Saturday, July 25, 2009

What are you on (about), dear Socrates?

Large headbust of bearded Socrates

Socrates is an enigmatic, highly influential figure of Western philosophy. Although we see him through the eyes of his admiring student Plato, Socrates has been accredited for creating his own method, the elenchus.

The elenchus is a constant and rigorous questioning of values. In fact, it is so intense and rigorous, sharpened by the merciless stiletto of logic that his friends and fellow philosophers are left baffled and speechless on numerous accounts.

In Plato's Dialogues, there are several instances where his friends cry out that they do not understand or have great difficulty following this brilliant philosopher's speeding train of thought. Socrates is often asked to clarify what he means by this or that and how he jumps to certain conclusions – most of which are indeed not immediately self-evident.

In the end, however, almost anybody who comes into contact with this famously “ugly-looking” thinker will leave the conversation in a state of perplexity and utter confusion. Socrates, to their great dismay, has not only left their questions unanswered; he has led them through the shady paths and dark alleys of doubt and has added fuel to the fire by eliciting even more questions!

So, dear readers, a piece of advice or warning: Don't look for answers when dealing with Socrates. Be ready to sacrifice the little knowledge you thought you had. Because as Socrates states himself, he is wise only because he knows that he knows nothing.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Zoos, Habit(at)s and Thoughts on Animal and Human Freedom

Ape at zoo looking at the camera
Tiger staring through a fence at camera
In Yann Martel's acclaimed book Life of Pi the first person narrator defends the case for zoos and discusses notions of freedom from the point of view of animals. Some people criticize zoos for being confined spaces as opposed to the natural habitat and forms of life, and it mostly boils down to questions of freedom and happiness.

Are zoos a form of jail for the animals and are they unhappy there? Are they stressed because of all the human attention and the clicking cameras and the pointy fingers?

A zoo is indeed a confined space, but it comes with various advantages. One of them is safety; another is a steady supply of food. In the wild, it is literally a jungle. All the animals need to hunt for food in order to avoid starvation, but with it there is the constant danger of becoming prey to other stronger and fiercer animals. In the zoo, they may lose some of those killer instincts, but they are fed and protected by humans.

In the book, there is an analysis of how animals are actually very conservative creatures. Animals generally prefer recurring habits and routine over going out and searching for adventure beyond their territory or safety zone. It is not out of sheer fun that they go hunting; it is a necessity. If they could stay home and order a pizza, they would immediately opt for that.

When we look at it, we humans are not that different. We also run on routines and safety zones. We are equally traditional deep inside. Although we may have notions of freedom, we often still cling to a “settled life,” having our house, a shelter, a roof over our heads, and we do not roam the country and sleep outside “free as a bird.”

Freedom becomes a matter of expressing one's thoughts and ideas and also in choosing lifestyles and actions that best suit us, with a little of occasional foreign travel thrown in. Yet it is not wild anarchy since life follows its own rhythm; it is dependent on basic necessities and certain habits, whether they be expressed through work, a spouse, or certain recurring reassuring activities.

If animals are taken care of, have enough space and one that reflects their own habitat, when they are fed on a regular basis, then the zoo would seem an ideal place. They would not be able to survive in their natural habitat, the jungle - something the animals in Madagascar realized the hard way - but they would become their own brand of species. And if treated well, it would be a great way to preserve species from extinction. If only, of course, they would adapt to the crazy “famous” lifestyle and the paparazzi of foreign tourists and local people, including swarms of shouting and running kids.