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Poetry and Prudence II

2014/01/01 2 comments

An interesting phenomenon recurs across Plato’s corpus: Socrates, in critiquing some other, pushes the critique to a point where it rebounds on himself, where it poses an is­sue that he, qua philosopher, must confront. He threatens to undermine himself. In his dialogue Ion, Plato has Socrates take a rhapsode to task: does he have mastery over his subject, or only a sort of divine inspiration and madness? It must be the latter, for Ion is “so wonderfully clever about Homer alone.” Were he truly a master of his subject, whatever that might be, he should be wonderfully clever about all poets. Socrates here is toying with Ion, but his critique ends up extending to poetry in general. For the method of argument Socrates pursues is to understand how to tell whether Homer or, say, Hesiod speaks better about divination, a subject on which they disagree. Socrates argues—and Ion accepts—that one must know divination to do so, and hence a diviner is the one competent to say who has spoken better. Since poets would speak well about all of life, this criticism attaches itself not just to those who evaluate poetry, but to the poets themselves: to speak well about all of life, poets must be masters in all domains—or merely divinely inspired. “You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems.”

Now we can see that this criticism actually has one further expansion: it extends to the philosopher. For the philosopher, too, would speak about all of life: of the auto mechanic, whether he is virtuous, of the doctor, whether she is virtuous, of the judge, of the janitor, of everyone. To master virtue and truth requires being able to apply the notions, and that—by the very criteria Socrates has set out in his critique of the rhapsode—requires having mastery over every domain. Is the philosopher, too, then, divinely inspired? Or can the intellect manage to achieve such mastery? Plato, in writing in a poetic style, and in reminding readers of Socrates’ daimon to whom he listens, certainly not does make it easy to straightforwardly place him on the side of the intellect.

In either case, we can understand why Plato’s dialogues repeatedly come up against the problem of conflict between philosophy and poetry. The war is a turf war: philosophy and poetry conflict because their domains are identical. And I can add a third character to this skirmish: prudence, which also extends itself around every domain. The conflict between philosophy and poetry is really the flip side of the conflict between poetry and prudence—and of course philosophy and prudence have a history of enmity probably more storied than either of the other conflicts. One need only think of Pyrrho, or the Cynics.

Emerson, in his essay on “Heroism”, explores poetry caught between these two antagonists. While the topic is heroism, Emerson does much to link it to poetry: “Heroism feels and never reasons” (374) and is divinely inspired—“Where the heart is, there the muses, there the gods sojourn, and not in any geography of fame.” (378) Moreover, “A great man scarcely knows how he dines, how he dresses; but without railing or precision, his living is natural and poetic.” (376) So we have heroism described in a way that aligns it with Plato’s conception of poetry.

What, for Emerson, is heroism, precisely? It is a warlike attitude toward external evil, a contempt for safety and ease, self-trust, an extreme individualism, obedience to a secret impulse of character. It is ashamed of the body, loves temperance for its elegance and not its austerity, does not condescend to take anything seriously—it is “the unremitting retention of simple and high sentiments.” (380) It is a Stoicism of the blood, and not of the schools.

And it is opposed to philosophy. Emerson puts it plainly: “There is somewhat not philosophical in heroism.” (374) Interestingly, Emerson goes on to explain this: “it seems not to know that other souls are of one texture with it” (374)—this sounds very much like the counterpart to his advice, in “Prudence”, that one should “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366). Emerson, perhaps unintentionally, almost seems to collapse the distinction between philosophy and prudence. Maybe the reason for this is that the solution to both sorts of opposition is the same. But to see that we need to see his exploration of the heroism/prudence conflict, which he discusses in much more detail.

Emerson is clear: Heroism as “obedience to a secret impulse of an individual’s character” runs afoul of prudence, as “all prudent men see that the action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good.” (374-375) Heroism, at the time of the heroic act, is almost inevitably condemned by prudence, which measures acts by how they yield sensual prosperity. Likewise, the prudent “reckon narrowly the loss of time”, while “the soul of a better quality thrusts back the unseasonable economy into the vaults of life.” (375) Heroism is ashamed of the body, not in a self-loathing, ascetic way, but it shows a disdain for sensual prosperity.

