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Gadfly Politics as Integral Part of Philosophy
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-02-20 11:28:09
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As most students of philosophy know, Plato in the Apology describes Socrates’ relationship to the Athenian political scene as that of a gadfly; that is to say, as that of an uncomfortable goad to a slow and dimwitted horse. To put it in more philosophical terms, Socrates was in the inveterate persistent habit of challenging  taken for granted assumptions by the powerful of his society and the accepted status quo with novel and upsetting questions.

Many in Athens found Socrates’ dissent quite irritating. They would have rather have overlooked those questions. Eventually they decided to swat the irritating gadfly and charged him with corruption of the Athenian youth and impiety toward the gods. Plato has Socrates say in his defense that silencing men like him was easy but the cost of depriving society of those men could be quite high. Socrates says that “If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me." He considered his role as that of a gadfly, "to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth."

From then on, the word gadfly has been used in a pejorative mode by those who like the status quo, and in a positive sense by those who wish to describe honorable civic duty. The former, in fact, consider polemics in general as healthy for any polity, especially one that considers itself as democratic and egalitarian and practicing free speech.

So, Socrates was a contrarian of sort. Given that he shaped the original paradigm of Western philosophy, we could safely state that integral part of any philosopher worth his/her salt is that of challenging assumptions and being a contrarian, or a gadfly. To be a great philosopher means to challenge how people live their lives and persuade them that they need to change. In fact, if a philosopher keeps you awake at night and you are afraid that he/she may sting and irritate you, you may be quite sure that you are dealing with a great philosopher and should pay attention. When teaching philosophers I often remind my students that if they find some of the philosophical assertions of Socrates unsettling, then I am doing my job in presenting him truthfully.


Emmanuel Levinas at his desk

Within this established Socratic tradition of the gadfly, we can easily identify three of the most eminent modern practitioners of gadfly philosophy: Kierkegaard, Unamuno, and Levinas. They preach a kind of fire-and brimstone philosophy that keeps one vigilant. In his The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, Unamuno addresses his readers thus: “Reader, listen: Though I do not know you, I love you so much that if I could hold you in my hands, I would open up your breast, and in your heart’s core I would make a wound, and into it I would rub vinegar and salt, so that you might never again know peace but would live in continual anguish and endless longing.”


Soren Kierkegaard at his desk

Levinas too asserts that philosophical insomnia is necessary for any authentic ethics. Kierkegaard (writing with the pseudonym of Climacus) asserts that “the most one person can do for another is to unsettle him.” Again turning to Unamuno, in his The Agony of Christianity, he writes that “To awaken the sleeping and rouse the loitering is a work of supreme mercy, and to seek the truth in everything and everywhere, reveal fraud, foolishness, and ineptitude, is a work of supreme religious piety…Most of my work has been an effort stir the up others, to disturb the very fabric of their heart, to distress them if I can.”


Miguel de Unamuno at his desk

What these gadfly philosophers are doing is to encourage their readers not to be afraid to think their thoughts through and to consider that in philosophy the question may be much more important than the pat answer. Therefore a good philosophy teacher rather than instruct and impart notions to be regurgitated on an exam, agitates and stimulates; even keeps his students up at night. As Unamuno puts it to his readers: “God, friend, did not send me into the world to be an apostle of peace, or to reap sympathy, but to be a sower of disquietude and irritation and to endure antipathy. Antipathy is the price of my redemption.”


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Nikos Laios2015-02-20 12:36:29
Thank you very much for your article Emanuel,I enjoyed it immensely,and you pose an appropriate question.Whether one simply lives in today's age mechanically like a dumb beast,or to look in the mirror and ask those awkward uncomfortable questions that stirs the tepid muddied waters of our existence so that we may be better able to fashion for ourselves a better,authentic existentialist reality that is honest and real.The road to reality and salvation begins with these uncomfortable questions I think.

Gerard Farley2015-04-10 22:32:28
An excellent article, Emanuel.
I think of Ivan Illich as another such gadfly. Gadflies are not simply contrary. Behind every "No," there is a "Yes" lurking and gadflies have a way of goading us on to search for the "Yes."
Gadflies are sometimes mistaken for purely negative people. You have done well in pointing this out.

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