5 Badass (And Bonkers) Moments In Philosophy History
We all know philosophy was invented in 1999 as a part of The Matrix's marketing campaign. But did you know it kinda existed before? Either that or The Matrix's marketing campaign was really, really thorough. In any case, the history of philosophy is not only full of complex and obscure ideas, but it's also full of badass (and bonkers) stories of radical intellectual bravery …
Socrates Doubles Down On A Death Sentence
You've surely heard of Socrates. He was a Greek philosopher from the 5th century BC, and in the obscure, technical jargon philosophers use, dude was made of sass. He never wrote anything, which means that the main things we know about him come from three people who knew him while he was alive. They all agree on Socrates' shtick, though, which was to go around ancient Athens (back then, it was called "contemporary Athens") questioning its most important people on what the hell it is that they do. They never had an answer, and so Socrates would put his troll face on, say, 'Hey, don't ask me, all I know is I don't know anything,' and be on his way to annoy the next big shot like a damn bug. As you can probably guess, Athens' fat cats didn't like this so much.
Given his challenging societal role and his intellectual influence on Athens, around 399 BC, Socrates was sentenced to death on two charges. These were worshiping false gods and corrupting the youth, which sounds so cool one almost expects the third charge to be "pimp game too strong."
Now, we have a lot of info on Socrates' trial given Xenophon's account, but mainly thanks to the one left by his most famous disciple, Plato. We won't get into details around his Apology of Socrates, except for one specific detail that really puts Socrates' badass acceptance of death in perspective.
You see, during his trial, Socrates also had the opportunity for a plea. Did he ask for the quickest death? For jail time instead? Maybe for the charges to be dropped? Nah, proving what would later be a central tenet of another philosopher's thought, Socrates saw the game was over and, instead of pleading for leniency, demanded something even dry academic commentators call "purposely outrageous." He stood up in front of the judges and said that he actually deserved a reward for his service to Athens. The reward? Free food at the same building government officials and Olympic champions met—forever. We assume Plato omitted key information, and Socrates also asked for a wicked new electric guitar. Luckily his cooler friends let him shred on theirs before he died.
Diogenes Refused To Sell Out
If Socrates disregarded the silly laws of man given his commitment to reason, Diogenes took this commitment to the next level, by which we mean hippies rolling in the mud level. Diogenes lived a bit later than Socrates, and he was a philosopher who roamed the streets of ancient Greece, even heckling Plato's classes for, we assume, having been Socrates' teacher's pet. Now, when we say he 'roamed the streets,' this is to be taken literally. Diogenes lived on the street, begged for a living, and slept in a giant ceramic jar, all things for which he was also nicknamed "The Dog."
Wait, and did we mention he would masturbate on the street? Because he did. All of this quirkiness came from Diogenes' philosophy of Cynicism, which denounced the artificial lures of society and instead proposed that reason should align with nature—which is exactly what I tell people when they complain about me masturbating on the street. The real test for his ideas came when literally the most powerful man on the planet came knocking on his, erm, door? Do giant jars even have doors? Whatever, it's not like he needed privacy.
So imagine this: you're just chilling under the sun, just really perfecting that tan, maybe scheming new ways to bully Plato, and suddenly Alexander the Friggin' Great stands next to you along with his douche entourage. Apparently, this may have actually happened. Perhaps. The point is: since he couldn't waste his wealth on dumb crap like space travel, Alexander had to find other ways of enjoying it. He thus got closer to Diogenes and asked him to name whatever the philosopher wanted so he could get it for him. Diogenes simply replied: "Move over, you're blocking the sun." Talk about indie cred. There are other versions of the anecdote, but it is believed that Alexander was amazed by this answer and praised Diogenes' wisdom while his yes-men laughed at him. Game recognize game, indeed.
Also, Oliver Stone really screwed up by not including this in any of his 17 cuts of Alexander:
Nietzsche Told His Racist Sister She Sucked
Hell yeah, we're getting to the good stuff now. 19th-century philosopher Friedrich' God is dead and also Socrates sucks' Nietzsche wrote scathing critiques of Western morality, hated Christianity, but is probably most remembered for being an antisemite. Except here's the interesting part: He wasn't. Not really. Nietzsche treated Jews with the same intellectual respect with which he treated his highest philosophical friends and rivals, and even at his more yikes-y moments, it has long been agreed upon that the 'Nietzsche was an antisemite' slander doesn't really hold up.