So poetic heroism finds itself in inevitable conflict with prudence. “It is a self-trust which slights the restraints of prudence.” (374) How does it overcome prudence, these objections? By ignoring them, mostly. “The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world.” (379) Once the hero has felt the impulse, he must act on it, without regret, without any attempt at reconciliation with the world. “If you would serve your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you.” (379) Heroism simply ignores the reproaches of prudence. “Greatness once and for ever has done with opinion.” (380)

Emerson’s solution is thus not an attempt at reconciliation of any kind, of easing the conflict. He sees the conflict, and he takes his stand: he stands on the side of heroism, of poetry. We saw in my essay on “Prudence” that his proposal there for reconciliation was lacking, that he left us in a position of inevitable conflict where reconciliation seemed impossible. “Heroism” seems to address this problem by giving up the attempt for reconciliation, by simply siding against prudence. Emerson simply closes his ears to the objections of prudence. And this is more or less his solution to the conflict with philosophy as well: the hero listens to his impulse, feels and doesn’t reason, if reason—i.e. philosophy—objects, no matter: the hero does not listen. Nietzsche gave this solution pithy expression: “To close your ears to even the best counter-argument once the decision has been taken: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.” (Beyond Good & Evil, §107)

So perhaps our first problem is resolved—or at least dispensed with. But Emerson raises one further problem, with which I end.

To speak the truth, even with some austerity, to live with some rigor of temperance, or some extremes of generosity, seems to be an asceticism which common good-nature would appoint to those who are at ease and in plenty, in sign that they feel a brotherhood with the great multitude of suffering men. (380)

The asceticism of heroism is something that “common good-nature” assigns to those who enjoy a certain amount of luxury. In this, poetry/heroism is lumped with philosophy, another pursuit that seems to require luxury, requires time that need not be spent simply fulfilling one’s needs. Indeed, one reason why Feyerabend takes Plato to task for his elitism is precisely because he sees this elitism as effectively condemning people for not having leisure time—see the first dialogue of his Three Dialogues on Knowledge. Perhaps a will to stupidity and a contempt of ease and plenty are possible when one has—ease and plenty, but in more impoverished circumstances the cry of prudence is not so easily silenced. The facts of Emerson’s own life bear this out: he was able to retire from his job as a minister and embark on his dizzying experimental voyages only because of his first wife’s inheritance. So we face the problem: luxury seems to be a prerequisite for poetry—when luxury is absent, prudence has the upper hand. Nor can Emerson simply make an elitist move of Plato’s sort, for it is the very task of poetry to find what is poetic in the, broadly speaking, illiterate. Emerson, in this essay, does not resolve the problem. So it lingers.

And, moreover, this is nothing other than our first problem, the problem of truly reconciling poetry and prudence. So that problem has not been solved at all. We remain left with the question: can there be a reconciliation between poetry and prudence?

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My version of the Ion is in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Emerson’s essay is in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. For Nietzsche, I used the Penguin Beyond Good and Evil.

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On the accusation of sophistry in Plutarch’s “Beasts are Rational”

2013/09/04 2 comments

This semester, I am taking a seminar on the various ways that the human/animal divide has been characterized in the history of western culture (primarily from the 16th century onward, but with a couple of earlier readings). Our first readings came from Plutarch—we are looking at the first half of the dialogue The Cleverness of Animals, the dialogue Beasts are Rational, and the poorly preserved On the Eating of Flesh. I want to focus on the second of these, with brief reference to the first. Specifically, I want to look at the charge of sophistry as it is deployed in Beasts are Rational.

First, some brief context. Plutarch was a Platonist, and nothing angers a Platonist quite like a Sophist. Much of the motivation for Plato’s own work stemmed from his distaste for the Sophists, a group of teachers who taught a person how to appear convincing, but not how to seek truth. They favored glamour and glitz over reality, as it were. They prided themselves on being able to argue for any position, however outrageous, in a persuasive fashion, using whatever tricks would impress people in the right way. In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ interlocutor, Thrasymachus, is a noted Sophist, and my analysis of that book gives some indication of the antics of the Sophist in action—admittedly, an indication of how they appear from the biased perspective of Plato.

The charge of sophistry or of being a Sophist, when it appears in a dialogue written by a Platonist, thus carries heavy weight. It is a moral accusation, one that discredits whatever the person has to say. I want to look at the way that Plutarch uses this accusation to great effect in Beasts are Rational, as I think it quite interesting.

Beasts are Rational is a dialogue between Odysseus and Gryllus (with a brief appearance of Circe). Its jumping off point is the episode from The Odyssey in which Odysseus leaves Circe’s island to begin his voyage home. In the dialogue, Odysseus requests that Circe turn his men back into human form, for Circe has turned them into pigs. Circe agrees, on the condition that Odysseus can convince one of them to resume his human form. In what follows, Gryllus, one of the men who have become pigs, rejects Odysseus’ offer and argues at length why it is better to be an animal than a human.

