“On What Is Not:” In Defense of Conscious ‘Non-Existence.’


Disclaimer: This following introduction is a piece of poorly written satire, I don’t genuinely believe that Plato was autistic (although if he was, that’s also fine!), or any other of the stupid things I write.

“The wise person, as the proverb says, is late for the fray, but not for a feast.”

Imagine you’re in third century BCE Athens. Imagine that, after a hard day of ‘thinking’ and ‘pondering,’ you finally sit down to eat your gyros or whatever the fuck, at your friend Callicles’ house, before enjoying some well deserved pederasty.  You swat furiously at the thicc black fly that circles your head, then your food, then your head again. In your anger you shout, “By Zeus, I really hope this meal goes by without any gate crashing old men who’s only purpose in attending is to argue with every single person at the table and annoy us all.” Suddenly, there’s a crash at the door, and in bursts your nubile young servant boy. “Master, Master! You won’t believe it, there’s an old man approaching and he’s already arguing with people on the street. He just can’t be stopped!” Through the open courtyard you hear it: you sense the low rumble and smug tones, you smell the sweaty toga, the garlic riddled breath, the passing “M’lady” directed at every almah he spies, you picture his wicked sick flame patterned overcloth and his wide rimmed formal hat fashioned from reeds. You stand and exclaim, slamming the table, “this will not happen! How dare he, in my Oikos?!”

Then you remember and your heart drops. Your friend Callicles, always quick with his quips, had mentioned it, but in your rush to get home and enjoy your newly appointed servant the other evening, you had ignored his words. The conversation now spills into your head. “Hey, big G,” shouts Callicles. “Is it ok if I bring a new friend of mine round to our next party, he’s a real character, I found him at the gymnasium the other day shouting at naked men about hardiness.” He pauses, “actually I’m not quite sure what it was about, but it was fun to watch!” You remember your distinct lack of care, and the unenthusiastic nod and “hurrrmph” you gave in response as you quickly exited the scene. Damn.. DAMN. You steady yourself. “It’s ok,” you think. “I make a living out of arguing with gad-like idiots, this should be a piece of Plakous.” How wrong you were. How inescapable your fate is. Now you must listen and submit to the smugness of an enlightened being, you worm. Maybe if you just pretend it’s all a big joke, just so irrelevant, unimportant and non-existent, you’ll be just fine! You sit, switch off your frontal lobe, and prepare for the worst.

That introduction was far too long, but it was fun to write, so I just kept it going. To be clear, if you’re looking for a detailed analysis of Plato’s Gorgias or Gorgias’ On Non-existence, this probably isn’t going to help you. Instead, see this as a light-hearted, non-serious, critique of this particular bit of Socratic method and sophistry, and its implications in a modern context. I really want anyone who reads this to understand that sometimes, definitely not all the time, but sometimes, it really is ok to embrace a relaxed, “Gorgian” (Gorgesian?, Gorgion? Gorgonian?) position on how to define, label and explain yourself and your existence. I can already hear the shouts of “hipster contrarian,” which I can understand, but that doesn’t change my mind that it’s possible to find interesting and convincing narratives in some of the most unlikely places.

It’s best to add a little context to the previous internal monologue. Socrates, champion of philosophy and dialectics, and infamous platonic hand puppet, complete with gaping anus and a flapping, kermit-the-frog-like mouth, interrupts a dinner hosted by a friend, Callicles. At this dinner, he enters with the sole purpose of riling up a mutual acquaintance named Gorgias and his disciples, who are trained in rhetoric, or as Plato likes to call it, sophistry. These men made a substantial living off of their ability to weave convincing narratives, so much so, that Plato goes out of his way to note in the Hippias Major (282d), that “Gorgias… made more money from wisdom than any craftsman of any kind ever made from his skill.” Due to Athenian society being one of the very first to distribute its power on a democratic basis, the nobility and warmongerers of the time quickly realised that strength in the militaristic sense didn’t exactly equate to the popular vote. Gone were the days, or so they thought, of subjugating a population through force. These men, and I think two or three women, turned their huge coffers from military expenditure to hiring sharp-tongued Athenian men to teach them their pacifist ways. It’s best to compare them to modern-day spin doctors, the Malcolm Tucker’s of ancient Greece so to speak, although Gorgias was from Sicily, so lets say Malcomo Tuckero.

But was Gorgias as full of vitriol, anger, and desperation as modern spin doctors? Well, most sources point to him, although definitely being a historical figure of great importance, as being in this context an exaggerated personality for the sake of allowing Plato to argue with himself. Picture him as a shower thought, or the vessel onto which you project all your made up confrontations, anxieties and late night embarrassing memories. In reality, he was probably quite the nihilist. His personal works all point to a set of basic premises:

  1. Nothing exists;
  2. Even if stuff exists, nothing can be known about it; and
  3. Even if things can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.
  4. Even if you were to communicate it, it cannot ever be understood.

