Katia Kapovich, “Apartment 75”

Paul Hoover presents us with prophets, men seeking dialogue with God. His portrait in “To the Choirmaster” brings forth the brutal honesty in trying to talk to the supreme being. Habbakuk tries to reason how his own existence is justified: does he merely take up space? It’s a cruel line of thought, but Habbakuk eventually reaches a more positive conclusion, declaring “I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely and of a certain age, in the everlasting.” He reasons that spaces are not nothing, as spaces are homes, places to live and breathe. Still, one can see his bitterness and pain in those very words. It may be good to be “a space taken,” but this sounds awfully reductive. He will be absent, leaving a certain “shape” in the everlasting, but his significance is questionable. He will grow older, be of a certain age, but will he ever fully be himself?

A prophet confronts being abandoned; the love of God is not simply about justice, but the very possibility of justice. We sense the depth of his feeling, we attempt to understand how he feels neglected. Do we do the same for the obese woman who used to wake up our whole house by starting her Subaru at 6 a.m.? The one who has committed suicide?

Apartment 75 (from poetryinternational.org)
Katia Kapovich

The obese woman who used to wake up
our whole house by starting her Subaru at 6 a.m.
has committed suicide. Snow
hangs like a set of unlaundered sheets
in the windows. When I walked into
her seventh floor studio, the standard lamp
was still on, but could only light itself,
refusing to interfere with the dull dusk
of the interior the police had already searched.

For the first time, I felt an urge to look at her face
and perhaps to see something more distinctly
than the triviality of neighborhood permits
and the mystery of suicide allows,
but her features were shut down without offense.
I only remember a chair missing its rear legs,
shoved up against the wall for balance. 

Nowadays, I’m on a bit of a crusade against using the words “better” or “worse” to describe people’s pain. I had no idea until recently that a standard line in Holocaust denial was to assert that the Soviets were just as bad as the Nazis—the very notion of comparison allows one to dismiss innumerable atrocities. Literally, people trying to say of the suffering of millions “it wasn’t that bad” or “you can’t really tell the difference between X and Y.”

A more serious approach starts with being specific. No one would want to go through what Habbakuk goes through. While his conclusion about being a most necessary space himself feels earned, I can tell you from experience it can only provisionally satisfy. You need all the wisdom you can get–all the things which sound like wisdom–in order to remember who you are moment to moment.

We try to relate to Habbakuk, and in doing so, we come to understand some part of his pain and his problems. The obese woman who has killed herself has closed off access to her pain and her problems. She has declared her pain incommunicable. It was a ghastly, relentless torment that could tear any of us apart. She doesn’t owe any of us an explanation. We’ve made the world hell, such that the mere appearance of snow reminds of our filth and our hiding of the truth: Snow hangs like a set of unlaundered sheets in the windows.

Kapovich’s poem is one of a handful of poems which I revisit if I want to cry. I suspect the power of the poem comes from how it meditates on light. You can’t really see light the same way again after reading it. “Unlaundered sheets” hanging in the windows–how light streams after a suicide. Life as tainted but also messy. Love and sex and nightmares and isolation, all mixed together in how one sees. “Filth,” which I used to describe this mess above, is somewhat the wrong word. It can let you dismiss this mixture, pretend like it doesn’t belong. You have to remember that you too are dirt and ashes.

When Kapovich describes walking into her studio, she expands on what light means: the standard lamp was still on, but could only light itself, refusing to interfere with the dull dusk of the interior the police had already searched. There’s a lamp, sitting lonely, only lighting itself. The room, with its “dull dusk,” refuses to acknowledge it. The imagery calls to mind a tomb with an eternal flame standing that much brighter by contrast but not illuminating anything else. Here, it feels like Kapovich had to look for the light of the lamp, that it almost got swallowed by the “dull dusk.”

