Armenian Socrates: Stepan Partamian

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Radio transmitting in a snowstorm


Stepan Partamian is something new for the Armenian nation, whereas he is not new when viewed from the perspective of other countries. No Armenian public figure in our memory has ever adopted the method of antagonizing Armenians by repeatedly stating that they are the most careless and stupid people on earth, in addition to the most backward, with the stated intent  of reforming and instructing the Armenian people, the usual tone historically being a firm but paternal one. But in Germany, Friedrich Nietzsche, with whom one article in a 2008 pamphlet directly compared Partamian, titled “Thus Spoke Stepan”, upbraided the  Germans in a similar way, and in general had such a low opinion of Germans and their intelligence, that he preferred rather to identify himself as descended from Polish nobility. Socrates, with whom I myself have compared him and told him personally, rejected all of traditional Greek culture and religion, and in doing so earned the hatred of Greek society. Partamian is very reminiscent of Socrates, not only for his striking physical resemblance, as he is also stout, bald and goat-bearded but also for his mockery of the ideas and religion of his nation, which have earned  him the hatred of many Armenians, who view him as irreligious, immoral, and a corrupter of youth as many Greeks viewed Socrates. Partamian receives threats to his life from time to time, as Socrates constantly must have before he was finally executed by the will of the Athenians.

In France, Voltaire, a philosophe of the Enlightenment,  also mocked his nation’s beliefs and customs with the intent to change them. Voltaire was also an admirer of Socrates and  adopted the Socratic methods of irony and mockery, thinking that they were the best for the purpose of altering a nation’s customs and manners. Voltaire was a kind of updated Socrates. Accordingly, since Partamian recalls Socrates and Voltaire copied Socrates, Partamian bears a resemblance also to Voltaire. In fact,  Partamian, knowingly or unknowingly, echoes Voltaire down to the very imagery. Both Voltaire and Partamian are primarily satirists, both are anti-Christian, and both advocate replacing what they would regard as the dark of superstition and religion with the light of reason. Like Voltaire and the men of the Enlightenment, Partamian speaks constantly of the light of reason, to the extent that he has taken the normal morning greeting in Armenian, “Bari Luys” (Good Light), and has turned it into a motto with which he greets and takes leave of all, regardless of the time of day, since, in his thinking, light, that is, the light of reason, exists constantly between two human beings who discuss the matters of the world reasonably without resorting to divinity. Partamian bristles at any mention of the word “God”, even when it comes in banal phrases like “Thank God,” or “God willing.”

Partamian, however,  is not as learned as Voltaire, who employed an encyclopedic knowledge of history, religion and science to rail against his targets. Partamian is rather anti-intellectual and frequently and freely admits he has little in the way of education or discipline in any subject, and in this respect, is closer to Socrates himself, who was of modest birth, being the son of a stone-mason, with no education and who himself wrote nothing. Partamian reads his native language of Armenian haltingly and with difficulty, struggling to pronounce more complex words, just as he speaks it fluidly, that few would dare fence with him verbally.

Accordingly, he humbly refuses comparisons between himself and the men of the past called philosophers. When told his habit of wishing people “Good Light” at all times of day, even at nighttime,  was reminiscent of Diogenes the Cynic, who would walk in the daylight holding a lamp mockingly searching for one honest man in Athens, he invariably expressed gratitude, but says that he is no philosopher, and that he is simply “a witness” to people’s, specifically, the Armenian people’s follies.

My impression of this man after following his career for a few years and speaking to him is that he must be taken at his word. When some of his more enthusiastic listeners lavish him with praise, complimenting his great intelligence and learning, he defers and says that he is neither all that intelligent nor at all learned, but is simply one who likes to exercise his reason and have discussions about day-to-day life. I can do nothing but agree with him. In his words there is no wisdom. This is a clever man who enjoys turning over mundane facts of life, especially sexual matters, which he believes is as important to discuss as political and religious matters in the preservation of the Armenian people.

