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The first Zionists were socialists

Zion refers to Jerusalem and is the goal of the general desire of Jews to return to their homeland, their historical space. The word Zionism was created by Nathan Birnbaum in the newspaper Self-Emancipation! (Selbstemanzipation!), in 1890. It was Theodor Herzl who gave it its modern meaning of creating an independent state for Jews, where they would be able to live without persecution, in safety.

The Zionist ideology has both socialist and religious roots. This return to the Promised Land is linked to the coming of the Messiah and the end of the Jews’ exile from their land. Characteristic in this aspect was the Uganda scheme, a 1903 British suggestion to relocate Jews in the African land (that same piece of land resides today in Kenya) –a suggestion which Herzl was fond of, but was categorically denied by the other, far more inexorable, representatives at the 6th Zionist Congress (and was definitively abandoned in 1905, during the 7th). To appease them, and reassure them of his determination to the original vision, Herzl sang from Psalm 137: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning”. But even Herzl only viewed the Uganda scheme as a temporary solution to save the Jews from the Russian pogroms and from German anti-Semitism until the plan to return to Jerusalem could be materialized. There were also plans to relocate to the US (in Texas), Cyprus, Australia, Libya or the Sinai, but they were abandoned as well for a variety of reasons (more here).

Theodor Herzl’s opening speech at Sixth Congress in Basel, 1903 (source)

As the theoreticians of Zionism were greatly influenced by their contemporary awakening of oppressed people and their aspiration for a just life (e.g. the Risorgimento – unification and birth of modern Italy), it is obvious why they turned to Marx and the socialist ideas in general for guidance. Following the socialist Zionist rhetoric as illustrated below, Stalin adopted a pro-Zionist foreign policy, expecting the new state to be socialist and undermine Britain’s influence in the Middle East. The Soviet Union became the second country to recognize Israel as a state and supported it with weaponry during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Here we’ll see the main actors of the early Zionist movement and how they were influenced by socialist ideas.

Moses Hess, a friend and colleague of Marx, was undoubtedly the first who attempted a composition of Zionism and socialism[1]. But he did not agree that economic issues and class struggle could explain the entirety of history, and saw the struggle among the races or nationalities as the main drive of history. So, living in Germany in 1861-1863, and studying Italian nationalism and the German reaction to it, he foresaw that the Germans would not tolerate any national ambitions of other groups, and that they were particularly intolerant against Jews (“Yet it seems that a final race struggle is unavoidable”). But nobody took him seriously during his lifetime (he died in 1875), not even his contemporary Jews, who were then devoted to the idea of assimilation in the German society. Only by the end of the 19th century, and when Zionism was crystallized, were his writings discovered, which Theodor Herzl lauded.

In contrast to Hess, the more orthodox Marxist Ber Borochov in his book The national question and the class struggle attempted to combine Zionism and Marxism. He thought that the reason for which the Jews were persecuted everywhere was that they were not productive. Jews were hucksters, vendors, craftsmen, writers or teachers –meaning mediators– detached from the productive activities of agriculture and industry (as Marx wrote in The Jewish Problem, “The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general”). They would be forced, therefore, hunted by the European countries, to immigrate to Palestine, so that they create a natural allocation of working Jews in the production process. Besides, he said, the squalor of the proletariat as it stems from capitalist growth, intensifies competition between Jews and non-Jewish workers, making immigration more urgent still. Borochov founded the first Zionist socialist party, Workers of Zion (Poale Zion), which looked to take on labor, class struggle between the bourgeois and the Jewish proletariat and the collective ownership of the means of production. He thought that Arabs and Jewish workers together should take part in this class struggle as soon as the Jews would return to Palestine. During the 1910s his theories were considered outdated, as impossible to act on, since the Jews who had already immigrated to Palestine were finding it difficult to establish themselves financially and thought that inter-class collaboration would be necessary, let alone that a class struggle was irrelevant.

The majority of the socialist Zionists, however, belonged to the socialism of collaboration and reciprocity. A main exponent of this view was Aaron David Gordon. Having in mind to assure the dignity of physical labor and that Jews would take root in the land, his cause was to create the “new man” in Israel, who would replace the alienated exiled Jew (the “new Jew”). Being non-dogmatic, anti-rationalist and a romantic, his approach was characterized as “the religion of labor”. He led the political movement The Young Worker (Hapoel Hatzair). Similarly to Hess, he thought that the cause of the Jews’ suffering was their parasitic life in the Diaspora, where they could not (because they traditionally they were not allowed to) partake in the production process. But in contrast to Hess, he believed that the physical labor would provide Jews with a vision and a spirituality they lacked –and would then unify as a people. “The Land of Israel is acquired through labor, not through fire and not through blood”. He believed that society was bound by organic ties, such as family, community and nation, and not “mechanical” ties, such as state, party and class. The biggest trial for the reborn state of Jews would be its attitude towards the Arabs, and Gordon believed that the relationship between the two peoples should be collaborative, not antagonistic or hostile, and based this belief on moral reasons, not strategic.

Aaron David Gordon

A materialization of this sentiment was the kibbutz, the collective community based on agriculture, where the common production and consumption were combined. They were comprised of workers who would sign a contract to cultivate the lands of a farm collectively and to then share the profits with the management. A second materialization of the movement was the Order of Labor. It was founded in 1920 by immigrants from the Soviet Union, inspired by the Bolshevik revolution and the Balfour Declaration –a promise by the British that they would be given a piece of land in the area of Palestine to found their own state. But the Zionist leaders forced them to dissociate their colonies. The desire for independence led to a rupture in the movement, and its far-left section was amplified, leading the movement to a definitive disbandment. A part of the far-left returned to the Soviet Union in 1928. They ended up in Crimea, where they founded the agricultural colony Via Nova and they were almost without exception purged by Stalin in 1936-1938.

Berl Katznelson (1887-1944) worked for the unification of all the socialist labor parties, which materialized in 1930. Among his plans were a full-scale immigration, the founding of a society based on the principles of equality and freedom, the collective ownership of land and natural sources, and self-government. He adapted socialism for the Palestinian reality: no proletariat, an almost non-existent industry, capitalism in a very early form, and lack of a class struggle, since he supported the existence of only one class in the new reality of the Jewish society; the “labor class”. The working class and the Jewish state, for him, are merged. The primary duty of the movement was the creation of a defensive force and the reception of the immigrants. He, too, desired the peaceful coexistence with the Arabs –“Over the generations in which we were persecuted and exiled and slaughtered, we learned not only the pain of exile and subjugation, but also contempt for tyranny. Was that only a case of sour grapes? Are we now nurturing the dream of slaves who wish to reign?” He even emphasized the religious element of the Jewish tradition and opposed the plan to divide Palestine (he had changed his mind by the middle of the Second World War).

Yitzhak Tabenkin (1888-1971) considered that Jews in communes would comprise a part of a “worldwide alliance of communist peoples” and he also opposed the division of Palestine, supporting the placement of the Jews throughout Eretz-Israel (the general region of Israel with vague geographical borders, as is mentioned in the Old Testament –“Promised Land”, “Land of Canaan”, “Holy Land”). He believed that the right of the Jews to occupy the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula was derived from the Ten Commandments. He, therefore, combined a strict religious strain in Zionism with an expansionist tendency and a dogmatic and austere socialism.

In the dichotomy Zionism/socialism, socialism was undermined and Zionism took ground. By the late 1920s the national struggle made it evident that the collectivist dream would be abandoned. As Ben Gurion phrased it: “From class to nation”. Gradually, Zionism turned into a nationalistic movement, while on the side of the Palestinians the conflict took, and keeps taking, a more and more religious flavor.

[1] Mosses Hess lived from 1812 until 1875. Since the term Zionism was used at the end of the century, Hess is actually considered as a precursor to Zionism.

Read more:

Ilan Greilsammer – Zionism [series “Que sais-Je?”] (To Vima / Gnosi, 2007) [Greek edition] Wikipedia

Wittgenstein and the ritual

“Only describe, don’t explain”
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough is an anthropological comparative study of mythologies and religions, in which he examines primitive peoples of Europe relating to mythologies from all over the world. In his text Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein turns against Frazer’s interpretation of the apparently irrational behavior of primitive people in his efforts to make them scrutable for his readers. His explanation of the primitive magic and religious beliefs is not satisfying, says Wittgenstein, as it makes them appear as mistakes. But a mistake, he continues, can be attributed only to someone who has a theory. At the center of a magical or religious symbol there is no theory. People don’t always form scientific hypothesis about the world; there are times when they simply perform a ritual.

“The form of the ascending spirit is veneration” (photo)
“The form of the ascending spirit is veneration” (photo)

Frazer observes that, at some early phase of society, the king or the priest was thought to be the holder of supernatural powers allowing him to control nature. Wittgenstein considers people didn’t actually believe that the ruler had these powers –and neither did the ruler, unless he was “an imbecile or a fool”. What else are we to think since with the king’s first mishap his lack of such powers would become obvious? It’s simply that, Wittgenstein says, the concept of power attributed to the king or priest was adapted in such a way as to be harmonized with the everyday experience of both the believers and the holder of that power. They knew their king did not have the power to control nature but they played the game, for reasons we’ll see below. Wittgenstein recognizes hypocrisy on the primitives’ part here, but only to the degree that hypocrisy generally plays a role with most things people do.

If these primitives sat down to write their knowledge of the natural world, we would see that it did not differ radically from ours. Only their magic would be different. For example, when a people perceives the idea of the soul as a little person, of the same liking with the human it inhabits, he does not do anything different than, say, Plato when he philosophizes on the world of ideas. The modern “magic”, according to Wittgenstein, is philosophy; it’s only that the primitives did it in a more childish manner.

Frazer says of the primitives that it must have been too difficult for them to discover the folly of magic. They could not apprehend that a spell which supposedly brings rain will, at some point, necessarily appear effective, because it will eventually rain anyway. He notes moreover that, in a way, they sabotaged themselves, since they would address their magician for their spell only during the start of the raining season and not during the drought; thus feeding their delusion.

But it is very strange, replies Wittgenstein, for us to think that the primitives could not realize that it would eventually rain anyway and that the spell was not the real cause for the falling of the heavenly drops. And it’s not that they didn’t know about the raining seasons. The fact itself that the custom would be repeated every year at the same period, when rainfalls were about to start, shows us exactly that they were aware of this changing of the seasons. It is also a proof that they didn’t literally expect the magician to bring the rain; otherwise they would ask him to do so during the drought season, when they would need it the most. Magic, then, did not constitute an ultimately irrational act, but a ritual –an expression of joy and hope.

“When you are philosophizing you have to descend in the primeval chaos, and feel like home there” (“Culture and value”) (photo)
“When you are philosophizing you have to descend in the primeval chaos, and feel like home there” (“Culture and value”) (photo)

Wittgenstein says that this erroneous view of our ancestors is rather due to our sense of superiority we feel in relation to them. To see our ancestors’ magic as wrong science –meaning wrong medicine, physics, technology etc- is a foolish prejudice of the 20th century. He goes on to say that the ritual element of those societies, although we look down upon it in disdain, we maintain until today. To burn an effigy of your enemy in order to hurt him, is the same as kissing the photograph of your beloved or of a saint. Obviously, this action is not based on the belief that we actually affect the person depicted on the image. It only aims at a satisfaction, which is accomplished. And actually, it does not even aim at anything; it’s simply that we behave in this way, and then we feel satisfied. We should suppose the same for our ancestors.