Some reflections on the dialogue format are in order. Plato famously used various techniques to create several degrees of separation between himself and the characters in his dialogues, and particularly Socrates—thus preventing a too easy identification of Socrates’ views with those of Plato himself. Such techniques are not in evidence in Beasts are Rational, and it is tempting to identify Gryllus as functioning effectively as Plutarch’s avatar. After all, he is defending the worth of animals, something that Plutarch does in On the Eating of Flesh (a treatise defending vegetarianism as natural and humane) and in The Cleverness of Animals, in which the dominant voice (of the first half) defends the thesis that animals possess reason.

However, such an identification is difficult to maintain when we look at the content of the views in the various texts in greater detail. While both Gryllus (in Beasts are Rational) and Autobulus (in The Cleverness of Animals) defend the value of animal life, they do so in different ways. Autobulus works primarily by questioning the validity of drawing a line between humans and animals: there is no difference in kind between the two. He accepts, generally speaking, that in terms of the virtues and of reason, humans are more developed, but it is not because they possess something that animals lack. That is, Autobulus aims to show primarily that humans represent a higher development of something already present in animals, but nothing new in kind.

Gryllus, by contrast, argues for a much stronger, much more controversial position: that it is preferable to be an animal than a human, in part because animals are more virtuous than humans. For instance, in discussing the virtue of courage, Gryllus claims, “These facts make it perfectly obvious that bravery is an innate characteristic of beasts, while in human beings an independent spirit is actually contrary to nature.” Gryllus claims that virtues in humans are not natural, but in fact contrary to nature: they result only from external, social compulsion and not from innate virtuousness. Thus Gryllus is drawing a sharp line of demarcation between humans and animals, only he is putting humans on the wrong side of it. There is a difference in kind: human virtues are not natural, merely socially enforced, whereas animal virtues are natural (and better).

This should give us pause before identifying Gryllus as a mere avatar for Plutarch. He is taking an exceptionally strong position, and we would do well to find out why. I hope to go some way to elucidating this by placing Gryllus’ strong claims in their proper context. Plutarch, I want to claim, does not aim to show absolutely that it is better to be animal than human. Rather, he wants to show why an animal could rationally prefer such a state. The charge of sophistry that Odysseus levels at Gryllus, and the manner in which Gryllus throws it off, is instructive in this regard.

The broad form that the dialogue takes is a sequential discussion of the different virtues, and the extent to which animals and humans possess them. Thus Gryllus starts by defending the superiority of animals with respect to courage, then discusses their superiority with respect to temperance. No other virtues are discussed, perhaps because the dialogue as we have it is incomplete, perhaps because there is simply nothing more to say. (The notes to the translation I read say that it is an undecided question whether or not the dialogue as we have is missing a great deal from the end.)

Between the discussion of courage and that of temperance, Odysseus levels his accusation: “Bless me, Gryllus, you must once have been a very clever sophist…” Why level this accusation? Because Gryllus has been defending an apparently outrageous position: that humans are not courageous by nature, but only against nature, whereas animals are naturally courageous. (A further premise of the discussion is a natural teleological commitment to virtue as the aim of reason—if animals outstrip humans in virtue, they probably outstrip them in reason as well.) It seems very much sophistical to argue such a position—after all, the sophists were the perennial devil’s advocates, defending any position they thought would win them glory (or money).

This is a very serious accusation, yet it does not much trouble Gryllus. Indeed, he does not even discuss it at first, instead beginning, at Odysseus’ prompting, the discussion of temperance. Only a bit later does he respond to the charge, and in a very interesting fashion: “Now since you are not unaware that I am a sophist…” He accepts the charge. This is tantamount to accepting that he is not arguing in good faith, that he does not believe what he says. To accept that this is really going on would be to cheapen the dialogue—it seems to stop having a point, if Gryllus is truly a sophist. Further, while Gryllus’ position is not consistent with that of Autobulus in The Cleverness of Animals, it is at least in sympathy with it in two respects: both defend the worth of animals, and both go against the prevailing view of the extreme superiority of humans. While distinct views, in light of their shared minority status, they are natural allies. So it is hard to imagine Plutarch simply admitting that Gryllus’ view is sophistical.

If we follow the dialogue, however, we can see that Gryllus does, in a way throw off the charge of sophistry. The conclusion to the sentence I began above, in which Gryllus accepts the charge, reads, “…let me marshal my arguments in some order by defining temperance and analyzing the desires according to their kinds.” Gryllus does this, finding (predictably) that animals are superior to humans in terms of temperance. And once he has done this, once he has marshaled his arguments, he concludes by saying, “Since I have entered into this new body of mine, I marvel at those arguments by which the sophists brought me to consider all creatures except man irrational and senseless.” Here Gryllus precisely reverses the charge: he is not the sophist, rather, the sophists are those who claim humans are rational and animals irrational. What a ridiculous claim that is, in light of Gryllus’ arguments!

