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Without Knowledge: Socrates Today
was the honored guest, posthumously of course, at the International Socrates
Symposium held on campus in April. Co-sponsored by TCU's philosophy department
and Honors Program, and UT Austin's department of classics and philosophy,
the symposium featured the Whos Who of international philosophers. Alexander
Nehamas, chair of the Council of Humanities and director of the Princeton
Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and the program in Hellenic Studies,
was the featured speaker at this year's Honors Convocation. Following
is his address.
scholars and intellectuals from all over the world have traveled to this
campus to spend three days discussing and debating the life, personality
and thought of Socrates -- a man dead for 2,400 years and one we know
only by hearsay. Socrates lived in a pagan society that couldn't have
existed without slavery, that hardly allowed women outside the house,
that foretold the future with the entrails of dead animals and was in
almost constant war with everyone living beyond its borders. [A land 170
times smaller than the state of Texas in a faraway corner of the Mediterranean,
over which it was sovereign.]
of us choose to spend a large part of our life in Socrates' company. Many
students here take courses devoted to him, and society at large, including
this university, willingly allocates scarce resources to make such things
possible. It is reasonable to ask why.
ways, Socrates stands in the starkest opposition to ancient Athens, and
it is certain that he seemed as strange to his world as he still does
to ours. His own friends, who saw him every day, composed such contradictory
portraits of him that the highly divergent Greek philosophical schools
could all claim to be descended from him. It was if each had seen a totally
a culture that was mad about attractiveness, for which exercise was serious
business and being fit almost a moral imperative, where political office
was difficult to win without good looks, Socrates was extraordinarily
ugly. His bulging eyes, snub nose, large stomach and swaying walk were
already during his lifetime the stuff of legend. His society held manual
labor in contempt, yet he seems to have been a stonecutter. Surrounded
by people whose definition of happiness was to acquire power and wealth,
he was poor, took no interest in politics unless legally required and
spent his life in what seemed like idle conversation. In a world where
a glorious death was the closest thing to redemption, he was executed
like a criminal. By Athenian standards, his life was a failure.
it was also a rebuke of those Athenian standards. That, at least, is what
we learn from Plato's dialogues, in which Socrates' failure appears probably
inspired and certainly is inspiring. Socrates' failure has gradually transformed
him into a hero of our culture and proved less dismal even by Athenian
standards, since posthumous glory is crucial to what makes life good and
Athens, political authority -- once the privilege of a landed aristocracy
whose wealth and power testified to their worth, guaranteed their fitness
to govern and secured their glory -- had gradually been won by all citizens.
In an aristocracy, where political power is hereditary, the abilities
needed to exercise it are passed from each ruling generation to the next.
In a democracy, every citizen can rise to public office.
who enter politics without a family tradition behind them must look elsewhere
for knowledge of the affairs of state and for the power to convince others
that they are the best representatives of their interests. For that reason,
a host of scholars and intellectuals from throughout the world converged
on Athens to teach its ambitious young men, for a fee, how to distinguish
themselves in life. They were the "sophists."
the sophists teach? In the first version of a college catalogue in the
Western world, one of the greatest among them, Protagoras, claimed to
teach his students how to be pre-eminent both in financial affairs and
political matters. What he promised, in other words, was wealth and power
-- the same old aristocratic ideal, available now not just to the sons
of the ruling class but to anyone who could afford his price.
in Athens knew what it was to be successful, even if they often disputed
who could best teach it or even whether it could be taught at all. Everyone
also knew, however, that success is not to be obtained at any price. It
makes a difference if you deceive or exploit others on your way to wealth
and power, if you act so as not to expose yourself to danger even for
a good cause, if you act foolishly or gratify your every whim. That is
not only bad strategy, it is shameful: We don't admit to our weaknesses
in public unless it is to apologize for them; no teacher ever promises
to show students how to cheat their way into public life. Protagoras admits
that real success in business and politics requires justice and temperance.
Success must be deserved.
between admiring the life of the rich and powerful and suspecting that
not everything the rich and powerful do is admirable does not seem to
have disturbed the Athenians of the fifth century B.C. any more than it
disturbs us today. Perhaps no system of values can ever be perfectly consistent,
and it might be possible to live -- to make do -- with imperfection provided
there is a shared understanding of the system's weaknesses and a tacit
agreement not to question them beyond the breaking point. Even fine pieces
of fabric can sometimes be worn at the edges.
And so, although
the ancient Athenians were sometimes unable to answer questions about
how best to live -- gloriously? or morally? -- they were still confident,
like most of us today, that their way of life was better than anyone else's.