But let’s take what Wittgenstein says seriously, to make further parallels. Let’s imagine a parent whose child is seriously ill and in danger of dying. Let’s imagine this parent praying. Is it possible to consider that this parent does not actually expect for his child’s health to be improved, as a result of the prayer? For that to be the case, the parent would have to think in this way: “I know that by praying I will change nothing, I know that I cannot alter the physical reality around me with my thoughts, but it’s alright; the prayer will simply be a celebration of health, a festivity for the value of life; and it will make me feel better (or satisfied)”. I think that these thoughts, followed by the act of prayer in the specific ciscumstances, would make the parent, in the least, inconsistent -even self-contended if we consider the very real danger his child faces. Of course, one could say the real reason somebody prays is that it indeed makes him feel better, that even a false hope is perhaps better than nothing; but the maintaining of a false hope is based on it remaining unstated as a false one. In other words, the one who prays truly believes that through the power of his thoughts he will change the physical world around him, even if at the same time he very well knows the laws of nature or the statistical improbability of such an undertaking. Shouldn’t we suppose the same for our ancestors?

Now let’s change the scenario a little bit, with the child this time not being in danger of dying, but a victim of an accident that left it with one arm lost. Would the parent, this time, pray for a new hand to grow on his child’s shoulder? No. He might very well ask in prayer sympathy or solidarity from god, he might ask for this accident not to become an obstacle for his child in his future happiness or professional success; he might ask a number of different things. But he would surely not ask for a new limb. Why not? This is what the child needs more than anything at the moment. It is because, however unconsciously, he recognizes that god cannot deliver such a thing; even though at the same time the parent considers god to be all-mighty. In the same way, the primitives that made magic to bring the rain only during the raining season, and not when they really needed it, did not find any inconsistence between their thoughts and their actions. This does not mean they are imbeciles, fools or bad scientists, as Wittgenstein might say, it just means that they can suspend their intelligence, which they surely possessed, to maintain hope (or joy, or a festive sense of wonder…). The hope that they will be safe, that there is someone who, if satisfied by their ritual, will look after them (either the magician or a god or anything “larger than them”). The hope that they are, to a degree, responsible for their fate. That they can control, and therefore understand, the physical world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (photo)
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (photo)

The basis for Wittgenstein’s criticism is that Frazer thinks lowly of the primitive people, failing to admit their similarities with the “Englishman of the 20th century” (who Wittgenstein himself looks down on). This is not a negation of the importance, let alone the existence, of the ritual in our lives –in primitive times or in the modern ones. We shake hands, we kiss foreheads, we kick the ground without expecting to hurt it but only to release our frustration, and some among us pray. Wittgenstein sees both ritual and reason in the modern man, but only the former in the primitive. But it is these similarities that lead us to the conclusion that they too, like any of us, were capable to hold two contradicting thoughts in their heads at the same time. This does not make them fools, it makes them human. People don’t always think rationally, even if they know how to do it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein – Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough

Use of myth in Plato’s Symposium

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

Symposium, part five – Agathon’s encomium and Socrates’ comments

“To be in love is merely to be in a perpetual anesthesia – to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess.”
Henry Louis Mencken, Prejudices (First Series)

Agathon[1] turns to theology for his own encomium on love (click here and here for some of the previous ones of Plato’s Symposium). “The previous speakers did not praise the god, but felicitated humanity for his gifts. But no one spoke of the nature of the god who gives these gifts”194e. Agathon eulogizes the god himself, speaks of his own mythological characteristics and virtues and then of the things he blesses humans with. The correct encomium, he says, firstly explains the nature of its object and then its benefits, a method that Socrates will be using later on as well.

“Eros is the happiest of all because he is the most beautiful and the best one. He is the most beautiful, Phaedrus, because he is the youngest among the gods…By nature he hates old age and keeps away from it as much as possible. Young men always accompany him and he remains always young, like, as the saying goes, the like keeps company to its alike”195a-b.

Τοιχογραφία στην Πομπηία
Fresco in Pompeii (photo)

Agathon comes in complete contrast to Phaedrus and his lover Pausanias, who had said that the proof of Eros being the most supreme god is his antiquity. And he continues to justify Hesiod’s and Parmenides’ narratives on the creation of the gods and the world, claiming that the true cause of these is “Ananke”. Ananke was the personification of the relentless law of nature, fate or necessity (her Roman counterpart was “Necessitas”). The ancient Greeks thought that even the gods were prey to Ananke, which they could not control or influence. “Against necessity not even gods make war” says Simonides in Protagoras345d. It acts beyond reason and morality, miracle or chance. If Eros was involved in all these (cosmogony and theogony), the brutalities we come across while reading the myths would not have taken place, but love and peace would prevail, like they do now that Eros rules the gods. “And he is not only young but also delicate…He builds his nest in the emotions and the souls of men and gods, but not to all indiscriminately. When met with an emotionally rough soul he retreats, but in the soft ones he settles for good…Because how could he go in and out silently in the souls, which he engulfs, if he was not pliable?…Because between ugliness and Eros an unending war rages on”195c-196a. To describe the delicacy of Eros, Agathon uses Homer’s words when he was describing the delicate nature of Ate[2]:

“Yet delicate her feet, not stepping on the ground
only on heads of mortal men she balances”195d

He ends his description of the god by saying that he only lives in beauty, in places inflorescent and fragrant like the flowers or inside good souls, because Eros cannot reside in a body, a soul or anything else which cannot blossom.

After describing the great beauties of Eros, Agathon moves on to his virtues. Eros neither commits injustice nor does he fall victim to it, he doesn’t act violently nor is he harmed by violence, because everyone falls into him voluntarily. Laws ratify all that the lovers confess to each other; but other than just, he is also moderate. Since moderation is to rule your desires and pleasures, and since no pleasure is superior to Eros (let’s remember that Eros means “love” in Greek), Eros rules and controls all of them, and so he rises to the absolute holder of sophrosyne (here meant simply as moderation). He proves also to be courageous, since he rules the bravest one of all, the god of war Ares, who is a prisoner of his love for Aphrodite. But apart from his virtues of justice, sophrosyne and courage, Agathon praises Eros’ wisdom, maintaining that he was the inspiration of every creative expression belonging in the sphere of the Muses’ influence and can make a poet out of anyone as long as he touches him. “Who doubts that the creation of living organisms is the result of the wisdom of Eros, to which every form of life owes its birth and existence?”197a Technicians too (practitioners of a tecnhe), even gods themselves, used him as a guide to devise their techne; Apollo’s archery, medicine and clairvoyance, the Muses’ artistic creation and Zeus’ governing. “This is why things calmed down in the kingdom of the gods from the moment Eros showed up among them, obviously the Eros [love] of the beautiful – a god wants nothing to do with ugliness”197b.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC
Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC (photo)

Eros calms nature by bringing peace to the oceans and slowing the winds and to humans by uprooting hostility from their hearts, filling them with friendship. He sends away the roughness and brings meekness, provides courage in struggle, pain, fear and battle, and takes the lead in dances, feasts and sacrifices. He is a balm and a joy of life.

So, for Agathon, Eros is the most happy, beautiful, good, loved, peaceful, delicate, soft and pliable. His virtues are justice, sophrosyne, courage and wisdom, and he inspires all the virtues that gods and men acquire. Agathon reminds us of Eryximachus, both trying to ascribe to love a stack of characteristics and qualities, to make him fit into every span of human endeavor and even into nature itself. But where Eryximachus shows himself a shallow and cold encomiast, using scientific language and a speech without substance, Agathon proves to be a better operator of rhetoric, using beautiful phrases and descriptions; but only to become extraneous, since he continues to speak after the point he stopped being coherent or interesting. In contrast to Eryximachus, he makes use of myth, which is not enough, though, to salvage a preferable assessment of his speech, since it is filled with inconsistency (the fact that Hesiod says Eros precedes the gods does not necessarily mean that he also ruled them, therefore the inconsistency in Hesiod’s narrative, that demands Ananke’s role to explain the mythological brutalities, does not seem to be there) and doesn’t endure Socrates’ dialectical criticism (we will see it later). At the same time, concerning his utilization of myth, he counters previous speakers, not just in narrative but also in essence, beginning with Phaedrus.

The difference between Agathon and Phaedrus is not only superficial. Phaedrus takes a clue from Hesiod’s Theogony and uses it as unquestionable evidence of a quality of Eros. In particular, he uses the mythological “fact” that Eros was created before the other gods as proof of a quality of Eros (his superiority). Eros’ antiquity is seen by Phaedrus as some kind of knowledge, or as an axiom, that, through deduction, implies excellence. Aristophanes did a similar thing when he used the myth of the bi-gendered beings to praise unadulterated relationships and the function of the loving emotion in men, as a necessary conclusion of his mythological narration. But Aristophanes created his own myth for the sake of his encomium –and this was obvious to all. We cannot then say that he used the myth as fact, knowledge or as an axiom or any other kind of authority that led him to a binding conclusion. Aristophanes simply has his own convictions to share with the others and in order to make them comprehensible to us, if not to force us to experience them, he creates a story. His narrative is poetic (he was a comic poet after all); therefore we can say that there is a kind of symbolism or transcendence in it. Aristophanes starts backwards, relating to us a myth which is created in such a way so that it leads us to what he already meant to postulate. He is also the only one who doesn’t refer to theogony (the creation of the god Eros). His myth refers only to the creation of men by the gods; we could then say that he introduces anthropogony in the Symposium, which is becoming to the content of his encomium and his use of myth, since Aristophanes centers on man and his emotions, on man’s sensuality and on the irrationality of love, as necessary implications of the myth, while the other speakers describe benefits and attributes that arbitrarily ensue from Hesiod’s work.

Αυλήτρια σε συμπόσιο
Flute-player in a symposium

Agathon shows another particularity in the use of mythical narrative. He corrects Hesiod, not just in ascribing youth to Eros, but also introducing Ananke (today we would say the laws of nature) as being responsible for the theogony instead of Eros, because he considers that if Eros existed in those ancient times of the creation of the gods, and since he was superior to them (something that doesn’t become irrevocably evident in Hesiod’s work anyway), he would avert the battles of the Heavens as Hesiod describes them, since the offerings of Eros are harmony and love. He therefore ascribes the aforementioned qualities of Eros (beauties and virtues) on the one hand despite the authority of Hesiod’s Theogony and on the other because of the content of the existing mythology, when he mentions that even Ares (the bravest of gods and men) is imprisoned by his love of Aphrodite (and is therefore at a disadvantage compared to Eros) to show that Eros is the most courageous of all. He uses myth and negates it at the same time[3].

So, the objects of Agathon’s speech are the attributes of those in love (lovers and loved ones), whose virtues and beautiful characters he merely wants to symbolize with the use of the being he thinks “god Eros” is. But this symbolism is dry and unavailing. There is no actual mythological narrative in Agathon, only a description of the deity (besides, this was his stated goal all along). But in this way his speech does not reach to a conclusion and becomes void of meaning, and he can’t see that it cannot stand to criticism, whether in narrative or in essence.

This criticism comes from Plato speaking through the mouth of Socrates who makes a brief comment on what Agathon has said, opening a conversation with him before he actually starts his own encomium. So, he does not comment with the use of myth or with analysis in the form of a monologue, like the others did, but dialectically.

In his usual ironic tone, he claims ignorance and an inability to offer praise on an equal level as the others did, in the characteristic for Socrates “passive aggressive” manner he used to negate his opponents: “I realized how ridiculous I was when I agreed to make an encomium of Eros, pretending to be an authority on matters of love, whereas I was a complete ignoramus, and ignorant of the way to compose an encomium in general. Because I, obviously out of naivety, thought that one should speak the truth about what he praises and that this is a basic prerequisite”198c-d. Instead, the correct method, according to what he has so far heard, Socrates says, is to load the object of praise with the best qualities, whether they actually exist or not; “it is of no consequence if they are untrue”198e. (We will see this again in Menexenus).

