A Tale of Two Socrates: Part One
In the opening of Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche pens some of the harshest criticism ever directed towards one of the first practitioners of philosophy, Socrates. He tells us that Socrates is an ugly plebian, a symptom of a decline in instinct and he marks the beginning of the instincts being turned against the individual by the tyrant of reason. Socrates’ famous daimon is diagnosed as a hallucination, and the dialectical method, that develops out of Socrates’ relationship to the daimon, is nothing but a form of revenge against life. Socrates is a man who is opposed to life, and he invents otherworldly values that turn life into a disease, a pale imitation of Goodness itself, of Beauty itself, and of the True itself.
It is a very fine piece of writing, witty and entertaining, it locates the mission of Nietzsche’s book at the beginning of Western Philosophy before he draws the shades and shows us how the ideal of the suprasensory world has led us into centuries of error. In this sense it works perfectly, and the point of view he expresses in this short passage on Socrates is an important piece of philosophy. Only, it certainly is not the only point of view on Socrates. In fact, one problem with it is that it seems to treat all of the writings of Plato equally, when it is generally recognized that as Plato got older he more and more used Socrates as the mouthpiece for his own ideas. Hannah Arendt, as if responding to just this treatment of Socrates, develops a distinction between Platonic and Socratic thought and analyzes the origin of this schism, the trial and death of Socrates. In The Promise of Politics, Arendt attempts to understand the origins of the schism between appearance and reality, between body and soul as the consequence of the confrontation between the philosopher and the polis.
Above the entrance to the Delphic Oracle a sign was raised to remind kings, peasants and slaves of their place before the priests and the gods. Socrates set the course for centuries of the development of Western philosophy, political thought, religion and culture when he reinterpreted this command. Know thyself. From out of this reinterpretation follows all logic and ethics, but also, from out of the trial of Socrates follows the opposition of the philosopher and the polis, and the flight of the philosopher from the common world.
In The Promise of Politics, Hannah Arendt revisits these origins of Western thought. For the Ancient Greeks, there was no possibility of objective truth, instead, it was believed that the same world opens up differently to every person. The individual way that the world “appears to me” was encapsulated in the concept doxa, which “means not only opinion but also splendor and fame… To assert one’s own opinion belonged to being able to be seen and heard by others”. This activity was restricted to the public realm, and to full-fledged citizens, and was completely lacking in private life. The Ancient Greeks had to step out of the privacy of home life into the open space of the Agora in order to show oneself and present one’s opinion.
It was within this world-view that Socrates reinterpreted the Delphic command; “‘know thyself’ meant only through knowing what appears to me — only to me, and therefore remaining forever related to my own concrete experience — can I ever understand truth. Absolute truth … does not exist for mortals”. Socrates did not oppose truth to opinion, as if truth was somehow separable from mere opinion, but rather he believed that only through opinion could truth be made to appear.
Socrates developed a method for making one’s opinion more truthful. Plato would later label this method dialectics, but Socrates called it maieutic, or midwifery. “He wanted to help others give birth to what they themselves thought anyhow, to find the truth in their doxa.” For Socrates this process requires two stages. First, Socrates has to inquire into the other person’s opinion before examining that opinion for contradictions. Plato’s early dialogues often do not go further than this examination, they “frequently conclude inconclusively, without a result. To have talked something through, to have talked about something, some citizen’s doxa, seemed result enough”. Socrates was not involved in providing an education in the truth but he wanted “to make the citizens more truthful” in their opinions with the assumption that these opinions would be brought to bear politically in the open space of the Agora.
The kind of dialogue that is meaningful without reaching a conclusive result, without one party being persuaded by the activity of speech, is modelled on the kind of conversation that occurs between friends:
“Friendship to a large extent, indeed, consists of this kind of talking about something that the friends have in common. By talking about what is between them, it becomes ever more common to them. It gains not only its specific articulateness, but develops and expands and finally, in the course of time and life, begins to constitute a little world of its own which is shared in friendship. In other words, politically speaking, Socrates tried to make friends out of Athens’ citizenry, and this indeed was a very understandable purpose in a polis whose life consisted of an intense and uninterrupted contest of all against all”.
