When I'm on my social media, I sometimes feel like I'm in a modern, virtual version of the agora of ancient Greek city-states. This was the centre of town, physically, but also economically and socially – the place where business was conducted, goods were bought and sold, and ideas were exchanged.
I imagine this for very specific reasons – my vocation, and profession, is making music videos and other forms of content, often ancient philosophy, and endeavouring to disseminate it on the internet. And so, for better or worse, the various platforms on which I'm active are the modern-day "public squares" in which I ply my trade and display my creative wares.
But a trip to this marketplace can be fraught – personally, financially and ideologically. Should I engage with this person? Should I buy this product? Should I buy this idea? (And is anyone going to buy mine?)
For the agora was not just a marketplace; it was the stage on which the dramas of daily life, and of discourse, unfolded – and more than any other physical place, social media now provides that space.
You may also like:
- How to train like an Ancient Greek Olympian
- BBC Future's #likeminded season
- Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us
In many ways, it was on such a stage – public, multifarious and chaotic – that ancient Greek philosophy was first practised.
When philosophy began, the written word in the Greek-speaking world was still very young – and so ideas were often disseminated as oral-performative acts in public spaces, not unlike the epic poems of the previous age. Long before philosophers were writing books and papers, their thoughts had to be transmitted in a way that could grab their audience's attention – there was an element of public display.
Early philosophers developed highly elaborate public personas
The influential pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes presented his ideas in the context of rhapsodic contests, where poets vied for prizes and renown – philosophical rap competitions, of a sort. Early philosophers also developed highly elaborate public personas. Empedocles, who's credited with inventing the idea of the four Classical elements, made his public appearances with extravagant flair – a purple robe, a golden belt, sandals of bronze – and referred to himself as an incarnate god.
If these modes of self-presentation had included the ability to take video, you would have had some potentially very viral philosophers. They were, in their manner, akin to content creators and influencers, in that their intellectual authority consisted not only in their ideas, but their performative eloquence, and the cult of personality with which they surrounded themselves.
Perhaps the most famous ancient Greek philosopher managed to disseminate his ideas without ever writing anything at all. Socrates, as we're told, conducted in-the-moment philosophical conversations, usually in public places, in which he challenged conventional wisdom on various topics – provoking his fellow citizens, and, fatally for himself, the government. His art was verbal, but his expressions were as transient as a tweet or a post, a virtuous troll in the comments sections of Athenian intellectual life.
We may be returning to a state in which a thinker's claim to wisdom relies on their ability to effectively perform it
His exploits are recreated for us in the writings of his students, most famously Plato. In many ways these Socratic dialogues, which are the fountainhead of the whole philosophical tradition that follows, can be read as a fictionalised biography of a career influencer – the Collected Twitter Threads of Socrates, liberally reinvented, yet perhaps faithful in spirit.
In the age of social media, we may be returning to a state in which a thinker's claim to wisdom relies on their ability to effectively perform it – with the additional requirement that they're able to transmute that performance into content.
Some of the most influential public intellectuals of the present-day have realised this. The psychologist and YouTuber Jordan Peterson, and the researcher and podcaster Brené Brown, for instance, have massive followings across their social media platforms, using them as major venues for disseminating their ideas. While neither of them may describe themselves as philosophers, both deal with fundamentally philosophical ideas about virtue, happiness and how to live, and both are academics whose thought has been propelled into popular discourse by their social media virality.
Brown's 2010 viral TEDx talk "The Power of Vulnerability" launched her career as a bestselling author and influencer. Peterson's videos critiquing political correctness and identity politics brought him viral fame in 2016, and he has remained a prominent, if polarising figure ever since. Building on these foundations, Brown and Peterson have effectively become philosophy brands, whose ideas are not chiefly disseminated through their written publications, but the viral recycling of their content in videos, posts and memes.
Faced with what appeared to be a new form of discourse run amok, Plato sought to sift out the good influencers from the bad
But, as may be evidenced by the "information warfare" of the present day, Plato perceived that problems may arise when the competitive performance of wisdom is indistinguishable from the true possession of it.