Σκηνή συμποσίου σε τοιχογραφία από τάφο στο Paestum Ιταλίας, 475 π.Χ.
A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver (from Paestum, Italy, c. 475 BC): a symposium scene (photo)

He continues to a short but devastating ‘interrogation’ of Agathon to draw conclusions he will later use in his own encomium. He starts by saying that love can only be understood as something that aims at an object. Eros is love for something. This something, that Eros falls in love with, is something he desires. But that which someone desires is something he certainly doesn’t have, something he lacks. He would not feel this lacking if he had it, and therefore he would not desire it. And when someone says he desires to have health and riches while being healthy and rich, what he means, and what he should be saying, is that he also wants to have these commodities in the future, that he has not secured them. Therefore, if someone says “I want something” he means that he wants something he doesn’t currently have, something that is not secured or certain, something that he himself isn’t or something he is lacking.

So, love is the desire for something one lacks. And as Agathon said previously, Eros has nothing to do with ugliness, but only with beauty and virtue. Therefore, Eros is the desire of beauty and the virtues, which implies that Eros is not himself virtuous or beautiful. How can then Agathon call Eros beautiful while he desires beauty, which means he lacks it? So, already Socrates has rebutted Agathon and all the previous speakers, who also said Eros is beautiful, good, young, wise, strong…

In this way, although Socrates started his speech claiming ignorance and inability to speak as beautifully as the others did, he more or less disproved everyone. Agathon admits defeat saying: “I, Socrates, am unable to contradict you. So let’s admit that it is as you say so”. The philosopher continues saying he himself is not important (besides, he knows nothing); that what actually led them to this conclusion is reason. “Against the truth you have no chance; against Socrates it is almost a piece of cake”201c, he replies, and immediately starts describing his meeting with the wise woman Diotima, to impart what he learnt from her about love.


Plato – Symposium (or on love)


[1] Tragedian whose works are lost. He also appears in Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. Probably Pausanias’ lover.

[2] Ate: Daughter of Zeus according to Homer, daughter of Eris according to Hesiod. Secondary daimonic deity of injury and corruption, she causes blind passion and confusion in men without them knowing it, by stepping lightly on their heads.

[3] As we’ll see in the next chapter, near the end of the Symposium Socrates also uses a myth that comes to “justify” the claims he has already made. Eros cannot desire beauty and be beautiful at the same time, since what we desire is what we lack. But he can neither be ugly –he is something in between. This is explained in myth, from the fact that he was conceived by the ugly Penia and the beautiful Porus. After completing the myth Socrates goes on with his dialectic method to more conclusions. So he uses myth to prove the correctness of what he said, and then to come to the conclusion that Eros is the subject of desire, not the object. Since he is the object, he has a subject, which he explains to be immortality.

Socrates on death

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“What all of us deeply want is not to do something, but to be something.”
A.E. Taylor, Plato – The man and his work

When Socrates’ execution was certain and impending, and after he bid his family farewell, his friends visited him once more expressing their admiration for his calm demeanor during his trial and imprisonment. Their teacher explains to them how a philosopher ought to think about death and why he should not fear it, but consider it an opportunity to finish his work. The incidence is described in Phaedo.

For Socrates, suicide was impermissible. Man belongs to god, and only god has the right to end one’s life or ask one to die. Like when a slave commits suicide without his master’s permission or expressed desire, his master has the right to be irate and, if it was possible, to punish him, “perhaps in this sense it is not irrational that none should kill themselves before god expresses a need for it, like in my case”[1]62c.

So, even though Socrates does not desire death, he welcomes it when the gods send it. Because he is their property, because they will take care of him after dying and because through his soul’s withdrawal from his body it will escape its carnal imprisonment, something not only one shouldn’t disdain or perceive to be undesirable, but is a great accomplishment for the philosopher, and a crowning of his efforts. “The others might not realize that for those who engage with philosophy in the right manner, their only care is to die and being dead”[1]64a.[1] The philosopher’s goal, says Socrates, is the soul’s ridding of the body.

Ο Σωκράτης (ίσως) στο Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο Δελφών
Socrates (perhaps) in the Delphi Archeological Museum (photo)

To bother with desires, like food, drinking, sex and other cares of the body, are not features of the philosopher. He must unbind the soul from communicating with the body, as much as possible. The body is a hindrance if someone includes it in his search for prudence. When the soul attempts to examine something through the body, it deceives the soul. “Doesn’t the philosopher’s soul neglect the body completely, doesn’t it avoid it, doesn’t it desire to be left alone with itself?”[1]65c-d. Only in reasoning does it see clearly, “when none of these things distract it, neither hearing nor sight nor pleasure nor desire, but on the contrary when it is left alone with itself, without taking the body into account and, to the degree that is possible, without communicating and coming in contact with the body”[1]65c.

Only he who will be prepared to the highest degree and with the greatest precision to reflect on whatever it is he wants to examine, will be able to get closer to really knowing it. But how will he achieve this when the needs of the body distract and deter him? “Our body creates thousands of annoying pursuits with the need for food. Moreover, if some sickness finds us, it raises barriers in our pursuit of being. We are flooded with romances, desires, fears, illusions of all sorts and foolish babbling, that indeed, and this is really true, because of it not a single right thought comes to us. Because even wars, revolutions and battles are not created but for the body and its desires”[1]66b-c. This detachment of the soul from the body, familiarizing the soul to rise from it and live alone with itself after slipping its leash, is the catharsis[2], the final goal of the philosopher. This catharsis, in its absolute form, coincides with (the body’s) death. So, the culmination of the philosophical life, which comes through death, is not a catastrophe but an achievement. The philosopher’s goal is for death to be an apogee, not merely life’s end.

So, it would be ridiculous for someone who throughout his life tried to simulate death, to fret and fear it when the actual death approached him. And it would be unreasonable to not go happily where his hopes of reaching what he desired would be realized, and where he would purge himself, once and for all, of that which chained him and which he detested, the body. A.E. Taylor observes that later, Christian mystics too, like Socrates, considered the life of inner stare, rather than that of action, to be excellent. However, this catharsis of Socrates’ does not only involve passive self-restraint, but looks to the embellishment of practical life, since through the catharsis the intellect becomes more focused and intense, and perceives reality more clearly[3].

Από έκδοση του «World's Famous Orations Vol. 1» του William Jennings Bryan
Από έκδοση του «World’s Famous Orations Vol. 1» του William Jennings Bryan (photo)

Moderation (or sophrosyne), to not be taken away by desires, fits those who have the highest neglect for the body and live in philosophy. The sophrosyne of others, those who live the unexamined life, looks irrational. Because they are moderate only out of fear of being denied a future pleasure; only for this reason do they abstain from a pleasure in the present. “They have become self-restrained because of another kind of self-indulgence”[1]68e. Most of those we call courageous consider death to be one of the greater evils. Those who defy death, when they defy it, they do it out of fear for other, greater, evils. So they are courageous out of fear. But that is also irrational. So these self-restraint men and these courageous men exchange pleasure with pleasure and fears with other fears, like coins are exchanged with one another. But the correct coin is one, prudence (a virtue). It is with this coin that everything must be exchanged; and it is with this coin that courage, moderation and justice must be bought and sold. When these virtues are separated from prudence and substitute one another, virtue becomes a delusion, and something slavish without anything healthy and true. It is catharsis that’s truthfully virtuous.

But here, it is Socrates that is being irrational, as his thinking reaches a paradox. Because the only thing that seems to give him the courage to face death, is the hope that man continues to live even after the body’s demise. Socrates seems to believe that after he dies, he will depart to “another place”, where all the other dead men are, and where he’ll find Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus. There, he will continue to do what he did in Athens; talk to others and examine who is truly wise and who only think he is (“what would be better than this, Athenian judges?…For my part, I would like to die many times if all this is true”[2]41a). “If I did not imagine going to meet other gods, wise and good, and also men who have died and are better than those here, I would be wrong to not grieve death”[1]63b.[4]

Socrates exchanges death with death. He exchanges the final and unknown death –the one that all of us are faced with and called to confront- with the death of only the body, from which the soul escapes. But the soul, for Socrates, is the self. So when he talks about his soul travelling in “another place” he means surviving his own death. And when he goes to that place, all he wants to do is what he was doing while alive, with the same mind, the same memories and the same habits (“wouldn’t all this be untold happiness?”[2]41c). So he expects to remain alive, but instead of being here, be there.

Σωκράτης, στους Εθνικούς Βοτανικούς Κήπους, Glasnevin, Δουβλίνο, Ιρλανδία
Socrates at the Glasnevin National Botanical Gardens of Dyblin, Ireland (photo)

How could we say for someone that he doesn’t fear death, when he doesn’t believe he’s going to die? How can we talk about death if we take it as a given that the soul lives on after death? What is virtuous or courageous about him waiting for his execution calmly, only because he believes he won’t die? If there’s anything particularly wrong with death, it is neither the detachment from fortunes and bodily pleasures (these are fleeting anyway) nor the loss of vitality (that one leaves us with the passing of age) nor the loss of love (love can wither on its own). What is bad, and fearful, is its permanent nature, the fact that it cannot be undone. If it was not permanent and final, if we could be resurrected in our living form and return to our earthly ways or even as pure thought without the annoyances of the body and the needs it brings us, and even more so if we were transferred to an ideal “other place”, what would be there to fear or be courageous against? The only thing left would be to convince ourselves that indeed this is the case, which is what Socrates tries to prove for the remainder of the dialogue. So, he doesn’t exchange fear with virtue (as he should according to him), but, instead, he refuses to accept he’s actually going to die. This is not courage against death; this is a denial that death will even come.

In the Apology he says that he who fears death does what he considers to be the worst (intellectual) crime. To think he knows what he doesn’t know. What he can’t know. Fear of death, he says, stems from the belief that death is the worst evil, something no one can know for sure. “And isn’t it shameful illiteracy to think one knows what one doesn’t know?”[2]29b.  For Socrates, death is one of two things: Either there happens some kind of “change and migration of the soul from this place to another”[2]40c (as we saw just now), or it is nothingness, and the dead simply doesn’t have any experience of the fact. In this way, death looks like a dreamless sleep, and eternity itself looks like a calm night. Socrates seems satisfied with this eventuality, since even the “greatest king” would have great difficulty deeming the best days of his life happier than one dreamless night. “If death is such a thing, I, at least, think of it as a great benefit”[2]40e.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822) - Socrates and Philosophy
Antonio Canova (1757-1822) – Socrates and Philosophy (photo)

But in Phaedo, he goes on with a third contingency (this inconsistency must be viewed as Plato’s ideas forcing themselves in Socrates’ mouth, since Phaedo is one the intermediate dialogues). The third one is reincarnation[5]. If someone, says Socrates, tends to his body’s needs throughout his life, with little consideration for the soul, his soul will desire unison with the body even after death. This desire might be strong enough to pull it back in the “birthing circle”, and the strength of the desire defines the place where the reborn soul will settle. Gluttons and debauchees will come back as donkeys and beasts, while those who have the common virtue, meaning those who, while having fear or pleasure as a motive, acted as courageous and moderate agents according to the dominant morality, will come back as social beings, such as bees, ants or even humans. Conclusively, the goal is the complete detachment from the birthing circle, which will be achieved only by having lived the philosophical life, and will lead to the deification of the soul, its complete removal from the body and the migration to the “other place”.

