This essay is a Platonic dialogue on the concept of “security” and its roots in Ancient Greece. It is Track II of a longer concept album exploring what we mean when we use the word ‘security’ (and what it should mean).

You can find all the essays in the “When We Say Security, What Do We Mean?" concept album here:

A painting of a cat in Socratic robes in an ancient greek temple.

Persons of the Dialogue1

SECRATES

THEOXORUS


Theoxorus: I am feeling secure in my knowledge today, Secrates, yet have no doubt you shall shortly annoy me with indistinct inquiries into something simple that we should enjoy simply for simplicity’s sake.

Secrates: Secure! O, my dear Theoxorus, do my ears truly witness you bringing a conversation to me on a shining platter?

Theoxorus: What do you mean, Secrates?

Secrates: I mean that you used the word “secure.” And what does “secure” mean? We should always be on the lookout for such answerless words. I know you do not wish to examine it, but now we must!

Theoxorus: Secrates, no –

Secrates: Do you truly object? Is it not your own lips which revealed the relevance of this word to your very life?

Theoxorus: I… I cannot object.

Secrates: And neither can I. We must proceed and, another time, we can discuss what your hesitance for exploration means. I observe that you grow weary of dissecting words and essences of late. And yet with what else do you fill your days? Is it not your own shame you are unwilling to confront? Is it not this regular discourse that exposes the inner self you wish to –

Theoxorus: Secrates! Let us examine “secure” now and my own soul later.

Secrates: As you wish, my dear Theoxorus, I will now proceed with this inquiry, for which I owe you many thanks. There are two words from our current civilization that serve as the inspiration for securus: ataraksia and asphaleia. Let us proceed first with ataraksia.

Theoxorus: What tongue is the word “securus”?

Secrates: Latin.

Theoxorus: “Latin”?

Secrates: Yes. I have seen into the future during a bathing ritual.

Theoxorus: Ah, Secrates, you indulge in the pleasures of the oracles!

Secrates: Believe what you wish. But let us now proceed, as you insisted. What defines ataraksia but what it is not? It is the negation of taraksia, from tarrassein, which means to trouble the mind, to agitate, to disturb, to stir.

Theoxorus: Just as your incessant inquiries do to me.

Secrates: Precisely. And if ataraksia is the negation of these verbs, may it not be said to reflect calmness, equanimity, tranquility? It is as Pyrrho said, a form of freedom from distress and concern, and as the public says in their less formal dialogue, it is the mental state soldiers must cultivate before battle. Is it a goal, a kind of goodness, that a person must pursue in their lives? The Pyrrhonists, Epicureans, and Stoics would agree with this, each for different reasons reflecting their different philosophical foundations.

Theoxorus: What do you think, Secrates?

Secrates: I know nothing, as you know well, Theoxorus. What matters for our conversation is the essence of ataraksia: a freedom from disturbances, especially of the mental variety. And, then, as I have seen in my bathtub in a very distant future, what matters is that the verbs ataraksia is meant to negate – to disturb, to agitate, to trouble, to stir – are the verbs most associated with traditional cybersecurity. Does this not suggest security then means its very opposite?

Theoxorus: To be sure.

Secrates: And does this not trouble the mind in itself?

Theoxorus: Certainly. But how can you know such contraction abounds?

Secrates: This future world seems designed by contradiction. Their “security awareness training” exercises, such as those meant to phish humans as one lures a fish with a decoy worm, have the explicit goal of “troubling the mind” to keep persons vigilant for danger. In this future, application security tools are infamous for how they disturb software development and delivery practices – and does that not trouble the minds of software engineers? The list of security rules and policies are unending, often arbitrary – and have they not found a most effective means to agitate the subjects under their dominion?

Theoxorus: They have.

Secrates: And do we believe that such activities result in greater defenses?

Theoxorus: Certainly not, unless one believes that defense is impossible through design. This reminds me of our prior dialogue on beauty, Secrates, as what you describe of this “infosec industry” must make it beauty’s enemy.

Secrates: Are you surprised, Theoxorus, that infosec makes enemies when its goal is to disrupt tranquility? And how could infosec achieve beauty when it sees ugliness and danger in all things outside itself?

Theoxorus: Of course. But surely some interpretation by other schools of thought justifies this perversion?

Secretes: They will not. Atarksia is seen as a strict requirement to attain the true, full happiness referred to as eudaimonia. It may surprise you, my dear Theoxorus, that the word atarksia is associated with Epicurean philosophy.

Theoxorus: But calmness seems harmonious with Epicureanism.

Secrates: Did you wish to ask me a question, my friend?

Theoxorus: Your social skills are as crude as unfired amphorae, Secrates. So, then, what is shocking about this?

Secrates: It is shocking because it is hard to imagine a philosophy more opposed to infosec than Epicurianism, which argues that the goal of a sentient life form is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain2. Epicurus is specific in defining pleasure as the absence of pain, and therefore “ethical hedonism” is the pursuit of avoiding pain, including pain that imparts pleasure near-term but pain longer-term. Without distracting ourselves by examining Epicureanism in more detail, we can say that the goal they espouse is to foster a life of tranquility. Does this cybersecurity community foster a life of such tranquility?

Theoxorus: They do not.

