Issue #05 August 2017

A Tale of Two Socrates: Part Two

According to Nietzsche these dying words of Socrates betrays a contempt for life, as one usually sacrificed a rooster to Asclepius after the curing of a disease. Nietzsche interprets these words to mean “To live — that means to be sick a long time”. In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche traces the consequences of this world-weariness through the development of Western Philosophy. His main target is the history of a metaphysical dualism separating the real world from the apparent world, with the eventual consequence of annihilating both the real and the apparent worlds. This result is one aspect of the European Nihilism that he sought to overcome with his philosophical works.

Hannah Arendt too examines the history of metaphysical thinking, tracing a development of errors in Life of the Mind. In the Promise of Politics she takes this inquiry one step further back in time with a distinction between the earlier works of Plato, in which the dialectical method is fully employed and which end without a result, and the later works of Plato in which Socrates seems to forget that all he knows is that he knows nothing, and he comes to possess knowledge of the Truth. Arendt states that this is not a “willful distortion” on Plato’s part, but the consequence of the trial and death of Socrates which “made Plato despair of polis life, and at the same time doubt certain fundamentals of Socrates teachings.” Out of this doubt developed the separation of the real and the apparent world, the separation of body and mind, and signaled the flight of philosophers from the public realm. The history of metaphysical errors that Nietzsche sought to destroy begins with a specific political experience.

At his trial, Socrates decided to forego the usual methods of persuasion, including the parading of emotionally charged family members before the jury, and instead decided to convince his jurors of his innocence with his method of dialectics. Socrates developed dialectics from out of the experience of speaking with a friend, and out of the way in which one speaks with oneself in solitude; dialectics involves discovering the opinion of the other in order to bring out the truth inherent in that opinion. (To read more on this please see A Tale of Two Socrates: Part One). Only, at his trial Socrates was not addressing a friend in the marketplace but a multitude, and a multitude must be addressed with persuasion rather than dialogue. This distinction was “already a matter of course” for Aristotle in his Rhetoric for reasons that may at once seem obvious, a multitude does not possess a singular opinion whose truth may be brought to light, instead, one has to force one’s own opinion upon a multitude. But, because Socrates “respected the limitations of persuasion” namely that his opinion was not an objective point of view that would be valid for all he was unable to persuade the jury of the validity of his point of view; just as he was unable to convince his friends that he had to suffer the death penalty out of respect for the common world of the polis. Arendt attests that “the city had no use for a philosopher and the friends had no use for political argumentation. This is part of the tragedy to which Plato’s dialogues testify”.

Plato, in contradistinction to his pupil Aristotle, was not ready to accept the limitations of dialogue, instead he came to reject opinion and persuasion. Of course, the English words opinion and persuasion are poor translations of the Greek concepts that they are given to convey. Persuasion is supposed to translate peithien, which “was the political form of speech” and their use of persuasion, rather than violence, was one thing that fundamentally separates them from barbarians. Arendt points out that the goddess of persuasion, Peitho, had a temple in Athens. While opinion is supposed to translate doxa, which can be explained as the world as it appears to me, one’s point of view and standing in the world, and for the Ancient Greeks there was no other world or way of it appearing. According to Arendt “the spectacle of seeing Socrates submit his own doxa to the irresponsible opinions of the Athenians and being outvoted by a majority made Plato despise opinions and yearn for absolute standards …[and] to introduce absolute standards into the realm of human affairs where without such transcending standards everything remains relative”. Reacting to the death of Socrates “Plato arrived both at his concept of truth as the opposite of opinion and at his notion of a specifically philosophical form of speech, dialegesthai, as the opposite of persuasion”. Plato invented the Truth.

To understand the extent to which Plato’s introduction of the Truth was a rejection of Greek experience one need go no further than the Cave, but first, to recall that Socrates himself had experienced that other cave of insight, the Delphic Oracle.