Socrates himself doesn’t seem convinced by his own convictions, and at the end of the dialogue, after the soul is shown through a series of axioms and arguments to be immortal, he continues to say that the soul is also incorruptible, without further explanations. There is no need, he says, for any more arguments, as “the gods, I guess, and everything else that is immortal, they all must agree that the soul cannot be lost”[1]106d. And when Simmias, one of the interlocutors, expresses doubt on what was just said, Socrates not only agrees with his objections, “but the original hypotheses, even though they are believable, must be examined more thoroughly”[1]107b. But these original hypotheses (these axioms) were those that led to his conclusions. Later still, thinking that Crito believes what Socrates said to be “hollow words, some kind of solace for you and for myself”[1]115d, guarantees he believes them to be true. But we saw how Socrates thought that beliefs (or opinions) and knowledge are not the same thing.

One could say of Socrates that by rejecting the hypotheses, he negates what they implied, but it is not so. In reality he stays consistent to what he always said, up to his trial. That one must not pretend to know things he can’t know. He can think about death and its nature, in fact he has to if he wants to be a philosopher. But as no man has the right to fear death on the grounds that this fear would mean he thinks he knows death to be fearful or evil, so he cannot pretend to be sure of what will follow death without evidence or conclusive reasoning; moreover that death is the greatest gift from the gods.

Jean-François Pierre Peyron - The Death of Socrates (1787)
Jean-François Pierre Peyron – The Death of Socrates (1787) (photo)

But he can hope, and he can justify the life he lived which led him to drink the hemlock, ascribing to the unknown of death what he believed about life (and we will see how this helped him deal with his execution). Perhaps the first concession he makes, the dualism of body and soul, is what necessarily leads him to his conclusion or his hope of the afterlife (for what other reason would we invent the soul if not to credit it with the ability to survive death?). But we, in contrast to Socrates, can maybe imagine even more than two (or three) contingencies (if we use that same axiom of dualism). We can imagine, with a little prompting from Hitchens, an afterlife without gods and/or no heaven and hell, or an eternal rebirth in endless human bodies without reward or punishment according to the way we lived, we can imagine the existence of god(s) without an afterlife or a sadist god who rewards evil and punishes the just, and we can think about all this as if it mattered. Even Socrates, just before the hemlock was delivered, laughs (for the first and only time in the entire Platonic work), dispersing any traces of pomposity in the effort to study death, though not its seriousness. He leaves with the wish for his friends to continue trying to make peace with their own deaths, as he did.

What does matter though, is that Socrates recognized the limits of his knowledge till the end. He doubted himself, he denied considering his hypotheses as known things and, by recognizing the utility of his beliefs, illustrated the subjectivity of his thoughts. It is indicative after all, when he said that, if he did not believe in his postmortem migration, he would grieve death, that developing a system of thought which defends this migration theory is in his interest (and he knew it).

For non-dualists on the other hand (meaning, for materialists) maybe the unavoidable conclusion is the one to which Epicurus reached. That death is final, that it means the person seizes to exist, and that therefore there is nothing to be afraid of since, when death comes we will not be here to experience it, and before it comes we cannot know it so, again, we cannot experience it. Therefore, death concerns neither us, the living, nor the dead. And when Epicurus says death is final, he does not pretend to know what he can’t know, he simply doesn’t make the opposite hypothesis (let alone the concession), since there is no evidence to support it.


[1] Plato – Phaedo (or on the soul)
[2] Plato – Apology of Scocrates


[1] “Life is a constant preparation for dying” (Sykoutris).

[2] Aristotle informs us that for Socrates the soulless bodies were useless and could therefore even be thrown away (Nicomachean Ethics1235a39).

[3] “To know how to die means to know how to live” says Sykoutris on Socrates. You have to know where you’re going to learn how to get there. Meanwhile, a Christian would rather have to say “to know how to live means to know how to die”. When faced with the certainty of the eternal afterlife, this life is but a means to the other, and therefore inferior. We don’t see this in Socrates, whose aim is to benefit in the present life, not the afterlife which might never come. He doesn’t enjoy the same certainty, and is quite satisfied with death as an eternal sleep.

[4] In the ancient world there were several scattered pessimistic teachings on death. Prodicus once gave a lecture to show that life is not worth living at all, because it is filled with worries and pains from the first moment. Many said that the best thing is to not have been born at all, and the second best to leave life as soon as possible. Alcidamas, a sophist after Prodicus, wrote the Encomium on Death (Gigon).

[5] The mystical tradition of the Pythagoreans taught about the after-life and that death is but the road to another life. Followers of Pythagoras believed in the reincarnation of the soul. The Stoics believed that every man had a spark of life within him as part of the life-giving force of the universe. They named it pneuma, or breath. At death, the pneuma ascended to the heavens and united with the cosmic totality. Democritus believed that the most possible thing to happen after death was that everything that man consisted of disintegrates, making death final. There was nothing after death for him. Thus, he gave rise to Epicurus’ thoughts (see end of chapter).

Historical mysteries and conspiracy theories

Skepticism and science against superstition

Its good to keep your mind openbut not so open that your brain falls out
Walter Kotschnig, 1940 – usually attributed to Carl Sagan

In the dark years of medieval times, the unsuspecting population of Europe would systematically become witness of a magical phenomenon that filled the all-too-open mind of those who came across it with wonderous images of magestic creatures and sublime apparitions. I am referring, of course, to common mushrooms. Someone would wake up one fine morning to find sprung mushrooms in almost perfect circular formation in his garden, on the same spot where the previous day there was nothing but clear grass. How could one explain the mystery of the sudden appearance of the fungi and, moreover, the apparently intentional circular formation? The origin of the myth that “solved” this mystery will probably remain unknown, but it spread mouth to mouth through international terrains and in perennial durability. It had to be, they said, that while everyone was sleeping, a gathering of fairies would take place in their garden, for a nocturnal meeting of sorts. And, so that they wouldn’t get tired, they forced mushrooms to bloom for them to sit on, in the manner of a round table. I will not be bothered here with how this narrative took form (there is always an impressionable bloke in the tribe), but with how it got retold and took hold of generations to come.


Surely the majority of the population was uneducated, surely life conditions were unfavorable and perhaps did not allow for the luxury of doubt, surely (I guess) everyone was always so tired by their harsh everyday reality and didn’t have time or care to wonder how come, for example, nobody had ever seen these fairies at work. But there were, certainly, also those who -with equally little time, rest and education as the others- were not convinced by the solution to the mystery with a narration of magical creatures that, not having anything better to do, made congress in the middle of the night behind some shack. In reality, as scientists found out later on, mushrooms indeed grow suddenly, in the middle of the night, when the conditions (temperature, humidity…) are appropriate. Initially, the seed grows a root, which grows downward, and then branches outwardly in every direction (with roughly the same rate of growth), until the proper conditions are met for the branches to rise toward the ground and present the mushroom on the surface. As it is obvious, what someone sees on the ground is the mushrooms in circular arrangement. I wouldn’t like to reproach those who believed the fairy myth (not me…), but they rather proved to be gullible dupes, while those who merely said “I don’t know”, probably died in ignorance without ever knowing the truth of the matter; holding, though, an intellectually honorable stance that I find difficult to disparage, as it is this attitude that is a rarity even today, on issues small and big. Which of the two categories would you rather be in?

If this story of mushrooms and fairies sounds childish and irrelevant, the next ones will surely seem more familiar. But luckily today, apart from a higher education in relation to the medieval peasants, we also have access to much more information on the origins of our own myths that helps us debunk them. On the other hand, according to the unwritten law of escalation, the modern storytellers exploit the smattering and the gullibility towards stories that evoke a sense of awe, and utilize pseudoscientific methods to promote their books or blogs.

Some might be convinced that this is a photograph. (The painting was made by Yuri Shwedoff)
Some might be convinced that this is a photograph. (The painting was made by Yuri Shwedoff)

Erich von Daeniken is one such storyteller who introduced himself as an alternative historian, and it is he who made fashionable the myth of the “ancient astronauts” that still fill both paper and digital pages. As the myth goes, there are monuments, such as Egypt’s Pyramids, that are so complex in their construction and, therefore, so inexplicably made considering the limited technological tools of their time that…surely aliens must have visited Earth and built them for us. In the same manner that the ancient Greeks saw things they could not explain, like thunder, and made myths to limit the frustration of this inability, such as the god Zeus, Daeniken of the 20th century transferred this loosely obstructed inspiration from theology to science fiction. If he wanted to follow the scientific method, he would have to consider the available evidence and conclude whatever he could explain (and say “I don’t know” for the things he couldn’t). But Daeniken did the opposite. He preferred to resort with certainty to the ease of the impressive myth and arbitrarily create a story that, if true, would indeed explain the mystery he was looking at. It should be obvious how simplistic this view of the investigative procedure is, and we should not avoid the comparison with the previous example; if Zeus indeed existed, with the powers and idiosyncrasies he was attributed with, his existence would actually explain the emergence of thunders –it’s just that Zeus cannot be concluded from the available evidence.

The Nazca Lines of Peru are explained away in the same manner; a set of constructions that is not known why or how they were made -therefore: aliens. They were used, he says, by our otherworldly visitors as landing strips, to land their spaceships. The obvious objection to the theory, and before we even address the relative scientific research, is the irrationality of thinking it intellectually unproblematic that starships, which traveled through, at least, our galaxy, were in need of landing strips waiting for them on Earth! Bear in mind that for the aliens to make the journey it would mean they were unimaginably more evolved technologically than us (maybe even able to surpass the speed of light?) -but they need landing strips?. Note that we, humans, have already built airplanes that take off vertically, with no need for any Nazca lines. Scientists, on the other hand, archeologists, ethnologists, anthropologists and astronomers, though they have not yet concluded with absolute certainty on the matter, consider it the likeliest that the Nazca Lines were formed by the locals either so that they would be visible by their gods or in order to point to spots on the horizon where the sun and other celestial objects rested during solstices.

Landing strips or religious art? (art) (photo)
Landing strips or religious art? (art) (photo)

Skepticism and common sense are often enough to deter us from inconsiderately believing whatever we are told. Conversely, those who succumb to these easy and imaginable stories choose to ignore the long and painful scientific research of thousands of scientists throughout the ages and take comfort in something someone irresponsibly says, figuring out solutions while gazing at their ceiling instead of doing the real work, pretending they have access to knowledge the rest of us don’t. So, instead of realizing it’s not possible to discover everything in one day (only in 2014 did we learn how the Egyptians dragged the stones to build the pyramids) and declare ignorance on the questions still left unanswered, they fantasize about fairies and aliens. There is arrogance is this behavior, against those who work honestly to unlock the mysteries of our past, as well as self-complacency, as they cancel out the authority of those who have certainly more knowledge than them. The intellectually honest position to hold is the Socratic one; we should not pretend to know things we don’t know (things we can’t possibly know).

Dimitris Sarantakos in What did we learn from the ancient Greeks? calls Daeniken a “semiliterate noise-maker” as he ascribes to aliens the knowledge of Thales and Anaxagoras, when he writes that “it is a well-known fact that the ancient Greeks did not have such technological equipment, e.g. lenses, and in mathematics they could not count higher than 10,000”. In reality, lenses were in common use in ancient Greece (even Aristophanes mentions them in his play Clouds), and Archimedes speaks of a number that consists of the digit 1 followed by quadrillion zeros…

Unfortunately, the “classic” Daeniken is just an example of those who follow this motif that is reproduced by other modern storytellers who invoke the Masons, the Nephilim, the Hollow Earth, the Atlantis, the flatness of the earth and countless more silliness mixed with Christian Mysticism, the Jews and CIA conspiracy theories. And it is actually them who claim to be skeptics who doubt the “official” or “mainstream” history, while they are nothing but deniers of true science. In contrast, there are indeed those who have made real skepticism a profession -and we call them scientists.

I won’t bother with specific conspiracy theories (that would take many thousands of words) but only refer to certain famous historical mysteries that, even though the scientific community has actually solved, continue to be reproduced.

