BMCR 1999.01.09

The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. Sather Classical Lectures 61

, The art of living : Socratic reflections from Plato to Foucault. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 1 online resource (xi, 283 pages).. ISBN 0520925513 $29.95.

This is a book one responds to rather than reviews. Reviewers generally work within charted territory, but, in the best tradition of the Sather Lectures, Nehamas’s The Art of Living moves the reader on to new ground. Nehamas’s purpose is to discuss a non-academic approach to philosophy (philosophy as the art of living), to trace the origins of this approach in Socrates, and to discuss its manifestation in three of Socrates’ heirs — Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault.

Books on this subject tend to be partisan. Jacob Needleman, for instance, in The Heart of Philosophy roundly condemns academic philosophy as mere ‘conceptual analysis’, and insists that for a discipline to deserve the name of ‘philosophy’ it should be true to its Socratic roots; it should be the art of living. But Nehamas sets himself a more dispassionate task, the task of a historian. In an introductory chapter he outlines the two opposing conceptions of philosophy and the mutual suspicion they feel for each other. The one claims objectivity, while the other celebrates subjectivity; the one borders on science, the other on literature. Nehamas focuses in this book on the kind of philosophy where the self is not just important, but where, if practised aright and wholeheartedly, philosophy actually creates a strong and distinct personality. The term ‘philosophy’ is, in Nehamas’s view, large enough to encompass both conceptions (and still not be exhausted). Indeed, the two kinds of philosophy are more closely related than their partisans usually admit, since philosophical lives ‘proceed from a concern with issues that have traditionally been considered philosophical and because those issues provide the material out of which they are fashioned’ (6).

Here Nehamas begins to show his colours. His version of the philosophical life is an extension into life or literature of academic philosophical concerns. To Needleman and his ilk, however, that is a reversal or even a perversion of the true dynamic. Philosophy began as a way of life. Think not just of Socrates, but of Pythagoras and Empedocles: clearly their conceptual concerns were subordinate to a desire to live correctly, in a mystical sense. Ironically, the conceptual, academic side of philosophy has grown out of a vibrant living tradition. Even Aristotle, the forefather of academic philosophy, said, ‘We are studying not to know what goodness is, but to become good men’ ( NE 1103b27-9).

Nehamas is of the opinion (as we already knew from his ‘Voices of Silence’, Arion n.s. 2 (1992), 156-86) that Socrates is largely a literary construct. This is an opinion with which I thoroughly agree. Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault, however, are clearly more than literary constructs. Nevertheless, what interests Nehamas is not their historical, biographical selves, but the selves they have constructed in their philosophical writings — and so there is little or no difference between their situation in this respect and that of Socrates. This, really, is Nehamas’s position on the conflict between the partisans. ‘The art of living,’ he says on p. 8, ‘though a practical art, is therefore practiced in writing.’ This is no resolution of the conflict. Nehamas has sided with the academics, since even the art of living has become a subject for study, not something one does. He gives the game away too when he says (ibid.), ‘It is difficult to imagine that one can formulate one’s own art of living without writing about it.’ This is a statement with which strong disagreement is possible. An enlightened swami on a mountaintop in India might have a perfectly clear formulation of his art of living, but not one that is complex enough to require writing down, nor need he feel that he has to transmit it to others in writing.

However, this is not to say that philosophy as the art of living cannot be mediated by the written word. Nehamas is simply overstating the case in saying that it must be. And so he is not wrong, and clearly has got hold of a valuable subject for study. But it is the case that the book is characterized by occasional overstatements of this kind. Though beyond the scope of a review such as this, a detailed, page-by-page analysis of the book would validate this criticism. Consider, as one instance, pp. 82-3, where Nehamas discusses the view that Socratic elenchus is a negative procedure, a way of pricking an interlocutor’s false conceit of knowledge. Nehamas cites Grote, Robinson and Vlastos’s introduction to Protagoras — nothing under forty years old — in order to substantiate this view of the elenchus, claiming that it is what ‘everybody knows’, and then pulls the dramatic rabbit out of the hat: ‘It is now time to deny what everybody knows.’ But Nehamas is well aware that there have been a number of attempts in recent years, largely in the pages of various editions of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, starting with those of Vlastos himself and Kraut in 1983, to show how the elenchus can do more than prick bubbles of conceit. Nehamas does himself a disservice when he exaggerates in this way for rhetorical effect. There is plenty in his book that deserves profound reflection, and it is a shame to spoil it by periodic superficiality.