In fact, Athens was so eager to spread its democratic values to the rest
of the Greek world that it eventually found itself engaged in a long,
debilitating and in the end catastrophic war against Sparta and its allies,
who had no wish to adopt them.
bursts into such a world of certainty dappled by doubt, arrogance shaded
by insecurity, pride tinged with anxiety, and pushes its values beyond
their breaking point. He seeks sophists, politicians, generals, religious
sages or rich, handsome young men with a promising future -- every one
of them a prominent figure, having or making a claim to know what counts
as living well. He shocks his audience by confessing that, unlike them,
he lacks that sort of knowledge and begs them to teach it to him, if that
is possible, so that he can apply it to himself. He can imagine, he tells
them, no greater benefit, but it is not a benefit they ever confer upon
questions lead each one of them into startling contradiction and reveal
them to be ignorant of what they claim to know. And so he undermines both
what they say -- that they know how to live well -- and what they imply
-- that their lives are better than others'. He paid for that with his
life, which he devoted to trying to learn.
doesn't promise to teach his students only how to win office but also
how to secure a life that is as perfect as human life can be. Such a promise
raises many questions: Does Protagoras really know what the best life
is? Is it really possible to teach people how to be happy? Is being able
to pay his fee all it takes in order to obtain happiness?
of depraved or corrupt politicians is not obviously admirable, but if
living well requires uprightness or honesty, we might wonder whether what
makes life good is politics or principles. And if politics, or any other
unprincipled activity, does not lead to the good life, why pay Protagoras
or anyone else instead of searching for that life ourselves, even if the
search takes, as it did for Socrates, a whole life?
doesn't put all these difficult questions directly to the sophist. He
only asks, with mock humility, if Protagoras is sure that success can
be taught, traps him on a more elementary level and subverts his declaration
of competence -- but every one of these questions is raised, for Protagoras
as well as for Plato's readers, in the course of Socrates ironic questioning.
questions continue to demand an answer because the ancient debate is uncannily
connected with problems and concerns of our own. Today the sophists are
alive and well. Now a sophist is not just someone who cheats in an argument;
sophistry is truly serious business. It is, for example, the business
of everyone who professes to teach others how to succeed at something
or other, that also -- it is implicitly or explicitly promised -- will bring
with it genuine satisfaction and happiness. At the crudest level, that
is the promise of all those who claim that their books reveal, for a price,
the secrets of the good life.
It is a sign
of their popularity that The New York Times now publishes a separate
best-seller list for "advice" books. Here are some of them: Self Matters
("How to reclaim one's authentic identity"), Authentic Happiness
("Using ‘Positive Psychology' to emphasize strengths and increase contentment"),
The Purpose-Driven Life ("Finding the meaning of life through God")
and The Power of Intention ("Ways to find spiritual solutions to
life's problems"). And perhaps even a book like Rich Dad, Poor Dad
("Teaching one's children to get rich and stay rich"). It would be easy
to dismiss this phenomenon, and very wrong. Someone is taking these books
seriously: Rich Dad, Poor Dad has been on the best-seller list
for 182 weeks, The Purpose-Driven Life for 61 and Self Matters
for 44. All of them are Protagoras' descendants; those who regard them
with contempt are Socrates' progeny. Except, of course, that Socrates
did not dismiss Protagoras' promise; on the contrary, he made it his goal
to find out whether those who professed to know and teach how best to
live really had something to teach him, whether they knew what they were
talking about. Confessing his own ignorance, he made that the task of
a lifetime: Could anything be more important, he asked, than learning
how to live well and to be happy?
might say, Socrates addressed only prominent figures, not every charlatan
he happened to find on his way. Here, then, in contrast to the how-to
books I have mentioned, is as serious a promise as I know, a program whose
"mission" is "to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders
and responsible citizens in the global community"; whose "vision" is "to
be a prominent private university recognized for our global perspective,
our diverse and supportive learning community, our commitment to research
and creative discovery, and our emphasis on leadership development"; and
whose "core values" are "academic achievement, personal freedom and integrity,
the dignity and respect of the individual, and a heritage of inclusiveness,
tolerance and service."
Many of you
must have recognized here the principles of Texas Christian University.