The Bermuda triangle

The Bermuda triangle is not recognized as a ‘thing’ by the US Navy (photo)
The Bermuda triangle is not recognized as a ‘thing’ by the US Navy (photo)

In 1950, the geographic area within Miami, Puerto Rico and Bermuda was covered in mystery and intrigue, described as a region where airplanes and ships disappear never to be seen again. The story started by a journalist and not long after books appeared with testimonies of the vanished ones themselves, like the pilot of an airplane who, right before it disappeared, appeared to have said “We are entering white water, nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are, the water is green, not white.” Rumors escalated and still persist. However, the “mystery” has been solved since 1975! A researcher from Arizona studied the frequency of ship and plane itineraries within the region, as well as relevant “disappearances”, meaning how often a plane would fall in the sea or a ship would sink. As it was to be expected, the frequency of these kinds of mishaps within the Bermuda triangle was never higher than anywhere else on the planet where there is similar traffic in an area similar in size. Previous claims of disappearances in the Bermuda triangle proved either exaggerated or completely made up. However, the rumored “curse” of the region is still around. In reality, 100 large ships disappear somewhere on the planet every year, usually because of rogue waves.

In the Bermuda triangle there has not been a similar event since 1999 (as far as I can tell).

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

The statues face the inner island, even though they are next to the sea shore, placed to protect the islanders. They failed. (photo)
The statues face the inner island, even though they are next to the sea shore, placed to protect the islanders. They failed. (photo)

The statues Moai of the island Rapa Nui provided a source for many theories. The Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch in 1722, who found 2 to 3 thousand indigenous people that did not seem to have the abilities and resources to create the majestic Moai, since on the island there were no trees to be found (which might be necessary to move the statues from the faraway place where they were made to where they stood) and the population was too small for the construction of so many statues of such size. So, the statues, around 1,000 in number, constituted a mystery, as no one knew how they were sculpted (no technology), how they were moved on the spot they were found (no trees), what the reason for their creation was (too much trouble considering absence of resources), and neither did anyone know who actually made them (too few people, and they could not answer the questions). The most imaginative theory was (once more) supported by Daeniken, who again insisted on his alien travelers.

The truth is far from the Swiss storyteller’s fables. Several years ago, with more advanced scientific tools than those available in the time of the sea explorers, it was found that the island was, in the distant past, hospitable to almost 15 thousand inventive people, in an environment full of natural life, including trees. So, what had gone wrong? The Rapa Nui people, divided in tribes, were “ancestor worshippers”, a religion that’s been found in other civilizations as well, and is devoted to the “fathers” of the believers. In this case, the statues were devoted to these “fathers” in order to win over their favor and protection. Their fanaticism, though, reached to the point of paroxysm, and the worshippers exhausted the natural resources of their island in a suicidal match to prove which tribe was the most faithful. Building taller Moais meant the use of more human resources, more food for the sculptors (who performed a rather counter-productive task), more cutting of trees to transport the statues to the sea shore (they probably put trunks horizontally on the ground and dragged the statues on them, rolling them like wheels) and several bloody religious wars among the tribes to reveal which tribe was the most “worthy”. The natural disaster caused by this climate change worsened the condition of the isolated between two vast seas people, with their plights reinforcing themselves (the climate catastrophe drove to lack of food and misery that fanaticized them even more, and so their offerings increased, that led to even more food shortage…), until the last tree on the island was chopped; which meant their demise. It’s one of the many cases where Daeniken (who continues to write today) was proven beyond a reasonable doubt wrong in his assumptions. The events are described in an episode of BBC’s Horizon, called The Mystery of Easter Island.

Crystal Skulls

A Crystal Skull in the British Museum (still). (photo)
A Crystal Skull in the British Museum (still). (photo)

Most of us might know them from the last installment in the Indiana Jones movie series, but the mystery that surrounds these objects circulates for a century. They are objects that look like a human skull, made of crystal, without any identifying notch (meaning they are made in one piece). They are supposed to originate in the Aztec era, but the Aztecs did not have the technology needed to make such objects. The theories, once again, revolved around them being alien constructions and involved alleged magical properties, and some of them ended up in big museums (like the British and the Smithsonian). But, in 2008, a team of researchers, using new methods of crystallography, discovered small marks, proved to be circular notches, which could be made with instruments used in the West of the 19th century, available at the time when the skulls were discovered. Their “dating” had been made based on testimonies of the discoverers and, given that the material the skulls are made of can be found in Europe and not in the Americas, in combination to several inconsistencies in the narratives of the explorers who presented them to the world, lead us to the conclusion that the objects were made in Europe and were presented as being of mysterious origin for speculating reasons.  Many museums have retracted the items they had and the most famous of all (the Mitchell-Hedges skull) has not been put to the test, as its owner refuses to present it.

The shroud of Turin

Photograph of the shroud on the left, digitally enhanced on the right – a hoax that dates 6 centuries (photo)
Photograph of the shroud on the left, digitally enhanced on the right – a hoax that dates 6 centuries (photo)

The shroud of Turin is the one which supposedly covered the dead body of Jesus before it was placed in the tomb, and thus it left an imprint of his figure on it. It was found in 1390 AD, and claimed by Pope Benedict 16 as the authentic ritual shroud of Christ. But in 1988, three universities, after independent examination, reached to the same conclusion using carbon dating: the shroud is dated in the 14th century, meaning exactly the period when it was ‘found’. In 2009 an Italian professor of chemistry made his own similar shroud, using only materials available in the 14th century, proving the hoax to be, at least, possible for those who were still not convinced.

So, let’s not abstain from declaring ignorance, unless we want to risk the danger of appearing gullible. There are still plenty of unsolved mysteries but if we don’t want to be exploited by hotheads and liars, if we want to value reason, if we realize that only with skepticism and the scientific method can we describe the natural world, only then will we manage to disenclave ourselves from all-too-easy answers and superstitions. And let’s reread the Bible while we’re at it.

Socrates, the laws and the power of the state

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“Their teacher is a prisoner of himself, and the only act of ‘freedom’ he recognizes is embracing death. Will they succeed in convincing him to escape from himself?”
Kostis Papagiorgis, Socrates – the lawgiver that kills himself

In ancient Athens, in order to execute any condemned prisoner, the sacred ship of the city, Paralos, had to be docked at bay. So, after Socrates’ conviction, a whole month interceded until his execution, since Paralos was stalled by bad weather in the island of Delos, attending Apollo’s festival. When the ship was seen approaching, Crito[1], a friend of Socrates, visited him one last time. He tried to convince him to escape, now that he had one day left. Crito said he could pay off the guards and send him in Thessaly, from where he could then go anywhere he wanted or stay there with Crito’s friends who would greet and take care of him until his final days.

With very clear argumentation Socrates explains to his friend why he is forced to deny this offer, and gives reason for willingly accepting his sentence delivered by the Athenians to drink the hemlock[2] that will end his life.

Ana Maria Edulescu - Socrates Look
Ana Maria Edulescu – Socrates Look (photo)

Socrates extols the laws of the city, since it is them that made her “the most grand and famous city for her wisdom and power”[2]29d. It’s the laws that allowed him to be raised and educated, and to have lived such a happy life that “so far I would not accept that anyone I’ve met has lived a better life than me”[3]5. He loved his city so much that he would leave her “for a shorter time than lame men, blind men and other amputees”[1]53a, neither going away as a traveler to other cities nor to attend games. The only time he had to leave the city-state, was to fight for her and defend her (he joined combat in three war campaigns). For his parents to get married, they had to get affirmation from the city, so he feels he even owes his birth to the city. How could he now, that these same laws happen to turn against him, deny them and escape?

His trial and conviction took place as the laws commanded; the court had a lawful assembly and held in session as the lawmaker prescribed. There was no transgression, nor any misappropriation of the lawful procedure. The charge came from men who thought Socrates disrespected the gods of the city, that he denied them and introduced new ones, and that he corrupted the youth. Then, 500 citizens decided his guilt lawfully and freely. Besides, Socrates never felt forced to accept these laws –he freely decided to live lawfully- but he could at any moment leave the city if he believed that the laws were unjust, taking with him his family and any possessions he had. If he escapes “in such a vulgar way, rendering injustice and evilness”[1]54c, Hades’ laws would receive him accordingly, because he would have tried, as much as he could, to break down the laws of Athens. And it’s not the laws that are responsible for his conviction, but the men who made the decision (he himself knew of course that he was innocent, therefore the laws, in essence, are on his side).

His birth, then, his raising and his education are due to the city which, through her laws, gave him the chance to be the best he could. If he now decides to break them, he will cancel an unwritten social contract, proving himself to be a traitor and inconsistent to his responsibilities towards the Athenians. He will smear his honor and reputation. To escape would mean to do “what the most detestable servant did”[1]52d, trying to “escape against the agreements and the promises”[1]52d he gave that he would live according to the law. Besides, in case he reached another city, how could he then live amongst those men, when they would know that he says one thing and does another? Who would listen to him and respect him when they would know that his word doesn’t count for anything and therefore his teachings don’t matter? He would end up, in order to be liked, to flatter everyone and not bother anyone, something he is not willing to do. He would have to stop his annoying questions that so far have uncloaked those who pretended to be wise without knowing anything, not even knowing the extent of their ignorance. “It is impossible for me to live quietly”[2]37e, he had said in the Apology.

Jacques-Louis David - The death of Socrates (1787)
Jacques-Louis David – The death of Socrates (1787) (photo)

Socrates is so dedicated to the laws, that he thinks breaking them would aid in their, and the polity’s, demise and the destruction of the city. “Or do you think”, he says, “that it is possible for that city to still exist and not be overrun, in which the decisions of the courts do not stand, but are made invalid and subverted by civilians?”[1]50b. Whether, he says, the city sends us to war to get hurt or killed, or she throws us in prison if we fail to convince her otherwise, we must obey, and we will not act justly if we avoid conscription, if we retreat or desert from a war or if we avoid punishment from the court. “It is impious to act in violence against our mother and father, but isn’t it a lot more impious to act like that against country?”[1]51c.

We can’t fail to notice here a tendency to idolize in the words of Socrates. Is it possible for the laws to be so highly valued, that he is willing to sacrifice his life (and moreover “the best possible life”) simply because the laws command him to? And is it possible for him to mean literally what he said about the integrity of the city’s polity depending upon his very actions? If this stance looks extreme or even idealistic it is because, in our times, the laws are not our laws but the laws of others. But in ancient Athens, the laws were decided by her citizens by vote, not behind closed doors. Today there is an alienation from the laws (as Cornelius Castoriades means it), that’s why there is no respect for them, since they are forced on people, when they should be convincing them.

Socrates could easily avoid death, either by escaping (utilizing his friend’s help) or accepting exile as an alternative punishment (during his trial). It is this absolute nature of this attitude that makes it difficult for us to understand it. And this is why all that he says can be misconstrued as a dogma for complete surrender to the state, of uncritical self-subjugation to a court decision and of complete control of the citizens through legislature. How else could we explain the acceptance of a conviction that Socrates knows is unjust, when the price is death and escape so easy? Is he likely to try and convince us that we should blindly obey whatever the state dictates? That we should give ourselves completely to it? Give even our lives, if asked?

