On Socrates and his trial
“there could never have been a Platonic philosophy without such beautiful young men in Athens: the sight of them is what first puts the philosopher’s soul in an erotic rapture and won’t let it rest until it has sunk the seed of all high things into such beautiful soil [reference to Symposium 206a-207b] . . . At the very least, you have to think that people in Athens had a different way of philosophizing, especially in public [my emphasis]. Nothing is less Greek than the hermit’s conceptual cobweb-weaving, the amor intellectualis dei á la Spinoza. Philosophy á la Plato is more accurately defined as an erotic contest, as the further development and internalization of the ancient agonistic gymnastics and its presuppositions . . . – I still remember, against Schopenhauer and in Plato’s honour, that the whole higher culture and literature of classical France also grew on the ground of sexual interest. You can search through it for gallantry, sensuousness, sexual competition, ‘woman’, – you will never look in vain.”
(Twilight of the Idols, Skirmishes of an Untimely Man §23)
“There is a certain Socrates, a wise man, a ponderer over the things in the air and one who has investigated the things beneath the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger.”
Plato and Socrates
It is by now, for some reason, accepted that if we want to learn anything about Socrates’ teaching, it is best to look at Plato. And yet, there are sharp distinctions to be made – not the least of which stand on the opposing role of their ‘occupations’. Plato sought to rationalise everything, to explain and to prove through various methods why things were the way they were; he sought the ideas/forms, the very principles that could not be reduced to anything but their purity. Socrates claimed to know nothing – which, as we know, was a method of its own. Plato wrote of Socrates, while Socrates, well . . . he was Socrates. This may sound trivial, but there is something that is obviously at stake when a story is retold than when it is experienced. Plato was the author of Socrates’ life, a biographer; he decided what was important and what was not – but more importantly, he crafted the arguments in such a way that would fit to persuade in a Platonic (i.e. not Socratic) sense.
Socrates, on the other hand, sought philosophy itself – a public endeavour, a battle of wits, an agon. Not the argument, not the search for absoluteness in ideas/forms, but the contest, the process were central to a philosopher (as opposed to the author). We are, as it were, opposing two very different conceptions between an author and a philosopher – speaker and writer, actor and thinker; perhaps even youth and age, or woman and man, or sensuality and sex. What is certain is that Socrates did not write a word, and Plato wrote and rewrote Socrates’ words where agon only glimpsed through writing itself – but the reader already knows, already expects the result; the process is not his, only the argument remains.
Note that the ideas/forms are certainly present in Socrates, indeed as a method. ‘What is Beauty itself? Or Justice? Or Virtue?’ We may give examples of beauty – a beautiful painting, landscape, woman. . . .; but these are ‘not of themselves beautiful’ Socrates would answer, they only contain the characteristic/attribute of that idea/form that we call Beauty, next to being bronze, seductive, sensuous. . . . This is Socratic wit, his agon in the process – there is no Beauty itself nor Justice or Virtue. There is no idea or form, there is no end or result. But there are paintings, landscapes, women; there is a bronze body, seductive and sensuous. This is an active life of a speaker in a public space, a life of a philosopher.
But Plato, he saw more than there was. He wrote and laid down foundations of the ideas/forms, he thought and overthought, he missed the agonal contest as a process and focused on the end result instead. He missed the sensuousness of a philosopher (and so did other authors for the next two millennia and a half, almost without exception – and if natural science is but an extension of philosophy, woe to us). And so the foundations of ideas/forms became nothing less that doctrines according to which to live, to act, to speak and to love.
Why the trial?
But why tell us of the character of Socrates as opposed to Plato? Certainly the characters are telling of the trial as well; but perhaps also as to establish the innocence of a prolific writer to whom we (other writers) owe more than to the actors of this world. We (other writers) lack the sensuous, we lack our youth, perhaps we even lack the ability to see the bronze (we only see blue). . . . While Plato missed the agonal contest of his master and instead focused on the internal rational and the end result in the ideas/forms, Socrates continued with his method of not knowing a thing. He temped the aristocrats at their ability to govern – how could they if they could not say what Justice or Virtue were? And their children listened as this wise man who did not know a thing, still knew more than their parents. It is in this instance in particular that the Socratic method of ‘not knowing’ becomes clearest: how to know what is p, without critiquing it first; how to arrive at certain knowledge as opposed to mere belief without questioning its validity first. ‘Not knowing’ is precisely what Socrates introduced into Athens troubled by a long devastating war. And so, while Plato was discovering an argument after another, while he wrote about the virtue of not knowing, a group of young aristocrats formed around Socrates who could care less about knowing or not knowing, and only heard how not knowing could serve a purpose.