Monday, January 16, 2006

What Exactly Do You Do, Socrates? (Part II)

If Socrates is not a clever charlatan, then indeed, Socrates, we do ask (as he rhetorically puts it in his own defense), “'All', O Sokrates, to son ti esti pragma?” (Apology, 20c4-5) Who is Socrates, and what does he do? We ask this question over and over again, so much so that plausible justifications can be given for vastly different views. It seems that a hermeneutical dilemma occurs in which the reader inevitably becomes implicated in the reading. The meaning “behind” the text does not appear without a layering of meaning “in front of” the text. Certainly, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche allow their own views to radiate through the surface of their readings of Socrates but not in ways that are obviously inappropriate—assuming of course that one has abandoned the hope of ever retrieving the “real” Socrates. Such a hope must be abandoned, as with all hopes based on confusion. So our question must not simply be about the “pragma” of Socrates, but the pragma of Socrates of for us.

Sarah Kofman suggests that the variance among readings of Socrates depends on numerous prior exegetical and eisegetical choices, the presupposition of which reflects a desire (if unconscious) to guard the reader’s certitudes from the destructive sweep of this “atopical and atypical monster,” as Kofman puts it.[1] For example, one must choose which source to privilege among the three possibilities: Plato, Xenophon, or Aristophanes. One must also decide whether or not to read Socrates as ironic: if so, tragic or comic; if not, optimistic or pessimistic. Likewise, Socrates’ ignorance must be evaluated as feigned or real, which will affect the way one conceives his maieutics. And what of his daimon and its voice? It could speak for the Absolute Subjectivity of Geist, or it could be the dying gasps of a degenerate instinct as rationality gradually comes to prevail through the elenchus. How should we treat Socrates’ place in history? In turning philosophy away from quasi-scientific investigations of nature toward human affairs and the care of the soul, does Socrates mark a decisive beginning, a turning point, or a failure and an ending? What of his political views? Is he, as Karl Popper suggests, a lover of freedom, a democrat and a humanitarian, who was betrayed by Plato’s depiction of him as a totalitarian? Or conceivably he was truly anti-democratic, and thus his condemnation of Athens includes its constitution as well as its citizens. Perhaps, like W. K. C. Guthrie, we would prefer to carve out a view somewhere in the middle.[2] At the end of Kofman’s account of these twisted readings of Socrates, she poses the following question: “If the problem of Socrates has caused so much ink to flow, in the final analysis, is it not because behind the ‘case’ of this atopical and atypical monster, each interpreter is trying as he can to ‘settle’ his own ‘case,’ to carry out his reading in such a way that all of his own certitudes will not collapse with Socrates, that his own equilibrium and that of his ‘system’—even if there is nothing obviously systematic about it—will not be too seriously threatened?”[3]

Yes. Readings of Socrates always reflect a defense mechanism of one sort or another in order to shield the reader from the threat of Socrates’ skeptical scrutiny. So let me conclude this point by confessing my “case” for a moment. As Brickhouse and Smith[4] contend, Socrates’ “pragma” involves destructive, constructive, and hortative elements, but it is the destructive moment that is the most enticing and yet most threatening. Let me explain. I agree with Gregory Vlastos that Socrates’ “royal art” which aims at the perfection of the soul is intended (contra Xenophon) to be a universal calling for all rational individuals who care to examine themselves.[5] (I am not sure, however, whether Vlastos’s notion of Socrates as “searcher”[6] can fully account for his constructive side or his “suffering” on behalf of the Athenians, but that is another story involving a further reading that cannot delay us here.) I also agree with Brickhouse and Smith that the elenchus is not a craft but has universal applicability. This universality has two senses: the elenchus can be used by anyone, and it can be applied to any belief. Furthermore, Brickhouse and Smith make an important point in asserting that Socrates examines more than the consistency of a set of propositions or a set of beliefs, but rather a way of life. What then is so enticing and threatening about Socrates’ destructive moment of skepticism? It promises to change anyone’s life including my own, but my frail, neurotic “system” may collapse in the process.

[1]. Sarah Kofman, Socrates: Fictions of a Philosopher, tr. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

[2]. “These two polar opposites may serve to indicate the twisting and turning to which the evidence can be subjected.” W. K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 95.

[3]. Kofman, pp. 247-8.

[4]. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato’s Socrates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 3-29.

[5]. Gregory Vlastos, Socratic Studies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 102-3.

[6]. See Gregory Vlastos, “The Paradox of Socrates” in Studies in Greek Philosophy, ed. Daniel W. Graham (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).


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