The news just broke. Culture phenomenon Kim Kardashian hit a new milestone on Twitter: 27 million followers. And of course she decided to commemorate this astonishing accomplishment by sharing with the world a selfie of her bottom in a thong. It was an appropriate celebration for such a fundamental (from the Latin, fundament, or bottom) achievement. I'm a philosopher, unlike Kim. And I have about 5,000 followers on Twitter, give or take. I'm convinced that if Socrates were alive and Tweeting, he'd have maybe 12.
Oh, and that first public philosopher was poisoned by public demand. He wasn't the most popular guy in his time. But, by contrast, the Kardashians just signed a new 100 million dollar, four year renewal deal with the E! Network for their television shows. What's the lesson lurking for us here?
People pay (in money and attention) for what they want and what they need - right? No. Not at all. People pay for what they want and for what they feel like they need. Everyone needs wisdom in their lives. But relatively few really feel this to the extent of devoting time and energy and even, occasionally, money to its pursuit.
In the seventeenth century, the great scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal watched a version of this going on in his time. His diagnosis was simple. He said:
Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.
Most people, he believed, don't know really who they are, why they're here, or where they're going in this world of mystery that presents us with the only sure thing as the looming abyss of death, into which all of us, sooner or later, will fall. Yeah. Ok. He wasn't always the life of the party, either. But, then, he says:
We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it.
Kim Kardashian's most fundamental asset helps to block our view of the abyss. Pascal called this diversion. We prefer diversion, or distraction, over a pursuit of truth, understanding, and real meaning. We want to be entertained. We feel a desperate need to be entertained. And we're willing to pay a lot for it. It didn't surprise me at all that a book came out about this, years ago, entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Is there anything wrong with amusement or entertainment? No, of course not. A nice diversion now and then, a happy distraction, can play a healthy role in our lives. But not if it's the major portion of our lives. It can't become an obsession and be healthy at all. We need more. We need to get in touch with the deepest cosmic realities now and then. We need self knowledge, a sense of our place in the world, and values that will lead us along a path of real fulfillment and happiness, rather than taking us down the dead end road of their modern counterfeits.
We need to engage in a little Socratic questioning of our cultural values right now, and of our personal commitments. The founding philosophers in ancient times loved fun and parties and entertainment. And so do I. But they didn't use these things to keep them from ever going deeper. And we should take a hint from them. In a balanced culture, even Socrates might have blown up Twitter, and without anything remotely like a Kardashian know-thy-selfie.