Thursday, 1 August 2013

Socrates and UKIP: Impious Gadflies?

Having just finished watching “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilisation”, which brought back memories of long forgotten ancient history studies from schooldays, two points of interest stood out.

The first was how the city state of Athens, the forerunner of modern Greece, once dominated the world and saw off an unprovoked attack from the mighty Persian empire, before sowing the seeds of its own decline and fall by picking a needless fight with its local rival Sparta and losing the resulting Peloponnesian War. Modern lessons, anyone?

The second, the life and times of the philosopher Socrates, which neatly tied in with the Athenians’ pursuit of their futile war, their loyalty to theological doctrine and their fixation on their past glories. True to form as a nonconformist free thinker, Socrates championed an ethical system based on human reason, and set out to inspire his audiences to think through problems to their logical conclusion. Charged with impiety and corrupting the minds of youth, Socrates relished being described as “a gadfly” and was untroubled by the death sentence that followed the guilty verdict. With supreme irony, it was not then long before Athens welcomed the great philosophical age that lives on to this day.

Let’s take that “gadfly” description, possibly the earliest historical usage of the comparison. Socrates was delighted to be depicted as someone stinging into action the tired old horse that the Athenian city state had become. Could this have been in Michael Howard’s mind when he tied the word in with “crank” before the 2004 European elections to describe UKIP supporters? Unlikely. Probably just “confounded nuisance”. In marked contrast with the subtle “provocative stimulus” paraphrase that UKIP gladly adopted, no doubt mindful of the UK’s apathy in the face of ever encroaching EU powers.

And “impiety”? Well, in Socrates’ times this would have comprised absence of proper respect for the gods of the state, hardly a surprising charge to be levelled against an advocate of reason. Here and now in the UK, we can see all three major parties supporting a modern day god of the state, EU membership, while paying lip service to the cause of reform (pie in the sky as this may be). So if and when the referendum comes, it would not be at all surprising to hear them describing opposition to EU membership as impiety. And indeed lack of propriety, and quite a variety of unpleasant names, as Tom Lehrer would put it.

But while Socrates was only vindicated after he had taken the hemlock, this is surely the last fate we would wish upon the impious gadfly in the form of Nigel Farage. Far better that he and his kind are given free range to sting the UK horse into action and save it from an undeserved fate in the EU knackers’ yard. And indeed to follow Lehrer's rallying call and use the hemlock to poison the pigeons in the Brussels park.

No comments:

Post a Comment