V. Socrates (1954)

Two Lectures By Heinrich Blücher
New School For Social Research
Lecture I:  (In Two Parts) April 30, 1954
Lecture II: May 7, l954

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Lecture XII (S-II) 4-3O-54 [Lecture 1, Part 1]


In approaching Socrates we have to invert our method. That means we have to  start again with our over-all modern conditions and return to some observations which we made sometime ago. The very remarkable and funny discovery that has been  made during the last twenty or thirty years is that ever since philosophers first began to suspect that there might be more to pre-Platonic thinking then had been considered up until their own time,(and consequently were forced to re-evaluate Plato and Aristotle, because all of the knowledge that they had of those early  thinkers came from them), they discovered that since Plato and Aristotle were system  builders they greatly misinterpreted the pre-Platonic philosophers for their own  purposes. Their own thinking of course, had developed out of pre-Platonic thinking, and it is probable that they felt it was not necessary to mention every time they happened to redesign a thought of one of the elder thinkers.

This rediscovery has led recently to an even more amazing result, and one which  is intimately connected to the above. It is a result I tried to sketch earlier when we first considered Heraclitus: Namely, that the "dark" Heraclitus, who was dark already to the pre-Platonic Greeks not to speak of post-Platonic thought, and who then remained dark throughout the ages, suddenly seems to become very light and bright as soon as we approach him from the point of view of modern science. When Whitehead, a great scientific philosopher of our time, wrote his book Science And The Modern World, it was so evident he belonged to those thinkers who had not studied Heraclitus. He didn't even mention him. Rather, he thought that the whole of our scientific tradition could be derived from Pythagoras, however, he came to a point (and this is the greatness of the man) where he realized that science, if it was to continue, had to become absolutely critical of itself, because of the many clashes between science and religion, philosophy and religion, and more recently, science and philosophy. That after science had almost been killed by religion during the time of Galileo, we were now living in a period when science was about to kill not only religion but philosophy as well. It had spread so far beyond its limits that it was almost hubris in its manner of procedure. Heidegger also recognized a similar point of view, and so together with Whitehead, was another of the modern personalities who stressed this insight very much.

However Whitehead, in his book, made another discovery. He made the discovery that there is a faith or a belief underlying science and that science is based upon this belief: Namely, in the assumption that there is a rational order of things that is also a natural order of things. Well, ironically enough, this is exactly the theory of Heraclitus. The logos of Heraclitus means exactly that and nothing more. He was the only one of the ancient pre-Platonic thinkers that made this claim so the principle underlying belief of modern science was first formulated by him, and although he has been called the dark one, the obscure one, he is the only one in whom we have all really believed, because none of us has ever doubted that belief to be true. Now we start to doubt it or at least we ask the question "Is there a rational order of things that is also a natural order of things"?  Because the physicist Heisenberg has hit upon a strange effect: Namely, that within the atom the movement of elementary particles do not, as far as we can see, obey strict causal laws, but rather seem to act in a way that, from a rationalist point of view, is entirely arbitrary. We cannot go deeper into that here although I think that philosophically speaking, what Heisenberg has discovered is a false alarm, because we still act according to this assumption of the general rational order of things, however what the discoveries of Heisenberg and Whitehead do indicate is that we stand in need of a real philosophy of science. Questions like "What is Science"?, "What is mathematics"?, "How is man able to proceed scientifically"?, have never been of any real interest to scientists. A few philosophers have occupied themselves with such questions but abandoned them very easily. Now in our own time when science itself seems to have become irrational-crossing all of its borders, no longer the doubtless server of man but rather, like a robot in revolt, a potential destroyer of man, we have gotten suspicious of our own scientific capabilities. It shows for instance in the Oppenheimer case as well as in all of the major events of our time. We have to reconsider everything.

Whitehead had done that already in l924 and now it is time that we all  proceeded along those same lines. Science has become, in a positive sense, an  interest of the masses and so it is a question of life or death for us to find out  what is science? Where does science come from? How can it be applied? How can it not be applied, and to whom and what should it be applied? What are the limits of  science? Those are the philosophic questions, and through them light is thrown back upon Heraclitus. The same applies to Socrates. Only in our own time has it become  possible to understand the warning of Immanuel Kant: Namely, that the very moment when the experience of religion (and I mean by that the possibility of pure faith) is cut out of human experience then reason itself becomes endangered, and reason has become endangered, because we made it into a God in the nineteenth century and have confused it with mere intelligence in our own. The fact that at the very moment when man wanted to set a principle above himself and then failed to call that principle either God or the Absolute (because both are allowed), but rather chose something concrete to make into an absolute (like human reason or what not) --- this very fact indicates one thing, and that is whenever something concrete is taken to be an absolute it all boils down to the same contention, that man is God. It does not matter what we take. The "All" of Being, or the laws of history, or human reason, or whatever, it finally all comes down to the conclusive statement that man is God.

