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“The Owl of Wisdom flies at night,” by which G. W. Hegel meant that we understand what went wrong only after the sun has set on the empire we have the misfortune to inhabit. America’s sun still bestrides the heavens, and the Owl of Wisdom did not deposit what the Bush administration is wiping off its face. Still, the difficulties of US policy in Iraq should motivate a reconsideration of some of its premises.
Worst among these is the notion that the US can impose a rational constitution on whatever country it pleases. This draws credibility from the myth of Socratic statecraft as told by Leo Strauss and its students. If Greek rationalism, not Hebrew love, informs the American idea, then it must be America’s mission to promulgate such rationalism among the less fortunate.
War among civilizations does not erupt because men are unreasonable, but rather because existential fear drives them to it. The real Socrates, as opposed to the Straussian fabrication, has something disturbing to tell us about this.
Turning Socrates into an apostle of rationalism seems odd, for he drank the poison prescribed for him by an Athenian court in 399 BC rather than escape into exile (as Leo Strauss doubtless would have done). That was an existential rather than a rational choice (Ask Spengler, April 6). Although the Athenian mob condemned him, and Athens had fallen into ignominy after its surrender to Sparta five years earlier, Socrates preferred to die than to cease to be Athenian. Western philosophers, though, depend so much on Plato’s Socratic dialogues that they must portray Socrates as the incarnation of reason. His execution, in their view, was a sacrifice at the altar of reason by its ideal exponent.
Not so, argued the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), who remains a lone and cranky voice in the debate. US policymakers would benefit from a few quiet hours with Kierkegaard, whose 1841 doctoral dissertation showed Socrates not as a system-builder but as a destroyer who saw that Greek culture was a failure and set out to tear down its premises.
Socrates, in short, was an “ironist” for whom “the whole substantial life of Greek culture had lost its validity.” The ironist, wrote Kierkegaard, “is prophetic, but his position and situation are the reverse of the prophet’s. The prophet walks arm in arm with his age, and from this position he glimpses what is coming … The ironist, however, has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it. That which is coming is hidden from him, lies behind his back, but the actuality he so antagonistically confronts is what he must destroy; upon this he focuses his burning gaze.”
Doubtless Kierkegaard had in mind Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s spirit that always negates, namely Mephistopheles, who told Faust, “Alles was entsteht/Ist wert, dass es zu Grunde geht” (everything that comes to be goes rightly to its ruin). Irony, said the Danish writer, “establishes nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it. It is a divine madness that rages like a Tamerlane and does not leave one stone upon another” (quotes from The Essential Kierkegaard, H and E Hong, Princeton 2000).
Athens’ hubris led to the city’s ruin in the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC, which America’s critics cite as an analogous case of imperial overreach. Yet the Athenian tragedy reveals precisely the opposite, if we read Kierkegaard correctly. No culture founded on a restricted ethnicity and its particular gods can help but fail. Pericles boasted that Athens was great both in good and evil, borne out by the massacre of the inhabitants of Melos in 416. The subtlest philosophy could not overcome Athens’ particularism. It could expand only through empire, that is, collecting tribute by the threat of violence. In broader war, Athenian culture failed, and Socrates “used irony as he destroyed Greek culture” (Kierkegaard).
Three conflicting portraits of Socrates have come down to us. Besides Plato’s hagiographic report we have the satirist Aristophanes’ hostile depiction, as well as a sympathetic account by the soldier Xenophon. The latter paints Socrates as an avuncular source of humdrum advice, however, whereas Plato’s Socrates dwells in the realm of ideas, unperturbed by earthly concerns. Xenophon “has deflated his Socrates” and “Plato, like an artist, has created his Socrates in supernatural dimensions” (Kierkegaard). In The Clouds, meanwhile, Aristophanes shows yet another Socrates, a meddlesome troublemaker who leads a young man to beat his father after hearing Socrates’ critique of traditional authority.
“But what was Socrates actually like?” asks Kierkegaard. “The answer is: Socrates’ existence is irony … Along with Xenophon, one can certainly assume that Socrates was fond of walking around and talking with all sorts of people because every external thing or event is an occasion for the ever quick-witted ironist; along with Plato, one can certainly let Socrates touch on the idea.”
Like Kierkegaard, Leo Strauss hoped to stitch together a single picture of Socrates from three divergent reports. Strauss, however, assumed that hidden among the contradictions was an esoteric science of statecraft discernible only to an elite of adepts. His students have spent the 30 years since Strauss’s death bickering about what the great man really meant to say. That does not speak well for his argument. Rather than an occult Straussian conspiracy, as some have suggested, I suspect that Strauss worked himself into a maze of infinite regress (The secret that Leo Strauss never revealed, May 13, 2003). Those who wish to delve further into the Straussian labyrinth may consult his “Lectures on Socrates” in Thomas Pangles’ collection, The Rebirth of Classic Political Rationalism (Chicago 1989).
I hasten to add that treasures for students of statecraft are to be found in Greek philosophy, above all in the History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides and the Politics of Aristotle. The fault lies not in the Athenians but in Strauss’s idolatry at the altar of Socrates.
Merry good humor pervades Kierkegaard’s writing on the subject, while Strauss ties knots into every sentence. The Danish theologian’s view illumines both the material and the historical context, which raises a question as to why Strauss remains so influential. The answer, I believe, is that Kierkegaard’s understanding of Socrates leads to disturbing conclusions. If all the effervescence of Platonic reasoning does not lead to positive conclusions, what hope does reason give us? Philosophy (in Franz Rosenzweig’s phrase) is a small child stuffing his fingers in his ears and shouting, “I can’t hear you!” in face of the fear of death. Kierkegaard requires not a deduction, but a leap of faith.
Kierkegaard, that is, betrayed the philosophers and went over to the camp of the theologians, and the philosophers give him the cold shoulder. Rationalists as well as anti-rationalists fought over a straw man, namely Socrates the supposed Apostle of Reason. Friedrich Nietzsche despised both faith and reason, and chose Socrates as the whipping-boy for reason. Rationalists such as Leo Strauss rose up to defend Socrates, without ever getting quite clear which Socrates they proposed to save. Both rationalists and anti-rationalists got it wrong. The general disregard for Kierkegaard is understandable, for it is a most uncomfortable thing to conclude that philosophy has deposited us at the edge of the precipice of faith.
Disturbing as Kierkegaard’s conclusion may be, his case is most convincing that Socrates was an ironist, a “revolutionary,” the destroyer of the invalid old. Only in that sense is the United States Socratic: it is the embodiment of creative destruction, reinventing itself to the ruin of the remnants of history. Kierkegaard’s Socrates – the ironist, not the system builder – yet may serve as an inspiration to US policy.