This second description of light goes hand-in-hand with invasion. Kapovich is in the room, searching. The police have searched. The obese woman is merely an object. In death, we want to learn something about her, not to reverence her, but to make her useful. We use each other for knowledge, and in doing so, we’re cruelly exploitative. If the police find a specific reason for the suicide, everyone can dismiss the obese woman’s death for that reason. If some genuine insight about what ails us is found, no justice is available for the woman.

The image of a lamp standing alone, a light unto itself, almost seems parody until one reflects on what one wants to find after a suicide. It isn’t parody, as it leads Kapovich to think about what light truly matters: For the first time, I felt an urge to look at her face. It’s so hard to come to terms with how incredibly selfish we are. We’ve got to explore grief in order to remember why we grieve. We have to cry to remember that people deserve love. It’s just insane. If I’m tempted to blame a world devoted to violence, a world of conquest via industry or arms, Kapovich will not let me take that way out. She herself wanted to see something more distinctly than the triviality of neighborhood permits and the mystery of suicide allows. We know people can be deeply miserable in all times and all ages. We know we have to reach out, be more sensitive, show kindness above all. And we know it will never be enough.

To learn to truly respect individuals may be the only serious end of human living. Her features were shut down without offense—we have completely objectified her, taken away someone who was once breathing and living and making noise. We made her completely docile. All our notions of community and happiness and ways of truly living failed, as they led to this. They taught her survival was a matter of work, which she did. When she killed herself, others did the work to make her death inoffensive. Her survival entailed feeling abandoned while alive and forgotten in death. This is society, pretending we are useful when we’re not. When we’re not supposed to be useful. I only remember a chair missing its rear legs, shoved up against the wall for balance—what good is a world which pretends things aren’t broken? What good is a world where human beings can’t be allowed to hurt, can’t be allowed to find wholeness or peace?

Paul Hoover, “To the Choirmaster”

The rock lives in the desert, solid, taking its time. I’m jealous. I feel torn, unable to take time. As time wastes away, I am paralyzed, stymied by sheer amounts to do. So much must be done for survival; for reaching out and being of use to others; for the cultivation of one’s mind. Three sets of priorities, each conflicting with each.

How does one begin to believe in oneself? It doesn’t seem one could ever be unified enough to do that.

Habbakuk himself starts with a form of “What is justice?” He asks why he must suffer it: How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you “Violence!” but you do not save? (Habbakuk 1:2) The self is a unity when it recognizes itself as pained. It is a unity when it witnesses injustice, sees the pain of others: Why do you make me look at injustice? (1:3)

The Lord does answer Habbakuk, but does so in terms of political prophecy. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. (1:6) The unjust will meet the might of the unjust, themselves less human and more an instrument of God’s will. The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. (2:17) One’s wrongdoing, of necessity, is not free of consequences. This latter verse is almost some kind of personal, philosophical comment, but it is expressed in terms unmistakably political.

In his paraphrase of Habbakuk, Hoover wonders if the Lord has truly answered him. He puts Habbakuk’s discovery of resolve in terms neither prophetic or political, but from seeing himself as a being among beings. Justice matters, but it is the possibility that Habbakuk could ever experience something like justice that’s the fundamental issue:

 To the Choirmaster (from poetryfoundation.org)
 Paul Hoover

 Art thou not from everlasting,
     O Lord my God, my Holy One?
         We shall not die.

 The rock lives in the desert, solid, taking its time.
 The wave lives for an instant, stable in momentum
 at the edge of the sea, before it folds away.
 Everything that is, lives and has size.
 The mole sleeps in a hole of its making,
 and the hole also lives; absence is not nothing.
 It didn’t desire to be, but now it breathes
 and makes a place, for the comfort of the mole.
 I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely
 and of a certain age, in the everlasting.
 In the fierce evening, on the mild day,
 How long shall I be shaken?


The wave lives for an instant, stable in momentum at the edge of the sea, before it folds away. For Habbakuk, the wave is no less than the rock. Both take time, using it to exist in different ways. Everything that is, lives and has size—”size,” in this meditation, seems an outgrowth of time. Space is how we reside in a temporal universe.