Please understand that I have not singled out your school in order to
mock it or because its goals are in any way unusual; my own institution's
motto, "Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations,"
might have done as well. But it is good to strike close to home, to aim
one's questions, as Socrates urged, at oneself.
it may seem impossible or at the very least ungrateful to question such
admirable goals, it might be worth our while to recall that those of you
who are enrolled in the Honors Program have been admitted on the basis
of your "past performance and the promise of an equally impressive record
at college" and can expect to join the ranks of "over 1,000 distinguished
student-scholars who have become professionals in every field and leaders
of their communities [and who] attest that the special discipline required
of Honors Students helps promote success beyond the undergraduate years."
are some questions for any institution of higher learning. Is it our purpose
to create "ethical leaders and responsible citizens," as the University's
mission statement says? If it is, why focus, as the Honors Program does,
on academic performance, professional success and community leadership?
Accomplished academics are often lacking in a strong sense of ethics and
responsibility; many successful professionals and civic leaders, as we
know all too well, also leave something to be desired in that area. The
tension between professional and general education, between producing
capable people and creating capacious individuals lies as much at the
heart of higher education as it lay in that of sophistic training and,
eventually, in Plato's own philosophical program, and haunts both their
theory and their practice.
claim to teach students how best to live, then someone in the university
must know what the good life is. But if they -- if we -- know, why don't
we live it ourselves? And if we do, if we believe that the life of the
intellect is the best human life, why don't we turn you all into professors
-- what else could we possibly want for you? Unless, of course, universities
can only provide tools for professional success, in which case we should
drop the pretense of any greater accomplishment. University, we would
have to conclude, is just a stepping-stone to a good job, not part of
a good life.
Socrates' own case -- the greatest challenge to our educational practice
-- may itself provide a glimpse of a more satisfying answer to these questions.
In the process of searching for the good life, Socrates showed that all
those who claimed to know how it is best for human beings to live actually
lacked the knowledge they professed to have and, unaware of their ignorance,
failed to live as they would have wanted.
Socrates, who was aware of his ignorance, made it his life's goal to understand
what living well is and his life, in turn, has seemed to many to be as
good a life as anyone ever had. The best human life may be, after all,
a life devoted to searching for the best life.
search was lifelong, and perhaps, if nothing is more important than living
well, it should always be so, for every one of us. The world, though,
won't work that way. Socrates' own life would never have been possible
without the benefits of life within society -- benefits a society made
up only of people like him, refusing to participate in politics or productive
labor, could never provide. But society could create a space where Socrates'
questions are kept alive, a time when some of its members, at least, could
ask them for themselves, and of themselves. And it has. That place, in
my opinion, is the university when it functions at its best, as a Socratic
you to think of the university not only as a site where information is
transmitted from teacher to student but also, and primarily, as a site
where one has the luxury (the real luxury) of being confused and indecisive,
doubtful and even suspicious of what one knows or has been told.
you to think of such moments of confusion and doubt not as obstacles to
the accumulation of knowledge but as stages in the growth of wisdom. When
Socrates insists that, alone among the Athenians, he is ignorant of the
answers to his questions, it is easy to think that he is being ironic
-- that he knows them perfectly well but wants either to humiliate his
opponents or spur them to discover them for themselves. Yet Socrates is
totally sincere. What makes him so sure that he is ignorant? Not just
a purely intellectual awareness that he can't answer some question, but
the intense confusion and doubt that mark our ignorance of anything that
is of importance to us. It is his confusion and doubt, which he refuses
to mask, that constitute the wisdom that leads him to continue his search
for the good life.
So long as
the search persists, so do confusion and doubt, and since Socrates' search
never ends, confusion and doubt are his constant companions. But since
his search for the good life leads him to find it nowhere but in that
search itself, the elements of his life of search -- confusion and doubt
-- are also elements of the life he searched for -- the good human life.
then, it is exactly to the extent that the university, unlike Protagoras,
does not -- and does not pretend to -- offer definitive answers to Socrates'
questions that it can claim to be a place where people learn how to live
well. It offers, necessarily, a limited and institutionalized version
of the Socratic life.
example does not dictate specific direction life must take, but an attitude
toward it: a deep and persuasive concern with its effects on the person
and its consequences for the values each individual claims to accept.
That attitude is impossible to adopt without first experiencing confusion
and doubt in all their unpleasantness, and there is no better place to
begin than by questioning, as Socrates did in that not-so-alien world
of ancient Athens, the nature of education and the significance of it's
like Socrates' own, is not likely ever to reach definite answers, and
any sketch of a life devoted to it will have to be full of confusion and
doubt. But what does that matter?
and doubt, which mark the absence of knowledge but signal the beginning
of wisdom, and may truly belong to the best years of our lives.
Nehamas is the chair of the Council of Humanities and director of the
Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and the Program in Hellenic
Studies. He is the author of Nietzsche: Life as Literature and translator
of Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus. He also is co-editor of "Rhetoric":
Philosophical Essays and author of many scholarly works.
to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.