Friday, March 3, 2017

In Praise of Philosophy

By: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961)
If we have recalled these words of Bergson, not all of which are in his books, it is because they make us feel that there is a tension in the relation of the philosopher with other persons or with life, and that this uneasiness is essential to philosophy. We have forgotten this a little. The modern philosopher is frequently a functionary, always a writer, and the freedom allowed him in his books admits an opposite view. What he says enters first of all into an academic world where the choices of life are deadened and the occasions for thought are cut off. Without books a certain speed of communication would be impossible, and there is nothing to say against them. But in the end, they are only words expressed a bit more coherently. The philosophy placed in books has ceased to challenge men. What is unusual and almost insupportable in it is hidden in the respectable life of the great philosophical systems. In order to understand the total function of the philosopher, we must remember that even the philosophical writers whom we read and who we are have never ceased to recognize as their patron a man who never wrote, who never taught, at least in any official chair, who talked with anyone he met on the street, and who had certain difficulties with public opinion and with the public powers. We must remember Socrates. 

The life and the death of Socrates record the difficult relations which the philosopher maintains – when he is not protected by the immunity of books – with the gods of the City; that is to say with other men, and with the fixed absolute whose image they extend to him. If the philosopher were a rebel, it would be less shocking. For in the last analysis each one of us knows for his own part that the world as it is, is unacceptable. We like to have this written down for the honor of humanity, though we may forget it when we return to our affairs. Hence rebellion is not displeasing. But with Socrates it is something different. He teaches that religion is true, and he offered sacrifices to the gods. He teaches that one ought to obey the City, and he obeys it from the very beginning to the end. He is reproached not so much for what he does as for his way of doing it, his motive. In the Apology, there is a saying which explains it all, when Socrates says to his judges: Athenians, I believe as none of those who accuse me. Revealing words! He believes more than they, but also he believes in another way, and in a different sense. True religion for Socrates is religion in which the gods are not in conflict, where the omens remain ambiguous – since, in the last analysis, says the Socrates of Xenophon, it is the gods, not the birds, who foresee the future – where the divine reveals itself, like the daimon of Socrates, only by a silent warning and a reminder to man of his ignorance. Religion is, therefore, true, but true in a sense that is does not know – true as Socrates thinks it, not as it thinks.

And in the same way when he justifies the City, it is for his own reasons, not for raisons d’Etat.  He does not run away. He appears before the tribunal. But there is little respect in the reasons he gives for this. First of all, he says, at my age that lust for life is not in place; furthermore, one would not put up with me much better elsewhere; finally, I have always lived here. There remains the celebrated argument for the authority of the laws. But we need to examine it more closely. Xenophon makes Socrates say that one may obey the laws in wishing for them to change, as one fights a war in wishing for peace. Thus, it is not that the laws are good but that they pertain to order, and one needs order in order to change it. When Socrates refuses to flee, it is not that he recognizes the tribunal. It is that he may be in a better position to challenge it. By fleeing, that is, he would become an enemy of Athens and would make the sentence against him true. By remaining, he has won, whether he be acquitted or condemned, for he will prove his philosophy either in leading his judges to accept it, or in his own acceptance of the sentence.

Aristotle, seventy-five years later, will say, in leaving the city of his own accord, that there is no sense in allowing the Athenians to commit a new crime against philosophy. Socrates, on the other hand, works out for himself another idea of philosophy. It does not exist as a sort of idol of which he would be the guardian and which he must defend. It exists rather in its living relevance to the Athenians, in its absent presence, in its obedience without respect. Socrates has a way of obeying which is a way of resisting, while Aristotle disobeys in seemliness and dignity. Everything that Socrates does is ordered around the secret principle that one is annoyed if he does not comprehend. Always to blame by excess or default, always more simple and yet less abstract than the others, more flexible and less accommodating, he makes them ill at ease, and inflicts upon them the unpardonable offense of making them doubt themselves. He is there in life, at the assembly of the people, and before the tribunal, but in such a way that one can make nothing of him. He gives them no eloquence, no prepared rhetoric. By entering into the game of respect, he would only justify the calumny against him. But even less any show of defiance! This would be to forget that in a certain sense the others can hardly judge otherwise than they do. The same philosophy obliges him to appear before the judges and also makes him different from them. The same freedom which brings him among them frees him from their prejudices. The very same principle makes him both universal and singular. There is a part of him by which he is the kinsman of them all. It is called reason and is invisible to them. For them, as Aristophanes says, it is cloudy, empty chattering. The commentators sometimes say it is all a misunderstanding. Socrates believes in religion and the city, in spirit and in truth. They believe in them to the letter. He and his judges are not on the same ground. If only he had been better understood, one would have seen clearly that he was neither seeking for new gods, nor neglecting the gods of Athens. He was only trying to give them a sense; he was interpreting them.