This set of thoughts leads to a Heideggerian sort of conclusion: The mole sleeps in a hole of its making, and the hole also lives; absence is not nothing. “Absence is not nothing” sounds a strangely, powerfully reassuring note. If one feels like one is absent, abandoned, not treated well, not taken seriously, one still is. One resides.

Being which finds a reason for being does justice. It gives, it nurtures, it becomes a locus of justice: It [the space] didn’t desire to be, but now it breathes and makes a place, for the comfort of the mole. Habbakuk finds confidence in his own voice. He knows his pain is sincere, and that’s not mere comfort, but the right, not the privilege, to demand of God an account of His ways: I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely and of a certain age, in the everlasting. In the fierce evening, on the mild day, How long shall I be shaken? One could say this existential affirmation of Habbakuk’s stands prior to any revelation, but “How long shall I be shaken?” is rhetorical at this juncture. Habbakuk knows under what conditions he will be happy. He knows why he must be unhappy.

Kehinde Wiley, “President Barack Obama”

Other ages will not understand our cruel cynicism, exercised in the name of power. They won’t equate the painting below and Shepard Fairey’s “Hope;” they’ll see the latter as part of a campaign, more positive than propaganda. They may see the painting as an expansion on the poster, the Presidency the fulfillment of the campaign, and they’ll understand the quiet criticism advanced better than we possibly can.

I admit I am awash in cynicism. 16 year old American citizens guilty of nothing should not be killed, much less killed in drone strikes approved by the President. That President Obama’s administration tried to shift blame to a terrorist father—himself killed by a drone strike—was all the more reprehensible. When US citizens break US law, it is all the more important to hold them accountable by means of due process. We have to show our way works. Extrajudicial means, if they must be used, are to complement lawfulness, not replace it; they should never reduce the law to a mere matter of utility. They should ideally “do no harm.”

The law should be a source of value. Using it to hurt innocent people is anything but valuable. Regarding our present crisis, where the government of the United States makes sure that the most vulnerable suffer the most, Jonathan Katz writes that “Trump’s aides built this system of racist terror on something that has existed for a long time. Dilley opened under Obama. And while total deportations actually decreased under Obama, removals rose. He harmed hundreds of thousands of families as pawns in a political game.”

President Obama made grave mistakes at times. But while the present direction of the United States is unmistakably lawless, only those operating in bad faith hold him solely accountable for what the country has become. Quite a few will gleefully say Obama put kids in cages and that Trump is continuing this. They’ll then blame Obama for a host of imagined ills and praise Trump, demonstrating that they don’t care about an Attorney General literally paying the President; racist, deadly inaction with regard to the lives of US citizens; a gross inability to fulfill the most basic requirements of the job; a wanton disregard for national security. What those operating in bad faith do care about: Trump makes “liberals” cry, and also, he’s responsible for a surge in power by “very fine people,” i.e. those who aspire to be genocidal war criminals. A lot of people in America see the virtue of citizenship as indistinguishable from white supremacy. President Obama cannot be blamed for this fundamental derangement, a derangement as old as the republic.

Still, is it possible to see President Obama as somehow a sign of hope, a sign of something greater? Or is that indulging some sort of false faith? Wiley’s painting stands as a thoughtful, sincere answer. You could only see it as propaganda if you refused to see the illegal wars, coups & assassinations, and human rights abuses of other Presidents as issues. If you’re complaining about taking Wiley’s painting seriously, but haven’t complained about any other Presidential portrait before, you’re telling on yourself.

Kehinde Wiley, “President Barack Obama” (2018). Oil on canvas. On display at the National Portrait Gallery. Image from https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.2018.16

Typically, Presidential portraits feature the signs of office—maybe a flag, a statue of an eagle. They’ll be taken in an office, against dark paneling; if they’re bright and feature the subject outside, there will be classical architecture or official buildings around. The background speaks to power, the pose reflects that power.

