Morally and politically our age has frequently been described as a time of crises, subsumable ultimately under a comprehensive crisis, the crisis of the West. That comprehensive crisis is one in which ancient beliefs and traditions that had sheltered and defended the possibility of nobility, piety, justice, and indeed all the virtues, have been shaken to the roots. In the resulting vacuum, man’s reason has been called upon to replace the cumulative wisdom of the ages and has enjoyed only ambiguous success. Simultaneously we have witnessed the appearance of unprecedented phenomena: the growth of large uniform mass societies dominated by ideological politics, the extension of the arena of human decision-making until it becomes global in scope, steady technological change which brings a constant revolution in social existence, and the advent of techniques that can manipulate the very fabric of nature, both human and non-human. As a result, man frequently seems overpowered by alien forces, by a fate and destiny beyond his control and seemingly beyond his ken, at a time when he has no sheltering beliefs. In the end, rootlessness and alienation arise as seemingly eternal and necessary problems man must continually confront throughout his future.
Yet intellectually ours is an exciting and exhilarating age, for the collapse of ancient traditions and the resultant unearthing of the roots of our civilization have brought to our sight questions that have perhaps been unavailable for millennia. And these ancient questions have been reborn for us with a force and vitality that to a certain extent makes ours a privileged age. The relationship between reason and tradition, philosophy and poetry, man and the gods, truth and the city, are no longer matters of simple historical interest, the business of those who wander absentmindedly in the dust of the past. They have become living issues, matters of decision for us in the present. Yet our intellectually privileged position, and the joy and exhilaration it brings with it, is but the opposite side of our moral and political crisis. To grasp this relationship is to understand the peculiarity of our age as well as something about the nature of human existence in general.
It was Hegel who, in his own Olympian fashion, first called attention to the unique nature of our age. He raised the possibility that something cultivated long ago had finally borne its ultimate fruit and that a political and moral problem lurked in that impasse. But it was Nietzsche who drew the most radical conclusion, that when all the latent possibilities of an epochal legislation have been acted out, what is left is decadence and eventual decay into nothingness. In response Nietzsche tried to show that what he saw as the resulting nihilism of contemporary humanity could be traced to the very roots of the Western tradition, to the door of Socrates and Socratic rationalism. For Nietzsche, the task was to recover the health of a more “natural” age, to consciously negate the negation that Socrates represented. Agreeing with Hegel, Nietzsche saw a uniformity to human history and indeed an inevitability that led inexorably from conception to decadent culmination. But for Nietzsche, that moment of conception was traceable to a human act which, even if not performed self-consciously, had no divine or cosmic support. Hence what was born of a human act could be overcome and replaced by a human act, this time self-consciously enacted. Socrates was the great example of what could be done as well as of the problem that had to be reversed.
For Nietzsche, the politically and morally exposed state of contemporary man was the direct result of the Socratic replacement of the “natural,” unself-conscious man of “good form” by the resentful, highly self-conscious man who could give a reasoned account to justify his actions. This latter, Socratic, man was allegedly unequipped to compete in the world except by imposing the standard of reason and self-conscious explanation upon others, a standard that would become increasingly universal and blind to the particular differences among men. Through the hegemony of this Socratic man, self-conscious reason tried to reorder and remake the world, in the process making superfluous the “natural” man who was dominated by a fortuitous efficient causality. Hence Socrates was seen as the father of that optimistic scientific faith that reason could remake the world, which thereby need no longer be the scene of an infinitely extended tragic play. In Nietzsche’s view, what Socrates did was provide the basis upon which the poorly turned out could gain hegemony over those better endowed, and thereby destroyed the only basis for law, reason being incapable of providing a substitute.
After Nietzsche, Heidegger likewise saw the time of Socrates and Plato as a great turning point in the history of man, which led inevitably to the “oblivion of Being” and the “darkening of the earth.” Elaborating upon the analysis of Nietzsche, Heidegger saw the Socratic/Platonic turn in thinking as the basis of the technical rationality that tries to dominate and manipulate beings rather than disclose them as they really are. This faith in reason’s capacity to change Being led to a greater and greater alienation from Being itself. Hence Heidegger, like Nietzsche, saw the reversal of this Socratic/Platonic influence as the means to a cure for the political and moral problems of our age.
