Socrates in the Underworld: On Plato’s Gorgias, by Nalin Ranasinghe (192 pages, St. Augustine Press, 2009)
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Peter Augustine Lawler as he reflects on how Socrates models both rightly-ordered eros and logos, in contrast to the Stoics and Sophists. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
It is my pleasure to be able to introduce Nalin Ranasinghe’s Socrates in the Underworld: On Plato’s Gorgias to you as one of the most able, eloquent, noble, profound, and loving books ever written on Socrates. Prof. Ranasinghe restores for us the example of a moral hero who inaugurated a moral revolution in opposition to his country’s post-imperial cynicism and nihilism. What Socrates discovered about the human soul remains true for us in our similarly cynical and nihilistic age. Here’s the truth: “Self-knowledge is both the cure and the punishment for evil.” We are the beings who can’t help but know the truth about ourselves and be open to the truth about all things. The truth is real; we lack the power to command or negate it. The truth has authority over us; we can’t live well unless we see that it is the power that allows us to perform genuinely free and deliberate acts. The truth is attractive; it both draws us out of ourselves and is a sort of magnet that puts our souls in order. And the truth is genuinely moral or beautiful.
Each of us and the cosmos itself “is so structured that true happiness can only result from virtue.” Both intellectual and moral virtue are required to be genuinely open to the whole truth, and so the view that one sort of virtue is possible without the other is mistaken. The Socrates Prof. Ranasinghe presents us with is undeniable personal evidence that “philosophy still has the moral authority to sustain the soul’s resilience and inspire virtue in times of moral strife and social chaos.” Socrates can be our hero, freeing us from the cynical deceptions that seem to have given us a time without heroes.
One characteristic of our cynical and nihilistic time is that many of our scholars are certain to object that Prof. Ranasinghe’s presentation of Socrates is too edifying to be true. It’s easy to foresee their charge that this author doesn’t have what it takes to penetrate beneath the superficial and banal pieties Plato employed to protect philosophical skepticism from moral indignation. He’s suckered by Plato’s esoteric moralism because he’s not rigorous and sophisticated enough to get to the esoteric or genuinely philosophic dimension of Socratic dialectic. The esoteric Socratic teaching is all about rational liberation—liberation of the philosopher from moral dogma and for the amoral truth about the human situation.
Socrates’ true view—according to this skeptical interpretation—is that the philosopher is an atheist, and he uses morality or ethics to serve his selfish and hedonistic goals. From this view, the philosopher Socrates befriends the sophist Gorgias in order to learn the right sort of manipulative rhetoric that will serve him and his liberated friends. Genuine spiritual or philosophical liberation is reserved for a very few, and the liberated few are stuck with employing various sophistic deceptions to humor the moral many who threaten their private enjoyment. Plato, from this view, writes to preserve and improve upon morality not because it is true or good, but because there’s no doing without it for most people.
This skeptical view that, for Socrates, truth and morality are fundamentally at odds, Prof. Ranasinghe shows, is itself based on a relatively superficial reading of the Platonic dialogues—one complacently satisfied at stopping before genuine spiritual enlightenment begins. The skeptical reading of Plato isn’t erotic enough because it tends to be based on the suspicion that eros or love itself is, deep down, an illusion. That’s why, as Prof. Ranasinghe suggests, skeptical readers miss how radical Socrates’ criticism of Thucydides’ deterministic “realism” is.
For Prof. Ranasinghe, the deepest level of Socrates’ teaching is the overcoming of skepticism and a philosophical justification of morality, a justification of our undeniable erotic impulse to have faith in logos as the foundation of friendship as a genuine human community. Prof. Ranasinghe’s reading of the Gorgias clearly establishes that genuine dialectic is the deadly enemy of sophistry; this means that the sophist Gorgias and the philosopher Socrates could never be friends.[*] The pseudo-philosophical interpreters of Plato achieve their sham enlightenment by not really appreciating the radical distinction between Socratic dialectic and sophisticated manipulation. Socratic dialectic means to offer spiritual enlightenment to us all.
The deepest depth of the Platonic dialogue is a return to its surface, which is genuinely illuminating conversation about the moral or purpose-driven concerns we really share in common. We learn that the true purpose of the capacity for speech given to particular members of our species is neither technical nor transgressive. It is an error to view words as primarily weapons for either practical manipulation or for destroying the various articulations of the moral responsibilities given to social persons open to the truth.
