Volume > Issue > Socrates Meets the Modern World (or, the Myth of Progress)

Socrates Meets the Modern World (or, the Myth of Progress)


By Peter Kreeft | May 1987
Peter Kreeft is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. A popular speaker, his numerous books include Love is Stronger than Death and Making Sense out of Suffering. The above article is extracted from his forthcoming book Socrates Meets Jesus (InterVarsity).

Socrates stands on a street corner in Have It Square in Camp Rich, Massachusetts, looking quite out of place. He gazes at the traffic, both vehicular and human, with something between amazement and amusement, looking first puzzled, then pondering, then pitying. These three moods take some time to cross the wide sea of his face, like tides. As the third tide turns, Bertha Broadmind, a student at Have It Divinity School, spots him and rivets her attention on him. She too is first puzzled, then pondering, then pitying. As Socrates begins to drift away in no particular direction, looking in vain for a familiar point of reference. Bertha rushes up to him.

Bertha: Socrates! Is it really you?
Socrates: Of course I am I, unless the law of noncontradiction has been abolished here. But where is “here”?
B: You are in the hub of academia, the brain center of the world, Have It University. This is what your disciple Plato’s great invention came to. This is where we train many of our philosopher-kings, or the closest thing. In fact – let’s see – that card you’re holding looks like a registration card for Have It Divinity School. Yes, it is! Why, maybe you’ll be in some of my classes. Fantastic! Come on, I’ll help you find your way around registration.
S: It seems I must be led by you. As we go, could you please explain some of the strange sights these old eyes of mine are seeing?
B: I’d love to. What a privilege for me to “teach” you – about all the progress the world has made since your day. How wonderful it must be for you to see over 2,000 years of progress in one day!
S (stopping short in the middle of the street): Did you say 2,000 years?
B (jerking him back): Watch your step, Socrates! Taxis don’t stop for philosophers here.
S: That – that thing was a “taxi”?
B: Yes. People don’t walk long distances anymore. They ride in cars. Yes, all those taxis are cars. Would you like a ride in one?
S: I think I’d prefer to walk.
B: Are you afraid?
S: No, I enjoy walking. Don’t people enjoy walking anymore? Those car things seem to be a way to avoid walking, aren’t they?
B: Why, yes, I guess you could look at it that way.
S: I don’t understand why you’d prefer to sit inside one of those mechanical animals rather than use your own two good legs out in the open air.
B: Why, because they get you where you’re going much faster, of course.
S: Of course; but why would you want to shorten one of life’s great little pleasures, walking?
B: I never thought of that.
S: I begin to see why I was sent here. I don’t claim to understand this new world of yours, but it seems to me that the noise and hubbub and danger of those things would make travel decidedly unpleasant. Do the people inside who guide them enjoy being in them?
B: Not usually. Not now, at rush hour, anyway.
S: That’s what I thought. For I noticed that most of the drivers looked either glum or impatient. I suppose they are impatient to end their unpleasant journey in their vehicles?
B: Yes.
S: In that case, why do they choose to travel in cars in the first place? Why not walk, if walking is more pleasant? They seem to be locking themselves into unpleasant little cages so they can go as fast as possible so they can get out of their cages as fast as they can. Why get in in the first place?
B: They have to get where they’re going in a hurry. To work, for instance.
S: But why would they want to rush to work instead of take a pleasant and leisurely walk?

B: They don’t have time to walk to work.

S: Why not?
B: Most of them live far from their work.

S: Why?
B: There isn’t enough room to have houses where the offices are, I guess.
S: Those buildings are offices?
B: Some, yes.
S: And do people enjoy working in them?
B: Not usually. But there are all sorts of jobs….
S: Do most people enjoy their jobs here?
B: Some do and some don’t, I guess. I don’t know how you could know that for sure.
S: Perhaps asking a question would help – like this one: If they were given free room and board by the State for the rest of their lives and didn’t have to do any work for it, would they then do the work they do now if they didn’t get paid anything extra for it?
B: Most people wouldn’t.
S: Then they do not work for the work, but for the pay.

B: Yes.
S: Are they slaves, then?
B: Oh, no. We have no slaves, Socrates. That’s one of the best pieces of progress we’ve made since your day. We don’t need slaves anymore. Indeed, we have machines to do our work for us.

S: Then why not send the machines – instead of the people – to work in those offices?
B: In a way, we do. But we have to have people to monitor the machines.