Secrates: I agree, my friend. Cybersecurity is not known for avoiding pain, regardless of temporal outlook. Infosec inflicts pain on others, whether by stoking fear or by making lives harder. Is it not fair to argue that infosec even inflicts pain on itself?3 Is it not cruel to cultivate obsession of vulnerabilities that kindle fear, uncertainty, and doubt when your stated aim is to eliminate them? Do we believe this fetishization of vulnerabilities and lascivious focus on blaming what they call “human error” can be called “ethical hedonism”? Or is it a societal mechanism to stifle introspection and to instead reenact shame? I regret that these questions reflect a topic for another time in the realm of psychology4, which has yet to be invented.

Theoxorus: You tease me, Secrates.

Secrates: Yes, but there is another thing, Theoxorus: what of asphaleia?

Theoxorus: You are unfailing in your pursuit, Secrates.

Secrates: Well, I suspect you might find its origin amusing. Asphaleia originates from wrestling and reflects the capacity to prevent being overthrown, being immovable and steadfast, like the throne of the gods, or like me in the presence of your lamentations and tantrums about our discourse. By roughly a century before our time5, asphaleia also came to mean the stability of the city state, to prevent being overthrown, and, if I permit myself to indulge in speculation, it could be extended to describe the stability of an organization (a kind of social entity I beheld in my bath). And, as some great scientists will prove thousands of years from our day, speed and stability of work harmonize and impart greater value together than apart. And, well, now I can put the matter as: is this infosec, that which slows down work, an enemy of asphaleia?

Theoxorus: Yes, certainly.

Secrates: Very good; and can you tell me how this might be despite asphaleia serving as the seed of the “security” concept’s own existence?

Theoxorus: I must confess, Secrates, that this “security” society of the future seems very lost.

Secrates: I dare say, my friend, that you spend too much time with me if you think it is an uncommon human desire to seek power and control, even at the expense of integrity. And can we truly argue that such desires are always conscious to the subject?

Theoxorus: Alas, they are not.

Secrates: If what you say is true, I ask you, then: what is this cybersecurity society not most of all?

When Secrates had asked his question, for a considerable time there was silence; Theoxorus furrowed his brow while meditating on this question; only Secrates made a sound when softly blowing on the delicate seedheads of a dandelion.

Theoxorus: For what did you wish as you blew, Secrates?

Secrates looked up at Theoxorus and said, with a smile: For you to answer my question.

Theoxorus: I will tell you. My feeling is that this cybersecurity society lacks curiosity.

Secrates: Exactly. The traditional infosec society is kin of Argus Panoptes; the role of enforcer grants them relevancy but not wisdom. Alas, my friend, if only they would follow the path of Daedalus instead. They feel ignorance as a sting and slight, as if ignorance was not the default condition of being alive! But there is more: how are they like the sophist?

Theoxorus: They both are paid to question without truth as their aim.

Secrates: And do they not both gain fortunes from this?

Theoxorus: They do.

Secrates: And are they not both hunters after a living prey, servants of the powerful, cousins of opportunists exploiting emotion for control?

Theoxorus: They are.

Secrates: But where the cybersecurity society differs is they seek the impossible void – the not-being of weakness – and they are willing to destroy whatever being stands in the way of this pyrrhic quest.

Continue with Track III: The Dawn of “Security” as a Noun (Securitas).


Conclusion

You can find all the essays in the “When We Say Security, What Do We Mean?" concept album here:

The cover art for the album with the title: What do we mean when we say security? It depicts an island floating in a sky filled with rainbow and pastel clouds in shades of periwinkle and violet. The island itself is a paradise, a blend of fantasy and cyberpunk aesthetics. Lush trees blanket its ledges while waterfalls cascade from each ledge, frozen in time and resembling a beautiful digital glitch. It is meant to reflect the utopia we might achieve with our systems – our own islands – if we embraced the original meanings of the word security.


  1. I think the closest we get to Platonic dialogues in modern times is Ao3 fanfiction #slowbuild #lightangst #friendship #humor #confessions #aroace #college #dom/sub #drama #alpha/beta/omegadynamics ↩︎

  2. Rorty, Mary. “Lecture 10.1: Epicurus and Lucretius.” Stanford University. http://web.stanford.edu/~mvr2j/ucsccourse/Lecture10.1.pdf ↩︎

  3. Infosec as an entity truly exhibits a weird form of masochism that honestly becomes slightly uncomfortable to contemplate if we start untangling all the evidence in support of it. ↩︎

  4. I am tempted to delve into the psychological concept of security and insecurity but I fear its revelations – despite being aimed at infosec as collective – would be interpreted as personal attacks. I will leave this one morsel for us to digest: the APA defines insecurity as a feeling of inadequacy, a lack of self-confidence, an inability to cope combined by general uncertainty about one’s goals, abilities, or relationships with others. To what degree does this notion of psychological insecurity accurately characterize the traditional infosec industry – its folk wisdom, zeitgeist, program priorities, prescribed procedures, policies, and so forth? ↩︎

  5. “Our time” here is referring to the time of Socrates (the inspiration for “Secrates”), which was in the 4th century B.C.E. Therefore, the rise of asphaleia meaning the stability of the city state was around the 5th century B.C.E. ↩︎