The reason Socrates exerted such an influence on Plato, Montaigne, and others — and the reason they can do no more than ‘reflect’ Socrates, as Nehamas’s subtitle suggests — is that he is and remains totally enigmatic. Various writers seem to capture some facet of the original, but none succeeds in encompassing the whole. And the source of the enigma is his irony. So Nehamas narrows down the subject of his book to Socratic irony and its after-effects. In other words, he is going to read Plato (not Xenophon, since Socrates’ irony was a Platonic invention, and Xenophon gives the impression that he understood Socrates) as philosophical literature, but he does so in a way that is infinitely more profound and informative than anything else one might call such a reading — that of Leo Strauss and his followers, for instance.

In the first part of the book, he concentrates on Plato’s Socrates, and argues that Socrates’ ambiguity is so thorough that readers will fail to get a fix on him at all. Plato invites his readers to identify with Socrates — to join him as he argues against his interlocutors — and so to feel superior to the interlocutors; but in doing this Plato is actually fostering self-deception in his readers, because Socrates remains finally enigmatic. This intense and ambivalent relationship between Plato and his readers is the subject of Chapter 1. In Chapter 2 Nehamas discusses the nature of Socratic irony, taking as his starting-point the view of Vlastos that Socrates’ ‘complex irony’ consists in saying one thing while plainly meaning the opposite. Nehamas argues with considerable plausibility that this is not a deeply ironic position at all: the interlocutor or reader simply knows that he is supposed to understand the opposite. True irony is when we have no sure way of knowing the speaker’s position, and Nehamas argues that this is what Socratic irony is like: ‘it leaves us with his words, and a doubt that they express his meaning’ (12) — and that is all. In Chapter 3 Nehamas argues that Socrates’ purpose was not to create or even outline a universalist ethical position, suitable for all people in all times, but no more than self-improvement (with hints as to how others might go about improving themselves too). This is philosophy as the art of living, because a life is an individual life — mine, and no one else’s, subject to few if any general rules.

Plato’s Socrates, then, if Nehamas is right, remains totally opaque. Indeed, Nehamas argues that despite being a construct of Plato’s literary genius, Plato himself was aware, and admits (e.g. through Alcibiades at Symposium 216c-d), that he too failed to understand Socrates. Nehamas reads the middle dialogues as Plato’s attempts to explain Socrates to himself, and to turn him into a Socrates with a universal message. But it is precisely the ambiguities inherent in Socrates’ character, and his individualism, that made him an attractive model for Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault. Each appeals in certain of his writings to Socrates as he tries to construct himself and his art of living. Montaigne seems to have grasped the irony of Socrates to the extent that the central question he raises in his essay ‘On Physiognomy’ concerns the relation between the inner and the outer: is a person’s nature always reflected in his appearance? For Montaigne, Socrates is a model of someone who fought against his original, ugly nature, as revealed by his ugly features, to construct himself anew as someone full of goodness. Montaigne too desires to be such a fashioner of himself, but in the opposite way: ‘Montaigne changed his interior so that it would be in harmony with his frank and innocent face’ (121).

In the chapter on Nietzsche, Nehamas traces his uneasy relationship with Socrates; he is often hostile, and always ambivalent. But a discussion of Nietzsche’s reaction to Socrates leads inevitably to a discussion of some of Nietzsche’s central ideas: Socrates was always that important to him, but although, like Montaigne, he wanted to create himself — to practise the art of living on himself — he was too aware of the dangers of imitation to give credit to Socrates as the founder of this practice. However, the fact that he resented never having been able fully to disentangle himself from the lessons Socrates held for him gave his hostility towards Socrates its bite. Nietzsche believed, Nehamas argues, that Socrates’ self-fashioning took a wrong turning: instead of creating a self that could live unselfconsciously, which was Nietzsche’s goal, he glorified reason. But ultimately, as Nehamas well argues, most of the apparent contrasts between Nietzsche and Socrates merge and become blurred.