The process of receiving a prophecy from the Oracle began on the outside, in the full light of the sun and beneath a sign that read “Know Thyself”. After some time spent waiting outside one is summoned into the entrance to the cave, where one is expected to continue waiting. Slowly, one is summoned deeper and deeper into the cave, sometime spending entire weeks waiting in various chambers, each chamber darker than the last. Eventually, the oracle is ready and one is summoned into the final chamber to view a shimmering spectacle of light and theater. A cryptic prophecy is spoken and one is quickly ushered outside into the blinding sun and is sent back into the world from which they came, only, carrying a prophecy that is not a Truth. The prophecy is instead deliberately made capable of being interpreted in at least two different ways. One’s opinion, one’s point of view upon the world is required if the prophecy is to make any sense at all, the truthfulness of the prophecy must be brought out of the prophecy using one’s doxa. Socrates was given the prophecy that he was the wisest of all men, which he interpreted, as he argues at his trial, that he is the wisest because he knows that his opinion is one among many and is in no way valid for all mortals; in other words, he was not wise, he has no truth of his own to teach and realizing this limitation makes him the wisest.

Plato’s allegory of the cave begins inside a deep dark chamber of a cave with spectators chained before a spectacle of light and shadow. Behind them burns a fire, there are men who parade puppets before the firelight casting shadows upon a wall. The spectators delight in naming the shadows as they appear. One spectator is suddenly freed of his shackles and is forced to turn around and face the fire and the puppets that cause the shadowy appearances he is familiar with. Initially blinded, the spectator’s eyes slowly adjust first to the puppets, and then to the sight of the fire. Our spectator is then “reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent”* into the bright light of day. He is again blinded and his eyes slowly adjust to shadows, then reflections, objects, the light of the stars and moon, and finally to the full light of day and to the vision of the sun itself. However, our spectator cannot remain here, and he is forced back into the cave, a spectator among others who laugh at his eyes now blinded by darkness.

Inasmuch as Plato’s allegory reverses the experience of receiving a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi, the character Socrates now stands in a reversal of that Socrates we examined in Part One. The apparent world, the world of doxa, is both a prison and an illusion. The concerns of this world, are beneath the philosopher. Neither does the philosopher actualize the dialogue within himself or engage in dialogue with his fellow citizens, nor are the spectators themselves engaged in political discussion: Arendt notes that “the two most politically significant words designating human activity, talk and action (lexis and praxis), are conspicuously absent from the whole story”. The philosopher no longer withdraws into himself as into a cave to engage himself in dialogue and to return to a world of a plurality of viewpoints; no, the philosopher now retreats from the world by direct contemplation of the divine. The philosopher knows the Good itself. The philosopher now contemplates with his soul, and only out of necessity engages in any activities of the body, avoiding these activities if at all possible.

“The philosopher, although he perceives something that is more than human, that is divine (theion ti), remains a man, so that the conflict between philosophy and the affairs of men is ultimately a conflict within the philosopher himself. It is this conflict which Plato rationalized and generalized into a conflict between body and soul: whereas the body inhabits the city of men, the divine thing which philosophy perceives is seen by something itself divine — the soul — which somehow is separate from the affairs of men” (Arendt, The Promise of Politics).

The conflict of body and soul grew out of and replaces the earlier conflict of myself and I, wherein one must befriend oneself or become unable to engage oneself in dialogue. Not only this, but body and soul inhabit two different worlds, the body moves in a world of appearance and illusion while the soul moves within a true world of absolute and objective standards. The world of the soul does not appear before each human being differently depending on their standing in it; therefore the world of the soul has no use for democracy. Plato, using the voice of Socrates, likens democracy to a bunch of drunken sailors taking the helm of a great ship from a seasoned captain, operating it at their whim, and making fun of the captain for his incessant star-gazing.

Arendt attributes this change from the earlier works of Plato to the later works of Plato to the experience of Socrates not as a gadfly, buzzing around the great horse Athens and urging its citizens on to more truthful opinions, but to Socrates the electric eel who passes on his shock to those who he encounters. Socrates would frequently enter into a state of shock so deep that nothing could disturb his thoughts, he would “as though seized by a rapture, fall into complete motionlessness, just staring without seeing or hearing anything”. Socrates would endure these moments of speechless wonder, of thaumadzein, for hours at a time, and return to the world of human beings with nothing more than unanswerable questions and an understanding that can only express itself negatively; “I know that I do not know”. However, while enduring the speechless wonder not-knowing becomes more than a dry scientific statement of fact, wondering and not-knowing establishes the philosopher as a question asking being. It is for this reason that both Plato and Aristotle declare thaumadzein to be the beginning of philosophy, philosophy begins with wonder, and it is this wonder that causes the philosopher in Plato’s cave to turn around and begin to inquire into the causes of things, and into the being of Being.

