What would Socrates have to say about the World Cup?

by Juliette Jacqmarcq

How much human blood was spilled, how much hydrocarbon was burned, and how many high-priced lobbyists were engaged so I can have the privilege of watching England vs. USA? Is this what the good life is?

Indeed, the announcement that Qatar would host the 2022 FIFA World Cup sparked celebrations in Doha, marking the first time the championship would be staged in the Arab region. But the decision, which was made in 2010, also drew immediate criticism, including questions about the viability of holding a sporting event in a nation where summer temperatures routinely reach 100 degrees, claims of bribery and corruption against FIFA officials who supported Qatar, and worries about ongoing human rights violations, with thousands of exploited migrant workers. 

Is this morally acceptable? Socrates, the father of philosophy, would have to disagree…

For Socrates, the good life must be moral. He claims that only to have what you want is wrong; people who get what they want but who are not moral are the less powerful. It is being a virtuous and moral person that is necessary to be happy, and it is sufficient. However, a good life, in Callicles’s view, is an unrestrained life in which someone pursues what they want, not worrying about other people’s definitions of what is good. He also maintains that it is almost impossible for the conventionally just person to be happy.

So, where does the World Cup fit into these two opposite definitions of the good life? Is it morally acceptable to enjoy the World Cup, to innocently follow every game, although the tournament is, in itself, murderous, unsustainable, and exclusive? But, on the other hand, why be moral when immoral people seem to benefit more? Does happiness come from satisfying one’s desires or from virtuous activity?

“Since all of us desire to be happy, and since we evidently become so on account of our use—that is our good use—of other things, and since knowledge is what provides this goodness of use and also good fortune, every man must, as seems plausible, prepare himself by every means for this: to be as wise as possible. Right?”

‘Yes,” he said.

Plato, Gorgias, (281e2-282a7)

Here, Socrates makes it abundantly evident that the secret to happiness lies not in the things one gathers, nor even in the endeavours that make up one’s life’s ingredients, but rather in the agency of the person himself who gives his life a direction and emphasis. He also makes it evident that the notion that happiness is limited to our needs being satisfied is false. We must use our critical and reflective intelligence—what Socrates refers to as “wisdom”—to decide which desires are worth satisfying. We must come to a knowledge of human nature and learn what brings out the best in people—which desires reinforce one another, and which keep us from feeling a sense of overall purpose and functioning—as well as what brings out the worst in people.

He contends that shifting focus from the body to the soul is the secret to happiness. By balancing our desires, we can learn to calm the mind and arrive at a tranquilly that resembles that of the divine.

But we cannot ignore that the World Cup brings us moments of happiness. Since the World Cup draws attention from all over the world and is viewed by more than 26 billion people, it acts as a catalyst for bringing people together. It improves cross-cultural contact and fosters global awareness, which deepens the social bonds between nations. Any World Cup tends to promote the universal brotherhood that is necessary for all humans, given that the world is a hostile place where racism, wars, and religion disputes prevail. Since the locals will be brought together by such a large event and will be aware that they are working toward a single objective as a city rather than as separate cities, World Cups can also boost national pride.

In fact, according to Callicles, in response to Socrates, we achieve happiness through pleasure. It is the satisfaction of our desires that gives us pleasure, so the best thing to do is have as many powerful desires as you can, and succeed in satisfying them. And we can all agree that, when our country wins a game and we are celebrating together, it brings us pleasure. Callicles argues that this is why we need to violate conventional justice and self-discipline to be happy.

But can we ignore the corruption, the 1.7 million exploited migrant workers, and the ecological disaster of holding an outdoor climatised sporting event in a nation with a hot and humid climate, just for the sake of having moments of pleasure while watching the games?

In Socrates’ allegory of the cave, he compares achieving the Good to finally emerging from the ignorance of the cave. It is the process of developing an understanding in stages that leads to the realisation of absolute reality and truth. The World Cup may seem in appearance like an event that reunites, a tournament that promotes openness and communion, but deep down, it is corrupt – maybe too corrupt to watch and enjoy? Are we considered ignorant and immoral to watch it?

Socrates would tell you: rest in peace to those who do not seek the Good; may you find comfort in your resistance, and may your chains be the tangible reality you so desperately desired.

If a true system could be formed in which all souls are in accord with the Good, existence would be lifted to a reality we are currently unable to comprehend. We inhabit a world with a wide range of variations, answers, and issues since there is no such system in place.

And in a way, we’re not really upset at some insignificant outpost in the Gulf, but at ourselves. We should be ashamed of the way we enabled this evil, cannibalistic despotism to permeate our institutions, cities and towns; our politics and royalty; as well as our favourite sport. The fact that this competition is happening is abhorrent. Its very existence is a reproach to everyone who contributed to its invention and to everyone who had the power to prevent it. This needs to be spoken – it feels good, necessary, and cathartic. However, nothing is altered. I’m betting on France vs. Brazil at finals.

[Editor’s note: This article was written before the World Cup. While Juliette was half right, it’s clear she underestimated Lionel Messi.]

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