Since we can see the consequences of this statement and have in fact experienced them in our time, we now are ready to consider the warning of Kant, and when we do that, a very strange thing happens. We are suddenly a little more able to approach Socrates and rediscover that it was this philosopher who first uttered Kant's warning and who had clearly seen the relationship between reason and faith, because he is so to speak, the discoverer of pure reason, and therefore could not have made this discovery without first having discovered its limits, which he did. It was because he had discovered the limits of human reason that he was able to discover human reason as a principle hence he was never unsure for one moment that reason was something that could not be made into an absolute. He didn't even have to utter a warning but just proceeded along those lines of thought. We have yet to even understand that those are the lines along which he proceeded.

That means the consideration of Socrates is, for our purposes,decisive.  Socrates, of whom we know only from Xenophon and Plato, and who appears in Xenophon as a very average popular street orator with a bundle of banalities in his pocket which he throws out among the people, a quite harmless man of whom it can be said that it is completely non-understandable why the Athenians should have bothered to kill him at all. On the other side there is Plato. Here, the thoughts of Socrates  are so mixed up with the thoughts of Plato that it has always been a hard task to distinguish them. We know that Aristotle made the statement, and the statement  cannot be doubted, that Socrates himself never talked about ideas,(1) and the doctrine  of ideas is the very core of Platonic thinking and the Platonic system, so if Socrates did not believe in such a doctrine then exactly what did he believe in? It has been suggested by some witty modern philosophers that Plato, being such a great artist (for he had started as a dramatist) after having expressed the opinion  in the Symposium that dramatists should not be divided into comic and tragic poets but rather should themselves be both comic poet and tragic poet, and who created  philosophical dramas full of tragedy, full of the trial of man, and the trial of the gods, and finally the trial of ideas, felt compelled to add one constant comic ingredient to the cycle of tragedy, and this ingredient was the figure of Socrates.  That Plato, as a young man and a rich man, merely amused himself with this street orator who was the biggest among the Sophists, who could turn the word of anybody around in anybody's mouth by his ever so skillful use of logic, who ended up making himself into a clown because he never wanted to be anything but a clown, and  who finally became the chief comical ingredient in Plato's work.

This interpretation is quite reasonable if one has lost all possibility of  distinguishing the thoughts of Plato from the thoughts of Socrates, however on  another level it is very difficult to maintain especially when looked at in the  light of Taylor's historical researches, because in his study of Plato (and this  is the great merit of Taylor) we see how impossible it would have been for  Socrates to have emerged as a so-called natural talent out of the Plebian class of Athens and who, being completely uneducated, simply started to argue along the  lines of common sense. Rather on the contrary, it is just as probable that before  he made his great discovery of pure philosophy he was one of the most gifted natural philosophers of Greece and widely respected as such. In any event, whatever  the actual case may be (and we must remember that both positions are legends that  have grown out of the mysterious context of the Platonic writings) if we want to bring Socrates out we will have to move by analyzing the content of his thought and our only criteria will be either the consistency of that thought or discrepancy of that thought. This is the only possible approach.

There is an anecdote that the Greeks would tell one another and it concerns something Socrates is supposed to have said to one of his friends about the very  young Plato who was his companion at that time. He said:

"Do you see that young man my friend. He is going to tell very beautiful lies about me".

The anecdote might seem to be true if looked at in the light of what Plato actually  did do but things are not so easy. One thing however is certain for anybody who knows how to read, and who has read the Platonic dialogues a few times.

Plato loved Socrates.

This is an undeniable fact. Such things cannot be hidden and should not be hidden.  It is also possible to prove that Socrates was the decisive turn in Plato's own  philosophy, the turn that led him finally to erect a system of "ideas" and that, in its political aspect, became so much the very opposite of what Socrates had said, had stood for, and had died for. Socrates died as a citizen of Athens in obedience to Athenian laws which means that he never tried to establish the right of the philosophers to over-rule the laws of the community let alone to build an ideal utopian state which would have abolished the freedom of all of its citizens and replace it with a system of duties which, of course, would be required of everybody except the rulers who were the philosophers themselves. Plato's idea, that philosophers should be kings, is something that would never have entered Socrates' mind.

Here, we must make a decisive choice. Either Plato, in this important respect,  arrived at a position which is absolutely non (even) anti-Socratic; or Socrates was  a liar, a poseur, who died for something he didn't even believe in, which is an  impossible conclusion. We could never believe that, because not only in his deeds but also in the content and continuity of his thoughts, it is possible for us to get a picture of the man and we can see him now, with the exception of Jesus,  as the last of our great philosophers, the last free thinker in an original sense  for whom the distinction between body and spirit, matter and energy, did not exist and who never made it. The last whose life and deeds were entirely the expression of his philosophy and one with his philosophy. In the case of Jesus, the real miracle was how he could ever have gotten rid of the absolute underlying Platonic belief which spread throughout the whole Mediterranean world. All of  the other philosophers we have considered, including Socrates, lived before Plato, therefore before the possibility of changing pure philosophical thinking into a system of metaphysics. Most of the pre-Platonic thinkers among the Greeks were already metaphysicians with the sole exception of Heraclitus. Either they were materialist metaphysicians (Democritus and his school) or idealist metaphysicians like Pythagoras and his school. Basically they were the servants of science in the  sense that they began science and so they were astrologers, magicians, and they  founded sects.

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