Socrates finally confirms the goodness of all that we’ve been given as the beings with eros and logos, which means that all pretensions to solitary liberation or autonomous self-sufficiency are revealed, deep down, to be nothing but unnecessarily misery-producing illusions. Speech directed by reason and pulled toward reality by eros is, most of all, what keeps us from being alone. It also allows each of us to make genuine progress toward personal moral perfection. Our truth-inspired responsibilities are both personal and social.
“The crucial question,” as Prof. Ranasinghe articulates it, “has to do with how seriously one takes Socrates’ understanding of the soul as the seat of moral agency.” Do we really know enough to be able to say with confidence, against the skeptics, that our perception of moral choice is real? Socrates’ “knowledge of ignorance” is his awareness that omniscience is not a human possibility. We can’t really resolve the question of human freedom through the study of natural science, and one condition of our freedom is our ability to know that we can’t fully comprehend or control all that exists. We don’t have the power, in fact, to make ourselves more or less than humans stuck between the other animals and God. Divine freedom, or blind determination by impersonal necessity, will never characterize us.
Do we still know enough to know that being good and being happy are really choices open to us? Do we really know that any effort to feel good—to be happy—without really being good is bound to fail us? Socrates, Prof. Ranasinghe patiently explains, gives a psychic account of evil; good and evil are both profoundly personal.
I am evil, I can say, because I’m to blame if my soul is disordered, if I’ve been choosing against what I really know about myself. Evil is real and personal, and so it has a real and personal remedy. Telling the truth to myself as a rational and erotic being is the precondition for my choosing good over evil. That means that no radical social or technological transformation—no mega-effort to escape from the reality we’ve been given—can solve or even address the problem of evil. The Socratic way, which is the only way that respects the mystery of human freedom, is to proceed one soul at a time.
The Socratic teaching is morally demanding. The truth is, we’re not excused from doing the right thing by being victims or playthings of arbitrary gods or impersonal forces. But it is also reassuring. An ugly old guy trapped in an unhappy marriage turns out to be the best and the happiest Athenian of all. We can live well in the most adverse circumstances. Our happiness doesn’t depend on happenstance or what’s beyond our control, just as it doesn’t depend on being a successful control freak.
Socrates, Prof. Ranasinghe shows, was no Stoic. The Stoics were also tough-minded men. They did their duty as rational beings in what they saw as a cold, deterministic world, and so they thought it was possible to keep one’s own fate in one’s own control. The Stoics actually thought life is tougher than it really is. In their self-understanding, there’s no room for freedom or love or real happiness.
The world would be evil if the Stoics are right, and one appropriate response would be tight-lipped rational endurance of what can’t be changed. The Stoics were unerotic because they thought the only way to think of themselves as happy is to think of themselves as minds, and not as whole human beings. But Socrates was actually happy in thinking about who he really is because the pull of his eros was away from the illusion connecting rational self-sufficiency with happiness.
If the Stoics are right on the facts, then the Epicureans (or the Epicurean sophists) actually make more sense. The world is evil insofar as it’s hostile to my very existence. Everything human is ephemeral and pointless, and so both hope and fear make me stupid. Such sophists argue that since evil isn’t caused by me and can’t be remedied by me, my proper response to worldly events is apathy. I might as well try to lose myself in imaginary pleasures, including taking some proud pleasure in being able to rise above the futile sound and fury that surrounds me. My personal assault on reality is, in fact, a value judgment on reality. I’m free to do whatever it takes to get me through this hell of a life.
But the truth is that I can’t ever fully believe that my perception of reality is nothing but a private fantasy. I can’t turn what I really know about my death into “death” or a linguistic construction amenable to reconstruction with my happiness in mind. In a certain way, the Epicurean teaching is tougher than the Stoic position. Losing oneself is a full-time job; there’s no real break from the pursuit of pleasurable diversions. There’s no greater source of human misery, perhaps, than believing that nothing makes us more miserable than thinking clearly about what we really know. The fact that that thought is very un- or anti-erotic also helps to explain why Epicureans don’t actually have much fun; they, like the Stoics, mistakenly refuse to go where their erotic longings could take them.
One of the most wonderful and genuinely useful features of Socrates in the Underworld is the large number of pointed and witty contemporary applications of the way Socrates reconciles truth, virtue, and happiness. Here’s the Socratic good news for us: Our alternatives extend beyond fatalistic Stoicism (as practiced by our Southern aristocrats), emotive religion (as practiced, say, by our Evangelicals) aimed at opposing the loving will of God to scientific or empirical nihilism, and the unerotic and otherwise boring Epicureanism promulgated by our academic deconstructionists, which animates the creeping (and often creepy) libertarianism that characterizes our culture as a whole.
