Live! From the Porch of the King Archon!

-A Critical Analysis of Postmodern Similarities Between The Euthyphro and Network

Socrates was a man in his time famous for stirring the pot of public opinion. The self-appointed “gadfly” of Athens, he spent most of his time—according to both historical records and the Dialogues written by Plato—wandering from place to place, proving people wrong in his—again, self-appointed—quest to find the one man in the world smarter than he was. Had he lived today, he would have made for excellent television—one could easily see him as a man-on-the-street cable news anchor, pulling aside random itinerant passersby and asking them if they truly understood what “justice” meant.

Luckily, while there hasn’t been a movie or show about Socrates made quite like that, there is a parallel to the old man that can be found in the 1976 film Network, in the character of Howard Beale—a down-and-out newsman who finds himself “preaching against the hypocrisies of our times” when either a psychotic break or spiritual revelation sends him on a quest of sorts to evangelize a modern gospel against the mass mania he sees in the world as a product of television.

These two, separated by only a couple thousand years, share more than advanced age, a proclivity for curmudgeon-ism, and a guided spiritual/and/or psychotic quest—Socrates, like Howard, believed he was in consistent contact with an ethereal voice, a daimon, that provided him at times with impetus for philosophical inquiry.

Rather, both bring forward—Socrates in the Dialogue Euthyphro, and Howard Beale in Network—a similar call to action: for their audiences to investigate the roots of meaning in their respective societies, and decide how much sway these meanings have, and whether they’re owed the weight of social currency that’s been so given to them. Both calls could be viewed almost as being oddly—in the case of Socrates—or understandably—in the case of Howard—postmodern, though the similarity in messaging may belie a greater connection than just the labeling of a mid-19th century thought movement.

The postmodern condition is illustrated by the social critic and author of Simulacra and Simulation Jean Baudrillard:

“…a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” (Baudrillard, pg. 2).

What Baudrillard and many other postmodernists mean by statements like this one is that, in the postmodern conception of the world, everything is called into question, and nothing is safe from deconstruction. Whether it’s the belief in a God, the stature of the State, or even communal or individual relations, postmodernism sets out to investigate the foundations of systems of meaning, oftentimes uprooting the same systems it’s studying in pursuit of its goal. Many critics of postmodernism levy the charge that the system of thought is utterly meaningless and does not provide anything other than a cynical framework with which both radical and sloppy academics use to prove their own conclusions, and devalue the conclusions of others on a fundamental basis, with little-to-no extant evidence that confirms them.

This criticism is certainly warranted, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude the effectiveness of the methods of deconstruction that postmodernists use, nor does it abolish any apparent similarity—cosmetic, coincidental, or otherwise—between its methods of investigation, or at least its pursuits, and much older records of similar patterns of thought.

One place where such a “postmodern” strain of thought can be found is in the Socratic Dialogue Euthyphro.

The Euthyphro is a Socratic Dialogue, written by Plato, dated to have been written roughly between 399 and 395 B.C.E. The Dialogue—which reads much like a play—centers around a discussion between Socrates, who is awaiting trial on the front steps, the porch, of the King Archon of Athens, and a young lawyer—the eponymous Euthyphro—emerges, himself having just exited a trial he brought to court.

Socrates has been accused of impiety by the Athenian Court—namely, he’s been charged with corrupting the youth and teaching false gods. Luckily for him, Euthyphro is an expert on the matter, as the young lawyer proclaims, having just brought his father to court on the charge of murder, another impious action.

For a moment, Socrates is taken aback—he asks how Euthyphro could have been so sure as to bring his father to trial for murder.

Euthyphro explains the situation—his father found a worker on the family estate who had beaten a slave to death. Euthyphro’s father beat the worker, bound him, and sent a messenger to contact the local authorities. Unfortunately, by the time the authorities arrived, the worker had died from exposure, and Euthyphro’s father was in-turn—by Euthyphro himself—brought to court on the charges of impiety through murder, a capital crime.

This is an intricate table-setting for the central discussion of the Dialogue—Socrates begins an investigation, through his conversation with Euthyphro, on the nature of piety and impiety. More specifically, he wants to know whether an action is pious because it is loved by the gods, or if it is loved by the gods because it is pious.

Piety, or proper respect/worship of the gods, was a cornerstone of ancient Greek society. Cities like Athens and Sparta and many others had designated patron gods that were believed to have a special connection with the polis, the city. The observation of religious festivals was intertwined with Greek civic life, and as such, proper veneration, piety, made for a good citizen.

In the context of the Euthyphro, the wedding of religious sentiment and legal framework is more than evident—Euthyphro, as a young lawyer, not just expected to understand the basics of law, but also the basics of religious observation. He can’t just understand why a law should be followed for the sake of the common citizen—he needs to be able to interpret the will of the gods, as articulated through the laws of the city.

There is a problem, however—Euthyphro is unable to give Socrates a clear-cut definition of what “piety” is. Throughout the Dialogue, the two bounce between a number of conceits: is piety what is loved by the gods? Is it what is beneficial to them? Is it what improves them? And in each example, Socrates points out, continually, that Euthyphro doesn’t seem to be able to offer an actual definition of what a pious action would be.

