Thursday, September 22, 2005

Philosophy Paper Number 1

This is a less-than-perfect essay, but it's supposed to be more "reflection" from what I gather, so here it is...

Melissa Yosua

September 22, 2005

Six Questions of Socrates

The Value of Community in American Culture?

Philosophy, from the outside looking in, is an intimidating discipline. Popular misconception elevates this field to such a high level that when even the mere word is uttered, people shudder. Its supposed inaccessibility to the common human being wards off so many people from its study for fear that the secret knowledge contained therein is too abstract, too impractical, and too difficult to understand. Yet what Christopher Phillips demonstrates in The Six Questions of Socrates is quite the opposite. By holding dialogues with people, he shows that philosophy is something everyone can engage with. He goes on to suggest that the very success of a society depends on the degree to which individuals in that particular society work for its “collective excellence” (Phillips 299).

Phillips held dialogue sessions with people from many different kinds of groups: Muslim women, Japanese schoolchildren, Palestinian and Israeli university students, men in prison, and several more, all with varying ages and cultural backgrounds. Phillips related the essence of each question asked of a specific group of people to political events or challenges faced by that culture that either served as a good example of the quality of inquiry or served as an example of where that particular quality was lacking. These discussions highlighted several commonalities between different cultures in terms of how they viewed the concepts of virtue, justice, piety, courage, moderation, and goodness and what societies with these qualities should look like.

I found it surprising that many of these very different cultures shared many of the same ideas about what these different qualities meant and how carrying them out would impact the whole of society. One key idea that flowed through many of the dialogue sessions was the value of community. For example, one Navajo said, “The only success that matters is that of the tribe as a whole” (Phillips 26) when talking about virtue, and a Japanese schoolchild denounces the traditional courage of the Japanese warriors “because they don’t put country or family first” (Philips 230). Good becomes sharing the sufferings of other human beings as Buddha espoused (Phillips 175) and true justice, as one Mexican suggests, is “where the laws are such that we all are collectively stronger than any single individual, and where we are all protected from any person who’d try to trample on our collective and individual rights” (Phillips 107).

Yet a tension exists between valuing the group over the self and serving the needs of the self before serving the needs of the group, and the question becomes “should I serve myself so I can better serve the group or should I serve the group before serving myself?”

I think the words of Thomas Jefferson that Phillips quoted resonate true with many Americans today: “Before we can fulfill our obligations to others we must first achieve independence and learn to exercise responsibility, moderation, patience and self-control” (Phillips 299). The rationale being: of what good are we to society at large if we can’t even take care of ourselves? If we can’t act in a responsible manner, then how are we ever going to act responsibly towards others? However, Americans tend to take Jefferson’s words to the extreme.

There is no doubt that the United States is a highly individualistic society. The success of one individual is prized more highly than the success of a team or a community. Individual athletes on sports teams are idolized more than the team itself and in the business world, employees fight to get to the top at the risk of hurting others in the company. We reward the individuals who accomplish the most with money and recognition, regardless of how he or she got there. Filling our responsibilities to the community rarely comes into the picture, and if it does, it is a secondary afterthought where the motivations can be selfish in nature.

Phillips, by asking these six questions, hits on what is wrong with American culture today. There is little to no virtue, courage, justice, piety, moderation, or good. These qualities, which are fundamental to building a successful society, are misunderstood in terms of the self rather than interpreted as things for the community to aspire to. Everything is about seeing to our own interests, which has become the “good” in American society. The concept of “justice” has turned into “it’s not fair if my neighbor has a new car and I don’t.” Moderation has been swept away by our desire for instant gratification, and piety has become the worship of our own individual selves. Courage has been reduced to doing the right thing when people are looking and virtue has nearly disappeared all together.

We don’t ask ourselves these questions any more and if we do, our perspective is so selfish. What is good becomes what is good for me and what is justice becomes how am I being treated justly? One’s responsibility to society beyond “what would help me out the most” is such a foreign concept. We vote for leaders who will give us the tax breaks or who will institute policies that benefit us the most either ideologically or otherwise.

Despite all of this, I believe there is some hope for America. From time to time, we pull ourselves together and put the needs of the community above our own. The most recent example of this can be seen in the way the nation came together to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the gulf coast. In the aftermath of this disaster, we shared in the suffering of these displaced people, and we gave our time, money, and goods to help them start rebuilding their lives. We were acting justly, acting goodly, and being virtuous without questioning ourselves.

Yet without a crisis to bring out these qualities in us, we need to keep asking ourselves Socrates’ six questions in order to keep our minds focused on these concepts and how to act them out in the larger community. We need to find a way to live with the tension of the competing claims on our responsibilities. In order for this to happen, however, our attitude regarding our place in society needs to shift. We cannot meet the needs of the community if we are always looking out for ourselves. We cannot always be at the top of our priority list. The balance has strayed too far to the side of the individual, and the point of equilibrium needs to be reestablished: the idea that a society should work for the success of all its members, or the Navajo idea that if one member of the community succeeds, the whole community does as well (Phillips 26).

We can become a society of piety and moderation, of justice and goodness, of virtue and courage, just like the Greeks at the height of their civilization. Engaging with philosophy is not for the few – it is for everyone and by wrestling with these questions, society as a whole will reap the benefits. These questions challenge us to take a look at the world around us and truly see what is happening and think about it and how it affects everyone. By examining ourselves and current affairs in this way, we will not only become better individuals, but a better people.

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