He, of course, is not so naïve to suggest such an absolute version of the relationship between state and individual. He does not preach the uncritical acceptance of the state’s will, and doesn’t blackmail us by suggesting that we owe our growth and education (even our being) to the state. And that’s because before his surrender to the laws’ power, Socrates has already freely accepted them. He has already stated that he considers Athens’ laws valid and just; he has recognized them as being better than any other city’s. He has not experienced our modern alienation from our laws or from our state. They don’t force on him and don’t repress him. He has agreed to them and this, he says, is apparent by him living and flourishing in this city. If he didn’t agree to them, he would be obliged to try and change them and if he couldn’t convince Athens to do so, he was always free to go to Sparta or Crete, which he also thought to be lawful cities[3]. The laws that allowed him to become who he was, the ones that he utilized for years in his personal and public affairs, now ask him for a price. The price is not death, the price is for him to not contribute, to the extent that he could, to their breakdown. And if his way of paying off this price means death, then he agrees to die.

So it is his conscience (or his daimonion) that stops him from escaping prison and avoiding death, not his deliverance to the power of the state. He puts the (just) laws above everything, and rejects the right to break them in the case they happen to decide against him; let alone after he called on them all his life to his benefit. Because the power and validity of the laws can only be sustained if they are invariable, and they are mocked, or even broken down, if their decisions are only occasionally respected; meaning when someone avoids punishment by will or convenience, having power, money or influence. We are reminded of this, almost twenty centuries later, by another “man for all seasons”, Thomas More, when, faced with imprisonment and execution for defending the (divine in his case) law, a confidant asks him if he would provide the advantage of the law even to the Devil (parallelizing the cleric that is after him on the king’s order to help him break the law in the king’s favor). “Yes”, he replies, “what would you do, break the law to beat the devil?” – “Yes”, the confidant says emphatically, “I would break down all the laws of Britain to do that!” – “And when the devil turns after you, what will you do, with all the laws of the land broken down; how will you defend yourself against the devil?…Yes, I will give the benefit of the law even to the devil; for my own sake”[4].

Σωκράτης, αντίγραφο από έργο, μάλλον, του Λύσιππου (1ος αιώνας) - Λούβρο
Socrates, a copy of a Lysippos work (1rst century – Louvre) (source: Wikimedia commons)

Nor is Socrates so naïve as to believe that the polity of Athens was without imperfections. He is not a deluded idealist seeing in Athens a perfect society with perfect (in their conception or practice) laws. How could he be while waiting unjust death? In the last quarter of 5th century BC, persecuting intellectuals was intensified, especially for religious reasons. Some, in order to avoid the worst, fled Athens while others, like Anaxagoras, Diagoras and Protagoras, were exiled. In the Apology Socrates refers to an episode from his past, when the Athenians wanted to try some generals (for not rescuing castaway soldiers) all in the same trial, while the law demanded separate procedures, using an ironic remark: “and all this happened when there was democracy in the city”[2]32c. Which means that, not only is there no (functioning) democracy now, but also that, even when there was, the people’s wrath could lead to crimes, specifically by not following laws to the letter, which is what Socrates defended.

Therefore, the laws of his time are not perfect nor do they apply as they should all the time. So why then is he ready to lose everything, for something he believes to be fraudulent? It might look as if Socrates contradicts himself, but his argumentation remains logical. This is because when he talks of a contract between himself and the laws, he means the laws collectively; as the means that keep society bound and make it a just place to live in, not every law singularly. Even if some of them don’t function as they should, they overall make Athens the most lawful city. If he breaks one law, it will be as if he attacks the validity of the entire system of laws, and put all of them at risk – since Socrates can break this law, why wouldn’t someone else break another?

Laws then, protect us only through their total and systemic functioning, through their absolute validity, but also through their constant nature. Aristotle took it a step further (even though his take reads more realistic to us), when in Politics he wrote that even when we can change a law with another, better one, perhaps we should avoid the change if in this way we would be risking the trust of the people in it. The constantly changing law reduces its gravitas and the citizen’s respect (“The ease in changing existing laws into new ones is possible to diminish the power of law”1269a24-26). Why should one obey a law, since in a short time it will perhaps change anyway? And why, if someone with wealth, power or connections can avoid the arm of the law even if he has indeed committed an injustice, should the rest follow the rules of society and not attempt to exploit every opportunity they have to sidestep them? Why shouldn’t they, since so many others do so anyway?

So Socrates presents us with an ideal version of dealing with our responsibilities to the state, Aristotle deals with the problem more realistically, Thomas More doesn’t hide his utilitarian disposition and Castoriades illustrates the complete destruction of people’s trust in the lawmaking procedure. What about us? We watch the annual presentation of a new taxation or educational law and wonder whether the reason of the new version is the law’s betterment or to increase the difficulty of tax evasion, which is considered a given. One wonders, how better is our relationship with the law, compared to last year? One need not wonder long. We could use some of Socrates’ irony, but our current disposition leaves us only with cynicism.


[1] Plato – Crito (or on what is to be done)
[2] Plato – Apology of Socrates
[3] Xenophon – Apology of Socrates


[1] Crito was a rich Athenian, in Socrates’ close circle. Perhaps he wrote philosophical texts that are now lost. He makes an appearance in Euthydemus and in Phaedo and is mentioned in the Apology. Even though here he suggests escape, in court he took a vow that there was no “flight risk” for Socrates. He’s the last one Socrates addressed before he died. Xenophon includes him in his Symposium and in Memorabilia.

[2] The poison is produced by the plant conium maculatum. One of the strongest natural poisons along with nicotine, in ancient Athens it was also used as an anaphrodisiac by priests for its narcotic effects. In the form of poison it generates necrosis of the sensory nerves, a loss of muscular strength, an obtuseness of the peripheral senses and intense spasms leading to death.

[3] «The only tolerable form of government was the power of law, which was considered to be an agreement all the members of the city had signed, irrespectively of one’s social position, and therefore binding…the choice one had was to either obey the laws or change them with calm persuasion or to exile himself” (Guthrie). We can also see here that the congruency of Socrates with the laws balances his civil disobedience in the Apology.

[4] The dialogue comes from Robert Bolt’s play on the last days of Thomas More “A man for all seasons”. (this transcription is from memory)

Monty Python, the Life of Brian and the Holy Inquisition

Monty Python (left to right): John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman (photo)
Monty Python (left to right): John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman (photo)

Monty Python may have expected some backlash, but they certainly did not expect a Spanish Inquisition when they released Life of Brian (1979). However, that was quite what they were met with when the movie first came out and a large number of priests throughout the Western world who wanted to make a name for themselves attacked them, claiming to be offended.

The movie was banned in Norway, Ireland, cities of England (by local councils) and by the TV channels BBC and ITV for the “fear of offending Christians of the country”. Many times the ban came from people who hadn’t even seen the movie, based on descriptions provided by religious groups, like the “Nationwide Festival of Light”. Christians, Jews and Lutherans protested its screenings, and, whoever tried to watch it, first had to pass through raging crowds of fanatics. Some bans lasted until the 21st century (as in Wales and Germany).

The movie’s commercial success was not seriously affected from all this row, since it became the most successful British movie of the year, with buses carrying viewers from where it was banned to neighboring cities that allowed its screening. The ridiculousness of all this did not escape the Pythons, who used it to advertise the movie in Sweden with posters climing the movie was “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

The movie itself happens to be innocent to accusations of blasphemy, since the protagonist Brian is clearly a different person than Jesus, as stated clearly in the second scene of the film (right after the introduction). The script wasn’t even addressing Christianity specifically, but the tendency of people applying meaning even where there is none; as illustrated in the scene where Brian, in order to escape Roman soldiers, starts preaching random messianic rants among other would-be religious leaders doing the same. When the Romans pass by him and the danger is over, he quits his improvised sermon mid-way and starts to walk away, failing to conclude with the heavenly rewards his impromptu version of piety would endow any believers with. Only then does his audience become excited with curiosity and start following the unwilling new messiah to reveal his “secret”; no matter that he insists of having invented the whole thing.

A comedy taken too seriously
A comedy taken too seriously

Starting point of writing the movie was a scene, which was never included in the final script, where Jesus’ cross brakes because of the inability of the carpenters who made it, and Jesus angrily gives directions on how to build it properly. After discussion among the members of the comic team they decided that it would be unfair to satirize Jesus himself, as they thought “he’s not particularly funny, what he’s saying isn’t mockable, it’s very decent stuff” (from The autobiography of the Pythons by the Pythons).

When the original producer read the script he withdrew his financial support and Eric Idle turned to George Harrison, ex-member of The Beatles, for help, who accepted to found the company Handmade Films and fund the team with 3 million dollars “because he wanted to see the movie” as he said, buying the “world’s most expensive cinema ticket” as Terry Jones put it.

During an interview-debate among two Pythons against a Bishop and a professional Christian, John Cleese claims that the movie does not satirize Jesus but the close-mindedness he himself experienced in childhood. Michael Palin tried to explain that the movie is not religious satire but shows how some aspects of the modern British society and politics abuse the biblical stories.

The movie was filmed in Tunisia, using the stage of Jeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (photo)
The movie was filmed in Tunisia, using the stage of Jeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (photo)

Among the absurdities of the film’s reception, what is usually forgotten is the political satire of the movie. When Brian visits the local gladiator arena, he meets the all-too-many “Judean fronts” that resist (with inconsequential effects) the Roman Empire. Among them, the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ stands in the lead against the ‘Judean People’s Front’, the ‘Judean Popular People Front’ and the ‘Judean Popular Front’ (a single, old, lonely, Trotskyite-like figure). They are separated by animosities, schisms and strives that are lost in the memories of the “activists” themselves, who don’t even remember which Front they belong to or why they split in the first place. At the same time, none of them succeeds any effective action, they are all lost in Daedalic bureaucratic procedures and endless party meetings involving surreal-like rhetoric.

A Greek like myself will be reminded of the triptych GCP (Greek Communist Party), ML-GCP (Marxist-Leninist-GCP) and GCP-ML (GCP-Marxist-Leninist), with the latter two (according to unverified information that are lost in thousands of pages in dusty books) having split because they could not agree on whether a post-revolutionary Greece would do better to become an agricultural economy or an industrial one!

How the protesters greeted would-be viewers of the film… (photo)
How the protesters greeted would-be viewers of the film… (photo)

Watching the movie today, all these reactions might seem merely colorful, as if removed from the modern reality of Christianity. The Church has lost much of the power it had just 40 years ago, and TV shows like South Park can illustrate Jesus himself in as a ridiculous depiction as they like, practically undisturbed. But, like Hitchens reminded us, as the rats in Camus’ Plague that, though they retract in the sewers at the end of the novel, they will always constitute a threat to the inhabitants, so will the Church, even today, once in a while might remember its former glory, however distant, to show her true face and wear the red robes of the inquisitor once more; to silence even a facebook commenter or the actors of a theatre play. Of course, today it is Islam that plays the central role in this story, silencing with threats (and acts) of death whoever dares to utter the wrong words or draw the wrong image. Perhaps it’s time for a sequel, placed in Medina.



Raif Badawi’s 1000 Lashes: a book for liberty

“Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes; it’s the fuel that ignites the fire of an intellectual’s thoughts.”
Raif Badawi

The title of his book 1000 Lashes and its subtitle Because I Say What I Think is all you need to know about the case of Raif Badawi, and the urgency for something to be done about it.

Arrested for insulting Islam on the website Free Saudi Liberals and tried on several charges including apostasy, violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought, he was convicted to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes and a fine of more than a quarter million dollars. He has yet only received the first fifty lashes. The following flogging sessions have been cancelled due to his weak health –he is a diabetic, has hypertension and is of a slim build.

Footage of the flogging can be seen here. To the untrained eye it looks rather mild –nothing like the long whips flogging a prisoner tied up on a wooden pole one might see in a movie. In reality, this particular kind of flogging, especially in repeated sessions, does quite a lot of damage –and a permanent one at that. Make no mistake; this is torture. Amnesty International illustrates and explains what happens to the body after the infliction of such a punishment.