Here, Wiley flips the genre on its head. The canvas is peppered with leaves of various greens and different flowers. The leaves and flowers reach over the chair, the sitter. It seems we are to believe there is something natural, full of life, and renewing about this Presidency.

It’s a daring claim, but the diversity of flowers and plants alone makes Wiley’s claim substantial. Previous administrations devoted themselves to appeasing slaveholders and excluding African-Americans from public life. They entrusted their legacy to denial of the Declaration and a cynical reading of the Constitution. Against that history, Obama’s Presidency is much more natural: it doesn’t try to outright deny the values on which the country was founded.

One might say that’s small comfort in the face of drone warfare and mass deportation. But the President did commute a number of sentences and tried in some ways to scale back mass incarceration. If the Medicaid expansion had been accepted by the states, that would have meant Obamacare would have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. You can say he wasn’t terribly effectual as a progressive figure, but that’s missing the big picture. Over against hundreds of years of systemic racism—over against lynchings, segregation, severe limits on immigration, policing as a means of social control—Obama’s Presidency was one of the more substantial signs that diversity could flourish in this country. He could have done more, but partly because of him, we could expect more.

An open collar, open hands, and open stance speak precisely that: openness. We can’t say President Obama was terribly transparent with regard to press inquiries. The openness Wiley references, though, is not to be taken for granted. Much has been made about President Obama’s meeting with the Sandy Hook parents, and if I hadn’t seen a President utterly unable to convey any empathy, I myself would be inclined to think this propaganda. It’s vital a leader can be real. A leader should be able to command respect in expressing sincere emotion on behalf of themselves and the country. This doesn’t mean they should be idolized or seen as beyond accountability. They need to be seen as an actual human we’ve entrusted with power—otherwise, the office has been given to a monster or a god.

The promise of the Presidency matters. It’s a delicate promise, one wavering between hope and unreality. President Obama and the chair he sits on can be seen as suspended in the painting. Is even the hope things are getting better–things can be better–just a dream? Not quite. I’m drawn to the details of the wooden chair. It’s elaborately rendered, not simply treated as a minor detail. That the chair is an elaborate carving, a work of art within a work of art, seems to be a bit of a jest and maybe the painting’s most serious point. You can let a natural beauty roam free, like the plants. But you can shape what is given by nature, like the wood of a tree. Whatever power entails need not always be violence—it can speak hope and beauty and freedom credibly. President Obama was far from perfect. But because of what he represented, however imperfectly, there’s the possibility of something far greater if we work to end the current nightmare. Maybe we will end drone strikes, end mass incarceration, embrace diversity and greater immigration, provide all with a greater standard of living and genuine opportunity, “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Wittgenstein, “Philosophical Investigations” 2: Blocks and Slabs

[Note: In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I start with Wittgenstein, precisely because he pushes us to explain what we normally take for granted. In the “Lecture on Ethics,” the question is what we mean when we state moral propositions. I want a few other questions of this sort to work through with the class. For example, what assumptions hide within a given use of language? What do we know, or what are we supposed to act like we know, that enables us to operate in the world?]

Désirée Weber observes that “a striking number of Wittgenstein’s examples throughout the Philosophical Investigations (PI) revolve around teaching and learning.” This complicates and deepens readings of PI: it isn’t enough to name the various philosophical or linguistic theories which may be critiqued in Wittgenstein’s thought-experiments. It is only enough to try to grapple with how they “[shed] light on the basis of normativity, the capacity to judge and the role of criteria in guiding our actions and sharing the forms of life that we inhabit” (Weber 1). For this reader, Weber’s citing Wittgenstein on a particular topic strikes as exceptionally powerful. How do we even know we’re in pain? Page 5 of Weber’s “A Pedagogic Reading of the Philosophical Investigations:” “In the case of pain, Wittgenstein ponders the following circumstance: if the immediate access to one’s own pain is not a suitable foundation for judgment, then can the only explanation be that we learn to exhibit and recognize pain behavior…?” We could conclude “norms” aren’t just things political scientists and wannabe pundits argue about—they may be how we know we’re even in the world; they’re about feeling pain in the first place. Accordingly, Weber holds that for Wittgenstein, “our individual self-conception is interwoven with the web of meaning beyond ourselves and in which we learn to understand ourselves” (6).