Arendt notes that it is quite in line with the earlier Socratic dialogues that Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, posits friendship rather than justice as the bond that holds together communities. Friendship is political to the extent that the friends come to understand the truth in each other’s opinions, it consists in the realization that although the world appears before everyone differently that they still share a common world. “Socrates seemed to have believed that the political function of the philosopher was to help establish this kind of common world, built on the understanding of friendship, in which no rulership is needed”.
The political relevance of friendship proceeds for Socrates out of a more fundamental experience, from a different manner of knowing one’s self. “Only someone who has had the experience of talking with himself is capable of being a friend, of acquiring another self. The condition is that he be of one mind with himself, in agreement with himself … because someone who contradicts himself is unreliable”.
Plurality, which is both the human condition and the prerequisite for politics, is not only ever actualized out there in the world, but is also contained in every individual person in solitude; “speaking with myself I live together with myself”. From out of the experience of speaking with oneself in solitude emerges the possibility of contradiction with oneself. For Socrates, “it is much better to be in disagreement with the whole world than, being one, to be in disagreement with myself”. It is this possibility of agreement, and of contradiction, with oneself that led Aristotle to make the axiom of contradiction “the fundamental rule of thought”. Human plurality is so fundamental to the experience of thought that even the most reasoned arguments for solipsism carry with themselves the contradiction that one doubts the reality of the external world in a manner of thinking that strongly suggests the reality of the world and the plurality of human beings.
The desire to be in agreement with oneself forms not only the beginning of logic, but also the the beginning of ethical theories which do not require a God, or gods, as a guarantor of the goodness, or evil, of a particular course of action. For Socrates, “living together with others begins with living together with oneself … The self is the only person from whom I cannot depart, whom I cannot leave, and with whom I am welded together”. Morality is able to divorce itself from religion with Socrates’ realization that one’s self is a witness to to all of one’s deeds, and further, that oneself will continue to testify to those deeds when withdraws from the world into solitude. One who lies, who steals, or murders not only endures an ethical bad conscience, but is also delivered into logical contradiction. Socrates believes that no one would willingly live together with a liar, a thief, or a murderer, yet this person has delivered themselves into precisely this company for as long as one is alive. In the Human Condition, Arendt speaks of actions so terrible that they destroy the possibility of solitude, one loses the ability to engage oneself in dialogue. For such a person, she simply says, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hanged around his neck”. In Promise of Politics, and throughout much of her writing, she notes that “conscience itself no longer functions under totalitarian conditions of political organization … [and that] No man can keep his conscience intact who cannot actualize the dialogue within himself, that is, who lacks that solitude required for all forms of thinking”.
Socrates’ discovery of the dialogical nature of thought, epitomized in the dialogue between friends, transformed solitude from an apolitical activity exclusive to philosophers into “the necessary condition for the good function of the polis”. However, this political function of philosophy would lead to a conflict between philosophy and politics that ultimately “made Plato despair of polis life and, at the same time, doubt certain fundamentals of Socrates teachings”.
This doubt invariably led to the flight of philosophers from the public space of politics, to the separation of body from soul, and the separation of appearance from reality. This forms the real core of Nietzsche’s attack on the figure of Socrates with which he begins Twilight of the Idols, and which drives the genealogical approach of this work. His attack on Socrates is dramatic, but it lacks substance, Nietzsche returns to Plato at the end of Twilight of the Idols for a more systematic attack. Arendt argues that these separations, which she analyzes in The Life of the Mind, were not completed until the political origins of this schism, the trial and death of Socrates which was still felt by both Plato and Aristotle, was entirely forgotten.
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