Now, one could see this as simply a clever rhetorical trick, appropriate to the sophist. Accept the charge of sophism as a ruse, only to throw it back on the unsuspecting opponent, to great rhetorical effect. And this effect cannot be denied here: Gryllus does just that. He turns (accused) sophistry into common sense, and common sense into sophistry.

But there is more going on. To see it, reflect on the circumstances of the dialogue. This is no idle dispute. If Gryllus accepts Odysseus’ claim that humans are rational and the animals not, and thus that it is superior to be a human, then he will be turned back into a human. That is, Gryllus gets to choose whether to be animal or human, and by arguing as he does, he is simultaneously making the choice to be animal. That is, this is no idle dispute. A great deal is at stake, and conditions are such that Gryllus is forced to abide by the position he accepts: if he claims it is better to be animal, he will be an animal. But this is exactly not what characterizes the sophist: the sophist is the consummate hypocrite, the person who will say anything without necessarily living up to it. One reason Gryllus can accept Odysseus’ accusation of sophistry without taking offense is that he knows it cannot stick. The very conditions of the dialogue preclude the sophist’s trickery, because here self-interest lines up exactly with seeking the truth.

In that way, Gryllus can successfully and compellingly throw off Odysseus’ accusation. But now we are left with the question of the discrepancy between Gryllus’ position and that of Autobulus—whose is right. One (appropriate) thing to say is simply to note the dialogue format, which aims to encourage the reader to reflect for himself rather to encourage the reader to convert to a specific view (though it may try to guide the results of the reader’s reflection).

But I think more can be said than just this (without denying that it is right). I think it is important that Gryllus never explicitly denies the charge of sophistry, but merely throws it back on the opposing view. In a way, Gryllus is saying that both sides are sophistical. Yes, Gryllus admits, I am a sophist, only a sophist would try to convince a human that it is better to be an animal—but, equally, only a sophist would try to convince an animal that it is better to be human. The end result, then, is not a viewpoint that exalts animals, but a position of equality: it is as good to be an animal as to be human. Of course a human will prefer to be human, but the same is true of the animal, and one can bring no argument against the other to change its mind.

This last paragraph is quite speculative, and I do not want to strongly endorse the conclusion. I will note that if it is right, then it lends some credence to the view that the dialogue as we have it is fairly complete, for after Gryllus has established that both views are equally sophistical there really is little more to be said. But that, as noted, is an open question, to which I do not have the answer.

Melville contra Plato: a brief note

A couple days ago, I wrote a long piece about “The Piazza”, the first story in Melville’s The Piazza Tales. In this briefer post, I want to explore a (possibly unconscious) response to Plato’s cave analogy in that same story. Once again, I am using the version in the Library of America volume (mentioned in the previous post), and page references are to that version.

A brief review of Plato’s famous image, to begin. In Book VII of Republic, Socrates asks his interlocutors to imagine a group of people who inhabit a cave, able only to look in a certain direction. Far above and behind them there is a fire, which creates shadows on the wall of the cave—it is these shadows that the inhabitants see, and only these shadows. Naturally, the inhabitants of the cave hold truth to be about these shadows, the shadows of artificial things.

Yet imagine, Socrates continues, what would happen if a man were dragged out of the cave, into the light. At first, his eyes would not be accustomed to the light, but gradually he would come to see things for what they truly are, and he would come to pity those in the cave. (Incidentally, this also functions as an apology for the uselessness of philosophy: philosophers’ eyes are simply no longer accustomed to the darkness of contingent, material things, and so of course they seem useless.) This leads to an image of teaching: the sight is there, yet is turned in the wrong direction, and it is the philosopher who may turn it around, make it face rightly, and so come to know. Let me emphasize the importance of sight as the sense that dominates Socrates’ conception of knowledge here.

In “The Piazza”, there is a cottage, not a cave, but there are shadows and a fiery light, as well as interesting discussion of going outside. The narrator has arrived at Marianna’s cottage and is discussing with her her desire to see the house down in the field—the narrator’s house. She says, “You should see it in a sunset” (631), to which he replies, “No doubt the sunset gilds it finely; but not more than the sunrise does this house, perhaps.” Her response is to call the sun “a good sun”, but to say that it does not grace her: instead, it burns, blinds, sets wasps and flies astir, scorches, and rots.

We can begin to see some divergences in the Platonic and Melvillean pictures. For Plato, the sun, once you are accustomed to it, is a source of light, but for Melville’s Marianna, though she is certainly accustomed to it, as she is generally accustomed to her situation in the cottage, the sun is instead a source of intense discomfort, is no friend.

