck by the marshaling of focused forces, the circling of proverbial wagons, ‘all the king’s horses’ and so on, in the face of a lone social critic who sees himself as well as an advocate for youth.
Par for the course, you might reply. Now you know that you truly are who you think you are. On one side, being off to one side suits the sensibility of the philosopher. A part of her reimagines herself as aloof to the petty influence of unthought, immune to the ‘insolence of officials’ and beyond the ‘slings and arrows’ both. But on the other, this aspect of the thinker is her most inauthentic selfhood. For thought is in fact the birthright of all human beings, and the philosopher represents merely a portal for others to step through; an entrance, and perhaps a momentary guide, to the wider world of the history of consciousness in its entirety, no matter its source. And yet even this is too sentimental a summary of what the philosopher does, who she is as a being in the world. No, in all honesty, the thinker dares the world to think for itself. She utters the Ursprach which sounds the hollow idols and pronounces the death of gods. He tells his fellow human, ‘What you hold most dear, I will destroy it! What you know of love, I will betray it! What you feel is most sacred, I will desecrate it unto death! You will no longer know yourself after you speak with the likes of me; you will instead be confronted by a new kind of being, a novel truth, a culture from which you are the newly estranged.’
Is it any wonder then, that few people have the courage to engage in the regular practice of philosophical doubt. And this even more strikingly, given the fact that one doesn’t really need the philosopher to help with such a practice, at least, not in any consistent and continuing manner. For each of us, possessed of a consciousness which is a creation of reason and imagination alike, knows at some deep level that who and what they are, who and what they have been, is at the least not all they can be, and so their culture and so their history. All I can do, all I have done, promotes this other way of coming to grips with existence. And so I will continue to corrupt our youth in any way I can. I am a philosopher; its what I do.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 55 books in ethics, education, religion, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.