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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Pierre Hadot on Socrates' task

Socrates' task--entrusted to him, says the Apology, by the Delphic oracle (in other words, the god Apollo)--was therefore to make other people recognize their lack of knowledge and of wisdom. In order to accomplish this mission, Socrates himself adopted the attitude of someone who knew nothing--an attitude of naiveté . This is the well known Socratic irony: the feigned ignorance and candid air with which, for instance, he asked questions in order to find out whether someone was wiser than he. In the words of a character from the Republic: "That's certainly Socrates' old familiar irony! I knew it. I predicted to everyone present, Socrates, that you'd refuse to reply, that you'd feign ignorance, and that you'd do anything but reply if someone asked you a question."

This is why Socrates is always the questioner in his discussions. As Aristotle remarked, "He admits that he knows nothing." According to Cicero, "Socrates used to denigrate himself, and conceded more than was necessary to the interlocutors he wanted to refute. Thus, thinking one thing and saying another, he took pleasure in that dissimulation which the Greeks call 'irony.'" In fact, however, such an attitude is not a form of artifice or intentional dissimulation. Rather, it is a kind of humor which refuses to take oneself or other people seriously; for everything human, and even everything philosophical, is highly uncertain, and we have no right to be proud of it. Socrates' mission, then, was to make people aware of their lack of knowledge.
The real problem is therefore not the problem of knowing this or that, but of being in this or that way: "I have no concern at all for what most people are concerned about: financial affairs, administration of property, appointments to generalships, oratorical triumphs in public, magistracies, coalitions, political factions. I did not take this path... but rather the one where I could do the most good to each one of you in particular, by persuading you to be less concerned with what you have than what you are; so that you may make yourselves as excellent and as rational as possible." Socrates practiced this call to being not only by means of his interrogations and his irony, but above all by means of his way of being, by his way of life, and by his very being.

Pierre Hadot What is Ancient Philosophy p. 26,29*

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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