So why is it that up to this day, the people who make being wrong their entire personality still misinterpret him as a proto-Nazi? The person really at fault here is Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth. And ooh boy, Elisabeth sucked. She actually was an antisemite, married another one, tried to create an Aryan colony in Paraguay, and much later even joined the Nazi party. If that wasn't enough, Elisabeth even took to butchering Nietzsche's notebooks after he went mad in order to twist his philosophy into fitting her, erm, 'ideology.' And before all this happened, what was Nietzsche's stance in relation to her sister's awful taste? He hated it—and he was so clear and consistent about it that the entire controversy was pretty much settled before it arose.
In fact, Nietzsche's entire work is full of criticisms of antisemites, which fits nicely with his 'no patience for nonsense' persona. Particularly important here is one specific letter he wrote to Elisabeth in 1887, which says—no, wait, before we quote it, play this in the background. Alright, all settled? Awesome. Nietzsche wrote to her sister: "You have committed one of the greatest stupidities—for yourself and for me! Your association with an antisemitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy (...) It is a matter of honor with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to antisemitism, namely, opposed to it, as I am in my writings." Damn. We need a Rock reading of that burn.
What a magnificent Dionysian bastard.
Lacan Publicly Humiliated A Smug Roman Polanski
Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst, the greatest one after Sigmund' Hey, I'm not a hack, well, maybe I am, okay, it's complicated' Freud. In fact, Lacan might even be superior to Freud (think T2 to the first Terminator), an intellectual merit that has been popularized in recent years by a certain Slovenian meme that is also a big fan. Lacan ruled the Parisian scene during the second half of the last century, along with other French acts like Sartre, Foucault, and groovy rock music. And he was also a pompous narcissist—think Kanye, but, like, smart.
One problem with Lacan (besides his repellently complex work) was that he was full of himself, yet as a psychoanalyst, he was also aware that we are all full of ourselves—that is, as a defense mechanism against our unconscious fantasies and wishes. This, Cracked readers, is Psychoanalysis 101. Lacan was also kind of a self-aware clown, which is as common as a smart Elon Musk opinion. This all means that sparks would fly when Lacan had to deal with self-aggrandizing others that, unlike him, had no knowledge of the Freudian reasons we silly monkeys need to boast. And then Lacan just had to meet a self-aggrandizing jerk that also happened to be a creep. Roman Polanski.
As told by an early American student, during the mid-'70s Lacan wanted to meet the hot director in town and future de-sleazified Tarantino character, Roman Polanski. Lacan and the common friend who planned the meeting showed up early at the restaurant. Then, fashionably late, Polanski arrived. He entered the restaurant strutting, greeting everyone, acting like a rockstar while using the cute girl under his arm as a prop. Textbook douchebaggery. But Lacan didn't have patience for nonsense either, and so even before Polanski sat down, he answered by groaning in front of everyone. Several times. Loudly. Lacan thus out-douched Polanski by showing him what his need for attention really looked like. As the disciple writes, "this is a wonderful way to greet an exhibitionist."
Kondiaronk Schooled' Civilized' Europeans On What Civilization Actually Means
The final story has only recently been brought to our attention. And it is something of a Cracked primer (and a controversial one at that), since our protagonist is not 'officially' in the history of philosophy, so we're kinda making high-brow intellectual history here (*note to self: do not insert a fart joke in this entry*). Kondiaronk was a 17th-century Chief of the Hurons, and he was highly respected for his wisdom and oratory skills. Dude was the Socrates of his time, except, you know, without the show trial. Kondiaronk, in fact, was so intellectually respected that he even toured Paris salons and was a frequent guest of the Governor of Montreal. Now, we assume in 17th-century Paris, people were just starting to get into their fancy new ideas, but their political and ethical takes were still bootlickingly cringe for freedom-loving Kondiaronk.
Apparently, Kondiaronk's conversations with the Governor of Montreal were fascinating. These friendly chats showed clearly the tensions between Natives and emerging European political ideals. For Kondiaronk, the fact Europeans wanted to promote reason while at the same time upholding wealth-based hierarchies was an irresolvable contradiction. These conversations show this clearly: the 'civilized' man defends the necessity of money and hierarchy, while the 'savage' defends the infinite possibilities of 'wisdom, reason, equity, etc.' His point was literally, "How can we be the uncivilized ones if you guys have people sleeping in the street??" It would be an understatement to say this burn still burns.
Considering these conversations were witnessed and written about by an Enlightenment writer, it has recently been proposed that Kondiaronk's radical egalitarianism was a major influence on the ongoing development of the Enlightenment (which still didn't take its own rational values seriously enough, but whatever). Now, Kondiaronk's influence is something scholars are currently disputing, so we'll just support whoever wins the fight. Still, if the positive interpretation of his legacy simply means that parts of the Enlightenment grew off of Natives making fun of European lameness, that would be awesome.
Thumbnail: Jacques-Louis David