She does, however, have friends: the shadows. After the discussion described above reaches a lull, the narrator notes “a broad shadow stealing on” (631). With unsettling prescience, Marianna, without looking up from her work, says, “You watch the cloud.” Then, further, she knows when the shadow leaves and Tray, the dog, returns, all while her “eyes rest but on your work.” (632) The narrator is, naturally, flummoxed, and tries to work out an explanation:

“Have you, then, so long sat at this mountain-window, where but clouds and vapors pass, that, to you shadows are as things, though you speak of them as of phantoms; that by familiar knowledge, working like a second sight, you can, without looking for them, tell just where they are, though, as having mice-like feet, they creep about, and come and go; that, to you, these lifeless shadows are as living friends, who, though out of sight, are not out of mind, even in their faces—is it so?” (632)

This is a very Platonic way of thinking: she comes to take the shadows for things, knowing only her cave. Marianna’s response to this is astounding. She says, “That I way I never thought of it,” as if granting to his explanation a certain legitimacy—but then she goes on as if she absorbed nothing he said but a single word, ‘friend’. She does not deny his explanation, but in what follows disregards it. Her next sentence begins, “but the friendliest one…” With this, she continues thinking as she had; she is non-plussed with his version of things. She showed a similar attitude earlier, when, in response to his accusation that she has strange fancies, she claimed that her strange fancies reflect the things.

Now that these we have seen this exchange, we can go back and notice a crucial ambiguity in an earlier phrase. The narrator has just remarked, “The invading shadow gone, the invaded one returns. But I do not see what casts it” (632), which earns the responses, “For that, you must go without.” At first this response seems perfectly straightforward: in order to see what casts the shadow, he must go outside and look. This is a Platonic response, and it doesn’t seem to fit Marianna—to make it fit, we must imagine it said in a tossed off tone that does not accord with her general tone. But there is a second sense of going without, in which it not so much an activity as a forgoing of something: to go without meat for Lent, for instance.

This second sense is hidden: “going outside” is the most immediate interpretation, given the context and given our usual thought about knowledge. Beneath it sits the more subversive sense, which I take it is the one Marianna intends. Marianna goes without: she does not hear birds, does not see children picking berries, has no company (now that her brother has died): she simply sits and does her “dull woman’s work—sitting, sitting, restless sitting” (633), work that is inseparable from her weary wakefulness, and hence from the wheel of thinking she cannot stop from turning.

But why should we think this sense is the dominant one, even if subterranean and hidden? In the remark that prompts the narrator’s attempt at explanation quoted above, Marianna says, “ ‘Tray looks at you,’ still without glancing up; ‘this is his hour; I see him.’ “ (632) Though her eyes remain trained on her work, she says she sees him, and this is prefaced by the claim that “this is his hour”. Marianna is in touch with a natural order of which the narrator has no knowledge (which of course does not prevent him from attempting to explain it). Moreover, the narrator has no knowledge despite having come from without. What good would going without, i.e. outside, do him? How could it possibly be sufficient? That cannot be what Marianna means.

After having just critiqued the narrator for his presumption in trying to explain what Marianna knows, and for doing so hopelessly misguidedly, I will behave somewhat as a hypocrite and offer an explanation of my own. How does she know the sun? Not by its revealing light, but by its power to scorch, rot, and blind—she knows it viscerally. She knows when the shadow of a cloud dusks her work, which is, as said, intimately tied to her thought. She is in direct touch with the world as it relates to her work and thought. She says she sees Tray, but she might more accurately say she feels him—she has a much more intimate knowledge than is gained by sight, by going outside and looking. The knowledge she has, confined to her cottage, exceeds anything conceivable within Platonic dreams of going without.

Nietzsche’s Boasts and Socrates’ Irony

I’ve written two posts about Nietzsche’s relations to Plato and Plato’s Socrates, both of which involved arguments aimed at showing that Nietzsche borrowed a great deal from Plato in terms of both style and content. (It is worth commenting that Nietzsche and Plato are two philosophers whose content is inseparable from their style: you cannot understand what they are saying without understanding how they say it. Careful reading for content will reveal a justification of their style, and careful study of their style will enhance their content.) But while Nietzsche clearly did learn a great deal from Plato’s lap, he did ultimately see Socrates as an enemy (which does not mean he did not see him as a good friend—see the marvelous passage in part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra where Zarathustra discusses friends and enemies). As such, it is also worthwhile to consider how Nietzsche sets himself apart from Plato/Socrates, not just in terms of content, but in terms of style as well. This post is an attempt to do that. It is only a starting point, an attempt to characterize a certain aspect of Nietzsche’s work and to begin to think about its possible significance.

