The Socratic demon

Philip Pullman is not a writer in the same league as C.S. Lewis, with his lovely lion; but in the books that made him famous, before he became self-righteous and dull, there are some wonderful imaginative creations, not least the “daemon” that each person has, a companion familiar that is a sort of projection of character, that settles to a fixed form in adolescence. Something very like this must be true, but in this cosmology, we must make do with a nebulous and ineffable sense of the quiddity of a person, his smell and eye and presence in a room; just as Aslan cannot be seen, as a lion, by adults. The demon of Socrates sounds a bit like a conscience, the voice that only ever says “no”. Is it always wrong to ignore it? I think it speaks at moments that are a leap into the dark, decisions that seem likely to go wrong, and cannot be revoked, such as suicide, religious conversion, betrayal (“in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”), adultery, or clicking Send. Mine has given good advice on the whole, but I don’t always listen. It is something more than the precautionary principle. But how can one tell the difference between the pangs of conscience, and a failure of nerve?

There’s an equivalent on the collective level. When electorates deliver perverse results, or the mob erupts, it has lost its compass (as someone said six years ago, “America has elected its id”). With hindsight, we may say it had to be — the ancien regime was rotten — but at the time of the rupture, all there is is the collapse of what went before. Discontent always murmurs, but when things are working, it cannot gather enough force to bring a new order into being. There is, rightly, a presumption in favour of stability, for all the imperfection of any system of government. For it to collapse, there has to be a critical mass. Weakness alone is not enough to bring down the tottering edifice. The perspective of hindsight distinguishes between “good” and necessary revolutions, and irruptions of barbarism; but the difference lies not in the character of the collapse, but whatever fresh virtues emerge as things settle again to a new status quo. At the time, there is just chaos. One example is the displacement of unsavoury but stable regimes in the Middle East “spring” (whether by revolution or foreign conquest). The defects of the old don’t inevitably lead to a superior replacement. Change is chaotic.

Early Christianity turned the demon on its head, as an imp tempting us from the one true path. But such inner voices don’t say no, don’t urge us to hold back, they seduce us into wrongdoing. Considering the question of “good” and “bad” upheavals, whether personal or political, does that mean we must do wrong if we are to change? That’s how adolescence is understood today, though it was not always so: a process of breaking free.


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