Isocrates

Isocrates, Milton, Osler, and the Internet

Posted on

Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress. Isocrates, 436-338 BCE   

Some 2360 years ago, Chios, Cos, Rhodes, and Byzantium bolted from the Athenian Confederacy over abuses of central power by Athens. Isocrates wrote a long essay urging peaceful resolution of the conflict. It was surely not delivered orally for the reasons he mentions in the opening paragraphs:

“…you do not hear with equal favour the speakers who address you… while you give your attention to some, in the case of others you do not even suffer their voice to be heard. And it is not surprising that you do this ; for in the past you have formed the habit of driving all the orators from the platform except those who support your desire …you ( cause them to say) not what will be advantageous to the state, but what (pleases) you. …how can (we) wisely pass judgement on the past or take counsel for the future unless (we) examine and compare ( opposing ) arguments? …although this is a free government, there exists no ‘ freedom of speech ‘ except that which is enjoyed…by the most reckless… .

It sounds very 21st century USA, doesn’t it?

Fights broke out Saturday during pro- and anti-Trump protests in Berkeley, California.

February 1, 2017 - Berkeley, California, U.S - Anti-fascist protesters dressed in black arrive at a protest on the University of California-Berkeley campus against Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart writer who has grown notorious for his comments targeting women and minorities. Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak Feb. 1 at the invitation of College Republicans but he left the campus an hour-and-a-half before his scheduled talk as protesters grew unruly, throwing objects and setting off a bonfire

Anti-fascist protesters using “black bloc” tactics – covering faces, dressing in black – arrive at the protest last week.Jeremy Breningstall/ZUMA

 

In the mid 15th century, thanks to the printing press, common people began to acquire printed material containing ideas or knowledge formerly limited to wealth, state and church’  which were joined at the hip. Later, In 1522, Luther published the bible in vulgar German, instead of Latin, making it widely accessible for the first time. Over the next hundred years wildcat or unschooled publishing exploded, causing rulers to fear a access to information- arguably knowledge- putting power in the  hands of a gullible and ignorant public. In 1641 Britain–to protect the public (of course) !– made all printing illegal without prior official approval. Two years later a defiant John Milton published Aeropagitica, a title he adapted from Aeropagitcus, where Isocrates urged the revival of the Aereopagus, a court to control education of the young and public immorality.

Since the1990’s the internet has become exponentially available to an entire world. Authority is challenged or attacked by unschooled, unapproved wildcat non line e.publishing that is consumed by an awakened, restive national and transnational public. Free Speech is again so intolerable that Isocrates’ stale words echo down the hallways of time, and it seems clear that –again– civil dialogue and speech are true lies that recur throughout what we call history. While in the past, technology driven change required centuries to come to a boil, this pot took only a few decades to boil over.

I try to believe our little e.fire  will cool down, that we will control the pot of the e.verse. Yet it seems even more techno-crises are almost upon us: artificial intelligence; bioengineering; bioprinting; robotic automation and their spawn; Mars; and driverless cars (though two story high trucks of open pit copper mines in Chile have not had drivers for many years.) I was once an arrogant little pilot, like so many physicians who fly and sometimes die. But long ago on a several week trip to Punta Arenas, on the straits of Magellan,  I found that even a simple array of instruments was a better pilot than I. Therefore, thinking of the unknowable,  which is now seems almost everything ahead, I know that–looking back– my greatest good fortune was to become a physician, not so much through merit as luck, and the influence of a friend. To study my physician predecessors and colleagues is to move outside my own limits. It reminds me of this from Empedocles:

The nature of god is a circle of which the center is everywhete and the circumferance is nowhere—!

and this from Mathew Arnold’s Dover Beach:

I say: Fear not! Life still
Leaves human effort scope.
But, since life teems with ill,
Nurse no extravagant hope:
Because thou must not dream,  
thou need’st not then despair

So today, wanting a dose of something other than alcohol, I pulled down Osler, but quickly put him back, in favor of pulling him up : such is the joy of a browser! Aequinimitas was his valedictory address, University of Pennsylvania, May 1889. He spoke of the physician’s need for equanimity:

 “ clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril, immobility, impassiveness, or, to use an old and expressive word, phlegm.”

Phlegm! How choice a word for equanimity that is! He continues in that grandiloquent elite euro-greco-roman slang :

“in the Egyptian story…Typhon with his conspirators dealt with good Osiris; …they took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds; and, as Milton says, “from that time ever since, the sad friends of truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them; We have not yet found them all,”

And there it is again! The quote is from Milton’s ...Areopagitica! 

 

The Areopagus as viewed from the Acropolis.

Advertisements