Nietzsche boasts, and Socrates is ironic. These facts are immediately noticeable to any reader of Nietzsche or Plato. Nietzsche seems to have a comically overinflated view of his own worth, whereas Plato’s Socrates starts most of his dialogues by pretending that he is stupid and his interlocutor wise, when just the reverse is true. One way of dodging the hard question of explaining these stylistic choices, at least in the case of Nietzsche, is to suggest that he simply had an extremely high opinion of himself (probably true), and that this colored his writing. But Nietzsche reflected often about his own style, and it is (I think) implausible to suggest that Nietzsche did not have a particular purpose in mind when he made such bold claims. To understand this purpose, it will be helpful to first attempt to understand why Socrates is ironic; I wish to suggest that Nietzsche’s boasts are precisely an attempt to portray himself as the opposite sort of character as Socrates.

Jerrald Ranta, in an essay on Plato’s Ion (“The Drama of Plato’s ‘Ion’”), argues that Plato portrays Socrates and his interlocutor (Ion) as variants of character-types common in ancient Greek comedy. On the one hand there is the Eiron, the ironical man “who masks his batteries of deceit behind a show of ordinary good nature… but lets you see all the while that he could enlighten you if he chose, and so makes a mock of you” (Ranta quotes from Francis Cornford’s The Origin of Attic Comedy). Opposite the Eiron is the Alazon, the boastful swaggerer “who interrupts sacrifice, cooking, or feast, and claims an undeserved share in the fruits of victory” (Cornford again). Or, more simply: “While the Impostor claims to possess higher qualities than he has, the Ironical man is given to making himself out worse than he is” (Cornford). Both are “impudent and absurd pretenders” (Cornford).

In Plato, Alazon is “constantly coupled” with the word for ‘liar’—in short the Alazon is an opponent of the very love of wisdom that Socrates promotes. Socrates’ interlocutors all act as if they have some special knowledge (of what is good, true, beautiful, etc.), and in this way they resemble the Alazon. Hence it is natural for Plato to portray Socrates as an Eiron who baits them, pretends to flatter them while dismissing his own worth, only to end up making a mockery of them. Socrates is not purely an Eiron in the classic sense, however. The Eiron and the Alazon traditionally stand as opposite extremes around the (Aristotelian) mean of truthfulness. Socrates, however, aims at truth, and insofar as he plays the Eiron it is a mask he wears to bait people to truthfulness, to as it were trick them into the philosophical, examined, truthful life.

In Nietzsche, for all his proto-postmodern critiques of the notion of truth, there is a similarly high value placed on truthfulness and honesty. What I want to suggest is that, just as Socrates attempts to bait people into truthfulness (as Socrates conceives it) by acting the part of the Eiron, so Nietzsche attempts to bait people into his own form of truthfulness by playing the part of the Alazon, the impostor, the boastful swaggerer.

Why might Nietzsche do this? One reason is to set himself opposite Socrates, to take Socrates as an opponent. But why do so in just this way? To understand that we need to think about how Socrates and Nietzsche think about truth.

For Socrates, truth, wisdom, beauty, the good, etc. are universal forms (or are they the same form?). They are eternal, timeless; they have a stable Being beyond the endlessly changing Becoming of the material world. To aim at truth or wisdom is to aim at knowledge of the forms. Now in this respect it is worth remembering Socrates’ famous claim to know only that he knows nothing. In the Symposium, Socrates diagnoses love as a form of desire, and argues that one can only desire what one lacks. Recalling that philosophy is literally love of wisdom, the philosophical life can only be a life in which one desires wisdom—and thus a life in which one lacks wisdom. Socrates, as the paradigmatic philosopher, liver of the examined life, lover of wisdom, by his very own arguments really must know nothing. He doesn’t know the forms, but he loves them and strives to know them. In that respect there is a deep truthfulness to his playing the Eiron: while he clearly is putting his interlocutors on by pretending to know less than them, he is on the other hand not lying when he claims not to know. That he doesn’t know is, indeed, the only thing that he does know. Socrates puts on a mask to play the Eiron, but he puts it on because it fits. In a certain sense, the philosophical life, for Socrates, must be ironical. To this I need only add some brief emphasis to the fact that the forms, because they are eternal and timeless, are the same for all people. No matter who lives the philosophical life, they aim after the same forms.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, sees this striving after a world beyond the material world as a sickness, a lack of vitality. Recall from my previous post on Nietzsche and Socrates that Nietzsche sees the sort of wisdom Socrates promotes as merely a “small reason”, and in its place he advocates the “great reason” of the body. For Nietzsche, there is nothing beyond what is bodily and material, no world beyond this one. There are no immutable forms. There is no Truth, only my truth and your truth. (I assume anyone reading this is intelligent enough not to see this as a ripe opportunity to get offended on behalf of the objectivity of scientific inquiry, and to recognize that doing so would be entirely missing the point.) For Socrates, it can sensibly be said that there is some one thing that it is to live the examined life, to be truthful (Truthful). For Nietzsche, however, there is no sensible single way to be truthful. It may still be a great virtue to live truthfully, to dive into the deep, murky waters of truth, no matter what horrible creatures one may find, but what this is is no longer the same thing for everybody.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s project, just like Socrates’, is to say something about how people ought to live. Nietzsche believes he has discovered something true and valuable about the sort of life that is worth living—it is precisely because of this that he can set himself opposed to Socrates at all. What he opposes is Socrates’ vision of the life worth living. It is not so much that Nietzsche thinks the examined life is not worth living (surely Nietzsche lived an examined life to a greater extent than most), but he is nonetheless an opponent of Socrates.