For example:

“…you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.” (Plato, pg. 9).

The idea would be that piety, true piety, much like true justice or true good, would be pious through-and-through—there cannot be any variation in what makes a pious action truly pious, otherwise it must not be truly pious.

And funnily enough, Euthyphro’s very first defense of piety is as follows:


“Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime—whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be —that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety.” (Plato, pg. 7).

This idea—that the proposed definition of a principle is the name of the principle itself, or any action that anyone who invokes the principle performs—would rankle any postmodernist of slight degree. It certainly rankled Socrates at the time, mainly because it avoids a kind of deeper investigation as to what is actually being discussed. Such a broad and shallow obfuscation leads true principles into becoming conventions—articles of speech accepted on the merit of their name alone. In a more religious context, where faith must be invoked, this sentiment is permissible, and even necessary; but in the context of the law, where proof of an idea must be provided in order to substantiate claims, any kind of moral or legal convention that can be invoked and readily accepted at a moment’s notice is a deadly article easily abused. And it is deadly—Socrates was sentenced to death after his trial, and forced to drink a hemlock mixture.

Two thousand-odd years later, Howard Beale is killed in Network, gunned down on live television by hitmen hired by network executives, for the same crime of investigation against the pious convention of his time—television.

Network is a film concerned with the slow, corrosive effects a medium such as television can have on its audience and how they interact with the world, and Howard Beale is the primary vehicle for much of the film’s criticism regarding this relationship. After ascending from the lowly station of a network news anchor to the much higher calling of hosting his own show—The Howard Beale Show, with the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, Howard Beale!—he delivers several monologues over the course of the movie, many of which chastise the audience themselves for simply sitting in front of their television sets and absorbing whatever comes out as truth.

“We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds…. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you eventhink like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing!WEare the illusion!” (Lumet, Network, 1976).

As aggressive as his diatribes can be, Howard’s primary motivation does not appear to be one of actual anger or rage—as much as the executives try to bill him and his show as such—but rather of a genuine recognition of a crisis he and the people he broadcasts to are facing in their time: the slow erosion of any kind of meaning, any kind of reality, any kind of humanity, that such a devotion to television can engender.

Television acts, in Network, as a kind Euthyphro-ian figure—a delivery mechanism for the conventional wisdom of the time, packaged in entertainment and advertisement—that Howard’s Socratic character remains in constant dialogue with. And, even between both pieces, the audience is essentially the same—anyone who will listen, to either Socrates or Howard, and attempt to understand what it is they’re exactly saying.

And that dual call-to-action for investigating the roots of meaning, or at least what is being taken as meaningful by pure convention alone, is a motif that is echoed by postmodernism and its practitioners continually.

However.

It is at this point that the postmodern connection between the Euthyphro and Network must itself be investigated and perhaps deconstructed—no convention must be left unturned. While one could, at a cursory glance, label Socrates’ methods as postmodern in the context of the present, it’s perhaps of worth to pose the question: are his arguments and person are themselves postmodern, or do they simply resemble postmodern thought?

From a pure historical basis, claiming Socrates to be a postmodernist isn’t just haphazard, it’s unintelligible—the man lived thousands of years before the emergence of the movement, and even if he had been alive at the time of its development around the mid-20th century, there’s no conclusive way to prove whether or not he would have summarily agreed with the assertions of the postmodernists as they developed and evolved.

At the same time, Network and Howard Beale, taken perhaps as echoes of a Socratic nature, are incredibly postmodern—not only were they produced within the middle of the postmodern movement’s development, they are resounding monuments to attitudes and investigations by various postmodern thinkers such as Debord and Baudrillard into the language of image and what happens when mass media is taken on a conventional basis to disperse truth.

So, the synthesis could arguably be made that postmodernism itself is not necessarily a novel movement—rather, as anti-establishment as it positions itself, it appears to possess roots of a potentially perennial nature, going back as far as the Classical Period and some of the most famous and infamous philosophers, not just of the Period, but in the history of Western Civilization.

This is not meant to be a proven assertion, but rather an observation of an interesting connection between what would appear to be two incredibly different time periods, societies, and works of art. And, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek fashion, it is more than a bit humorous to conceive the idea that one of the most fervent, deconstructionist, anti-establishment movements of thought and skepticism to so far evolve in the realms of philosophy, literature, and art may very well share the exact same foundations with the exact same establishments, in one way or another, that it is ritualistically attempting to re-purpose, revise, and reconstruct.

All in all, the parallels between The Euthyphro and Network may be tenuous at best, but such an examination provides a wealth of interesting similarities between the two that feel relevant in the modern day regardless. The interrogation of what truly makes meaning mean something in a society, whether it comes from a Greek, a newsman, a postmodernist, or just a member of the audience, will no doubt always possess some quality of importance in relation to both those individuals and the societies or structures they inhabit. Whether it’s the concept of piety or truth in advertising, it never seems to be bad idea—in fact, given the two pieces, it often seems encouraged by top artists and thinkers alike—to ask the question, politely: what do you mean by that?

-Bibliography-

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

“EUTHYPHRO.” Euthyphro, by Plato, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm.

Lumet, Sidney, Director. Network. United Artists, 1976.

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