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
Then there was Heraclitus. Nobody was like Heraclitus who was absolute in his rejection of anything that smacked of mysticism or magic. Heraclitus, as well as Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, and all of the others we are considering here was an entirely non-mystical philosopher and also an entirely non-magical being. A being free of superstition and entirely free from the framework of myth. So was Socrates. Plato, on the other hand, follows the Pythagorean line. He is not against myth. Rather he uses myth and he crosses the line drawn by Socrates and designs not only a possible hereafter but also the exact indication of it as a kind of punishment and reward. We need only contrast this to Heraclitus who once said:
'Strange things may await the soul after death'.(2)
May! We can never be sure, but to talk about the things after death is entirely non-Heraclitean and non-Socratic. Our first and best proof however that Plato arrived at a completely non (even) anti-Socratic position is in his theory of politics. It is also the key to an understanding of Plato's relation to Socrates and to the meaning of that one tremendous event in his life, the killing of Socrates by the Athenians.
Plato knew what the ages between the Greek and the modern did not, and that we today through our historical researches can prove: Namely, that with Socrates' death, the death of the Athenian republic and of the Athenian democracy was sealed. Today there are many who call Plato a reactionary and even a fascist and totalitarian. He is none of that. He is rather the first consciously authoritarian figure, authoritarian, not in the sense of the myth (which is fatalistic and not genuinely authoritarian), but authoritarian in the sense of the belief that there must be a higher authority established whose laws can either be given to us or which we can discover. Otherwise the world will go to pieces. What does it mean, for the world to go to pieces?
It means that Socrates will be murdered for eternity.
The Athenian polis and the world is not ripe, is not mature enough, for this lofty dream of freedom that Socrates had. People cannot live that way. Rather, as the Grand Inquisitor says to Christ in Dostoyevsky's Karamazov, men such as this must be done away with because human beings cannot live according to those teachings. They have over-rated humanity, and hence such ideas only make men unhappy and bring about anarchy and endless murder and death. The real lovers of mankind are the betrayers of mankind, because knowing that men only want their own happiness they will not let people suffer for freedom, which is an illusion anyhow, and for which they do not have the strength, but instead will keep order and decent morality by allowing them to live in peace according to the strength they do have. And Plato might well have thought out of his love for Socrates that Socrates did over-rate them, because they killed him, as well as Paul might actually have felt that about Jesus of Nazareth. That he had over-rated them and unless an authoritarian law is established to keep the rabble in order then all hope will be lost, and if a Socrates or a Jesus of Nazareth should ever appear again, then they would be killed at once.
The tragedy of the death of Socrates was not realized by anyone to such a degree of profundity as was achieved by Plato. From there he constructs his political theory and he is very very ambiguous with us, because we never learn, when we study him really, if he himself believed in anything like God or in anything like a hereafter. But we do learn one thing from him. We learn that he wants us to believe in it. That he is of the opinion that everyone who is not a philosopher does not have direct access to truth, and a philosopher with him is already a superior being, somebody who had hidden knowledge, somebody who can attain knowledge other human beings cannot attain. Here again, he goes against his master Socrates, because Socrates talked with everyone. Socrates was of the opinion that everybody was capable of reasoning and therefore that everyone can and should philosophize in order to attain freedom. Unlike Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle he founded no school like the Academy or Lyceum and he never established himself as the teacher of the real great decisive discipline that philosophy should be. Oh no!, he thought that:
Philosophy is intentionally in man therefore philosophizing should become the most common possession of all men.
That was his belief. Plato is already of the opinion that philosophers should be separated, they should be kings, they should form a sect and teach other people how to behave because they are the ones who have an access to truth. The others have no such access. Rather a long training is necessary and a training not only in philosophizing, reasoning, and the development of the mind but also a training in obedience similar to the training of Asiatic monks, before one can become a philosopher, one of those elected ones who will run the state.
Any one of those conceptions would have been entirely impossible in the mind of Socrates; otherwise he would not have needed to die. If even the slightest possibility existed that he ever thought along these lines then he could have easily said to his friend Crito who came to help him escape from prison (the guards were bribed):
"Yes, to preserve the life of a philosopher who is such an absolutely unique being, a ruler of humanity, is always the most important thing, so let us forget about everything else".
Then he would have agreed with Nietzsche, the great anti-Platonist who never could shake loose from Plato, who said 'Philosophers have no time to die for the truth --- they have only to do something for the truth'. Socrates would have laughed at that. Now can you divide "to do" and "to die for" when you are talking about the truth? What greater thing can be done for the truth by a man who is still a man and so a philosophical human being (not a philosopher in the sense of Plato: Namely the exception among human beings, the expert of all experts who has the right to exempt himself from even the basic fundamental obligations of creative duty) than to die for it? The line of Plato is entirely different from the line of Socrates as soon [as] we face living issues and not just ideas.
Plato will not be of much concern to us from now on (which isn't meant to say he is not one of the greatest thinkers of all time). Looked at from the viewpoint of his historical situation, he (as well as Aristotle) might have been right to a certain degree in establishing metaphysical systems to put a kind of awe into the masses of that time. Without him --- without the Romans, who developed the other source of absolute authority in a tradition of legality founded upon an abstract law that could not be changed --- without Moses, who transformed the free man of Abraham into the authority of the given laws of the Lord, laws which are eternal and which must be obeyed --- without even Paul again, who changed the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth into an authoritarian point of view --- then all of what we have been considering might never have happened. We might never have heard of Socrates, or Heraclitus, or any of the others. In all probability they would have been forgotten because the development of a European culture and hence a western culture would not have been possible. There would be no tradition so we could not crawl back and search into the forgotten foundations as we are doing now.
The way we shall approach Socrates is through the consideration of philosophy in his sense: Namely, as the most important thing men have in common. The capability of free judgment through the use of reason. Today, this sense of philosophy has been almost entirely lost. Philosophy today is equal to the term theory. We have a philosophy of gardening, a so-called philosophy of physics, a philosophy of this and philosophy of that. We have the newspapers full of the philosophy of Mr. Taft before he comes to power, the philosophy of President Eisenhower, or what not, which means we use the term to indicate a theory we might have about gardening, or a theory Mr. Eisenhower has as to what politics is, or a theory that each of us have about anything. We then call that our philosophy. Philosophy, as a tradition, has even started to go back to myth in order to escape. They try now, by reawakening Indian myth, to tell us that the real task of philosophy is to save itself from the domination of science, to leave science to the world and take philosophy out of the world, because it has higher things to consider: Namely, mystical speculations in thin air. Or else they try to make themselves into the servant girls of the sciences and say that philosophy is only there to help to develop a certain unification of methods. Or else we have the revival of authoritarian philosophy such as neo-Thomism.
What all of these approaches have in common is that they all consider philosophy in the Platonic sense to be something entirely divorced from life, not only from politics (from which it has been divorced from Plato and Aristotle), but from life as a whole. Either philosophy is there to lead us into a dream world of mystical speculation with a shot of second rate poetry thrown in for good measure, or it is there to clarify the methods and approaches used in our different sciences (which is a very fine thing for the sciences but it has nothing whatsoever to do with life). They are all out of life.