February 21, 2010
THE FLIGHT TOWARDS WHAT WE REALLY KNOW:
Our Hero Socrates: A similar version of this essay appears as the introduction to Nalin Ranasinghe’s Socrates in the Underworld: On Plato’s Gorgias (Peter Augustine Lawler, February 1, 2010, Clarion Review)
The deepest depth of the Platonic dialogue is a return to its surface, which is genuinely illuminating conversation about the moral or purpose-driven concerns we really share in common. We learn that the true purpose of the capacity for speech given to particular members of our species is neither technical nor transgressive. It is an error to view words as primarily weapons for either practical manipulation or for destroying the various articulations of the moral responsibilities given to social persons open to the truth.
Socrates finally confirms the goodness of all that we’ve been given as the beings with eros and logos, which means that all pretensions to solitary liberation or autonomous self-sufficiency are revealed, deep down, to be nothing but unnecessarily misery-producing illusions. Speech directed by reason and pulled toward reality by eros is, most of all, what keeps us from being alone. It also allows each of us to make genuine progress toward personal moral perfection. Our truth-inspired responsibilities are both personal and social.
“The crucial question,” as Ranasinghe articulates it, “has to do with how seriously one takes Socrates’ understanding of the soul as the seat of moral agency.” Do we really know enough to be able to say with confidence, against the skeptics, that our perception of moral choice is real? Socrates’ “knowledge of ignorance” is his awareness that omniscience is not a human possibility. We can’t really resolve the question of human freedom through the study of natural science, and one condition of our freedom is our ability to know that we can’t fully comprehend or control all that exists. We don’t have the power, in fact, to make ourselves more or less than humans stuck between the other animals and God. Divine freedom or blind determination by impersonal necessity will never characterize us.
Do we still know enough to know that being good and being happy are really choices open to us? Do we really know that any effort to feel good—to be happy—without really being good is bound to fail us? Socrates, Ranasinghe patiently explains, gives a psychic account of evil; good and evil are both profoundly personal.
I am evil, I can say, because I’m to blame if my soul is disordered, if I’ve been choosing against what I really know about myself. Evil is real and personal, and so it has a real and personal remedy. Telling the truth to myself as a rational and erotic being is the precondition for my choosing good over evil. That means that no radical social or technological transformation—no mega-effort to escape from the reality we’ve been given—can solve or even address the problem of evil. The Socratic way, which is the only way that respects the mystery of human freedom, is to proceed one soul at a time.
The Socratic teaching is morally demanding. The truth is, we’re not excused from doing the right thing by being victims or playthings of arbitrary gods or impersonal forces. But it is also reassuring. An ugly old guy trapped in an unhappy marriage turns out to be the best and the happiest Athenian of all. We can live well in the most adverse circumstances. Our happiness doesn’t depend on happenstance or what’s beyond our control, just as it doesn’t depend on being a successful control freak.
Socrates, Ranasinghe shows, was no Stoic. The Stoics were also tough-minded men. They did their duty as rational beings in what they saw as a cold, deterministic world, and so they thought it was possible to keep one’s own fate in one’s own control. The Stoics actually thought life is tougher than it really is. In their self-understanding, there’s no room for freedom or love or real happiness.
The world would be evil if the Stoics are right, and one appropriate response would be tight-lipped rational endurance of what can’t be changed. The Stoics were unerotic because they thought the only way to think of themselves as happy is to think of themselves as minds, and not as whole human beings. But Socrates was actually happy in thinking about who he really is, because the pull of his eros was away from the illusion connecting rational self-sufficiency with happiness.
If the Stoics are right on the facts, then the Epicureans (or the Epicurean sophists) actually make more sense. The world is evil insofar as it’s hostile to my very existence. Everything human is ephemeral and pointless, and so both hope and fear make me stupid. Such sophists argue that since evil isn’t caused by me and can’t be remedied by me, my proper response to worldly events is apathy. I might as well try to lose myself in imaginary pleasures, including taking some proud pleasure in being able to rise above the futile sound and fury that surrounds me. My personal assault on reality is, in fact, a value judgment on reality. I’m free to do whatever it takes to get me through this hell of a life.
But the truth is that I can’t ever fully believe that my perception of reality is nothing but a private fantasy. I can’t turn what I really know about my death into “death” or a linguistic construction amenable to reconstruction with my happiness in mind. In a certain way the Epicurean teaching is tougher than the Stoic position. Losing oneself is a full-time job; there’s no real break from the pursuit of pleasurable diversions. There’s no greater source of human misery, perhaps, than believing that nothing makes us more miserable than thinking clearly about what we really know. The fact that that thought is very un- or anti-erotic also helps to explain why Epicureans don’t actually have much fun; they, like the Stoics, mistakenly refuse to go where their erotic longings could take them.
One of the most wonderful and genuinely useful features of Socrates in the Underworld is the large number of pointed and witty contemporary applications of the way Socrates reconciles truth, virtue, and happiness. Here’s the Socratic good news for us: Our alternatives extend beyond fatalistic Stoicism (as practiced by our Southern aristocrats), emotive religion (as practiced, say, by our Evangelicals) aimed at opposing the loving will of God to scientific or empirical nihilism, and the unerotic and otherwise boring Epicureanism promulgated by our academic deconstructionists, which animates the creeping (and often creepy) libertarianism that characterizes our culture as a whole.
Our lefty postmodernists and our right-wing free marketers, Ranasinghe shows, serve the same sophisticated cause of liberating us from any responsibility to moral truth. They think we’ll be better off if we believe that what Socrates says we most need to know is unknowable, and succumb to their cynical claim that even the bonds of love are for suckers. By causing us to flee from what we really know and thus from our real potential for virtue, our sophisticates lead us to think and act as less than we really are. But it’s still possible to recover who we really are; we can still imitate Socrates’ ennobling example.
Posted by Orrin Judd at February 21, 2010 6:56 AM