Almost everyone knows Socrates did not write anything. But knowing this fact makes it even more difficult to be surprised by it, and much less to seek, however partially, to understand its implications for us. For what does not surprise, rarely forces us to open ourselves to its unexpected appearance. This is primarily so in our culture where writing has become the hallmark of recognition. To be illiterate —— a form of quantifiable statistics of crucial importance in measuring the educational state of a nation———– is defined as being unable to read and write. Take for instance the shame of those who do not learn to write, it is so overwhelming that they prefer to live secluded lives. Take as well the assumed superiority of our culture to that of oral traditions (Rousseau saw this early on in his precious Essay on the Origin of Language).
In a similar vein, it is particularly in academia —–specially but not exclusively in the Humanities—- that the requirement to publish is not only the hallmark of assured creativity and proof of continued reflection, but also the avenue for institutional success. To rise academically one must publish. Nothing seems more obvious and normal to us than this. I remember once a professor speaking mockingly of some PhD candidates who had not published anything yet. Although I was rather young, I still remember even then being a bit surprised by the whole thing.
This is why I think Socrates’ decision not to write might be considered, at the very least, as a necessary corrective and counter-balancing presence. Does this mean we can do without publishing? Of course not, it just simply means that we might look at what Socrates did. That is all, or mostly all. And this is why for those of us who see in Socrates the model of the philosophic life, it makes sense to ask: Why would Socrates not write anything? Would he not be seriously considered as an odd figure among us because of this, exactly as he was seen in his very own time? (See Alcibiades’ description in the Symposium.) Socrates seems to remain a stinging ray! And moreover, and please bear with me, did Plato and Xenophon not commit a terrible injustice to Socrates in writing about him? But then again, who would have Socrates written about if HE was the one worth recording? For surely the whole thing was not simply because Socrates did not have the time to write; he himself confesses he only dedicated himself to oral dialectics, so he could have found the time! He chose not to do so, in contradistinction to our contemporaries who choose to do so. And of course, if Plato and Xenophon did commit an injustice, we are thankful for it, and understand that some such injustices must be pardoned for our very own sake and well-being. To this idea we shall return.
Why then would Socrates proceed in this strange way? The single most important aspect of Socrates’ refusal to write is his constant reminder that philosophy is primarily a way of life. A way of life can be written about, but the person living it, well, she just lives it! Socrates at one point in Xenophon’s writing, simply dances alone. The only exception would be if such a person decided to write his own autobiography; and Socrates, contrary to, for instance Churchill, chose not to. Our modern way of philosophizing, in contrast, sees writing as precisely THE way of life for the humanist; writing is of the essence. Of course, we teach courses, but once again the courses are primarily on written material themselves. In this respect, it is clear that what Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes saw in the Socratic experience was fundamentally an ergon (that is, an activity; deeds or action) AND a logos (a discursive account carried out in dialogue with other diverse interlocutors).
But herein lies the puzzle: for if one asks, “What was the ergon?”, one responds “it was a logos founded upon dialogue”, and if one asks, “What was the logos?, one responds ‘it was an ergon which at the bottom was discursive”! This vicious circle of interpretation, seems to be truly vicious! For, unfortunately for us, it never seeks to go outside itself into the area of writing. And to make things “worse”, such manner of being found fertile ground partially within the agora of the city where the diverse citizens ——many of whom were not versed in writing—– met in the business of their daily lives. (In this respect, Leo Strauss recovers of us the essence of Classical Political Thought, lost to us, as a view of the political from the perspective of the citizen herself, though not reduced to that alone.)
It is in this respect that Plato’s Apology —a writing about the non-writer—- recounts how Socrates argued, among other things, in favor of speaking and listening over reading and writing:
“I do not converse only when I receive money, and not when I do not receive it: rather, I offer myself to both rich and poor alike for questioning, and if anyone wishes to hear what I say, he may answer me” (Apo. 33a-b)
Personalized and concrete question and answer, over silent reading and universal writing. What then is at the center of the philosophic way of life according to Socrates? In particular, it seems that it involves a proximity to the oral that our proximity to the printing process makes it difficult to consider more seriously.
And a second point brings us to the issue of the logos, the second side of this unique circle. Heidegger has allowed us to understand logos beyond the deductive notion of proposition and the linguistic model of representation. Logos, in stark contrast to the representational model of language, is directly linked to the possibility of giving an account of oneself and the world in and through language as the privileged vehicle of expression. For the later Heidegger things go much further in that the question of Being is opened by this new understanding of language. However that may be, for Socrates the privileged vehicle did not include giving an account in writing. Instead, the logos that Socrates provides as the foundation of philosophy is an account in dialogue, a discursive dialectic with different academic and non-academic members of the political community (sophists, generals, rich men, young disciples, ….).
