Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Short, Ugly and Annoying

Tuesday, 8 April 2003

Ken Parish's disappointment that the blogosphere hasn't yet developed into a sort of Neo-Athenian democratic forum is attracting a lot of comment, both in his own comments thread and on other blogs. James Russell suggests that it was ever thus in the blogosphere. Gary Sauer-Thompson and John Quiggin also have a few things to say. And now, here I am, jumping onto this latest blogwagon, before it disappears over the next rise in the road.

Personally, I suspect that Ken might be idealising Athenian democracy a little too much. There's really no good reason to believe that Athenian democracy was any less fractious than the modern variety, or that political debate (in the Agora and elsewher) was any more civil than modern political debate. The special thing about Athenian democracy, at least for a short time, was a short, ugly, annoying man who had the good sense to realise that, when the Oracle said that there was no man in Athens wiser than he, it didn't mean that he was the wisest man in Athens. If his good sense had been a little more self-regarding he might not have translated this into a sense of religious mission, which is best described in his own words:

When I heard about the oracle's answer, I said to myself what does the god mean? Why does he not use plain language? I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small; so what can he mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the world? He cannot be telling a lie; that would not be right for him.

After puzzling about it for some time, I set myself at last with considerable reluctance to check the truth of it in the following way. I went to interview a man with a high reputation for wisdom, because I felt that here if anywhereI should succeed in disproving the oracle and pointing out to my divine authority 'You said that I was the wisest of men, but here is a man who is wiser than I am'.

To his disappointment, this man of high reputation, and several others who he interviewed later turned out to be a poseur: in the process of exposing them as such, he became very unpopular but not with everyone:

... A number of young men with wealthy fathers and plenty of leisure have deliberately attached themselves to me because they enjoy hearing other people cross-questioned. These often take me as their model, and go on to try to question other persons; whereupon, I suppose, they find an unlimited number of people who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing. Consequently their victims become annoyed, not with themselves but with me; and they complain that there is a pestilential busybody ... who fills young people's heads with wrong ideas.

Now we can't all be short and ugly - these are nature's gifts. But, with persistence and practice, we can all learn to be annoying, especially to those who purport to be our betters. If we do, there may be hope for Ken's Neo-Athenian dream yet.

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