Socrates and Mister Rogers Neighborhood (Summer in the Republic 33)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the nicest film of the year.

When I said this, a friend said she thought I would love the film and was surprised by my tepid response. “Nice” has been devalued to the point that if we do not love or adore a motion picture then we must not like it. Fred Rogers uses words such as “like,” “nice” and “friend” throughout the film and all his life. Part of the much needed understated decency of Fred Rogers is his refusal (mostly) of hyperbole.

He “likes us” just the way we are. We do not have to earn his “like.” He is a decent, plain, honest man. I wish to be more like him and less like the romantic Wuthering Heights type I was and hopefully no longer am. Rogers (an ordained minister) was not saying that we did not have to change (watch a few episodes), but was appealing to the image of God that exists in each person. Just as our rights come from our Creator, the government did not give them and cannot take them away, so basic respect and decency is owed every human being, even the worst, as image bearers.

That is why Christians should not deface dead enemies, why judges asked for mercy for even the worst condemned, and why most Christian ethicists have come to reject (over time) any use of torture. You do not have to earn decent treatment: you should get it.

I should get it. Thank God. Few of us are in any danger of being too decent to our friends, let alone our enemies. If I try harder to be kind and to set people free, if I agree to disagree agreeably, I will have done something; found the Socrates in Mister Rogers.

The father of philosophy and the PBS host are not the same, but they do live in the same neighborhood. Socrates was kind-something his critics never got. One theme of the Rogers movie is that many interviewers kept looking for what was wrong with Rogers: he could not just be decent, gentle, and kind. Americans just now view a gentleman (I knew so many growing up!) as a rarity or a freak.

Fools think all genius is emotionally complicated or that all motives are hidden. 

Read about Socrates at all and soon you will hear about his “irony.” Socrates is often funny, can gently poke fun at himself, must be ironic sometimes, but I do not think it a chief characteristic. I think that like Fred Rogers, people look for some other reason than the one Socrates gives for his life.  Ancient Athenian sophists could not handle the truth: Socrates is a kind, gentle man who does not know the truth, but wishes to find it.

He is so smart, such a great interlocutor, that when he says “he knows nothing,” he cannot mean it! Why what would that say of us? The worst of the blowhards, a man who sold his skills in training tyrants, was Thrasymachus.*** He thinks justice is whatever the strong do and blows off a discussion that Socrates is having with a young student. Socrates tries to describe what he is doing:

How could you suppose that we would waste time pretending to defer to false opinions rather than devoting all our energy to finding the truth? We have been in earnest, my friend, even though our explorations have not been successful. In this situation superior minds like yours should respond with sympathy rather than with scorn.

Socrates has made mistakes in talking to Polemarchus, but there is no reason to think he has not been sincere. He did not wish to come to talk, but once there is doing his best. His sincerity, and teaching without taking money, is an inditement of Thrasymachus who will demand to be paid even to talk at this gathering. Thrasymachus knows how to dismiss the character of Socrates.

Thrasymachus responded with sarcastic laughter: A fine sample of your famous irony, Socrates. I know how you argue, as I warned everyone here at the outset. Whatever Socrates is asked, he refuses to answer. He will resort to irony or to any other stratagem in order to avoid being pinned down.

This is the ploy of the bad man: diminish the good man by implying that his kindness is a front for winning. The selfish person dismisses the earnest charity of the philanthropists as mere self-interest. Why not? The selfish have never known disinterested likability or kindness. They have co-workers, but never neighbors.

Thrasymachus thinks Socrates knows, but will not say or is merely bluffing. He asks questions to hide his ignorance! That is ludicrous, because Socrates says he asks questions because he is ignorant. He is not hiding, but proclaiming his lack of knowledge! Thrasymachus is the teacher who charges tuition for stuff he claims to know, but does not! Yet Socrates has a greater and more passionate following than Thrasymachus and Thrasymachus is jealous.

This protestation of ignorance must be irony, some ruse. Balderdash. Socrates, even when he is wrong (as he will soon be), is always who he is. Socrates knows he does not know, suspects the truth is yonder, and is looking to find truth. He asks questions on that quest and he is better at this than anyone who had lived to that time.

People who do not wish to believe that men like Fred Rogers (or my Dad!) exist look for hidden motives, just as they did with Socrates. Rogers and Socrates were not ironic or trendy. I am not that good, have never been, but I can aspire to be. Join me.

Go see the film and read Republic.

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*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33.

**I have written more about Socratic “irony” here.

***I am describing Plato’s Thrasymachus, not the historical person.


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