Foucault, of course, was throughout his life totally concerned with politics, even if in his last years he was not the activist he once had been. So his Socrates is one who works for the public good, especially by his parrhesia, by speaking his mind, even when there is danger of death. Socratic care of the self entails care of others. Foucault explicitly identifies himself with Socrates, and claims that philosophers like them, who create themselves in order to break with the past and introduce something new into life, are useful at a political level. Nehamas does not believe that this is a good reading of Socrates — his Socrates, as already mentioned, is more of an individualist and less of a universalist — but he lays out the evidence for this interpretation of Socrates by Foucault.

But after all Socrates remains essentially an empty figure, a blank space which has been filled by Plato himself (in his middle dialogues) and then by a succession of other thinkers throughout the ages. The interest and importance of this thesis of Nehamas’s should be clear. But like many ground-breaking books, it is not without its flaws. One — the tendency to exaggerate — I have already mentioned. Another is a degree of repetition. His method in each successive chapter is basically to circle around the subject, coming back to it each time after an apparent digression or at least a circuitous course. We learn a lot during each of these divagations, but it does give the reader the impression that the text is being padded to a certain extent. One recalls that these chapters were originally lectures, with a certain amount of time to fill, and that a discursive style that works well in the lecture-hall may need editing out for a book.

Leaving finer criticism of the chapters on Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault to those more expert than I, let’s look again at the opening three chapters, on Plato. A warning bell sounded in my mind right at the start of the book, with Nehamas’s decision to choose the figure of Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain as a paradigm of a character who is so radically ambiguous that readers will fail to pin him down, even though they may think they have. This, I freely admit, is a totally subjective criticism, but I said to myself, ‘Nehamas cannot have read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.‘ For surely Ulrich is the ultimate in ambiguous characters, and Musil is certainly teasing his readers with their inability to pin him down in any respect whatsoever. Characters in certain novels by Mann and also Hermann Broch come to mind — all three novelists being, remarkably, contemporaries — but none of them comes anywhere near Ulrich in this respect. Now, as it happens, there is a reference to The Man Without Qualities in Nehamas’s book (note 63 of Chapter 3, on p. 218), but it did nothing to alleviate my suspicions, since the book’s protagonist is there identified as Arnheim, who is in fact just one of the important secondary characters who act as foils by which we fail to define Ulrich.

But this is no more than a quibble, and may be of little interest to readers of a classical review. In any case, Nehamas’s reading of Mann is thoughtful and thought-provoking. But how does it help him establish his case? He wants to argue that ‘Mann’s novel and Plato’s Socratic dialogues are two of the most scornful displays of the weakness of readers who assume they are morally superior to various characters while they are in fact revealing that they are made of the same stuff as those they deride’ (32). But he states this as a fact immediately after analysing The Magic Mountain, and before any detailed discussion of the early Platonic dialogues. Again, this seems to me to be a rhetorical ploy. It helps to seed in the reader’s mind the conclusion you want eventually to reach. And it will be obvious from the strong statement of the thesis, just quoted, how difficult a conclusion it would be to reach by normal, deductive channels. What evidence might there be of Plato’s ‘scorn’ for his readers? In the nature of things, this is going to be no more than a subjective reading. For my part, I have been reading the Socratic dialogues for some twenty-five years, without ever having suspected this element of ‘scorn’. One can be aware of the ambiguity of the Socrates figure, without making this next step. However, I am also immensely grateful to Nehamas for having pointed out this possible way of reading Plato’s tone. I am not saying he is wrong, only that it is a subjective reading, and one that he establishes at least in part by rhetorical rather than deductive means. It is of course true that ‘the Socratic dialogues demand of their audience what Socrates asks of his interlocutors: to examine their beliefs …’ (42) But this falls short of scorn.

