Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How to Create a Martyr: Try to Silence Him (or Her)

For many years of my life, I studied Philosophy. And when I say I studied it, I mean I studied it hardcore, from Plato and Aristotle and Socrates to Martin Buber and Ludwig Wittgenstein and Simone de Beauvoir. I had professors tell me I'd be a philosopher myself, but I gave it up after I started getting bored with the subject, feeling there was not much more that was fresh and new. 
I was nevertheless delighted in my have-to-own-it-nerdy way to read a piece in The New York Times (June 12, 2011) Opinionator section online: "Philosophy as an Art of Dying" by Costica Bradatan. 

This essay is not just about philosophy; it's about the ways in which philosophers made other people nervous by thinking too much out loud. Threatened by the big ideas of the philosophers, the overly righteous had them silenced (usually, killed). 

Those who agreed to shut up and burn their writings and disappear into obscurity escaped with their lives--yet lost their purpose

Those who stood up for their values lost their lives but enjoyed immortality, in a very real sense, and the spreading of their ideas by way of their tragic personal stories.

As Bradatan writes of some philosophers, "...their way of life leads them to a situation where they have to choose between remaining faithful to their ideas or renouncing them altogether. The former translates into 'dying for an idea'...This seems to be the toughest of choices. In simpler terms, it boils down to the following dilemma: if you decide to remain faithful to your views, you will be no more. Your own death will be your last opportunity to put your ideas into practice. On the other hand, if you choose to 'betray' your ideas (and perhaps yourself as well), you remain alive, but with no beliefs to live by."

This is the "limit situation" of the philosopher. Where are his or her limits? Will he or she pass the test? What is the test? The philosopher's ideas are battling the hands-over-ears "You think too much!" idiocy of those who are unmoored by what the philosopher is saying. 

Think for a second: what was Socrates saying? He was saying we should consider the very idea of Zeus. Is Zeus real? Let's not take our parents' words for it; let's actually use our brains.  He didn't say that God does not exist; he merely said, in essence, Let's discuss the issue in an intelligent way.

For this, he was killed.

I said, "Let's read more and consider all the issues before we take our parents' words for which way we should vote." I got death threats galore (galore is such a stupid word--sorry) for daring to write this. 

I took down those words because I don't enjoy threats and I'd been through enough. I nearly died as the result of the persecution I suffered.

I was also attacked most ferociously, and unjustly, for daring to write that I was "dismayed" as a teacher who taught a very specific lesson about using a civil tone in writing, and I had begged my students not to write about politics...guess what I heard? Incivil tone in a speech about strident, divisive politics. Yes, I was dismayed. You would be, too, were we to trade places. 

I took down those words, too, but I would not retract them or cease writing about these and other issues,  because I know my words were true, and, I believe, useful. They sum up, in many ways, my purpose: getting people to think.

I do not claim to have all the answers, and that is the point. The point is that I am a teacher and yet I am well aware that I know nothing. What I know is that none of us truly know anything. We only think we do, so we might as well think for ourselves so at least we can "own" our ideas.

If you don't even want to think, if you have no writings or ideas of your own on this or any other subject, I wish you no harm. I am, however, quite different. I like to think about thinking (how very meta of me!)

I realize there are risks in writing and speaking and sharing thoughts, but the only way, as Aristotle once said, to avoid criticism is to not have any ideas in the first place. Only those who are nothing and have nothing to offer will face no criticism.

Philosophers seem to have a special pull toward criticism and martyrdom--unfortunately. But, as Bradatan writes in his prescient essay, "Dying is just half of the job: the other half is weaving a good narrative of martyrdom and finding an audience for it. A philosopher's death would be in vain without the right narrator, as well as the guilty conscience of a receptive audience. A sense of collective guilt can do wonders for a narrative of martyrdom about to emerge. [Philosopher-martyrs] cease to be people in flesh and blood and are recast into literary characters of sorts..."

Plato made Socrates into a literary philosopher-martyr, Bradatan writes. In Socrates' story, he notes, "...we have almost all the ingredients of any good narrative of martyrdom: a protagonist who, because of his commitment to a life of virtue and wisdom-seeking, antagonizes his community; his readiness to die for his philosophy, rather than accept the dictates of a misguided crowd; a hostile political environment marked by intolerance and narrow-mindedness; a situation of crisis escalating into a chain of dramatic events; the climax...and finally the heroic, if unjust, death of the hero, followed by his apotheosis." 

Socrates' ideas--his urging to get his students to think--made him into a martyr. He faced intolerance and provincialism in his community (as I did--although only from very few, but very loud, people).

I am no Socrates, but there is an overall similarity in our stories. I've written the entire narrative in my memoir, "Too Cool for School," and noted, in the prologue, how my teaching life is quite like the arc of a classic Greek tragedy.

Although I did not enjoy this experience of martyrdom in the slightest, the big ideas remain. My words are there, and they will be shared. The intolerant types could not silence me, and I know my memoir will be important to other teachers, to students, and to thinking, caring people everywhere. By documenting the savagery, I hope to prevent it from happening to anyone else!

Now, I do not urge other people to become martyrs to philosophy--because it sucks--but I do urge people to read the stories of how this happens, in the hope that it will cease happening, that people will stop attacking others for urging them, simply, to think.

In order to help the thinking process, I've written a book that will be out soon. I will write more about that when I have a physical copy of the finished product ("Too Cool for School"--that's tongue-in-cheek) here to officially hawk to the masses.

Thanks for reading. And thanks for thinking!



P.S. Here's a great comment from Bradatan's reader comments section:

Socrates knew what he was doing. And it had nothing to do with dying a noble death. He was simply not afraid.
He was not afraid of those who judged him. And he was not afraid to affront his fellow Athenians with his questionings. He understood that men -- and women -- made an enormous investment in their beliefs and that those beliefs were their bane. It was of paramount importance never to be "wrong". So important that they killed him for showing them to be the fools they were.
In fact, Socrates did not know whether he was "right" or "wrong". Such terms had no validity in his exploration of istigkeit. That was why he was finally able to accept the Delphic Oracle pronouncement that he was the wisest man alive: only he, alone among his fellow men, understood and accepted that he knew he knew nothing.


  1. Classic Collins: "I do not urge other people to become martyrs to philosophy because it sucks..." Keepin' it real, mixing the diction. You remain one of my very favorite teachers and people. Can't wait for the book!!

  2. Yeah, that's me. Thanks for being a fan. I will sell at least 10 books. This much I know for sure!

  3. "They sum up, in many ways, my purpose: getting people to think." You rabblerouser, you. Thinking is scary. One might discover one was told terrible half-truths and outright lies.

    Psst....i'm a member of your tribe.

  4. Damn straight, Ronlyn! Thanks for reading.


  5. I have to respectfully disagree that by spreading the word about unjustified attacks on intellectual freedom we can somehow prevent similar atrocities in the future. My reasoning? There will always be idiots frightened by ideas that their narrow little minds can't quite fathom. Stupid people react stupidly, by attacking those who are clearly more intelligent and interesting than they are. It happened to Socrates. It happened to you. It will keep happening. I am not saying "don't bother speaking out," but I am saying that we can't expect to change the already-set minds of the intellectually lacking among us. We can show them that we won't stand for the evil exercise of power to quell free thought, but the fundie mindset is stuck at 15 mph in perpetuity, while the bright people move faster than they can understand. This is all not to say that I won't read your book. Of course I will! You are inspiring and have always had my full support.

  6. I agree that some people's minds can't be changed, or expanded. The more people that speak out against censorship of perfectly acceptable, thoughtful ideas, however, the better--or so I hope.

    Thanks for reading.