But why would Socrates have made such a choice? One of the reasons is what could be called the concrete intimacy of the dialogical logos, in contrast to the abstract universality of the written logos. For surely it is very different for us to have read about Socrates, than to have actually heard him. No wonder Rhetoric was of central importance to Ancient Political Philosophy. For one thing is to read Lincoln’s words, another to have seen a living human being deliver them. And besides, Socrates in his stark defense of a special kind of friendship, understood that whatever he pushed for in his way of life could only be activated in others surrounding him only through the passage of proximity in time. For it takes time to become acquainted not only with oneself, but with the other whom one might realize one day one truly loves as a true friend does. Such growth is only made possible in conversation.
But of course, now “all” of us have been provided with Plato’s and Xenophon’s and Aristophanes’ accounts. Actually, not many seem to take Xenophon very seriously anymore; which is quite odd in itself because of the three records of what Socrates is said to have done, we usually only take up one! In this respect we are in a strange position ourselves, for in reading each Platonic dialogue we are present at every moment in proximity to the way of life Socrates defended. But we know that is not so, for Socrates wrote nothing. And because of this we should ask ourselves seriously, wouldn’t this substitution in writing makes us less prone to become truly Socratic, truly aporetic and truly erotic in ergon and in dialogical logos? In other words, one could ask, remembering Socrates radical questioning, how many of us in the humanities are truly dialecticians in this sense? I myself, almost by accident, came to know one such dialectician, and my path in philosophy —quite developed already— was no longer the same. No one can be Socrates, but he was indeed Socratic.
So, as both an expression of an ergon and a logos, Socrates chose to speak rather than to write. But was not Socrates fearful that when he died no one would record such an ergon so that in the end it would be lost to others? Wasn’t Socrates worried no one would know about him, as we now do thanks to Plato and Xenophon? I mean, wouldn’t WE think something like this: “OK, bring on the poison, but you’d better make sure many know about this whole unjust affair!” But surely that could not have been the way Socrates thought! For we all know of the righteous indignation such “injustices” bring forth in us, righteous indignation against which Socrates fought all his life! But wouldn’t this decision not to record such momentous events have been the greatest demonstration of Socratic egotism possible? Was it that he sensed the dangers of such recordings? And speaking more in political terms, what would have been of Socrates’ immortalization had not Plato and Xenophon and Aristotle written about him? For some, Socrates could proceed thus because he knew he was, in a sense, being recorded (See Pangle’s beautiful book on Aristotelian friendship.) I find this idea quite odd, for why wouldn’t have Socrates just sat down, like we do, and written a few essays or written the dialogues himself. At least they would have been very very accurate, I mean he was there and doing the talking! In this respect one need seriously ask whether the immortality Socrates sought is one that can be captured in writing. The strangeness of Socrates, of which Alcibiades speaks in the Symposium, for us is nowhere more evident that in his decision not to keep a memory of himself. His living life reflectively, the core of his way of life, was such that writing was not an action which was held in high esteem.
It is in the beautiful Phaedrus where the topics of eros, rhetoric and writing are truly developed. However, we must remember that Socrates actually says nothing in that dialogue himself. Just remember, it was written by Plato. And Plato I am quite sure was not around when Phaedrus and Socrates spoke of such erotic topics. For as we say in Spanish, if he had been, he would have had to be playing a violin. Towards the end of the Phaedrus “Socrates” tells us this about writing:
“Indeed writing, Phaedrus, doubtless has this feature that is terribly clever, and truly resembles painting. For the offspring of that art stand there as living beings, but if you ask them about something, they altogether keep a solemn silence ….. For you would think that they speak with some understanding, but if you ask something of the things said, wishing to learn, it indicates some one thing only, and always the same …” (Phaedrus, translation by James Nichols, 275d)
Rarely does one find such critical words on the written word; surely one finds them much less so in our contemporary culture. And though it is true that “Socrates” proceeds to argue for another type of writing which is much healthier –—and some strangely end up saying that lo-and-behold that writing is the Platonic dialogue itself—- it is clear that he is quite aware of writing, and specially so of its limitations. This is why in all seriousness one should question whether Plato did a certain necessary harm to his teacher for the benefit of himself and, specially, ourselves. What need was met in undertaking such a project? Or perhaps we could say that Socrates was too excessive in his desire not to write, and that we moderns have been able to calm such excesses? But at what prize?
Hope you enjoyed reading this writing.
(PS. For an example of a kind of writing of my own in which I create a dialogue as the mode of recovering a political issue, please see the end of my essay on bilingualism in the USA: link )