S: Then you are slaves to your slaves?

B: Certainly not. We’re all free.

S: Then why is work such a drudgery for free men?

B: Women too, Socrates. We’re not male chauvinists anymore. There’s another bit of progress: equality between the sexes.

S: You mean your women work too?

B: Usually.
S: So your women are just as enslaved as your men?
B: Enslaved?
S: Enslaved to the need to work at unpleasant jobs just for the sake of money.

B: Socrates, try not to be so critical.

S: You mean try not to be myself? A difficult task.

B: I mean, try to look at it from our point of view.

S: I am trying, but I am not succeeding. I don’t understand why the faces of most of the people I see are so unhappy, if you have made such progress. Why is everyone hurrying nervously about like slaves worried about displeasing their masters?

B: It’s not as bad as that, Socrates.

S: Let us see. (He stops a group of assorted people.) Excuse me, good people, but would any of you have a free hour or two to converse with me about the best things in life, about virtue and truth?
Passerby 1: You gotta be kidding!
Passerby 2: Who’s that weirdo?

B: They just don’t have the time, Socrates.

S: Oh.
B (pulling Socrates back onto the curb just in time): Look out for the red light! You know, you really must concentrate more on where you’re going instead of all this head-in-the-clouds stuff about virtue and truth.
S: So even your walks are dangerous here. But you seem to have avoided the most dangerous thing of all.
B: What’s that?
S: Philosophy.
B: Oh, we have philosophers here.

S: Where are they?

B: In the Philosophy Department.

S: Department? Philosophy is not a department.
B: Well, we have philosophers.

S: Are they dangerous?

B: Of course not.

S: Then they are not true philosophers. Tell me, does no one in your world obey the gods’ first commandment?

B: What’s that?
S: “Know thyself.”

B: Oh, sure. Plenty of people go to psychologists and psychiatrists.

S: Are they philosophers?
B: They’re like doctors for the soul. People go to them to get rid of their troubles.

S: Then they are not philosophers. Philosophers make troubles.
B: You would say that, Socrates. But no one gets executed for philosophizing today.
S: Is that because they care about philosophy? Or because they don’t care?
B: I guess most don’t care. They’re bored with philosophy.
S: Now there is a word I do not understand at all. What is it to be “bored”?
B: I don’t get it: you speak perfect English, why don’t you understand that word?
S: That word has no equivalent in my language. Perhaps people started getting what you call “bored” only in your time. Might it be connected with the worship of your new god?

B: God?

S: Progress.
B: Progress is not a god, Socrates.
S: If you know that, then why do you treat it as a god?
B: Do you think we do that? Most of us believe in only one God, just as you did.
S: Aha! So my secret is known, after all these years? Then tell me something else: how do you find silence and solitude in this world to commune with your God and with yourself and with your thoughts?
B: Come to think of it, we don’t have much silence or solitude in our world.

S: So it seems. Why not?
B: I guess we don’t like it very much. In fact, come to think of it, that’s what we give our most desperate criminals as a punishment, the worst punishment we can conceive.
S: You’re not serious? The great gift of solitude? The thing the sages long for as a gift more precious than gold?
B: I’m afraid that’s the way it is, Socrates.

S: I do not see why you call all this “progress.” And is your whole world as ugly as this place?

B: Quiet, Socrates! You’ll insult the natives. This is one of the most popular places to live. People pay twice as much to live here as out in the countryside.
S: Oh, then you do still have open country?

B: Yes.
S: Where there’s green grass and healthy trees and air that smells like air?
B: Yes. There’s plenty of unspoiled, open country.

S: But if you prefer to live in places like this, why do you call the country “unspoiled”? Why do you prefer to live in spoiled places?

B: I don’t know. I guess because we find the country boring.
S (with a sigh): There’s that word again!
B: Didn’t people get bored in your Athens, Socrates?
S: I suppose not, for if they had, they would have invented a word for it. We Greeks were very good at inventing words, you know.
B: But you lived in the city instead of the country, didn’t you?
S: I did. But Athens was a beautiful city. (Another sigh.) I suppose it’s all gone now?

B: No, the ruins still stand. It’s a very popular tourist spot. Even the Parthenon is still standing, most of it.
S: Oh! I should dearly love to visit it. How far away is it? Could we walk there?
B (laughing): No, Socrates, it’s thousands of miles away, across the ocean. You have to fly there.
S: I think you mistake my identity. The name is Socrates, not Icarus.
B (laughing more): No, I mean in a plane. A mechanical bird. It flies at a thousand miles an hour.