This tension in Nietzsche’s project—that the very truth he wants to tell seems to preclude truth-telling altogether, or at least to preclude truth-telling with the aim to convince and persuade—lies at the very root of Nietzsche’s life work, and Nietzsche recognized this. Where Socrates falls short of the universal, eternal truth he wishes to tell, and is thus naturally suited to the position of an Eiron, Nietzsche oversteps the bounds of what his personal, historically conditioned truth will allow him to tell, and so becomes like an Alazon. Just as Socrates is distinct from the traditional Eiron in that he is motivated ultimately by truthfulness, so is Nietzsche an Alazon who exceeds the truth only in order to “seduce” and “elevate” people to it. Truthfulness lies behind both Socrates’ and Nietzsche’s distortions of truth.

As I said, Nietzsche recognizes this aspect of his work. One powerful illustration of this comes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra, in part one of the work, goes around making speeches, much as Jesus went around giving sermons. But where Jesus could be comfortable having disciples and followers, the very possibility of a disciple is ruled out by the content of Zarathustra’s speeches. Zarathustra preaches a certain set of values, one of which is mistrust of all values—and if this is to have any bite it must extend even to those values expounded by Zarathustra himself. Zarathustra addresses this tension at several points (e.g. when he advises those who hear his message to follow him—wherever they want), nowhere more prominently than at the very end of part one. There, as Zarathustra speaks to his disciples before returning to his cave, he admonishes them to forget him, to reject him—only then will he return to them. On the analysis I’ve been developing here, he tells them to recognize that he is merely an Alazon, a boaster, an impostor—they must find the truth themselves, and that means discovering Zarathustra for what he is.

Nietzsche’s Platonism II

2013/03/19 1 comment

Perhaps the most precise method of gauging Nietzsche’s respect for another human be­ing is to determine how often and how savagely Nietzsche critiques him. Nietzsche took as his lasting opponents only those who he felt were worthy of him—most prominently, Jesus and Socrates. Hence, when Nietzsche critiques someone, it is nearly always fruitful to ask, “yes, but what have you learned from him?” In that spirit, I want to explore a connection between the “The Problem of Socrates” section of Twilight of the Idols, in which Nietzsche asks after the cause of Socrates’ “bizarrest of equations,” and two of Zarathustra’s speeches in the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (supplemented by a passage in The Gay Science). I will be relying on the Hollingdale translation of Twilight (Penguin Classics), the Del Caro translation of Zarathustra (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), and the Nauckhoff translation of The Gay Science (Cambridge Texts, again). Context should suffice to make it clear to which works my page citations refer.

The second section of Twilight of the Idols is titled “The Problem of Socrates”, and after some meandering, Nietzsche approaches Socrates directly, portraying him as “exaggerated, buffo, caricature” and suggesting that he was décadent, here indicating the “dissoluteness and anarchy of his instincts” (41). This raises the central question of the section: Nietzsche seeks “to understand out of what idiosyncrasy that Socratic equation reason = virtue = happiness derives: that bizarrest of equations and one which has in particular all the instincts of the older Hellenes against it” (41). Nietzsche makes several suggestions as to what idiosyncrasy is the cause of that equation—recall that Nietzsche, of course, is not interested in the arguments for the position, but in the underlying physiology that would bring it about. (In the sections of Thus Spoke Zarathustra I will explore, he explicitly calls conscious reasoning merely one tool of the body’s “great reason” (23)—I will return to this thought later.) One suggestion is that it is a form of revenge; another is that is that it is a form of Socratic eroticism (consider Plato’s Symposium). The last suggestion, however, is the most important: it is a defense mechanism against the aforementioned dissoluteness of his instincts. Socrates “was in peril” and “had only one choice: either to perish or – be absurdly rational…” (43). This weakening and disharmony of the instincts could only be combatted in one way: by having reason fight and control the instincts. And thus there is Socrates’ formula: reason = virtue = happiness.

