Socrates was all the Rage

I’ve had one or two more thoughts about hipness – or at least fashion. The two are not identical, in fact I suppose you could argue that they’re often opposites – and yet they’re not, are they. They’re both about being Correct in some pathetically slavish way. One a majoritarian sort of way, the other in a minoritarian sort of way – but in each case, slavishly other-directed. Either one involves looking anxiously around the room all the time to check what everyone else is doing. Both involve not wanting to be dorky or geeky or nerdy or out of it; both are all about presentation of self, which has some limitations as an organizing principle for how to live and what kind of person to be.

But those weren’t the thoughts I had – those were the thoughts I had as I typed. The thoughts I had were about the fact that fashion (and possibly hipness) was a Hot Topic in 5th century Athens, too. Aristophanes’ ‘The Clouds’ for example – all about the silly fashion for philosophy and for that loony Socrates fella. In ‘Protagoras’ all the youth are just mad for the sophists. And even in ferocious Thucydides – or not even but especially – the young men all had an ‘eros’ to go to Sicily. Wanting to invade Sicily was all the fashion. And so were the terrible ways of thought that resulted from the prolonged war – the increasing brutality and cynicism and treachery.

Well, nothing surprising here. Humans influence each other. Gather them close together in cities, and they have many more opportunities to influence and be influenced by each other than they did back on the dear old Sabine farm. That’s much of what Rousseau didn’t approve of, as Scott McLemee points out, about civilization. It’s bad for people, makes them inauthentic.

But fashion can be useful too. It can draw our attention to good and useful new things, as well as bad and harmful or merely silly and pointless ones. We have to use our judgment to decide whether the things that have grabbed our attention are any good – but the initial grabbing is not always a bad thing. Sometimes a lot of people, or a small number of attentive people, can like something for good reasons.

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