So lets dissect, because with the reinvigorated popularity of authors such as David Foster-Wallace and others, this line of thought is again making the rounds; Bojack Horseman, for instance, has a deep “not quite nihilism” thing running through it. That’s not to say that Gorgias would’ve been a post-modernist, although maybe he would’ve thought it was cool, I can’t speak for him though, because he’s dead. Anyway, take into consideration the concept of colour. Imagine that you’re locked in a room with an equally imposing Platonic figure and s/he asks you to describe a primary colour as best you can by not utilising the names of any other colour, or an object that possesses that colour. It points to an obvious conclusion; the world around you is devoid of expressional interpretation. You can clearly picture it in your head, but the words just won’t come out (mom’s spaghetti). It’s not all doom and gloom though, it’s far subtler than that. What you’ve essentially done is separate your consciousness from your experience, and by all means this is a good thing. Imagine for a second that everything that you considered came to being and was easily translatable to a layman. Every unwanted thought, every time you pictured what a snake with sixteen boobs would look like, “poof,” straight into the world it comes. Believing that thought and experience can be separated grants one powerful benefit, however. Those feelings that you can’t describe, that impending sense of doom, that niggling idea that everyone hates you, they’re not real world experience, they are actually just in your head. I know that’s not exactly helpful when you’re in the thick of it, but when applied to other parts of the “Gorgian” mentality, it does start to all come together.

For example, at a particular point at the start of Plato’s Gorgias, you can really feel the unanimous groans that every member of the room lets out at Socrates’ questions. My particularly favourite bit is Gorgias’ exclamation that “some answers, Socrates are of necessity longer; but I will do my best to make them as short as possible.” You can hear the mass guffaws, “guffaw, guffaw.” He does in fact stick to his word, and what follows is a series of long-winded questions and monosyllabic answers. Now, I’m not here to say whether dialectics is better than rhetoric, because honestly, it depends on the situation. But I do genuinely think that we should all be a bit more Gorgias in the face of modern pseudo-dialectics. Plato spends an awful lot of time convincing everyone in the room that not only is he the smartest, but that Gorgias is a sham. But let’s look at some facts:

  1. Socrates was court-martialed, and died a slow, painful death because of his ‘persuasions’. Gorgias died rich and happy, sunning himself on the shores of Sicily.
  2. Plato, despite his need to critique him, openly admits many times through his other works that Gorgias is definitely a “wise” man.
  3. Despite the attacks, Gorgias never denied philosophy, and was, in fact, a deep admirer of it, calling it “the greatest seduction.”

So let’s be real. The essential argument is that ignorance truly is bliss. But it’s definitely not ignorance in the common sense of the word. I think it takes a very strong-minded and stupid individual to accept ignorance, but it does lead to something greater. I used to be an individual who heavily critiqued people who lacked what I believed to be conviction. I’d hear people say they loved music, or they loved the theatre, or they just adored drinking sophisticated coffee in hipster coffee shops, and it would annoy me. “How dare these people,” I would think, “throw around such strong emotions and words. They don’t really love these things, they love the idea of them, they love the gratification they get when being associated with them by others!” Sometimes it got so bad I just wanted to throw down in a Platonic cage match, go all Socratic and make these people understand. But then you take a step back, you remember you got a 2:2, and the only person you’d be throwing down against in an intellectual cage match is CleverBot. So what next? What can Gorgias offer the 2:2 having, bitter me? A sense of detachment from the whole, of course! That’s all it is. Why do you want to be so connected, anyway? Can you imagine how cold their food was by the time the Gorgias was over?!

Plato fights for so long attempting to have Gorgias pin down the nature of his work, only for Gorgias to respond with a few clear statements: when push comes to shove, it is the rhetoriticians, the people devoid of attachment to objective truths, that are asked to help, because at least they’ll give an answer. So hang up the greater good, and your notions of perfection, realise everything is fake, that nobody cares, and when cornered by an obnoxious individual trying to convince you of some ridiculous point of view, make like Gorgias and hit’em with the monosyllabic answers until they leave. Lest we forget that Plato thought menstruating women turned mirrors red, and that sharks swam upside down to feed. Sometimes a bit of disconnection is a favourable thing.

Before I leave, there’s a really nice little set of statements in Plato’s Theaetetus (189a) that really interests me. It goes as follows: “In judging, one judges something; in judging something, one judges something real; so in judging something unreal, one judges nothing; but judging nothing, one is not judging at all.” Sounds familiar, right? If you think in objective absolutes, you are considering things that are unreal, and by considering these unreal things, you are not thinking at all, merely following preconceived notions. So don’t be the objective non-thinker, don’t subscribe to dumb labels, take everything a day at a time, and don’t fight, just feast!

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