Don’t Get a Big Head if You Can Help It (Summer in the Republic 5)

Don’t Get a Big Head if You Can Help It (Summer in the Republic 5) June 9, 2018

When I was a boy, there was an expression about someone who had too high of an opinion of himself: “He’s gotten the big head.” The Big Head thinks he is always right and has no sense of curiosity about the world. With his swollen sense of self, he is sure that if the rest of us would just follow his example, everything would be great.

Polonius in Hamlet is a Big Head and he demonstrates another characteristic of the disease: a tendency to speak in proverbs. A Big Head has a quick answer to every problem. Nothing is so complicated that the Big Head does not have a simple minded solution for the issue. Another variation of the Big Head is the “expert.” This kind of Big Head is well read and so thinks he has a profound answer to any problem. Things can be falling apart following Expert Big Head’s ideas, but he persists, because “science” or “data.” In reality, what they call “science” or “data” turns out to be carefully selected to confirm the Big Head views or the ideas of the people the Big Head admires.

God help the college, business, family, or nation that falls prey to the rule of the Big Heads. They are the experts that trust their gut instict more than data and their reading of the data in a book more than what is happening outside the window. A nation should be ruled by her wise, but when the wise are Big Heads, doom is near.

At the time of Socrates, Athens did not have many more years to go. The democracy was swayed by demagogues and exhausted with endless wars of expansion. The educated elite had become decadent. Her business mostly was in the hands of foreigners and she was closed to any new citizens. One image Plato uses is the old man, Cephalus (a literal Big Head) whose son Polemarchus (the War Chief) brings home Socrates. Cephalus likes Socrates and wisdom, he just does not have time for either.

Cephalus, Polemarchus’s father, was also at home. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, and he seemed to me to have aged greatly. He sat on a cushioned chair and was wearing a garland, for he had been offering sacrifices in the courtyard. So we went and sat down near him in chairs that had been arranged in a kind of circle.

The Big Head always ages quickly. Why? His ideas are either up-to-date, so forever dated or memories of what he learned in school. Cephalus “keeps up,” but only by following the changes in mainstream opinions of the rulers of Athens. Most of what Cephalus asserts is mashup the “in” with truths he learned in school decades ago. Like most Big Heads, Cephalus prefers comfort and if he is religious, his religion is conventional. He wishes to conform and this conformity is a blend of thoughtlessness and fear. The Big Head like Cephalus is always afraid for himself and as death draws near starts trying to cut deals with the gods or with history.

Cephalus has to be the center, because he stops meeting anywhere but in his house. Socrates is in a tough spot. He has been brought by the younger men against his will for some edutainment, but Cephalus will put an end even to that much learning. The Big Head must always opine.

Why not just get rid of Cephalus? This would be an impious act. Polemarchus owes his father piety, but Cephalus does not deserve piety. If Polemarchus does not learn piety toward his father, however, whatever Polemarchus replaces, his parents with will not provoke piety either! A healthy family or society will have some ties (even if weak ones) that are not based on what a person “deserves.” Only the strong, yet the strong do not have all the gifts the city or the family needs.

When those who should rule or who should receive piety become Big Heads, men like Cephalus, the community has a problem! God save the Republic from Cephalus, the Big Head.


*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.

**I have no idea how much of what I know is just Professor Al Geier filtered through my eccentricity. Here is to you Al!

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