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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Socrates' Mask


"Socrates rears his ugly head"
The figure of Socrates is ambiguous, troubling, and strangely disconcerting. The first surprise in store for us is his physical ugliness, which is well attested by the testimony of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. "It is significant," wrote Nietzsche, "that Socrates was the first great Hellene to be ugly. Everything in him is exaggerated, buffo, a caricature." Nietzsche goes on to evoke his "crab-like eyes, puffed-up lips, and hanging belly," and he takes pleasure in telling the story of how the physiognomist Zopyrus once told Socrates he was a monster, keeping hidden within himself the worst vices and appetites. Socrates, says Nietzsche, simply replied: "How well you know me!" If Socrates really did resemble a Silenus, as he is depicted in Plato's Symposium, such suspicions were quite understandable. In popular imagination, Sileni and satyrs were hybrid demons, half-animal, half-men, who made up the escort of Dionysos. These impudent, ribald buffoons also constituted the chorus of satyr-plays, a literary genre of which Euripides' Cyclops is one of the few remaining examples.

The Silini were purely natural beings. They stood for the negation of culture and civilization, for grotesque buffoonery, and for the license of the instincts.

To use Kierkegaard's expression, Socrates was a cobold. To be sure, Plato gives us to understand that Socrates' resemblance to Silenus was only an appearance, beneath which something else was hidden. Alcibiades, in his famous speech in praise of Socrates at the end of the Symposium, compares Socrates to the little statues of Sileni that could be found in sculptors' shops, which concealed little figurines of the gods inside themselves. Similarly, Socrates' exterior appearance -- ugly, buffoon-like, impudent, almost monstrous -- was only a mask and a facade.

Here we are led to another paradox: Socrates was not only ugly, but a dissimulator as well. Nietzsche writes: "Everything in him is concealed, ulterior, subterranean." Socrates masks himself, and at the same time is used as a mask by others.

Socrates masks himself: here we encounter that famous Socratic irony, the meaning of which we shall have to clarify later on. Socrates pretends to be ignorant and impudent. "He spends his whole life," says Alcibiades, "playing the part of a simpleton and a child." "The nouns and verbs which form the outer envelope of his words are like the hide of an impudent satyr." His ignorant appearance and amorous attentions "are what he has wrapped around himself, like a carved Silenus."

Socrates pulled off his enterprise of dissimulation so well that he succeeded in definitively masking himself from history. He wrote nothing, engaging only in dialogue. All the testimonies we possess about him hide him from us more than they reveal him, precisely because Socrates has always been used as a mask by those who have spoken about him.
Pierre Hadot's "Philosophy as a Way of Life" p. 148

2 comments:

Anuj D said...

The last para reminds me of what Nz had once said, something like: "a great way to conceal oneself is to speak abt oneself"

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