His main evidence comes from asking why, in Euthyphro, is Plato so contemptuous of Euthyphro. It seems to be a case of overkill: no one can be that pompous and self-satisfied and stupid. Nehamas argues that Plato is partly preparing his readers for the negative conclusion to the dialogue. Unmoved by Socrates’ arguments, Euthyphro simply walks away. Now this, for Nehamas, exactly parallels what we, as readers, do: ‘We close the book, in a gesture that is an exact replica of Euthyphro’s sudden remembering of the appointment that ends his conversation with Socrates. We too go about our usual business, just as he proposes to do … Socrates’ irony is directed at Euthyphro only as a means; its real goal are the readers of Plato’s dialogue’ (41).

This, to me, perfectly illustrates both the strength and the weakness of Nehamas’s book. Its strength is that it compels us to look afresh at texts we thought we knew backwards. Its weakness is that some of its arguments do not bear close scrutiny, as rational arguments. In this case, for instance, suppose you are a reader who has perfectly understood Plato’s ‘scornful’ recoil of Socratic irony from Euthyphro on to yourself, and taken on board the lesson that you may be as self-deceived as Euthyphro himself. There still will come a point when you close the book. Closing a book is not necessarily a smug gesture. Moreover, we could apply the same analysis to a cheap thriller. A reader might close the book thinking, smugly, ‘I wouldn’t have been caught’ or ‘I would have solved the crime quicker.’ In other words, Nehamas’s point does not tell us anything important about how we should read Plato. Closing the book is just what you do at the end of a book. Even if Socrates had ever convinced Euthyphro or any of his interlocutors, the conversation would have to stop at some stage, when the interlocutors resumed their mundane lives.

Another example of this weakness also occurs in Chapter 1, in the parallelism with The Magic Mountain. Nehamas’s final word on this is that both Mann and Plato ‘produce or replicate self-deception in their readers as they exhibit it in their characters’ (44). Again, closer scrutiny reveals the flaw in this argument: it is too much of a generalization. As Nehamas himself argued, in the course of his analysis of The Magic Mountain, Mann invites self-deception in his readers by tantalizing them with clues as to the real state of affairs — that Castorp is himself ill, not merely a visitor to the mountain clinic. I cannot see in what sense this is paralleled by any feature of Plato’s writing. If Nehamas is right that we, Plato’s readers, are self-deceived, it is not because any denouement occurs at some point in the dialogue such that we look back and remember the clues to the real state of affairs. In fact, Nehamas has argued, Plato’s readers remain self-deceived, whereas Mann’s do not, of course. Ironically, Nehamas will go on to argue, in Chapter 2, against the view that Plato ‘planted in his works … hints for understanding [Socrates]’ (64); but this is exactly the analysis of The Magic Mountain he has given us in Chapter 1, and insisted on its parallelism to Plato.

The second chapter of the book is, in my view, the best of these first three on Plato, above all for its devastating and much-needed critique of Vlastos’s interpretation of Socratic irony, which I have already summarized. He distinguishes several uses of the term in ancient Greek as background to arguing that Socratic irony is bound to involve some level of deceit. For Vlastos, Socrates would not deceive his interlocutors (or his readers) because, being wedded to truth and honesty, he allows us to know that he means the opposite to what he says. Irony, however, is actually a means of dissembling and, in stronger instances, of deceiving. And so, as Nehamas argues, Socrates remains a radically ambiguous character, one whom Plato himself failed to fathom (and also, I might add, one empty enough to act as the model for thinkers of extremely different stripes, from Plato to Xenophon, and from Aristippus to Antisthenes).

The third chapter is somewhat rambling. It begins with an extended discussion of the central paradox of Socrates’ life (one which has prompted a number of useful investigations in recent years). This is that while disclaiming knowledge of virtue, Socrates claimed to live virtuously, even though he held that knowledge of virtue was a necessary condition for living virtuously. However, this paradox was also brought up at the end of Chapter 2, and much of Nehamas’s discussion of it in Chapter 3 is unnecessary, since later, after an extended discussion of how to construe the strict knowledge Socrates claims to lack, he says (85) that it does not matter how we construe this strict knowledge Socrates claims to lack, since the central paradox remains. And then time and again in this chapter he keeps repeating, more or less in the same words, the same paradox. In between the raising of these questions, which punctuate the text, we gradually draw closer to Nehamas’s answer, but I cannot help thinking that it could all have been done more succinctly.