Socrates the electric eel would unwittingly force upon others this state of speechless wonder through his inquiry into their doxa. There is an inherent danger in asking questions about the opinions of others: “The search for the truth in the doxa can lead to the catastrophic result that the doxa is altogether destroyed, or what had appeared is revealed to be an illusion”. Arendt calls our attention to King Oedipus, whose search for the truth left him not only without a point of view upon the world, but also without a world in which to stand, and compares the now blind king to those early dialogues of Plato in which the Socratic dialogue ends inconclusively. Many of Socrates’ interlocutors “must have gone away not with a more truthful opinion, but with no opinion at all … all opinions are destroyed and no truth is given in their stead”. The speechless wonder at everything that is is a double edged sword, it can establish one as a philosopher, one who asks questions, but it can also take a person out of the world of the plurality of human beings.

The willingness to endure this speechless wonder, and the momentary worldlessness that accompanies it, is what separates the philosopher from other humans, that is, from the mere spectators in the cave. Socrates readily endured this wonder, but in speech and action he emphasized dialogue with himself and with others. Plato turns the speechless wonder into the way of life for the philosopher, the bios theoretikos, which forms not only the beginning but also the end of philosophy. This is the difference between the cave of the Delphic Oracle and the cave of Plato’s allegory, in one the philosopher returns to the world of human beings with the new insight, in the other, the philosopher must retreat from the world in a continuous state of wonder. Plato introduces in the later dialogues, as the experience of thaumadzein, the direct contemplation of the Truth in order to give to the philosopher what Socrates freely admitted he did not have, a standing in the world, a point of view, doxa. Plato’s Truth was designed to give the philosopher a place to stand in the world while enduring the speechless wonder that otherwise left one without a standing in the world. The consequence, however, is that the occupation of the philosopher is no longer the inner dialogue that follows a moment of speechless wonder, but to endure that wonder and prolong the speechlessness in oneself and with others. No longer concerned with the affairs of the world, or the inner dialogue that takes place in solitude, the philosopher “destroys the plurality of the human condition within himself.”

The abyss between the apparent world and the real world, and the history of metaphysical errors to follow, opened with the disdain for the specific political experience of Athenian democracy, and even more specifically the trial and death of Socrates. The political origins of this schism became forgotten, at least metaphorically, when Aristotle decided not only to flee Athens, lest the Athenians sin twice against philosophy, but also that the philosopher was no longer bound by duty to accept the laws of the land. The only use philosophy had for politics from this moment on was to protect the silent activity of the philosopher from the ignorant multitudes. According to Arendt every political philosophy since has either attempted to understand philosophy from concepts which originated in the world of human affairs or attempted to introduce the absolute standards of philosophy into the realm of politics. “Politics, to be sure, never could conform to such standards and thereby … was judged to be an unethical business, judged so not only by philosophers but also, in the centuries to come, by many others, when philosophical results, originally formulated in opposition to common sense, had finally been absorbed by the public opinion of the educated”.

Hannah Arendt, like Friedrich Nietzsche, was concerned with the separation of the apparent world from the real world, but attributes this schism not only to a history of metaphysical errors, but to a specific political experience whose influence on the history of ideas has fallen into oblivion. The result is not only a loss of the sense of the reality of the world due to metaphysical theories of dualism, but also a separation of the man of thought from the man of speech and action. Arendt strove to mend the second abyss by encouraging us at all times to think what we do. In order to accomplish this she says that philosophers “would have to make the plurality of men, out of which arises the whole realm of human affairs — in its grandeur and misery — the object of their thaumadzein.”

Justin Richards is nobody interesting, just a grad school dropout doing concrete work — and the occasional garden — but who cannot stop incessantly thinking nevertheless. He likes skateboards. Find more of his writing on Quora.


August 2017


Hope Speaks: Eagleton, King Lear, and Star Wars

by Jedd Cole

A Tale of Two Socrates: Part Two

by Justin Richards

Other Than The Present: A Schema for Time

by Brendan De Paor-Moore

Remembering our Limits: The Ritual of Taizé as a Gesture of Humanity

by Tollef Graff Hugo

Adorno’s Negativity: Suffering Devoid of Sense, Sense Without Suffering

by Timofei Gerber