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Sunday, November 11, 2007

mailer again

In the Hippias Minor, Socrates challenges Hippias, a vain sophist, over the matter of who is the better man: Achilles or Odysseus. Hippias holds that Achilles was the truest, strongest and best of the Greeks, while Odysseus was the wiliest – polytropos – or the falsest, the most cunning, the most deceptive. But Socrates, surprisingly enough, comes up with an argument to show that either both Achilles and Odysseus are mixtures of the good and the false, or that – if Achilles lies and deceptions come about involuntarily, whereas Odysseus voluntarily takes on the deceivers role, as Hippias maintains – that Odysseus must be the better man. This is the end of the dialogue:

Socrates: Is not justice either a sort of power or knowledge, or both ? Or must not justice inevitably be one or other of these ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Then injustice is a power of the soul, the more powerful soul is the more just, is it not ? For we found, my friend, that such a soul was better.
Hippias : Yes, we did.
Socrates : And what if it be knowledge ? Is not the wiser soul more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : And what if it be both ? Is not the soul which has both, power and knowledge, more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ? Is that not inevitably the case ?
Hippias : It appears to be.
Socrates : This more powerful and wiser soul, then, was found to be better and to have more power to do both good and disgraceful acts in every kind of action was it not ?
[376a] Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Whenever, then, it does disgraceful acts, it does them voluntarily, by reason of power and art ; and these, either one or both of them, are attributes of justice.
Hippias : So it seems.
Socrates : And doing injustice is doing evil acts, and not doing injustice is doing good acts.
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Will not, then, the more powerful and better soul, when it does injustice, do it voluntarily, and the bad soul involuntarily ?
Hippias : Apparently.
[376b] Socrates : Is not, then, a good man he who has a good soul, and a bad man he who has a bad one ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : It is, then, in the nature of the good man to do injustice voluntarily, and of the bad man to do it involuntarily, that is, if the good man has a good soul.
Hippias : But surely he has.
Socrates : Then he who voluntarily errs and does disgraceful and unjust acts, Hippias, if there be such a man, would be no other than the good man.”

Socrates pulls himself up short, here. How could he come to this conclusion? It is as if the Socratic method had revealed a little too distinctly its daemonic side. But out of this little snatch of dialogue, in a dialogue that never receives very much attention, we see the outlines of the philosophe buffoon – such a man as the one who died today, Norman Mailer. Mailer, of course, believed supremely that the goodness that comes from never testing one’s capacity for badness is not goodness, but sloth – the expression of the soul in a bad state. This is the social via negativa. Neither the right nor the left like it. School will not teach it. You have to learn it outside of school, if you want to learn it at all. It is at the root of many liberation movements. It clenched Frederick Douglass’ hand into a fist and made him beat his overseer, which was done as much to honour the bad man as the good man in Douglass’ soul – the whole man, not the candycane liberator, all fucking sweetness and light. In Dana Spiotta’s excellent novel, Eat the Document, which tracks a Weather style ‘terrorist’ named Caroline aka Mary up to the nineties in tandem with a nineties, Northwestern anti-globalist anarchist, the anarchist actions are called ‘tests’. Caroline, in 1972, has the underground mantra down: Count on bad luck. In 1998, bad luck, for the children of America, is unimaginable.
Well, we are beginning to feel bad luck again.

In the Tractate of Steppenwolf, that mysterious text magically popping up in the novel, the writer analyzes Harry Haller’s error in thinking that he is divided between a man and a wolf – for even the wolf has more than two souls. We are, instead, knots of an indefinite number of selves, just like the Indian Gods in the Vedas.

“He would like to overcome the wolf in himself and become completely human, or renounce the human and at least live a unified, untorn life as a wolf. It is possible that he had never really precisely observed a wolf – because then he would have perhaps seen that even the animals have no unified souls, that even with them, behind the beautiful, austere form of the body lives a multitude of wants and circumstances, that even the wolf has its abysses in itself, that even the wolf suffers.”

The Socrates of the Hippias Minor is closer to the Antisthenes’ Socrates than to Plato’s. After all, the philosophical lineage runs not just from Socrates to Plato to all the history of philosophy that comes afterwards, but also from Socrates to Antisthenes to Diogenes to the cynics, to the anti-philosophical philosophers, the parasites, Rameau’s nephew, and so on – a bunch of dangerous farceurs. Antisthenes, too, was a great admirer of the polytropos Odysseus – in the one major fragment we have from him, in Porphyry, here is how he defends Odysseus (to quote from David Levystone’s excellent 2005 article, La figure d’Ulysse chez les Socratiques : Socrate polutropos):

Antisthenes says that Homer neither praises nor blames Odysseus in calling him “polytropos”.
However, he doesn’t make Agamemnon and Ajax polytropoi, but frank and noble, no more than he gives, by way of Zeus, a feigning and shifting character to wise Nestor. On the contrary, Nestor sincerely helps Agamemnon and all the others, and if, for the army, he knows something good, he advises it. He doesn’t dissimulate it. Achilles is so far from accepting such behavior that he calls odious like death the ‘person who in his heart hides on thing and says another.”
In order to resolve this difficulty, Antisthenes says: what then? Is it true that Odysseus is a scoundrel because he has been called polytropos? Isn’t it, in fact, the contrary, that he has been so qualified by Homer because he is wise? Probably, tropos signifes, on one side, the character, and on the other, the usage of discourse. The man is morally good whose character is ‘turned’ to the good. On the other hand, tropes are the invention of a discourse of such and such a kind. Homer utilizes tropos with reference to the variations of voice and melody, as in the case of the nightingale “who changes frequently, fills its voice with varied sounds”.
If the wise are good speakers, they know how to express the same thought in many ways. And because they know how to say the same thing in many ways, they can thus be polytropos. Thus, the wise are equally good. This is why Homer says that Odysseus, who is wise, is polytropos. He know how to talk with men in using multiple modes of discourse. This is also the fashion to which Pythagoras, when asked to talk to children, adhered, they say, in giving discourses to children. While in talking to women, he adapted his discourse to women. To leaders, he spoke as to leaders and to ephebes, he spoke as to ephebes. In fact, to discover the style of wisdom which belongs to each is a sign of wisdom. It is, on the contrary, a sign of philistinism to only use one unique style (monotropos). From this fact, too, the doctor depends for the success of his art, since therapy practices polytropy on account of the diversity of states of the patient.”

This speech of Antisthenes was obviously read by Bakhtin – and by St. Paul, who wrote that he was all things to all people. But it is a curious and paradoxical speech. For to say one thing in many ways was, according to Antisthenes philosophy, to say many things, not one. Antisthenes, famously, held that there was no such thing as contradiction. There was no contradiction because there was no essence. As there was no essence, there was no definition. There are two famous anecdotes about Antisthenes and Plato – in one of which, Plato told Antisthenes that his book against contradiction was a contradiction of itself, since the point of the book was to contradict the philosophers. The other anecdote is that Antisthenes once remarked: we see man and we see horse, but we don’t see manness and horseness. Plato replied: You possess that eye by which horse is seen; but you have not yet acquired the eye by which Horseness is seen.”

Ah, that eye – that third eye, perhaps, from the angel of death. And yet Plato’s third eye institutes essences and contradictions, while Antisthenes two eyes simply see. It is not so easy, when you set out to do it systematically, to place the sage on one side and the buffoon on the other.

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