Leo Strauss has also made Socrates a center of attention, yet, unlike Nietzsche and Heidegger, presents himself as a friend of Socrates. But beneath the seeming agreement with Socrates, Strauss’s real understanding is more difficult to penetrate than we can hope to do here. The surface of Strauss’s later works that deal thematically with Socrates is that of a mere restatement of the text under consideration. Strauss’s actual interpretation has to be inferred after a careful juxtaposition of the seeming restatement with the text itself. Without presuming to have penetrated very far in that understanding, perhaps we can at least venture to say that Strauss does not see Socrates as simply representative of an error. Instead Socrates is presented as struggling with a tension inherent in the nature of human existence, a tension that can never be resolved but only recovered and reconstituted anew from age to age. For Strauss, political philosophy in its original form is born of a recognition of a necessary tension between philosophy and the city that cannot be transcended by History or Science, nor by the victory of one of the contending parties. Only continual reapproximation of a balance leads to the most sanguine solution to the human problem that can be hoped for. The moderation that this understanding implies is at the heart of political philosophy, a moderation which, while being a partisan of reason, never overestimates its capacities and thereby never underestimates that the natural horizon of the city is that of opinion. For Strauss, reflection on Socrates could lead in our time to that conscious act which is political philosophy, and which does make a difference, although it would not lead to a simple repetition of Platonic/Socratic rhetoric and poetry. In this one respect at least, Strauss takes his stand on the side of Nietzsche against both Hegel and Heidegger, who saw History as primarily the History of Being, not of autonomous man, a dispensation in each case over which man seemingly had little control.
We cannot pursue these issues beyond this very general level, but we can at least conclude that Socrates and what he stands for has come to the cutting edge of thinking about the unique situation of our age. For that reason it is a pleasure to greet the publication of Thomas and Grace West’s Four Texts on Socrates. Studying Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology and Crito, and Aristophanes’ Clouds will help give access to what was really at stake in those momentous and epoch-making days of Socrates. The only regret one might have is that Plato’s Phaedo, with all the curious ways in which Socrates’ deeds contradict many of his famous doctrines, is not also included, but perhaps we can expect to see that translation in the future.
These translations appear to accomplish a judicious balance of literalness together with elegance and readability, while erring, if at all, in the direction of literalness. I am aware of no better translations for those without access to the original Greek. The texts are also followed by a useful, if not exhaustive, “Selected Bibliography.” The translations are preceded by an “Introduction” by Thomas West. Here West gives summaries of the individual texts which are valuable and raise a number of intriguing questions. The general thrust of these remarks will be familiar to readers who have studied West’s previously published commentary on the Apology. Given the constraints of space, I wish primarily to address myself to a general issue that arises from reflection on the remarks in the Introduction taken as a whole.
West proposes that a significant reason for studying Socrates is that he represents a potential alternative to the two reigning political dispensations in our time, Liberalism and Marxism. And for West an alternative is necessary, for “in our time the superiority of modern thought, and of the political practice based upon it, is no longer evident” (p. 10). For West, both Liberalism and Marxism are defective because they regard mere freedom as the end of political life, while neither is concerned with the substantive ends that freedom should pursue. For West, “a political community that endorses that life eventually arouses self-hatred, frantic but aimless activity, or timid indifference” (p. 10). Marxism initially appears to bring high purpose back to political life, but only on an interim basis, for the ultimate end is a liberation where “all serious purposes have been done away with” (p. 11).