Earlier in her paper, Weber touches on Wittgenstein’s “complete” language from PI 2. From PI 2, edited by Lois Shawver:

Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B.  A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’.  A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language. 

Wittgenstein seems to assert that this thought-experiment has a very specific purpose. He wants to critique a “philosophical concept of meaning” which “has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions.” Words have meanings, and meanings are objects. Maybe those meanings offer us access to the objects in the world which we sense: perhaps when I say “chair,” an object for sitting appears in my mind, one that I can recognize in my everyday experience. In the thought-experiment above, there is a language with 4 words—”block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam”—which exists for an express purpose, communication between a builder and an assistant. Quite literally, it seems, words are objects. The only thing the assistant is to do is to bring the relevant stone—a “block,” a “pillar,” and so on—when the word is said.

So that’s it, right? We’ve exhausted “meaning” in this primitive language! The meaning of the word is the object the assistant has to pass to the builder. Here, Weber’s focus on teaching and learning comes into full relief. She wants to know how this language gained “traction,” how the interaction between builder and assistant became “norm-governed in the first place” (3-4). Someone might say she’s missing the point, but that’s not at all true—Wittgenstein himself wrote that the assistant learned to bring the appropriate stone at a certain call. How did that happen? For Weber, the “complete” language is complete: it contains worlds despite how simple it is. Because of that, ironically enough, if you say meaning admits of a simple definition in this scenario, that’s not quite going to work.

What strikes me is that we have not begun to exhaust “meaning” even in this extremely primitive scenario. The builder and assistant, to take an example, have different purposes with the same words within the “complete” language. Again, there are worlds stemming from a mere 4 words. The builder needs stones in a specific order to build a certain object. There may be another language he has access to which explains what he may be building and how. The assistant may also have specialized knowledge, another language of his own. What if the differences between a “block” and “slab” are hard to detect? What if the builder himself would have trouble telling the difference between the two, but the assistant can more easily see it? One approach uniting some of these concerns: If you remember Aristotle’s discussion early in the Ethics of a hierarchy of ends of various arts, you know what I’m driving at. Something done for its own sake, with no other end, is what governs all other arts: we commit to political science, then, for the sake of human happiness. Similarly, there’s a hierarchy hiding in the ends of builder and assistant in one way of imagining this scenario. That hierarchy can’t possibly be irrelevant when considering meaning, not because “hierarchy” has any priority over other interpretations, but because it opens questions of power, imagination, and realization. What, in the end, is being built by the builder and assistant?

I am open to the charge that I myself am imagining too much. But I respond that there are potentially two different meanings for “block” and “slab” and each of the other words because the builder and assistant see them from two different perspectives. The so-called higher purpose of building may unite these different meanings, but it does not eliminate them. They are still around and lead to other language-games and other languages.

Wittgenstein, I believe, seems to share a similar idea. He concludes this experiment in PI 3 with this remark: It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…” –and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games. Someone might say “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” “beam,” on their own, can build a house. All one has to do is call them out and arrange them. But let’s say a house is built, somehow, out of these things. It looks like we’ve described one thing, one sort of game, maybe only one way of building a house.