In fact, he so frequently refers to sexual relations (sirapanutyun, in Armenian) that he should have been named not Stepan, but Sirapan. Natural and useful sexual relations have long ago been understood and practiced by men: both its purpose and its regulation have been clearly found out over the long practice of countless generations. But Partamian following the folly of either not knowing nor advocating for this wisdom, follows it with the more unforgivable folly of advocating the most recent approach to the relation of the sexes as practiced in Europe, America and Japan for less than a century. The result of this very new understanding, however, cannot be denied: declining birthrates, divorce rates exceeding 50% , and the consequent destruction of families and the infinite ills which follow from the latter. He himself says that he advises his young daughter to “try out” at least five different men before making a decision to either marry, or, perhaps, not marry at all; for Partamian, being himself divorced, expresses hostility to the idea of marriage. Of this irrational method of coupling the sexes, Partamian ceaselessly expounds, either with the intent to bring these predictable results to Armenians at large, or, what is more likely and alluded to earlier, this is a clever man with a sharp wit, whose words contain none of that which separates the thoughts of serious men from the whims and opinions of housewives: wisdom. And, indeed, he likes nothing more than discussing this and related matters with his preferred interlocutors, young women and housewives.

As it happens, eroticism also frequently played a role in Socrates’ teaching. The Symposium, a Socratic dialogue recorded by his student Plato,  is one of the few works in the history of philosophy that investigates the nature and meaning of love, i.e., sex. One anecdote about Socrates has it that a physiognomist came to Athens once, and viewing Socrates face said that he must be subject to the most foul and violent lustful urges. Socrates’ only reply was, “Sir, you know me! But I have learned to control it.”

On the occasion that I spoke to Partamian and compared him to Diogenes and also to Socrates, he could not have been less interested in what I was saying. I had nothing to keep his attention, and  he soon turned to an attractive woman and had an animated conversation with her for half an hour.

Partamian apparently does not himself take part in the love that has been euphemistically called “Socratic”, referring to Socrates’ inclination to his young, male students; but often when he discusses the relations of men and women, he also alludes to the need to accept the relations of “men with men, and women with women”, referring to homosexuality, and impishly asks his audience of mostly traditional Armenians, “Did you get angry?”

Advocating this modern understanding of love and marriage, however,  is the consequence of a deeper held belief, which shows itself in other matters. In the West, the term xenophobia has come to be commonly used as an ill to be shunned, while  in the Armenian language and culture the opposite concept has always been common and used as a term of censure. What in the West is the rarely heard term xenophilia, (odaramolutyun in Armenian), in Armenian is a very common term, and used frequently by  Partamian himself, literally meaning “an obsession with foreign things”.  Partamian, to coin an Armenian term, is a noramol, that is, he is obsessed with newness. He often says that culture which fails to innovate, especially in art and literature, is destined for extinction. His understanding in this matter is delicate enough that he realizes that the present ape-like mimicry characteristic of most Armenian art, especially television programming, does not count as innovation; nor does the influx of Latinate words via Russian, and increasingly English, into the eastern Armenian dialect of the Republic of Armenia qualify as the necessary innovation. His call for innovation, to his credit, has never included the Armenian language: his advocacy of the preservation of the Armenian language is the only position for a thinking man to take. However, his constant references to so called “21st-century standards” and the need for Armenians  to adhere to them is typical of his superficiality, and susceptibility to being ensnared by fashions of the time .

This begs the question: Which 21st-century values is he referring to? The moral, or the financial bankruptcy which the West is now groaning under? What he mostly seems to mean (other than the emancipation of Armenian women from all tradition for him to “sirapanel” one by one) is nothing more than a utilization of new technologies. One of the charges brought against Socrates was “introducing new gods,” and the same can be said for his Armenian counterpart. He often says without being facetious, that the god of the future is the computer, and sometimes jokingly adds that he worships his iPhone. What all the deeper natures of the present regard as the decline of men’s sociability, autonomy, creativity, and ability to learn with discrimination due to this new god, Partamian, caught up in the whirl of the basest consumer culture, smart phone in hand, like a teenage girl text messaging prurient  nonsense to an equally empty-headed recipient, hails as the New that must be embraced to advance the Armenian people and ensure their survival. But is obvious and has been clearly shown that the social media made possible by technology leads  rather to social retardation, and the greatest ignorance ever seen flourishes amid inexhaustible sources of information.  On the one hand, the former is only a simulation of interpersonal connection, as one would imagine from a conversation seated alone in a room with a network of friends one has never met;  and with the latter, having  all the world’s encyclopedias constantly at hand means never having to take any of it in and have it integrate into one’s memory and thought process.