There is the critique: Socrates’ formula arose from his sickness, the disunity of his instincts. In the healthy nature, on the contrary, Nietzsche claims, “happiness and instinct are one” (45). But, keeping in mind that Nietzsche respected few if any people more than Socrates, we must ask what Nietzsche learned from him. I suggest he learned a great deal from Socrates’ bizarre equation. To elucidate just what he learned, I turn first to two speeches from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “On the Despisers of the Body” and “On the Passions of Pleasure and Pain”.

In the former speech, Nietzsche asserts the primacy of the body: “But the awakened, the knowing one says: body am I through and through, and nothing besides; and soul is just a word for something on the body” (23). The theory this claim embodies is that the source of human action is not some overarching soul, but a collection of possibly competing, possibly unified drives (or instincts). The “soul” as we use the term refers simply to that aspect of our bodies that is conscious, but this aspect is not the shepherd of the drives. Rather it is “a tool of your body” (23). “The body is a great reason,” and the soul or spirit is a “plaything of your great reason.” Hence Nietzsche’s emphasis on physiology over arguments: the arguments of our reasoning soul are ultimately mere playthings, tools serving the interests of our body. Nietzsche calls conscious reasoning, what Socrates so vociferously praised, as “small reason,” whereas “The body is a great reason, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, one herd and one shepherd” (23) The small reason “says I,” i.e. conceives itself as a controlling unity, whereas the great reason “does not say I, but does I” (23). And the body is rational: it employs the small reason, which is “A detour to my [the body’s] purpose” (23).

In the next speech, “On the Passions of Pleasure and Pain,” Nietzsche discusses virtue. This virtue is a private virtue, ineffable and nameless—“Unspeakable and nameless is that which causes my soul agony and sweetness and is even the hunger of my entrails” (24). The virtue must be nameless, for once it is named, “you have her name in common with the people and have become the people and the herd with your virtue” (24). (Tangent: Nietzsche here seems to foreshadow Wittgenstein’s private language argument—he recognizes that what is named is thereby made public. Right angle. Return to circle.) How does this private virtue arise? “Once you had passions and named them evil. But now you have only your virtues: they grew out of your passions” (25). In short, this virtue is something that arises from the body. It is fundamentally of the body: it is an “earthly virtue” (25), and not a “divine law” or a “human statute and requirement” (24). Regarding virtue, Nietzsche has learned something from Socrates. Socrates makes much of the fact that one could be tortured and denied all earthly pleasures, yet, so long as he is virtuous, he would be happier than the richest, fattest, most content king. This is integral to his formula reason = virtue = happiness. For Nietzsche, too, virtue is imprudent: “there is little prudence in it and least of all the reason of the many” (25). What is left then, besides that this ineffable virtue is its own reward? So Nietzsche agrees at least that far with Socrates.

But that is a relatively small lesson to have learned, and I am after a larger fish. At this point it may be clear where I am heading—if it is, you will be aware that only one step remains. For this, I need to turn away from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and to The Gay Science. In the final passage of book one, in one of Nietzsche’s most striking passages, Nietzsche diagnoses those people who “have a yearning to suffer something in order to make their suffering a likely reason for action, for deeds” (64). These “distress-addicts”, Nietzsche suggests, do not “feel within themselves the power to do themselves good from within”—if they did, “they would know how to create their very own distress,” and hence their very own reasons for action (65). Nietzsche contrasts himself with these people: “Pardon me, my friends, I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall” (65). Nauckhoff notes about this passage that it plays on a German expression, “Don’t paint the devil on the wall’—because by doing so you will cause him to appear. So Nietzsche, by painting his happiness on the wall, has caused that happiness to appear. Because of the connection with the need for suffering as the goad to deeds, we should see Nietzsche’s painting as being done by his actions. In keeping with the thought that the body is a great reason (that “does I”) possessing an ineffable virtue, this painting of happiness must spring from that great reason, from that virtue.

From this, a Nietzschean equation emerges: reason = virtue = happiness! What Nietzsche learned from Socrates’ equation is no less than the equation itself. Socrates mistake was not the equation itself, but the distortions his sickness forced upon it. Socrates emphasized the small reason over the great reason, and since the small reason deals in words, with consciousness (which Nietzsche elsewhere, I forget where, analyzes as having arisen solely for the sake of communication), it deals with what is named and public, and so rules out the possibility of ineffable virtue. The result is, of course, a very different sort of happiness than Nietzsche’s. We could gloss the formulas, then:

Socrates: small reason = public virtue = (Socratic) happiness

Nietzsche: great reason = private virtue = (Nietzschean) happiness

Nonetheless, I think it is clear that Nietzsche is nonetheless clearly being quite Socratic when he discusses reason, virtue, and happiness, and their relation. Nietzsche is a Socrates-figure, and the question central to his philosophical project might be written: What if Socrates had been healthy?…