Prof. Sobak: Being a Gadfly in the Face of Authority

As part of Bowdoin’s TED-Talk-style Uncommon Hour series, Associate Professor of Classics Robert Sobak recently discussed authority, dissent, and how to be a “gadfly.” He spoke a full audience of students at Reed House.

Sobak’s gadfly, as it relates to humans and not small stinging insects, referred to Socrates, an Athenian citizen of the fifth century BC. Socrates was famous for heckling the citizens of Athens, asking them, as Sobak put it, “Hey, what do you know? How do you know it? Are you sure about that?” The “horse,” which Socrates was metaphorically stinging, stood for the people of Athens.

Athens was the world’s first democracy, where citizens were chosen by lot rather than by vote to serve in office. Theoretically, each individual could serve in a position of authority, so had to be “better prepared to both challenge it and engage with respect.” Socrates believed that many were too concerned with wealth and material image, when they should be focusing on their soul — that is, their “internal flourishing and well-being.”

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A poster of the event

By challenging the “why” behind people’s ideas, Socrates provided a model for “immanent criticism,” a retroactively applied term that was later used by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. Immanent criticism attempts to use the norms and boundaries of the social sphere in which one operates to provoke “change from within” in a graceful manner. The goal is always to make the world a better place.

Socrates’ innovation was to shake or nudge, rather than to overthrow authority, in order to change people’s way of thinking.

So how, Sobak asked, do we apply this method to the age of authority we currently live in? The Roman republic, in contrast to the Athenian democracy, gave disproportionate power to elite citizens, who were said to possess auctoritas, the Latin word for authority. This privilege came not through their actions, but because of their standing or family lineage.

The problem in our contemporary society in Sobak’s mind is that we offer too much deference to those in power without these figures proving themselves deserving of respect. Bowdoin President Barry Mills, in contrast, has been transparent in showing support and involvement in the Bowdoin community, he said, thus earning the respectful manner with which students engage with him now.

It is important that students learn how to be gadflies not only for the experience of productively approaching disagreement and inflicting change, but so they will know how to respond when they are in positions of leadership in the future, Sobak argued. Additionally, he encouraged students to think in terms of responsibility rather than authority: while authority tends to accrue more power to itself, sharing responsibility allows communities to better “distribute decision making and improve the exchange of ideas.”

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