In  short,  Partamian’s new god brings forth the appearance of sociability and knowledge, but not the real thing; which, in the end, is appropriate, because the same is true of Partamian: a close approximation of wisdom, but not wisdom itself.

Socrates discussed politics at length and was accused of atheism by the Greeks, but Partamian refuses to discuss politics, and is a creature of his time in his professed absolute, unthinking atheism. His knowledge of politics seemingly extends no farther than helping to get Armenians elected in local elections and chastising Armenians for not voting in Armenians in those elections. What he believes to be the best form of government, what he understands about the history of human government is not clear-but his other utterances give one the impression that he is in spirit a plebeian. Specifically, his division of Armenians in to two parts, 49% shrewd and 51% stupid and careless is typical, as if the natural proportion of good to bad in any sphere were not far greater. The remedy, according to him, is another modern cliché, namely, a more enlightened populace. He consistently fails to take into account the role of leadership, as if a nation were a headless mass of people which moves en masse, as opposed to being directed by a few; and, therefore it is as if one were to chastise the passengers of a ship for losing the way and steering badly, instead of addressing oneself to the pilot. This might be the reason that public figures of the past, in contrast to Partamian, have always spoken mildly to the populace even in folly, knowing that they should direct the harder words for those who lead the populace into folly.

His thoughts on religion in general are altogether shallow. He is correct in viewing Armenia’s conversion to the foreign religion of Christianity as a disaster, as nearly all of the native history and culture of Armenia was destroyed. But he seems to have arrived at this judgment inadvertently as a result of the fashionable atheism of the 20th century and his adherence to his oft-touted “21st- century standards”. What religion is, what it has meant to man, what need it satisfies, how closely religion, culture and especially art are historically bound together,  what role it has played in the preservation of governments and nations, Partamian has no idea.

In one program of August 30, 2012, which was remarkable for the number of pet themes of his it  concentrated, Partamian combined his atheism with a bizarre concern about Armenian women being unfree, and made the claim that religion was invented by men for the purpose of controlling women. The only possible source for this bizarre idea, which otherwise has no precedent in history, is modern Feminist thinking. However, what does have long precedent is that beginning in antiquity there was the claim that religion was invented by men for the purpose of controlling, not women, but other men. Why would men need to terrify women and bind them with  metaphysical chains, when men are, if nothing else, the physically stronger sex, and have never had trouble binding women with regular chains? The claim that religion was invented by men to control other men can already be found in a fragment of a lost Greek work attributed to Critias, but widely thought to be authored by Euripides, a friend and student, as it happens, of Socrates, and some of whose plays were believed to be authored by Socrates himself!

Later in the same program, an old man called and searchingly asked Partamian what he knew about the polytheistic religion of ancient Armenia. Partamian answered that he was not interested in the question, which prompted the old man to say, “Then you do not understand.” Infuriated,  Partamian disconnected the old man, and yelled, “What’s the difference between one whore and a thousand whores!”, adding that in ancient times it was worse, because at that time they had put their hopes on “a thousand asses” (referring to gods) when currently, at least, there was only “one ass”.

Had he been more patient, and, indeed, exercised the reason he claims to love to exercise, I believe what the old man was trying to indicate was that under polytheistic religion, including and especially that of pre-Christian Armenia, women were worshiped. The old man could have meant nothing else: this fact flew in the face of Partamian’s claim that religion was invented by men to control women. There are numerous instances in the Socratic dialogues where Socrates says something that strikes me as at best dubious and bizarre, and the only action I can take is to make a note in the margins, for the man has been long dead. But when Stepan Partamian, Armenia’s Socrates and gad-fly, speaks these and like sophistries, I can address him directly, and I informed him of the above and added the following. The most popular and beloved figure in ancient polytheistic Armenia was the goddess Anahit; and, while the festivities and rites of Anahit were observed by Armenians, the esteem and respect in which women were held was never so high than at that time.  In fact, if anyone doubts whether genuflecting before the image of a goddess effects the treatment of corporeal women, the Roman historian Tacitus records that on the death of Ariobarzanes, the Armenians attempted “female government” and set up a woman named Erato as ruler! The wisdom of setting her up as ruler was questioned, for she was ineffective and soon unseated, but the fact that women were worshiped and a woman was suffered to rule at all, proves Partamian’s claim is irrational and so much sophistry.