But taking Socratism as an alternative to Liberalism and Marxism raises at least one fundamental problem. Socrates frequently questioned the laws of his city and its gods. He would not accept as correct and binding any position for which a reasoned account could not be given. But he simultaneously professed that his highest wisdom was knowledge of his own ignorance, that he was ignorant of the highest and greatest things. This raises the possibility that “he seems to have been unable to provide the Athenians [nor us, for that matter] with a satisfactory alternative account of the ends of human life.” West’s response to this possibility is that while Socrates negates the reigning opinions of his time without knowing the “greatest things,” he is exonerated because “knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance.” Furthermore, Socrates knew that what he did not know was that which was most worthy of pursuit, hence that the best way of life was “philosophy” (West’s quotation marks). Therefore, “tentatively, but for practical purposes finally [my emphasis], virtue is defined as the philosophic life and, by extension, includes the condition of the soul and political community that makes that life possible.” Hence for West, the well-being of philosophy is posited, “for practical purposes,” as the end of the political community. This hegemony of the philosophic life as that most needful is the Socratic alternative to the gods and traditions of Athens, and leads to what West characterizes as a combining of “rigor with skepticism without succumbing to the temptation of absolutism on the one extreme or relativism on the other.” And the Socratic understanding, when applied to the crisis of our time, “may offer a basis for defending a healthy constitutional government, one that secures political liberty without hesitating to check the licentious conduct that would destroy freedom as well as the philosophic way of life” (all references to p. 12).
Let us assume for the present that this is a fair presentation of Socrates’ teaching, while leaving open as a question whether Plato’s understanding differs, and reflect upon whether this “solution” is unproblematic. First, “knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance” may be true from a theoretical perspective, but from a practical point of view this leaves one with next to no positive guidance at all. Indeed politically and morally, cognizance of this understanding about the unknowability of the most important things would leave one in a state of flux. Obviously the political community must believe in its laws as correct and binding, and this understanding would make that next to impossible. But a still greater problem may arise from setting up philosophy as the end for practical activity to pursue, for that would be to establish an inappropriate standard by which to judge practical activity. While contemporary positivist-inspired social science tends to judge the political in light of the subpolitical, this judges it in light of the supra-political. Each attempt transcends the horizon of the political community. It is not clear how a political community can overcome “frantic but aimless activity” or a “tired indifference” by taking its bearings by something that transcends it altogether. Perhaps the political community must be open to certain possibilities that transcend it, yet it cannot take that as its guiding star. The political community must take its bearings “internally” if it is to remain political. But taking our political and moral bearings internally is precisely what is problematic in our age, the age in which ancient traditions have been exploded. Hence, one might respond, in our age how can the political community generate a nomos or authoritative convention if not through the auspices of philosophy? But philosophy understood in the Socratic mode seems to offer something that cannot be assimilated by the political community—i.e., “rigor conjoined with skepticism.”
West offers another possibility that seems more promising. He observes that “Socrates was right in holding that the desire for gain, for distinction, and for knowledge are inherent in human nature” (p. 11). Nature, not philosophy, is the basis for the internal generation of a nomos. What philosophy should do is not hold itself up as the end of the political community, not even a practical imitation of itself, but legitimize and emancipate those natural longings that can ground it from within. One of the three natural longings that West mentions is available to the political community only indirectly (philosophy), while another is, especially in the liberal West, fostered to the point of blinding intoxication (gain). It is the natural love of honor and distinction that may provide the internal basis by which the political community can generate its own ends. Emancipating and legitimizing the natural desire for honor, the faculty that predominates in what Aristotle called the “great-souled man,” can become the basis for the regeneration of purpose for contemporary man. This would seem to be more promising than the attempts of philosophy to act on its own, for that seems inevitably to lead in the direction of the glorification of the will as the ground for creating “values.”
West is by no means unaware of the distinction I have attempted to draw, although he seems to stress the side of it that appears most problematic. Needless to say, one could take no comfort in the prospects for genuine philosophy in an age that revels in nothing but the unmitigated love of glory. But that hardly seems to be the main problem in our time. A greater danger is to be expected from overestimating what the philosopher can accomplish, especially in the way of willing a nomos for practical humanity. Nature may have ordained a teaching for men that needs the restraint and tutoring of philosophy, but that may still be a teaching upon which philosophy is incapable of improving. Philosophy may better serve its own ends by preserving and channeling that for which it cannot provide a surrogate. This understanding may in fact be the ground of the Platonic transformation of Socratism, and may explain why the poetry and rhetoric of Plato attempted, as West notes, to present us with a Socrates made “new and noble.” One might stress especially the need to make Socrates, and thereby philosophy, appear noble.