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Friday, November 29, 2013

philosopher buffoons

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 its daemonic side without, for once, the covering irony. But out of this little snatch of back and forth, in a dialogue that never receives very much attention, we see the outlines of the philosophe buffoon. The philospher buffoon stradles the line between the serious and the ludicrous. For him, the norm is vitiated by the normal, that dead even, never traveled thing – that opposite of polytropos, the word, applied to Odysseus, that sets the dialogue into motion. To never test 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, and perhaps on this circuit of the dialectic of the enlightenment we are also coming back to the anti-hero.
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, closer to the figure who inspired cynicism than the figure who inspired Platonism. 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 up through many notable  anti-philosophical philosophers, the parasites, Bruno’s ass, Rameau’s nephew, and so on – a bunch of dangerous farceurs. But even the farceur suffers – although the true clown finds the tears of the clown a little too close to kitsch not to laugh at, afterwards.

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