It seems –and should be– redundant to condemn this barbaric practice. Who in their right mind would not, but for those who prefer to take moral guidance from the divine and care more for supporting archaic traditions rather than the well-being of their fellow man? Plenty of people, sadly. And if Raif had escaped in time from his theocratic country to take shelter in the West, like so many others have from all around the globe, he would be deemed an “islamophobe” and a bigot if not a fascist neo-Nazi; for nothing other than what led him in prison in the first place –the criticism of Islam.

Raif’s book, a collection of some of his now unavailable online articles, offers a glimpse in a wonderful mind. He does not mince words when he criticizes his country’s backwardness. “Look at all the countries that are based on a religious ideology”, he writes, “look at their people and the generations born into it: What do they have to offer human civilization?” Those who thirstily gathered on the square to witness his flogging, triumphantly shouting ‘allahu akbar’, make his point perfectly -if it needs be made.

“Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens”, he writes. He himself is the proof of what he claims here; reading 1000 lashes one can only lament on the human value squashed by theocracy and religious fervor.

The solution is evident to Raif. Only secularism and liberalism can bring the Arab countries out of their cul-de-sac; lifting them “out of the third world and into the first world”. Not the persecution of religion, but the founding of a state, not according to the needs of only one ideology or group while excluding everyone else, but accommodating every individual. For him, “liberalism means simply to live and let live”. He dares to (successfully) restate a famous quote defining liberalism: “your freedom ends on the outskirts of the freedom of others.”

“the society needs to open its collective mind to all ideas and ideologies. It needs to give its people the chance to listen to the opinions of others, and then examine them critically instead of rejecting them prematurely. Such a creative dialogue based on positive critical thinking can enhance and develop ideas.”

The articles in this short book bring shame to those in the West who have long forgotten what it means to be unfree and have lost the will to stand up for the enemies of liberty. And what a shame it is for people like Ayan Hirshi Ali and others who are true liberals and truly feminists but dare to speak out against the one religion that is currently leading worldwide in the impingement of such values only to be called names and threatened by such cowardly individuals.

If anyone deserves the term “classical liberal”, Raif certainly does. If you want to help him, visit this site and buy his book (which includes a foreword by physicist Lawrence Krauss). You will not regret it.

The invention of Utopia and its self-confutation

“More must be looked upon rather as the last of the old than the first of the new”
William Morris, foreword to ‘Utopia’

The presentation of a realistic depiction of an ideal world by Thomas More gave birth to a new literary genre, the “utopian”. Drawing from Plato’s Republic and Christianity, he imagined, in 1516, an ideal state in a faraway, unexplored country called Utopia, an insular country that does not exist (“u-topia” means “non-place” in Greek). He describes this state through the words of one Raphael Hythlodaeus, an imagined inhabitant of Utopia and explorer, whose testimony he presents in the form of a dialogue between him and Morus, an alter ego for the author. Hythlodaeus’ positions are posited in such a way that they come in contrast with 16th century’s British society.

Thomas More (1478-1535), portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (photo)
Thomas More (1478-1535), portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (photo)

More describes a series of activities and perceptions of a democratic society, starting with crime punishment and, therefore, the problem of justice. Hythlodaeus says that the death penalty for the crime of theft is not fair, as it is too harsh to fit the crime and does not avert future such crimes. On the contrary, it can become a motive for an escalation in crime, since, if someone has stolen, then it’s in his favor to murder the victim of the theft so that there will not be any possible witnesses in case he’s caught. The punishment will be the same anyway. The death penalty seems to only serve the thirst for revenge of the wronged ones, without looking out for the general good. It’s like the teachers who hit their students with more fervor than they have when actually teaching.

Moreover, if theft is not accompanied by violence, the thieves should not even be imprisoned, but forced to penal labor and otherwise live freely. And, since their work will benefit the society, they should be fed adequately. This should not be the cause of much surprise, since labor in countries other than Utopia is a kind of slavery anyway, and since the Utopian thieves are put to hard manual labor. The only intrinsic punishment for these kinds of crimes in Utopia is the feeling of shame forced on them, as it cannot be forgiven that anyone would be raised in such an ideal country with all the comforts and opportunities one could wish for, to end up doing such immoral acts.

Lawyers are obsolete in Utopia (note that More was a lawyer himself), since the laws are very few and written in such a way as to be easily understood by everyone and so that anyone could represent themselves in court, where they are called simply to explain their case, as they would to a lawyer. Why should there be an intermediary who usually has in mind to blur the argumentation and use holes in the legislature to satisfy the interests of each client? Most laws are written by the rich anyway, to protect their wealth and not the interests of the public (one might add here that laws are also written by lawyers who make them complex and incomprehensible enough so that their employment is necessary). Modern societies, says Hythlodaeus, are conspiracies by the rich against the poor.

In Utopia, the working hours are six a day, three in the morning and three in the afternoon. The rest of the hours of the day are spent for increasing one’s knowledge and for attending public lectures. These hours are enough to produce all necessary commodities for a good life, given that in Utopia whoever is able to work is able to find employment, and there are no slackers. We can understand this by observing how many unemployed usually consist a part of any society. Women did not work in More’s times (therefore 50% of the population was not employed) and if we count the rich, who don’t work, their servants, who are not needed in Utopia, the priests, who don’t produce anything, and all those who, pretending to be helpless, beg for money (in contrast to people actually unable to work) we will see that, in reality, only a tiny fraction of the population works hard and the rest benefit from their labor.

Depiction of Utopia island, in the original edition of 1516 (photo)
Depiction of Utopia island, in the original edition of 1516 (photo)

Fanciful clothing and shiny jewels are not appreciated in Utopia. Why would they be impressed by the shining of a stone, when they can marvel at the night’s stars? Why should they be seduced by the foolish idea that someone is worse for wearing lower quality clothes? Only children wear jewelry, but when they grow up they forsake them as they do their toys, as something useless, as an immature avocation.

“Restrict the right of the rich”, Hythlodaeus continues, “to buy up everything and then to exercise a kind of monopoly. Let fewer people be brought up in idleness. Let agriculture be restored and the wool manufacture revived, so there will be useful work for the whole crowd of those now idle”. Until all these happen we have no right to talk about justice and punish thieves, since it is the conditions that force them to steal. We cannot punish someone who, since he was a child, was destined to commit crimes because of our own inability to organize a just society. We create the thieves and then punish them for committing theft!

Instead of a king trying to expand his rule on larger lands, it would be better if he took care of his subjects in the land he already rules over. Larger lands mean more subjects and greater difficulty in dealing with already existing problems that will grow bigger due to the land expansion. There is no grandeur in ruling many beggars –true grandiose consists of ruling prosperous and happy citizens. One should “rather be a ruler of rich men than be rich himself”. Utopia has no expansive intents; land is not considered a commodity but a resource, like the fertile ground available for agriculture.

Hythlodaeus supports that there can be no real justice and prosperity as long as there is private property and everything is judged with a monetary measure. In Utopia there is no money, since that is a cause of corruption, theft, bribery and poverty. As long as there is private property and money, the majority will live with the burden of poverty, tyranny and misery. There might be reliefs, like instituting higher limits for wealth, but there is no hope to cure the problem of poverty and oppression for however long private property remains.

Commodities are more than enough and they are allocated freely to those who obey the laws and the morals of the country. Every citizen has the right to ask from the state whichever commodity he thinks he needs, and the state will provide it without payment, neither a monetary one nor in kind. There is no need of payment since all goods are in abundance, and there is no danger in someone trying to concentrate wealth or goods since he knows that whatever he needs, all he has to do is ask for it. Even for food, everyone goes to public kitchens and no one needs to cook for himself, as it is both a useless expense and a timely one. Education is freely available to everyone and the hospitals are as big as cities.

Thomas More presents us with an ideal society, or rather an idealized one. We could hardly think of Utopia as a reality, even if we bear in mind Hythlodaeus’ narration of its founder, Utopus. He was a king who used untold wisdom to establish this society, but, naturally, not enough information is given on him or on how he accomplished his feat. Several aspects of the country’s infrastructure sound as if they came out of nowhere, and the text, around 150 pages, does not illuminate on this. Free education, free food, four giant hospitals in every city, absence of bureaucracy, wise citizens, minimal criminality, no poverty and abundance for everyone? How should we suppose all these privileges were acquired?

Cover of “Utopia”, along with More’s friend Erasmus’ “Epigrammata” – 1518 (photo)
Cover of “Utopia”, along with More’s friend Erasmus’ “Epigrammata” – 1518 (photo)

Scattered in the text, Hythlodaeus mentions the existence of slaves (“those who make all the difficult and dirty jobs”), but even they are not to be imagined as we have known them in actual history. These slaves are neither prisoners of war nor born slaves nor bought from slave merchants in foreign countries. They are sentenced Utopians (or citizens of other countries sentenced and sold cheaply to Utopia), who are condemned to hard manual labor. They are also foreign workers who voluntarily move to Utopia to become slaves. They are free to leave whenever they want, but hardly anyone does, since slavery in Utopia is better than the harsh environment they come from in their countries of origin that made them flee. The text is a rather moralizing one, as the author looks to find Christian values even in a society where Christianity is absent, and Morus insists to commend on Utopian values to the degree that they remind him of the “Christian values” of Britain. But More is not late to show the hidden totalitarian and self-complacent character of his vision. Let’s see how their sense of justice and moral high ground distort the peaceful and law-abiding nature of the Utopians.

The Utopians consider peace treaties among countries useless, since the fact itself that countries consist of people is enough for each to consider the others friendly. The existence of any treaty makes people see foreigners as inherently hostile, as someone who is made a friend only through the signing of a piece of paper, and any dishonorable action that is not clearly stated as such in the treaty can therefore be performed without guilt. But if they find a people they consider immoral, where the citizens easily make “debauchery of the most squalid sort”, the Utopians feel free to exploit them for their own interests without a second thought. They use them as mercenaries and “thrust them into positions of greatest danger by offering them immense rewards. Most of these volunteers never come back to collect their pay”. Those who do come back are paid according to their promises so that other “worst possible men” like them will be used in the future in the same manner. The Utopians say that “they would deserve very well of all mankind if they could exterminate from the face of the earth that entire disgusting and vicious race” (referring to the Zapoletes, a race of such squalid people).

A sample of Utopia’s alphabet, as imagined by More’s friend, Peter Giles, in the 1518 edition (photo)
A sample of Utopia’s alphabet, as imagined by More’s friend, Peter Giles, in the 1518 edition (photo)

We saw above that the Utopians have no expansive interests because they deem land to be a resource and not property. But on the other hand, war is deemed completely justified in the case when a country denies the natural right of Utopia to exploit the part of its land which it itself does not use but still considers it its property and keeps it without allowing any benefit from its use. So, within a paragraph, More (or, rather, Hythlodaeus) manages to both excuse and forgive killing and destruction, as well as the expansive policy of a country that is rather too sure of itself and of its cultural superiority.

We also saw that thieves are met with reasonable, fair punishment, without resorting to the barbarity of England. But the sentence for any serious crime is slavery (however better than the one we are accustomed to) and, if the convicts do not comply with this punishment, or “if the slaves rebel against their condition, then, like savage beasts which neither bars nor chains can tame, they are put instantly to death”. They can only hope to lighten their slavery or remit it altogether if they are patient and show regret; and only if a prince decides to pardon them -or sometimes by popular vote.