S: How like a god! (Thoughtfully:) – and how unlike! But tell me, why do tourists still visit the ruins of old Athens?
B: Because it was so beautiful, of course.
S: I don’t understand. If you admit that Athens is more beautiful than Camp Rich, Massachusetts, then why don’t you build cities like Athens instead of cities like Camp Rich? Have you forgotten the knowledge or the skill?
B: No.
S: Then why not?
B: Because you just can’t turn back the clock, Socrates.
S: What a silly saying! Of course you can! And should, if the clock is keeping bad time. As it seems your world is keeping.
B: You can’t turn back progress, Socrates.
S: Oh, yes, I had forgotten: your juggernaut god is very demanding and very jealous.
B: Progress is not a god. It serves us, we don’t serve it.
S: Is that so? Then has it made you happier?

B: I…I guess I don’t know.

S: Do you think it should?

B: I guess so.
S: Let’s see whether we can improve your knowledge from a guess to a certainty by finding a proof. If a master is served by a slave, does the master expect to be made happier in some way by this service?
B: Of course. Otherwise he wouldn’t have the slave.
S: And progress, you say, is your slave rather than your master?
B: Yes.
S: Then you must expect it to make you happier. Are people in your day happier than they were before “progress” came?

B: I don’t know.
S: If you don’t know whether it has made you happier or not, then why do you choose it?

B: I guess it does make us happier. But I don’t know how you can tell that. How can you compare two different cultures?
S: By looking for clues. There seem to be many. For instance, is there less discontent expressed in your literature? Less political unrest and revolution, less restless change in your world? Fewer and smaller wars? Is there less discontent in individual lives, less suicide, less violence, fewer people changing their lives, their jobs, their homes, their wives or husbands out of discontent? Less mental disorder? Fewer crimes, fewer rapes? Less child abuse, infanticide, abortion? Less fear of death, for the individual and society? Less uncertainty about whether life is worth living?

B (sighing): No, Socrates, there’s more.

S: More of what?

B: More of all of those things.

S (incredulous): More of all of those things?

B: Yes.
S: One thing, then, at least, seems abundantly clear: people in your society are much less happy than people were in mine.
B: I guess I have to admit that.
S: And you nevertheless still believe in Progress?
B: Of course I do.
S: What strong faith you have in your god!

B: It’s not faith, Socrates.

S: Well, it’s certainly not reason and evidence.

B: I’m confused. Look, here we are at Divinity Avenue. There’s Divinity Hall down there.

S: It doesn’t look very divine. Is that the Divinity School?
B: No, the Div is on Francis Avenue.

S: Can we go to it that way, down Divinity Avenue? Perhaps we will meet a few gods?
B: No, Divinity Avenue is a dead end.

S: I could have told you that.

B: What?
S: Ah, there’s a bench. Do you mind if we act contrary to the nature of your god for just a moment? I mean, if we both stop and think? Let’s sit here and finish our conversation before we tackle that other bit of progress you call “registration.”

B: All right. I’d like to try to get down to the bottom of this progress thing.

S: Good for you. Now that’s what I’d call progress.

B: You said progress is our master, not our slave. But that can’t be. We’re the masters of the universe. We’ve conquered nature. That’s what progress means.
S: You say you control nature now?

B: Yes. Much more than in the past, anyway.

S: Tell me, what would you say of this case? Imagine a chariot drawn by two headstrong horses. Now imagine a small child at the reins. At the child’s slightest touch the horses obey. The child controls the horses, and the horses control the chariot. But what controls the child? Suppose the child is as blind and headstrong as the horses. Suppose he does not control himself, does not control his own control. Would you say then that he is in control of the chariot?
B: Are you saying that’s an image of our world?

S: I’m asking. Do you control your control? Are you a people with great self-control?

B: No, I think we’re a rather violent people.

S: Then the chariot of your society is in danger.

B: You don’t know the half of it, Socrates. At this very moment, two rival nations have nuclear weapons that can destroy every single living thing on earth, and they fundamentally distrust each other.

S: By Zeus! A wayward child with a giant’s weapon – what a terribly dangerous combination!

B: And I think we are worried about our control too, because one of our most popular stories is about a Doctor Frankenstein who creates a mechanical monster that runs amok.