Be that as it may, one of Nehamas’s main points in this chapter is that Socrates was an enigma in this respect to Plato himself. Plato really does not know how to resolve the paradox, whether it is unresolvable, whether Socrates should really after all be said to have the knowledge he claims to lack, and so on. And so Plato himself is implicitly admitting that he does not understand Socrates at all, that the man remains a complete mystery to him. For Nehamas one implication of this is that Socrates was not a teacher, except obliquely. He may have wanted to provoke others to examine themselves, but he did not bring a universal message. Thus it is only in the transitional Gorgias, Nehamas claims, that for the first time Socrates claims that some of his elenctic arguments are true, and makes the distinction between knowledge and belief. I am not sure of the force of this argument. It may be true that for the first time Socrates makes a truth-claim for some of his arguments, but it is implicit in Charmides, for instance, that Socrates expects elenctic argument to result in truth: see 166d, 175d. It seems to me that the real issue is how Socrates in the early dialogues can make truth-claims for arguments which test only consistency.

At any rate, Nehamas goes on to sketch, in broad outline, a reading of the middle dialogues as Plato’s attempts to resolve the enigma of Socrates, and to come up for the first time with a universalist reading of Socrates — a Socrates who shows that the life of philosophy ‘is really best for everyone, philosophers and non-philosophers alike’ (96), in the system of Republic. Of course, I do not want to deny that Republic is unique in extending the benefits of the philosophic life to those the philosophers rule in Kallipolis, but I do think that Nehamas has somewhat exaggerated the individualism of the Socrates of the early dialogues. As Irwin has pointed out time and again (and I say this without being committed to any of Irwin’s more radical theses, such as an instrumentalist reading of the relationship between virtue and happiness), the importance of Gorgias is that it spells out and analyses assumptions that had governed the earlier dialogues. In this sense, Gorgias is transitional, but it is not thereby a false reflection of the early dialogues. So even if it is clearer in Gorgias than in any earlier dialogue that Socrates wants us all to follow the path of virtue, and offers reasons for our doing so, it is not illegitimate to read this back into earlier dialogues too. And we do find that virtue is the same for all — i.e., above all, acting with self-restraint and justice. This is not a view that Socrates means to apply only to himself, but to all of us.

Finally, there is one thread of this third chapter that I find somewhat peculiar. On p. 82 Nehamas states, without arguing it through, that ‘Only one good human being can recognize another’. He explains: ‘For to be able to recognize the expert, to know that someone is in fact a good person, is to be convinced of that person’s views, and to be convinced of those views is to act on them in a rational, articulate manner.’ Leaving aside the unclarity of this expression of the position, I am not convinced that it means that only one good person can recognize another. I do not have to be a carpenter myself to recognize good carpentry, nor did Socrates ever make that requirement. Indeed, he always takes it for granted that we do have the ability to recognize expertise, despite not being experts ourselves, and so to desire to follow their advice. But this claim, that only one good person can recognize another, turns out to be a crucial strand to Nehamas’s reading of Plato’s relationship to Socrates. On pp. 89-90 he argues that since, from reading Plato’s early dialogues, we do inevitably gain the impression that Socrates was a good man, he must have been recognized as such by Plato himself, which makes Plato himself a good man, and makes him implicitly announce his claim to be so. ‘His claim is subtle, complex, and not a little arrogant,’ as Nehamas remarks (89). It adds to the scorn with which he treats us, his readers. But surely Nehamas has here subtly undermined his whole reading of Socratic irony. He sets Plato up (90) as a successful pupil of Socrates’ teaching on goodness. But if Socrates could do it once, he could, potentially, do it any number of times. In that case, he was a moral expert. And in that case, his ironic disavowal of knowledge was complex irony in the Vlastosian sense, since it means the opposite of what it appears to mean.

Some of the criticisms I have brought against this book are quite far-reaching — not that I have solutions to some of the problems Nehamas forces us to confront. But, for all its flaws, I do think that this is a very important book. It is also very well written, and contains only a few printer’s errors. I think we should take it — and I think Nehamas would want us to take it — as an investigation, as work in progress, rather than as gospel. And for sheer stimulus, I unhesitatingly recommend it to any reader.