It is in moments like these that Partamian is more “Good Night” than “Good Light”. The heavy shadow of ignorance and blind hatred falls over the purveyor of  light and reason. The question must be asked: Can one exercise reason without having knowledge? One should have some historical context before making sweeping statements. Then again, in my experience, excerpting Tacitus and providing historical context has never helped any man seduce a naive young thing.  What helps is not speaking like a mature, steady, wise old man, but like a brash, rebellious, “modern” youth; be a dreamer of dreams; speak of the Future and “21st century standards”;  complain of women being unfree, men as “weak and incapable” and women as the far more intelligent sex, who require complete freedom to “try out” as many men, or women, as they wish. If one says all this, perhaps they too can be constantly “tried out”; but, they will probably have to wait behind Stepan Partamian, who will be waiting first in line.

At the same time, the one non-“21st century standard” to which Partamian somehow clings is nationalism. Of all the “isms” that reason-preaching, modern citizens of the world hold in contempt, nationalism is foremost, but not for Partamian. In fact, his primary criticism of Christianity is that it is international and hostile to nationality. In a subsequent program, one young listener, encouraged by Partamian’s advocacy of “21st century standards” and anti-religious polemics, said to him that he considered nationalism, in addition to religion, to be also a means of “controlling people” and that both were dangerous and needed to be eradicated. This youth, or rather, this “corrupted youth” as the Greeks might say,was a more faithful adherent to “21st century standards” having cast nationalistic feeling aside also. Partamian, without irritation, said he was familiar with that kind of thinking, and proved it by perfectly summarizing it; that all nations, in addition to religion, must disappear so that all divisions and sources of conflict disappear in order for men and women to become citizens of the world and live in perpetual peace. He politely stated that he was not of this opinion, and that he wished nothing more than to preserve Armenia as a nation forever. But having already accepted and become the foremost preacher to the Armenian people of two-thirds of  these “21st century standards”, the kindred ideas of all religion as fake, and women as needing liberation from a patriarchal tyranny, by what logic has he reprieved nationalism? How does or has any nation in history existed without the bond provided by a common religion, (the Soviet Union being a brief, unnatural, and anomalous exception); and, how does a nation perpetuate itself from generation to generation through the institution of marriage when the decision is left to stupid boys and naïve girls “trying each other out”, and then half of them getting divorced, with the other half never marrying to begin with?

Finally, Partamian’s antecedents, Nietzsche, Voltaire, and ultimately Socrates, were successful in altering their  nations’ traditional customs and institutions; however, not merely through mockery and “enlightening” the populus, but through unscrupulous revolutionary coup d’états which they inspired. Voltaire, together with Rousseau, provided the philosophical groundwork for the French revolutionaries, who established a tyranny, outlawed the Catholic religion of France, and carried out the mass-murders known as the Reign of Terror. A pictorial representation of these events, and one that would please Partamian, is Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading Freedom”, a famous depiction of a frenzied woman, trampling a mound of corpses, her breasts liberated from her blouse, tri-color flag in hand, leading a renewed charge for reason and freedom in France in 1830. The anti-Christian philosophy of Nietzsche, likewise, was utilized by the National Socialist revolutionaries who took over Germany; and, while the philosophy of Nietzsche in recent years has been whitewashed and presented to the masses in the most innocuous light possible, he welcomed the utilization of his philosophy by any Napoleon or Caesar-like conqueror who would conquer the world for Europe, and admitted that his philosophy of amoral “supermen’ would likely become known as the most evil in history, but that evil too had a major role to play in existence. And, of course, Socrates himself, the mocker of all Greek tradition, was strongly connected to the oligarchical coup of The Thirty in Athens, many of the movers of the revolution against the Athenian government, like Critias, being students of Socrates.

What role the Armenian Socrates’ convoluted message will play in Armenian life in the coming years, both in the diaspora and in the Republic of Armenia ,which will undoubtedly see renewed upheaval, is yet to be seen. When these upheavals occur, as they most certainly will, and the lives of Armenians are thrown into disorder; when the known becomes unknown; when all things and values are in flux and uncertain; and the future itself becomes unclear, Armenians must shut their ears to all Sophists, dreamers, and prodigious talkers, and follow a simple rule, for the truth is simple: Follow your ancestors, except when they have failed to follow their ancestors.