Friday, January 20, 2006

Socrates and Athenian Anxiety (Part V)

Taking stock of where we have been so far (here, here, here, and here), we have seen that we should take seriously Socrates’ confession not to know the truth and his deference to the daimon in matters of ethics rather than dismissing these claims as dissimulating irony. Furthermore, we have seen that his pragma of skeptical questioning potentially threatens everything we stand for and do. This threat, moreover, may be a threat to traditional religion and to tradition more generally, but it issues from within religion in such way that the modern distinction between cognitivism and noncognitivism does not apply. In particular, Socrates threatens to transform traditional codes of conduct by reformulating concepts such as “harm,” shedding some Homeric layers of meaning while retaining vestiges of them. Thus, Socrates’ pragma, his life’s work, appears to be dangerous to the Athenian way of life, and consequently their fear of him led to his trial, sentencing, and execution.

Our final question, then, is the following: Were the Athenian fears of Socrates justified? An adequate response to this question would involve the well-established distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear always relates to a particular object, whereas anxiety is perpetually indeterminate and free-floating. Insofar as Socrates becomes the object of the Athenian fears, we can ask whether his words and deeds merit his identification with this objective fear. For some scholars such as Vlastos,[1] Socrates’ moralistic conception of the gods reflects the erosion of traditional religious belief initiated by the “nature-philosophers” of Ionia and pursued further by the Eleatics (beginning as much as 150 years before with Xenophanes’ critique of polytheism and theological anthropomorphism). Continuing this line of thought, Socrates effects an “ethical transformation” of religious understanding, which is “tantamount to the destruction of the old gods.”[2] Thus, the Athenian fear (a “manifesto of orthodoxy,” as J. B. Bury[3] describes it) was justified. However, when Socrates asks Euthyphro incredulously whether he really believes the gods quarrel and are in enmity (i.e., whether they act immorally), Euthyphro replies affirmatively but reports that whenever he speaks “about matters of religion . . . they [the Athenian Assembly] laugh at me as if I were a madman” (Euthyphro 3c1-3). Since the tides already seemed to be turning against traditional religion among the general populace, other scholars such as Brickhouse and Smith[4] argue that Socrates was not identified as the object of Athenian fears on account of his moral transformation of the gods because Socrates was simply not so revolutionary in this respect. Thus, the assertion that the Athenians identified Socrates as the object of their fears because of his unorthodox religious beliefs seems historically inaccurate since such apparently heterodox beliefs were in fact fairly ordinary. The Athenian fears, then, must have been more complicated and ambivalent, and they therefore require further explanation.

Complicated and ambivalent fears are fears whose particular object cannot fully determine their scope and power. In such cases, the fears are mere signs of a much greater anxiety, which in this case involves the interplay of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Despite W. H. Auden’s proclamation that the twentieth century inaugurated the age of anxiety, 5th century B.C.E. Athens seems to have experienced its own form of this epidemic. Shortly after the highly romanticized portrayal of Athens in Pericles’ Funeral Speech, Athens struggled with the interplay of conflicting value systems (roughly, as A. W. Adkins[5] reports, competitive versus cooperative), and this conflict reflects the ever-present anxieties arising from the relations of identity and difference, individualism and participation, dynamics and form, freedom and destiny. Adkins’s analysis of the term nomoi[6] illustrates these anxieties insofar as its meaning spans “custom” and “law”: in the case of custom, the term relates to the need for participation within a tradition whose idealized form depicts a permanent destiny for the state; in the case of law, the term invokes a drive towards individual identity through the dynamic creation of norms as expressions of human freedom. In the aftermath of Pericles, the Athenians cannot simply repeat the past without compromising their future, nor can they simply press forward without forfeiting the past. When the notion of nomoi is thoroughly ambiguous, the question of justification according to the customs/laws has no unambiguous solution. Similarly, when the object of fear dissolves into the amorphous flow of anxiety, the evolution of a fear becomes the reification of anxiety in a sign. The question of justification, then, entails the recovery of the object that the sign represents, but if the content of a sign is precisely not an object then no object can be recovered. Thus, the fear cannot be so justified. In other words, Socrates becomes the objectified scapegoat of a collective anxiety, his condemnation functions as a free-floating sign with no objective referent, and thus its justification cannot be assessed.

[1]. Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, chapter 6.

[2]. Ibid., p. 166.

[3]. J. B. Bury, “Socrates Not Unjustly Condemned,” The Socratic Problem, ed. M. Montuori (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1992), p. 222-3.

[4]. Plato’s Socrates, pp. 181-3.

[5]. A. W. Adkins, Moral Values and Political Behaviour in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the End of the Fifth Century (New York: Norton and Company, Inc., 1972).

[6]. Ibid., pp. 105-6.


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