It is the case I began this post by crediting Weber for opening up, for me, the possibility of addressing the topic of self-knowledge in Wittgenstein’s thought. She uses the phrase “individual self-conception,” which one might consider more specific than self-knowledge. I do believe that being able to identify what pain is and means goes a long way to building one’s identity and understanding how society encourages or stands in opposition to it. “Blocks” and “slabs” do not immediately lend themselves to pain and how we know ourselves. But they do speak to expectation–the builder’s expectation for the assistant, written into the words themselves more visibly, and the assistant’s expectation for the builder, which is silently present. It may sound obvious to say that expectations can be an essential part of norms, but nothing could be less obvious in daily life. Every second of every day we expect people to conform to a number of ideas we quietly hold about them. We are unrelenting in our demand for “blocks” and “slabs,” and the question of what we’re building might not ever be raised.


Weber, Désirée (2015). “A Pedagogic Reading of the Philosophical Investigations: Criteria Judgment and Normativity.” International Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg von Wechsel, Austria. Accessed via https://www.academia.edu/15257487/A_Pedagogic_Reading_of_the_Philosophical_Investigations_Criteria_Judgment_and_Normativity

Plato, “Apology of Socrates” 19b-c

[Note: Blogging more about lesson plans because “course goals” and “course objectives” do not quite capture the conversation I’m trying to start. I do not like straight lecturing. I try as much as possible to read together as a class, ask questions, get everyone to speak. This means I need a really good grasp of the landscape of ideas I’m covering: I can’t just make a point and argue it, sometimes illustrating it. I need to be able to generate and guide a discussion about themes rarely encountered, much less discussed.]

“What is Philosophy?” will be supplemented with excerpts from Plato and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. I need students to have a working definition of “philosophy”—one they’re comfortable using—and some idea of what Socrates’ life, inquiry, and death were like. I also want them to begin to appreciate the larger use of the terms “tragedy” and “comedy,” as well as how that use curiously comes from trying to navigate the space between religion, politics, and entertainment. The assignment for the next few classes is Antigone, which gravely considers the tension between city’s civic and divine foundations. Antigone is meant to be popular—not just accessible to many, but revered by many.

Plato, Apology of Socrates 19a-23b is part of my plan. There, Socrates states the accusation against him, says it comes from a comedy (!) lingering in the public imagination, and then tells the story of how one of his followers asked the Delphic Oracle about Socrates’ wisdom, receiving the answer that no one was wiser than him. Socrates then challenges Apollo’s wisdom, searching for someone wiser than himself, but despite his questioning of everyone in Athens who are all now eager to put him to death, cannot find anyone wiser.

The challenge for the majority of students comes from the text being translated Greek. That I’m using a public domain translation makes it a bit harder, but this still would be a pain even with a contemporary translation. It takes a moment to process what’s being said—the Greek names are also stumbling blocks—and it can be discouraging if someone seems to “get it” before you do, as if reading isn’t your thing.

So I think I need some takeaways from this excerpt. The takeaways need to center on a passage, and I need to paraphrase that passage for the sake of accessibility, providing additional context and information. The idea is that if there are, say, three takeaways from the excerpt, that’s at least three reasons to revisit the text and reinforce what you know is there, if not find something more.

Here is the one passage I hope will stay with the students, which concerns the strange juxtaposition of science, justice, & comedy:

(19b-c): What did those who aroused the prejudice [against me] say to arouse it? I must, as it were, read their sworn statement as if they were plaintiffs: “Socrates is a criminal and a busybody, investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger and teaching others these same things.” Something of that sort it is. For you yourselves saw these things in Aristophanes’ comedy, a Socrates being carried about there, proclaiming that he was treading on air and uttering a vast deal of other nonsense, about which I know nothing, either much or little.

Socrates says people have “prejudice” against him—I hope that’s clear enough, but if not, imagine everyone, everywhere you go, thinking of you as the worst. I mean, all of us want to feel like we belong, and we can invest too much in wanting to be liked by other people. We can feel crushed if we don’t hear from who we think we want to hear from. This is different, though there are some similar feelings in play. What if everyone and their parents and their family and their friends said “eww, don’t be around him/her, not if you want to continue hanging out with me!” or “Not if you want to continue living in this house!” I’m not saying Socrates was totally dehumanized, but the “prejudice” means he’s become a joke to an entire city and is subject to further dehumanization. Which is one reason he’s on trial: if people are treated as jokes, as clowns, bullies will put that much more pressure on them.