S: Oh, I do not see your machines running amok. It seems you are controlling them fairly well. But you seem to be worried about yourselves – for instance, about whether you will be foolish enough to use those terrible weapons.

B: I don’t think we’re that foolish, Socrates.

S: Then why don’t you just get rid of the weapons? Then both sides will breathe a sigh of relief, and be happier.
B: Maybe we are that foolish, Socrates. What you say is perfectly reasonable, but we don’t do it.

S: And even if you are not so foolish as to use your terrible weapons, your machines do not seem to be making you happy. So they do not seem to be working as your slaves. And so they are a poor proof of progress, and of power.

B: You just don’t understand, Socrates. Come here, let me show you how they serve us. This building is a bank. People store their money here. The bank is closed right now, but watch and you’ll see how easy it is to get your money out. You just put this little electronic card here in this machine, and…darn it, it’s out of order.

S: Perhaps you should offer it a libation?

B: Don’t be smart, Socrates! I’m determined to show you the wonders of the computer age. Come here…. Here we are in the Broadener Library. Now I can show you how beautifully our libraries work. Now watch how easy it is to find a book on the computer. Here…oh-oh! The sign says the computers are down today.

S: What does that mean?

B: It means that the machines that tell you what books are in the library aren’t working.

S: And a libation would not persuade the god?

B: This is really embarrassing, Socrates. I’m sorry; I wanted to show you the best of our new age, but we just ran into a few snags. Look, here we are out on the street again, and it’s getting awfully hot. Let’s stop in the store for a soda, OK?
S: Whatever you say. Here?
B: Yes, here. Good grief! Look at the line at the cash register. (To a customer:) Why is the line so long today?
Customer: Oh, they’ve computerized the whole store. And the sales clerks are still learning how to use the computers.
S: Wouldn’t it be easier just to use pencil and paper?
B: Yes, but that would foul up the records. The records are all computerized.

S: What I still don’t understand is this: even when your machines and computers and cars and planes are working efficiently, they have not made you happier or wiser or better. Have they?

B: They’ve made us wiser, anyway. We know much more than you old Greeks did.

S: Do you mean that knowledge alone makes you wise? Is knowledge the same as wisdom?

B: No. But we certainly have much more knowledge, at least.
S: Which is more valuable, knowledge or wisdom?

B: Wisdom.
S: Then where is your modern wisdom?
B: Actually, we usually speak of “ancient wisdom” and “modern knowledge” rather than the reverse.
S: So you admit that the ancients were wiser, while the moderns have more knowledge.
B: I guess so.
S: And you know that wisdom is more valuable?

B: Yes.
S: Then why have you exchanged the more valuable thing for the less? And why do you call this “progress”?
B: Well, at least we know more. We’ve made progress in that area, anyway.
S: Do you know things like birth and death and love and hate and life and God more than we did?

B: Certainly. We know thousands of things about them that you never knew.
S: You may know more about them, but do you know them more?
B: I don’t see the distinction you’re making.

S: You know, for instance, what the weather is going to be tomorrow much more accurately than we did, I suspect.

B: Yes.
S: But do you think you know the weather itself better than a sailor or a farmer who has lived with it as his constant companion all his life?

B: Oh, I see. Well, in a way no, but in another way yes. We can control it better. We can control many forces in nature that we never dreamed of controlling because of our knowledge. We can fly to the moon, for instance….
S: Remarkable indeed! And is it a delightful place to live?
B: No, there’s no life there. You can’t live there.

S: Then why is it so good to go there?

B: Look, take something else. We can communicate with someone 10,000 miles away instantly, faster than the messenger of the gods. Surely that’s progress.
S: It is, if you have something worthwhile to say.

B: We can grow food more efficiently.

S: And so you have abolished starvation?

B: Well, no…. But we can cure thousands of diseases.
S: I didn’t know there were thousands of diseases. Have you invented some new ones?
B (exasperated): Socrates, I’m really disappointed in you. I thought you’d be much more up to date than this. I mean, you don’t believe in progress.

S: I have been trying to tell you that for a long time now, and making little progress. No, I don’t. I didn’t believe in the up-to-date gods my countrymen believed in either, and got myself executed for that. Tell me, do people still believe in Zeus today?

B: No, no one.
S: Well, then, don’t you see? The beliefs that were most “up to date” in my world were the ones that were soon dated. And the same thing will happen to your beliefs in this new god “progress.” And when that happens, that will be real progress.

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