Saturday, December 08, 2007

We seek critics who challenge us to the core, compelling us to rethink our own foundations

A questioning spirit, a truly philosophical spirit seems to generate a certain level of discomfort with our lives, for to question is to ask for diverse articulations of what is dearest to us. But not all have the capacity for articulation or patience for conversation that Socrates had; though this does not mean one cannot develop one’s capacity to articulate to a much greater extent than one actually thinks one is able to. Moreover, in seeking articulation one must face oneself in such a way that the presuppositions of our alleged knowledge come to be undermined temporarily in such a way as to generate a healthier more grounded form of being. Some cannot see the end goal of refection and therefore terminate reflection even prior to its beginnings by having recourse to indignation and either, outward-tending, or inward-tending anger.
But the anger itself resides not in the questioner, but rather in the, let me invent this word, “questionee”. What is truly perplexing about Socrates’ life is that, though continuously developing his conversation in private and with only a few citizens he carefully screened, still many sought him for they sensed in him a healthier, if by no means easier or more convenient, form of being. Xenophon’s writings on Socrates record the multiple benefits he provided to many Athenians, including his own child. Or as professor Pangle, a defender of the Socratic life, puts it:

“A revealing and helpful symptom of liberation, indicating that we are in the right track, is our initial anger or moral indignation at the worldview we have encountered: for that indignation is a sign that we have run up against a real challenge, one that does not fit our accepted notions of what is right, and yet that we cannot view it from a cool distance, laugh off as absurd, or shrug off…
In short, we seek serious and thoughtful critics whose arguments draw us, into a true dialogue, in which the very meaning and purpose of our lives is at stake. We seek critics who challenge us to the core, compelling us to rethink our own foundations, and eliciting from us some genuine, if grudging, admiration for the alternative they represent or pose.” (The Ennobling of Democracy, p. 196)

Let us just say in this respect that Plato’s work and a newly developed psychology founded on the interaction of three elements —-reason, spirit ( in Greek, thumos) and appetite—– can be seen as a political attempt by the very founder of political theory to understand the anger related to thumos and to provide us with the reasons both for seeing its crucial and unavoidable importance, as well as for the necessary moderation required in order to provide a healthy political community with healthy citizens within that community. Little wonder Socrates at the end of the Apology sets himself as a model in outright competition with the angriest of all Greeks, Achilles.
Our age has movies for Achilles, not for Socrates. Such moderation requires challenging questions but not all will seek their moderation and an understanding of the crucial limitations of an angered approach (outward or inward based) to life. In this respect as well, we need turn to the Greeks in order to understand why that spirited nature which is thumos for the Greeks, is clearly linked to political and military courage; for surely one must feel a certain anger if one’s own are killed unjustly. In this same vein, the very last chapters of Aristotle Politics entertain the possibility that though such potential anger is politically necessary, it must be radically moderated so that citizens can ensure a certain well-being beyond permanent war. (see, for instance: Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (eds.), Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, (Leiden: Brill, 2003),) Unfortunately, we must leave the Greeks aside for now. (more…) 5:09 AM

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