As for religion, on the island they have many, all of them equal and with freedom of expression. Most inhabitants, over time and after contact with other countries, started embracing Christianity, since it is the “most rational” religion of all, and monotheism the most logical view of the world. Utopus banned proselytizing apart from reasonable discussion in a calm manner, and gave everyone the freedom to believe whatever they wanted. Except that he prohibited the citizens to consider that the soul dies along with the body, or that there is no life after death where we are neither rewarded for our beneficence nor punished for our sins. Therefore, the atheist doesn’t seem to have a place in Utopia, since its inhabitants cannot even recognize him as a Utopian citizen, nor do they deem him “worthy to be called a human being”. The Utopians, of course, can only be as wise as More can fathom, and they illustrate such limits with their consideration that if someone does not expect divine punishment for his wrongdoings he will have no issue with breaking the communal laws for the sake of some private advantage, if he thinks he might escape the authorities. Bearing in mind that More was a devout Christian who reached the point of applying corporal punishment on a child, caned in front of his family for heresy regarding the Eucharist, and on a “feeble-minded” man, who was whipped for disrupting prayers (as he wrote in his Apology, 1533), one should not be surprised at such lighthearted abjuration of the unbelievers. He did encourage dialogue with atheists, by way of incorporating it in the Utopian state, only to the degree that he expected them to change their minds after acknowledging “the force of superior arguments”, as long as they refrained from speaking to children about ungodly issues.

Finally, the idolizing of labor and the sense of communal responsibility, as well as the total condemnation of every expression of idleness, results in the infringement of basic human freedoms, such as the freedom of movement. In Utopia, if you find yourself outside your base area without a pass, you are considered to be a defector, and if you repeat the crime the punishment is slavery. But if you want to wander in the local countryside you are free to do so, as long as you have the permission of your father or your wife. You might also freely visit nearby cities, with the relevant permit, but you can’t be idle there either. You are obligated to work on your profession during your stay there, where your colleagues will greet you warmly.

The apparent dreamscape More paints, quickly falls apart, many times within the same page. Social responsibility leads to slavery, the prohibition of every kind of wasteful behavior to expansionism and the revulsion for idleness to a degree of control of privacy that looks dangerous, to say the least. The citizen is merely a member of the state, utterly subjected to it -there is limited room for individuality, and the civilian is seen as part of the whole.

But even in his better moments, what does More offer us other than a fantasy? Anyone can fantasize a world without immorality, but no one can illustrate how to transform an existing society into such a reality. But this is the paradox of every utopia, and the only hint of an answer in More’s Utopia is the wise founder, Utopus. A deus ex machina to whom we might resign ourselves for him to take care of us, for whom we should forsake our liberties with the exchange of solving problems we must recognize we cannot solve on our own. This temptation to succumb to a wise leader or a benevolent dictator is today still persistent.

The idea itself of a utopia –any utopia- is rather problematic. It implies a sense of incapability, of resignation, of driving to a dead end –a tendency to flight towards imagined landscapes. Three years before More published his book, in 1513, Machiavelli had published The Prince, where he faced straight on this pessimism which the two writers seem to share on political affairs. But Machiavelli does not shy away from it -he accounts for the laws of politics in the here and now, giving cynical advice (or ironic, according to the reader) to a prince about how to maneuver in the real world and play the game of the ruling forces. Machiavelli offers us an explanation of the polity, More only an elusive dream.

utopia 5

However, we might as well be wrong to criticize More so harshly. His intensions are not quite so specific. The narration of Utopia’s achievements is made only by Hythlodaeus, a name that means “dispenser of nonsense”. Many readers do not fail to discern a diffusive levity in the protagonist’s overoptimistic narrations –and it is this levity that averted Marxists to bother with this, one way or the other, charming book. In reality, we cannot be certain whether Hythlodaeus’ Utopia parades in front of us as a realistic goal that a society should have or if it simply constitutes an illustration of the insipid nature of utopian thinking.

The founding of Israel

“The only thing worse than having the British as your enemies, is having as your allies”

In 70 AD, Israel stopped being considered as the country of Hebrews. It was the year when the Romans took over Jerusalem. Some time later, Hadrian (78-138 AD) changed the name of the country to Palestine after he squashed the local Hebrews’ revolt against the Roman Empire, aiming at erasing Judea from memory. And so, the Diaspora of the Jewish people began, mainly towards the north and the east, to end up mostly in countries of the West.

In 634, the Arabs took the country and it remained under the rule of the caliphs for four centuries, until its taking by the Crusaders, and then by the Ottomans in the 16th century, under whose rule it would remain until the early 20th century. Wherever the Hebrew populations would end up they would become the victims of repeated persecution and marginalization. They never completely disappeared from Palestine and when, in 1492, the catholic kings of Spain singed a decree that forced them to leave Spain within three months, they contributed to the increase of the Jewish population of Palestine.

The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) (photo)
The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) (photo)

In 1896, Theodor Herzl wrote a book (The Jewish State – Der Judenstaat) where he supported the return of the Jews in the land promised to them by the god of the Old Testament -the “Promised Land”. And thus, the nationalistic movement Zionism was born. “Zion” is the name of a hill in Jerusalem and in the Bible the term implies both the city and the country. The goal of Zionism was not only to comfort the Jews of their troubles, but also to reinstate the Jewish nation in their motherland, with the creation of a Jewish State (not just a state for Jews, but a state with a Jewish identity). Herzl rekindled a hope that never died out among the disbanded people.

In 1903, a new wave of bloody pogroms against the Jews in Russia, that lasted four years, abhorred the international community and the British government made a proposal to Herzl for the creation of a Jewish community in eastern Africa, with local autonomy. The proposal referred to Uganda, but the Zionist movement looked to Palestine, as a land that was rightfully theirs according to divine contract. Jews from all over the world already had started to move to Palestine, where the Ottoman Empire turned against them. The interests of the Jews were synched to those of Entente, the opponents of the Ottomans during the First World War. In 1979, the British government made a commitment with a political statement (the Balfour Declaration, named after the Foreign Secretary) that “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. It was the first time a great power officially recognized the rights of the Jews on their ancestors’ land.

Initially the Arab leaders did not object to the Jewish presence in the region; besides, they shared an enemy in the face of the Ottoman Empire. Emir Faisal, the leader of the Arabic nationalism who directed the Arabic revolt against the Ottomans with the help of T.H. Lawrence (also known as “Lawrence of Arabia”), co-signed with the future neighbors an agreement that reflected the current climate of harmonious collaboration. This agreement talked about the encouragement and consolidation of Jewish immigration in Palestine and that “The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement”. Faisal, in a letter to Felix Frankfurter, president of the Zionist Organization of America, writes that he welcomes “the return of these exiles to their homeland”.

But the West had made promises to the Arabs as well, that were not honored at the end of the war. Britain had promised to the governor of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, the independence of the Arabs in the greater region (including Palestine) with the exchange of its help during the First World War. Thus, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, instead of the creation of a large independent Arab state, the region was shared among the great western powers, into separate countries. Palestine was assigned to Britain (a regime called British Mandate). The Jewish and the Arab nationalisms, which were so far growing in parallel, now clashed and in 1920 Palestine started to become witness to conflicts among Jews and Arabs, since not everybody shared Faisal’s sense of cooperation. The incidents were started by Arabs who looked suspiciously at the Jewish resettlement in the area. The British was late to recognize and counter the problem and restore order in Jerusalem, and started enforcing obstructions in the Jewish immigration, connecting it to the “country’s absorption abilities”, something that could be interpreted in a variety of ways in different circumstances. Trust among the three nationalities begun to decline significantly. From 1929 the conflicts between Jews and Arabs evolved into violence and the problem was intensified when Hitler’s rise begun to materialize, forcing many Jews to seek a destination to immigrate, with Palestine being the only obvious and safe resort.

British Mandate of Palestine (photo)
British Mandate of Palestine (photo)

In 1937, the British assigned the Peel Commission to investigate and resolve the problem of the two peoples’ coexistence in the region. It proposed the creation of two states in Palestine, one for the Jews and another for the Arabs, with the British placed in Jerusalem to have the Holy Lands under their supervision. The Jews accepted the proposal that would mean a reduction to the lands that were promised to them, due to the imminent threat of Nazism’s rise and the urgent need for Jews of Germany and Europe to resettle. The Arabs refused and, two months later, conflict begun again. Britons found themselves in a difficult position since they had officially promised Palestine to the Jews with the Balfour Declaration, and they also wanted to appease the Arabs, as their help would be needed in the possibility of a future war, which wasn’t late to brake out.

With the start of WW2 the Jews of Palestine aligned themselves with the Allies to counter the Nazi anti-Semitic savagery, with the hope that, in this way, they would earn Britain’s favor concerning the freedom of their nationals to immigrate to their new, lest unofficial, homeland. The Zionist leaders received assurances from Churchill and Roosevelt that they would support them after the war, promises that were refuted. Whichever ship with Jewish immigrants reached the country was turned back by the British with catastrophic consequences for the passengers. Nevertheless, considering the immigration waves of the previous years and the illegal immigration to Palestine, at the end of 1947 the population of Jews in Palestine approached 630,000 people, almost one third of the total population of the country. The Jews started an insurgency against the British hegemony, involving attacks against trains, bombings of buildings, sabotage, kidnappings and assassinations. The British realized that the problem was by then beyond their control and in 1947 they bypassed to the United Nations the issue of the “future governing of Palestine”. The Holocaust had caused feelings of guilt to the European nations concerning how they had been treating the Jews for centuries, and in this climate UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) was formed to resolve the issue. The committee was constituted of 11 member nations that had no direct involvement in the conflict (Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Guatemala, India, Iran, Holland, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, Yugoslavia).

To make a decision, UNSCOP relied on the Balfour Declaration, the historic ties Jews had with the country, the fact that (due to the British promise) the Jews had already immigrated, exploited and developed the land of Palestine and the need to give an end to the long-lasting suffering of this people, as well as the need to give a solution to the urgent issue of 250,000 Holocaust survivors. On 29 November 1947 the decision was announced, which included the following:

  • The end of the British Mandate.
  • Establishing two states: a Jewish and an Arabic.
  • Conducting elections and creating democratic constitutions in both countries.
  • Connecting economically the two states.
The UN plan on the left, and the expanded borders after the 1948 war on the right (source: Wikimedia)
The UN plan on the left, and the expanded borders after the 1948 war on the right (source: Wikimedia)

The Jews celebrated the news of the decision, but not the Arabs, who completely rejected it. Take note that the Jews were invited to participate in the UN’s assembly that decided the founding of UNSCOP, even though there was no official Jewish state at the time. The Arab Higher Committee (the central political institution of the Palestinian people in Mandatory Palestine) boycotted UNSCOP, maintaining that the Arabic rights were self-evident and had to be recognized on the principles of the UN Charter. Their objections were not heard and, on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the State of Israel. The two populations were led to war with the participation of the neighboring countries; a war that extended the borders of Israel and led to the creation of 711,000 Palestinian refugees of the 900,000 that lived in the region that was now the dominion of the new country.

Israelites commemorate this war as the “War of Independence” and the Palestinians as “the Catastrophe”.

14th of May as the “Independence Day” of the Jews (photo)
14th of May as the “Independence Day” of the Jews (photo)


Depiction of the “Catastrophe” with the Palestinians’ hope to return (photo)
Depiction of the “Catastrophe” with the Palestinians’ hope to return (photo)


  • Ismat Sabri – Cartographic analysis of the Jewish Settlements in Palestine – The case of West Bank of the Jordan River (diploma thesis for the National Technical University of Athens, 2009)
  • Rita Gabai-Shimantov – Israel, The rebirth of a state (Dioni, 1998)
  • Yves Marc Ajchenbaum – ΙIsrael-Palestine: One land, two nations 1948-2002 (Melani, 2004)
  • Chalazias Christos – Palestine, the drama of a people (Vasdekis, 1982)
  • Ahmat Shahin – The Israel colonialism and the Intifada (Diplomatic Agency of PLO in Athens, 1988)