Our lefty postmodernists and our right-wing free marketers, Prof. Ranasinghe shows, serve the same sophisticated cause of liberating us from any responsibility to moral truth. They think we’ll be better off if we believe that what Socrates says we most need to know is unknowable, and succumb to their cynical claim that even the bonds of love are for suckers. By causing us to flee from what we really know and thus from our real potential for virtue, our sophisticates lead us to think and act as less than we really are. But it’s still possible to recover who we really are; we can still imitate Socrates’ ennobling example.
One reason (among many) Prof. Ranasinghe’s Socrates is so attractive to me is that the author draws Socrates close to my moral/intellectual heroes, who are actually alive today: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger) and the great Russian writer and spiritual witness Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Prof. Ranasinghe says that part of his mission is to contribute to Ratzinger’s effort to restore the proper place of logos in Christian thought. And we learn much from his Socrates to supplement both the pope’s famous speech at Regensburg on logos and his first encyclical on love (which itself dramatically restored the place of eros in Christian thought). Prof. Ranasinghe shows us that the personal eros that animates Socrates’ dialectic isn’t really drawn toward the impersonal and unmovable God described by Aristotle. Through his insistence that there is support for loving moral freedom in the very ground of being, Socrates makes it clear that what we know through our minds both depends upon and doesn’t negate the real existence of particular persons.
Prof. Ranasinghe also allows us to wonder whether even the Socrates he displays for our benefit gives a fully adequate account of the personal truth about either human logos or human eros. We wonder, for example, how Socrates could be so happy in an unhappy marriage, but we have to add that he was hardly a model of conjugal or paternal responsibility. It’s not so clear that his eros culminates in love of particular persons—the most strange and wonderful beings imaginable.
Christians are allowed a soft dissent from the Socratic account of the cosmic order that mirrors a well-ordered soul insofar as it doesn’t clearly have room for a personal God who is both Logos and Love. At the same time, Christians learn from the Socrates Prof. Ranasinghe displays that the eros and logos described by the early church fathers might be described as a correction of Socrates’ thinking along lines he himself—through his erotic dialectic and his morally steadfast life—revealed. Prof. Ranasinghe does both philosophers and Christians the great service of showing the hard distinction between reason and revelation—or the liberated way of the atheistic or agnostic philosopher and the willfully obedient way of the believer in the personal God—doesn’t square with what we can see with our own eyes about our souls or the cosmos. Christian philosophy or, better, philosophical Christianity need not be an oxymoron.
Prof. Ranasinghe’s navigation through many scholarly and liberationist prejudices brings us toward the insight that Solzhenitsyn is the closest person to a Socrates in our time. Both men faced death with an intransigent courage in opposition to nihilistic lies. Both defend the reality of personal or psychic good and evil against the various sophisticated deterministic and social constructivist illusions that pervaded their allegedly enlightened times. Each man, through his heroic, truthful example, exposed and authoritatively discredited the tyranny beneath the democratic pretenses of his country’s form of government.
Both Socrates and Solzhenitsyn claim, in Solzhenitsyn’s words from his famous Harvard Address that “if man were born only to be happy . . . he would not be born to die.” That means he’s both born to die and to be happy. The secret to happiness is not his futile and degrading self-denial, but living well or morally with who he really is. What’s most wrong with communism, in its ancient forms (as implicitly but radically criticized in the Republic) and also its modern forms (as described by Marx), is its inevitably totalitarian attempt to deny the invincible reality of personal death and personal love.
Prof. Ranasinghe leads us to wonder whether either the heroic example or account of the soul given by Socrates can quite account for Solzhenitsyn. Compared to Solzhenitsyn, it almost seems that prudent Socrates was a wimp. Although his dialectical boldness was constant, he spent only one day as an old man in open and impetuous defiance of his country’s rulers, and he died comfortably in prison sipping hemlock with his friends around him. The Soviet Union’s challenge to human freedom and personal truth, of course, was much more radical and far more cruel than the Athenian one. There’s nothing in Plato or Thucydides that is quite as demonic as the Gulag, or the ideologically inspired murder of millions. Socrates’ victory over Athens was purely moral and long-term, while Solzhenitsyn actually defeated the lie of ideology as a ruling principle, not only in his country but everywhere, with stunning speed.