The trouble is that this operation is not so innocent. It is in the world of the philosopher that one saves the gods and the laws by understanding them, and to make room on earth for the life of philosophy, it is precisely philosophers like Socrates who are required. Religion interpreted – this is for the others religion supressed. And the charge of impiety – this is the point of view of the others towards him. He gives reason for obeying the laws. But it is already too much to have reasons for obeying, since over against all reasons other reasons can be opposed, and the respect disappears. What one expects of him – this is exactly what he is not able to give – is assent to the thing itself, without restriction. He, on the contrary, comes before the judges, yes, but it is to explain to them what the City is. As if they did not know! As if they were not the City! He does not plead for himself. He pleads the cause of a city which would accept philosophy. He reverses the roles and says to them: it is not myself I am defending; it is you. In the last analysis, the City is in him and they are the enemies of the laws. It is they who are being judges, and he who is judging them – an inevitable reversal in the philosopher, since he justifies what is outside by values which come from within.

What can one do if he neither pleads his cause nor challenges to combat? One can speak in such a way as to make freedom show itself in and through the various respects and considerations, and to unlock hate by a smile – a lesson for our philosophy which has lost both its smile and its sense of tragedy. This is what is called irony. The irony of Socrates is a distant but true relation with others. It expresses the fundamental fact that each of us is only himself inescapably, and nevertheless recognizes himself in the other. It is an attempt to open up both of us for freedom. As is true of tragedy, both the adversaries are justified, and true irony uses a double-meaning which is founded on these facts. There is therefore no self-conceit. It is irony on the self no less than on the others. As Hegel well says, it is na├»ve. The irony of Socrates is not to say less in order to win an advantage in showing great mental power, or in suggesting some esoteric knowledge. “Whenever I convince anyone of his ignorance,” the Apology says with melancholy, “my listeners imagine that I know everything that he does not know,” Socrates does not know any more than they know. He knows only that there is no absolute knowledge, and that it is by this absence that we are open to the truth.

To this good Irony Hegel opposes a romantic irony which is equivocal, tricky, and self-conceited. It relies on the power which we can use, if we wish, to give any kind of meaning to anything whatsoever. It levels the things down; it plays with them and permits anything. The irony of Socrates is not this kind of madness. Or at least if there are traces of bad irony in it, it is Socrates himself who teaches us to correct Socrates. When he says: I make them dislike me and this is proof that what I say is true, he is wrong on the basis of his own principles. All sound reasoning is offensive, but all that offends us is not true. At another time, when he says to his judges: I will not philosophizing even if I must die many times, he taunts them and tempts their cruelty. Sometimes it is clear that he yields to the giddiness of insolence and spitefulness, to self-magnification and the aristocratic spirit. He was left with no other resource than himself. As Hegel says again, he appeared “at the time of the decadence of the Athenian democracy; he drew away from the externally existent and retired into himself to seek there for the just and the good.” But in the last analysis it was precisely this that he was self-prohibited from doing, since he thought that one cannot be just all alone and, indeed, that in being just all alone one ceases to be just. If it is true the City that he is defending, it is not merely the City in him but that actual City existing around him. The five hundred men who gathered together to judge him were neither all important people nor all fools. Two hundred and twenty-one among them thought he was innocent, and a change of thirty votes would have saved Athens from the dishonor. It was also a question of those after Socrates who would run the same danger. He was perhaps free to bring down the anger of the fools upon himself, to pardon them with a certain contempt, and then to pass beyond his life. But this would not absolve him in advance from the evil he might bring on their lives. It was therefore necessary to give to the tribunal its chance of understanding. In so far as we live with others, no judgement we make on them is possible which leaves us out, and which places then at a distance. All is vain, or all is evil, as likewise all is well, which are hard to distinguish, do not come from philosophy.

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