According to the traditional account of Socrates’s life, he was sentenced to death for a variety of related charges: corrupting the youth, impiety, and denying the state’s gods’ existence being the chief charges. Here’s Jacques-Louis David’s depiction of him bullshitting up until the end:
Left out of Plato’s narrative, however, is a more fundamental attribute of philosophy’s patron saint. He was a sarcastic smartass.
This was embodied in the Socratic Method, particularly as depicted in the Early Dialogues. In this Method, Socrates’s interlocutors answer a series of questions to defend their position. Socrates’s cross-examination leads to the conclusion–at least to his satisfaction–that they were talking out of their asses. The untenuous nature of their positions having been exposed, Socrates implores them to start anew. Eventually they’ll arrive at the truth. “Uh, maybe another time, Soc. I’ve got to get home and watch Greek Idol.”
I am fairly good at this technique, but I use it very sparingly because people don’t exactly appreciate it. For example, I’ve best manned two weddings, the one a white trash affair, the other quite ritzy. At the latter, after the bride’s family had lavished us with drinks for two days, I asked the host if I could grab a beer from the garage at the Sunday brunch.
“No drinking today; it’s a Sunday.”
“Oh,” dejectedly, “okay.”
What I wanted to initiate was this dialogue:
“So this is because of your Catholic beliefs, right?”
“And I noticed the care that everyone took to ensure that the betrothed parties did not see each other the day of the wedding.”
“Yet you’re surely aware that they cohabitated for three years before the sacrament. I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that repeated and systematic premarital sex is a more serious sin in your religion than allowing me to get a goddamn drink [or seven] to alleviate the shakes that two days of Dionysian drinking have left me with.”
* * *
So while I generally avoid such confrontation, humor is an indelible personality trait I will never renounce. Sarcasm is part and parcel of this skill. When I am with friends–the kind where busting on each other is vital to the relationship–I am a natural smartass. My friend with a limp (and a Monty Python fan), laughs when I tell him that he has the lamest silly walk I’ve ever seen. I likewise take no umbrage when he makes fun of one of my two personal shortcomings. If anyone ever apologizes because they feel they’ve gone too far, I tell them to shut the fuck up because nothing offends me.
I was chilling with two buddies recently, and I made a joke about the Marine background of one of them. After he got the barb, he laughed and said, “You know, practically everything you say is sarcastic.”
“I just didn’t think you ever noticed.”
“Case in point,” the other friend added with a chuckle.
Immediately, the exchange brought to mind an incident from about a decade ago. I had made a new friend recently, and one night we went to one of his old friend’s place to party. I had seen the other guy around but had never really spoken with him. I did know that he had a football player’s physique and seemed eager to fight. At the bar one night, one fight threatened to escalate into an all-out bar brawl. He pulled off his shirt and emitted a guttural yell. Translated into English, he was saying, “I would like to fight one or multiple other people. Would anyone care to engage me?”
The night we imbibed and inhaled at his house was kind of a blur. I do recall being “on” in the comedic sense, and that the three of us had a rip-roaring good brew ha ha. When I saw my friend two nights later, he furnished a different account. “Dude, I couldn’t believe you the other night!” He said this not with condemnation, but rather with excitement.
“Shit,” I reflexively thought in such situations, “did I piss somewhere other than the toilet? Hit on someone’s girlfriend? Try to make love to a houseplant?”
“Dude, you had him scared in his own house! You were wisecracking about everything and he just didn’t know what to make of you. He was kind of freaked out. It’s all good, though. No hard feelings. I just got paid so let’s smoke this joint and go tear up the bar.”
My athletic evolution has gone from pathetic Little Leaguer to scrawny skateboarder to weightlifting tennis and racquetball fanatic. Yet anyone who would bet on me in a fight against this guy is the type who would bet against the Harlem Globetrotters. I found it amusing that he was afraid of me.
My humor and expression of controversial views have gotten me in a raft of trouble over the years, but they have fortunately never gotten me into a fight. And while some say I look Greek, including Greeks themselves, it’s probably best that I never visit there.