Still, Prof. Ranasinghe shows us that Socrates and Solzhenitsyn would agree on the relevance of the challenge of the Gorgias for our time. The Republic was the dialogue that exposed in advance the angry denial of reality that produced communist utopianism. In the 20th century, we Americans battled with admirable responsibility against the various totalitarian forms of what Harvey Mansfield correctly identified as “manliness run amok” (or revolutionary hatred of an erroneous perception of our real personal insignificance). But the defeat of the ideological lie of communism—that we could bring History to an end and become perfectly content with material pleasures as a result—exposed more clearly than ever the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary West. It is natural that our fascination with the just or unjust city of the Republic is replaced by our close attention to the Gorgias, the dialogue about the impossibility of either filling or negating the soul through technical manipulation.
The Cold War gave us a common purpose in defense of liberty, but now we’re stuck with remembering that we have little idea of what all our power, freedom, and prosperity is for. Ours is a time characterized by the success of the technological manipulation of nature and each of us. We see ourselves as beings defined by our interests, and we think we display our freedom as individuals who use words to maximize our own comfort and security. We agree with the sophists that words are weapons in the service of one’s own liberty, and not at all for knowing and loving a reality or real beings that exist beyond ourselves.
We can’t say that all our technological progress has made us either happier or abler to live well with what we really know. So our success must be understood, as Solzhenitsyn puts it in his 1993 Lichtenstein Address as a “trial for our free will.” Our nihilistic error in understanding all reality—including our own being—as fundamentally technological has so isolated and disoriented each of us that the main fact about the human soul today is an overwhelming loneliness. The technological means for living well are useless for securing our happiness if we don’t believe we have a purpose or point worthy of beings who have souls. Prof. Ranasinghe is right that we can turn to the heroic Socrates for much of what we most need to know to act as rational, moral, and loving beings with souls today.
We’ve been given the technological gift of very long lives, but the old seem to have become useless and cut off from the young. While we live alongside more senior citizens than ever before, we don’t appreciate their recollections of the past or the evidence they provide of what lies ahead of us. They seem to have nothing to offer the young to guide their basically technological futures, and we no longer think of wisdom in terms of enduring problems or cultural transmission. Surely Socrates is the model for how to live happily as an old man without strong family ties, and he offers for us all the perennial human wisdom that is a condition for replacing the feverish techno-pursuit of happiness with happiness itself.
Friendship has been diminished in the direction of networking, and so members of the same generation also regard each other with alienation and apathy. Increasingly we see one another only as users. Because we don’t know how to think in terms of the reality of common responsibilities, we seem to live in the most unerotic or boring of times. But our erotic longings, in truth, persist. That’s why Solzhenitsyn hears just beneath the surface of our happy-talk therapeutic pragmatism “the howl of existentialism.” That howl, Socrates would say, is all we have left when we’ve lost confidence that our real experiences can be articulated and shared. The example of Socrates intensely and happily engaged in his characteristically intensely social and morally concerned activity can help restore our confidence that, as rational and loving beings, we’re made for more than instrumental relationships.
And most of all, as Solzhenitsyn says, we lack a “clear and calm attitude toward death.” Free individuals today tend to believe that being itself is identical with one’s own being, and so my extinction is the end of being itself. We’re the most death-haunted people ever, in part, because we spend so much time denying its inevitability. We end up dying no matter how astutely we attend to the various risk factors that surround us. We’re also traumatized by death because we have so little confidence in the reality of love; the abstract individual we’ve constructed lacks the capability to be moved deeply by beings other than himself. Socrates’ calmness in the face of death, which so astonished his friends and fellow citizens, came from never identifying being with himself, from regarding the point of his life as his responsible and loving participation in a reality beyond himself.
Prof. Ranasinghe shows us a Socrates old and beautiful, the hero most needed to remedy what ails an aging society consumed by image and vanity. He helps us to appreciate that Socrates is the anti-technological thinker most able to show us how to benefit from our technological progress. This Socrates gives us confidence that the best way to win friends and influence people is through truth and love. We can still be happy while learning how to die. My personal finitude is not only necessary but good, a small price to pay for being given logos and eros, as well as the demanding and joyful challenge of living virtuously with what I really know.
Prof. Ranasinghe is my new hero. But I haven’t even begun to explain how he performed one of the most noble of deeds by using a single dialogue to display the riches of the Platonic presentation of Socrates. I wouldn’t want to spoil the wonderful surprise you’ll begin to discover by turning the page.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2013. This essay, originally published in The Clarion Review (2010), is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author.
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[*] Plato, Gorgias, trans. Donald J. Zeyl (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).
The featured image is “Socrates Teaching Perikles” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.