So what if you're good at the information game, hawking your ideological products in the marketplace? So what if you're good at social media – does that imply that you have anything of value to say? Popularity may be quantified by likes, but wisdom is not.
And so Plato set himself the task of distinguishing the true philosophers, the sincere and genuine "lovers of wisdom", from the sophists, whose apparent wisdom may be a mere performance of intellectualism for their own gain. Faced with what appeared to be a new form of discourse run amok, he sought to sift out the good influencers from the bad.
As Plato represented him, Socrates was unimpressed by moral posturing. And so according to the journalist Olivia Goldhill, he would well feel the same about this characteristic of social media, wherein people often hypocritically implore others to be more kind and virtuous. The more you display certainty in your self-righteous posting, Socrates might have argued, the more likely you are in fact ignorant of your own moral shortcomings.
But if you adopt the view that almost everyone is wrong, and most influencers are to be mistrusted, how are we to arrive at what's right? And if, on the other hand, one's content is sincerely focused on the pursuit and expression of the objective truth, one must further ask, how do we obtain it? And is there such a truth?
Questions such as these permeated Plato's cultural scene. The sophist Protagoras was said to have espoused a theory of "relativism", which essentially suggested that since our individual perceptions differ, we are each limited to our own subjective construction of reality.
One can see how this thesis is exemplified by aspects of the social media experience, as we scroll through an apparent infinity of information, yet always within the confines of our private information bubbles.
Plato sought to refute Protagorean relativism, and to find a criterion for objective truth. When he wrote his "Republic", he envisioned an ideal society, ordered under the guidance of the one kind of person who's able to glean that pristine truth from the welter of public opinion – the philosopher.
To combat the problem of distinguishing desirable from undesirable information – good from bad influencers – Plato introduced an infamous degree of censorship into his theoretical city. Jenny Jenkins at Swansea University has speculated as to whether he would have allowed citizens to use Facebook, surmising that this would have been a resounding "no". "Facebook does not have the intention of promoting morality, and does not particularly seek to educate its users," she writes, "so I think Plato would have disapproved of it for this reason alone."
Rather, Plato proposed that education and entertainment, and discourse in general, ought to be strictly regulated, with virtually all independent arts suppressed. If it doesn't promote the welfare of the community in accordance with rational principles, ban it. On his ideal platform, the only fully authorised content creator is the state, and that content is "the Form of the Good", as deduced by the insights of philosophy.
We may be justifiably alarmed by this section of the book, and call to mind countries with aggressive policies of internet censorship. But from the vantage point of current controversies, such as vaccine disinformation or political polarisation, we can at least discern, in sharp relief, what Plato felt was at stake in his socio-political thought-experiment.
For as the spectre of disinformation looms over us, there are many who feel that social media platforms themselves be called upon to sift the good information from the bad. The question then becomes whether those who control them possess the discernment that marks the "true philosopher." Plato imagined a Philosopher-King, but would that extend to Philosopher-Admins too? As a devotee of mathematics and the metaphysical primacy of formal patterns, perhaps Plato would have looked toward the Philosopher-Algorithm.
Should social media platforms themselves be called upon to sift the good information from the bad?
Underlying all these problems for Plato are deeper, epistemological questions about our capacity to perceive reality and grasp the truth, and a scepticism about the adequacy of discourse to encapsulate and transmit it.
In the "Phaedrus", Plato reimagines an Egyptian myth, where the god-king Thamus critiques the god Theuth's invention of written language. Theuth had offered writing as gift, to aid to humankind, but Thamus prophesies that it will have a corrosive effect on human culture:
"They will be hearers of much, without learning anything; they will appear to know much, yet for the most part know nothing; and they will be miserable to be around, having become wise-seeming, without actually being wise." (Phaedrus 275a-b; my translation)
This reads like an unequivocal critique of the information age: search engines, instantaneous data accessibility, and the petulant self-assurance of social media discourse. For what are these technologies but webs of false omniscience, ever more layers of subjective confusion upon the ineffability of truth?