Now look closely at the prejudice, which Socrates frames as the complaint against him. Socrates is a “criminal” and a “busybody;” we get what those words mean. He’s good-for-nothing, worse than useless, not fit to be part of society. Jason Stanley’s “How Fascism Works,” if you’re interested in how certain tropes and propaganda have become more commonplace, makes a powerful case that fascism will paint some groups and individuals as useless, parasitic, living off of “hard-working” citizens. We might say that Athenian democracy is not in the healthiest shape before Socrates’ trial; the blame Socrates gets—for what, exactly?—is disproportional, like being thrown in jail for a parking ticket. Plato, the author of the Apology and other dialogues featuring Socrates, develops a line of thought a number of scholars see this way: Socrates, as philosopher, has a radically different vision of the good life than that of the city. The “city,” or you could say political life, holds that if you obey its laws and embrace the spirit of its laws, you’ll be happy and moral and honored. Because the philosopher does not see this as necessarily true, he’s in fatal tension with the city. If you take this latter approach, where the philosopher and the city inevitably conflict, you get a rich, thoughtful problematic: to what degree do all political things, rightly or wrongly, obscure or hinder the search for knowledge? But the very strength of this approach means you can miss the warning signs of when a society is breaking apart, when people can’t see each other as human beings.

The complaint, as Socrates puts it, charges him with “investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger and teaching others these same things.” Investigating the things beneath the earth? That’s Hades’ domain, the domain of the dead. The heavens? That also belongs to the gods–Icarus was not meant to fly so high. The charge has a certain poetry, but the intent is unmistakable: don’t ask scientific questions, don’t try to understand what is underneath us or above us. Let us have our traditions, our gods, our laws which stem from both. Two things here are exceptionally hard for us to understand—we, who believe ourselves scientific and enlightened. First, how could a society so bluntly assert that science has no value? It’s not hard for us to imagine public opinion turning against science, but it is hard for us to think of society’s starting point as a real reverence and fear of the law itself. This isn’t to say we don’t hold law to be powerful or even sacred: we certainly do, in our own way. But we don’t see lawfulness as automatically making fun of science, holding science to be useless from the start. Someone like Stephen Hawking, whose interest was the “heavens,” who wondered about the origin of the very universe, is held in great esteem by us.

Second, what does the practice of science have to do with “making the weaker argument stronger?” Socrates is accused of being a scientist who wants to meddle with our notions of the divine and a shady lawyer who teaches ways around the truth. The complaint is breathtaking in its arrogance—it accuses Socrates of wanting the truth, searching high and low for it, while accusing him of manipulating the truth and teaching that manipulation to others. But the complaint, if Socrates’ rendering of the prejudice is accurate, is not about “truth.” It’s about Socrates’ injustice. Socrates does injustice to gods and men: he tries to dethrone the gods, he tries to displace truth in favor of liars. The funny thing is that this prejudice does render the nature of justice correctly. Justice is concerned with not exploring the truth in the case of the gods and defending the truth as an exclusive basis for faith among men. Justice’s stance toward the truth itself is incoherent.

This doesn’t mean “nothing matters” or “society’s just a big lie, man.” It indicates that justice is a different kind of claim than that of knowledge. But it also indicates only one sort of person is going to see this problem clearly: a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, who tries to see the truth for what it is. You’ll note that this passage is part of a longer sequence, where Socrates investigates whether he is indeed the wisest of all men in order to disprove Apollo, and finds that he cannot disprove god. That sequence you could call “comic.” It’s meant to be a joke, but not a joke dismissing Socrates and what he stood for, but one showing how crazy our moral intuitions—our “gut instinct,” if you will—can be.