Our senses, Plato holds, are inadequate to grasp the true nature of reality, and so the things we take for real are in fact mere images. Hence, the images we ourselves create – artistic images, stories, representations of any kind – are images of images. And so, in turn, the things we put on the internet are images of images of images, as they're edited, commented on, appropriated and re-appropriated in their digital circulation.
In our self-presentation in these spaces, we ourselves become images, as we retreat from our embodied selves into the represented selves of our handles and feeds. We become "@" ourselves, as the idealised image-layers of what we publish eclipse the immediacy of our physical being, and our already-imperfect faculties of perception are inundated by the individually-curated content we receive.
For unlike the physical agora, where the whole crowd may be deceived at once by the ideological seductions of an itinerant sophist, the virtual agora is different for each crowd member. We receive the proffered wisdom of the modern philosophers and sophists "alone together", to use the social scientist Sherry Turkle's phrase. We are each deceived uniquely, adding ever another layer between us and our collective grasp on what's actually there. And it is we ourselves, when we post and repost, tweet and retweet, who deceive one another, circulating our own sophistries.
Our senses, Plato holds, are inadequate to grasp the true nature of reality, and so the things we take for real are in fact mere images
Plato was not the only student of Socrates; another succession of thinkers led to Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes held that since virtue was unattainable by nearly everyone, the proper role of the philosopher was not to guide or control society, but to hold themselves aloof from it, and to ridicule it from the sidelines.
Diogenes was a kind of philosophical shock-artist – he lived on the street, defecating, urinating and masturbating publicly, and casting criticisms at passers-by, be they fellow citizens or people of distinction. He is the prototype of the "troll" – woe unto the Athenian on whose post he comments.
These practices earned him the epithet "the dog-like" or "the cynic". His philosophy of Cynicism mirrors another dimension of social media discourse: its culture of opposition, vicious satire and critique. What better venues are there for Cynicism in this Classical sense than Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the rest?
But Cynicism is not the only possible response to the frailties and inadequacies of human behaviour and communication. Drawing on ideas that reached back to Plato and in turn to some of the pre-Socratics, the school of Stoicism conceived of the entire cosmos as a living organism, a unitary entity of which we form a part. As rational creatures, we have the capacity to grasp its rational will, and act in accordance with it.
It may be that some Stoics – whose ranks included people of all classes and extractions, slave and free, Greek and Roman – would have had at least an ambivalent, and perhaps a guardedly optimistic view of the possibilities offered by online social networks.
Insofar as they offer a mechanism for connectivity, they can foster real community – particularly when their users are engaging with one another in good faith and to mutual benefit, as may indeed be the case with content creators who provide education, community empowerment or therapeutic support to their audiences.
A Stoic might ask, are you using this platform as a rational contributor to human well-being and the community of the Universe? Or to aggrandise, entertain or escape from yourself? If the former, go for it; if the latter, delete your accounts.
A Stoic might ask, are you using this platform to contribute to human well-being, or to aggrandise, entertain or escape from yourself?
So, when I post my own "philosophical content" – is it to get likes, followers and views, or to spread wisdom, irrespective of its reception? Maybe a bit of both? It may be that the desire-structure induced by social media makes these questions hard to separate, and perhaps participation in the information game, both ancient and modern, has always required these impulses to be inseparable.
Our current connectivity is simultaneously the source of our best progress and worst dysfunction, our potential for self-destruction, and success. But this has always been true of our meeting places – the town square, the agora, the place of gathering – the spaces where we meet one another for better and for worse, and in one another, meet ourselves.
*Nathan Dufour Oglesby (aka Nathanology) is a writer, rapper and video artist based in New York City. He holds a PhD in Classics, and is one half of the eco-rap duo Nate and Hila. His music can be found on Spotify, and his videos on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife, Travel and Reel delivered to your inbox every Friday.