Socrates, a Sewer Rat, and Worms

The most essential, most vital part of Socrates’ philosophy is something he  cannot explain in concepts, something to which he is only able to allude through symbols, metaphors, and myths, which are, nonetheless, of so vibrant an eloquence that it becomes impossible for the reader not to realize that the distant and evanescent message Socrates alludes to is for him what is closest, most real, most immediately true.

We know that this message relates to three things. First, it points to the “unwritten laws,” the divine code that eternally hovers over social norms and the entire cosmos. But the divine order is not only a static set of rules. It also manifests itself as agency in the world, directing everything toward ultimate justice, and even penetrating into the intimacy of the human heart, inspiring it, through the whispers of a daimon, to do good, and warning it against the temptation of evil.

Does everyone have within himself a daimon? Does everyone have, deep inside at least, a distant echo of the eternal law?

Maybe so, but no one can hear it because everyone is distracted by the impact of sensorial stimuli and by the bewildering confusion of doxa—a body of foolish and mutually contradictory beliefs that, through repetition, custom, and endorsement by public authority, instill in their bearers a false sense of certainty.

Socrates is not a daimon, he is not the voice of divinity. He cannot breathe the truth into the hearts of his listeners. All he can do is try to remove the mental obstacles that keep them from seeing beyond impressions and doxa. These obstacles have been placed in their souls by education, habit, peer pressure, everyday conversations—in short, by culture. What Socrates does is take full possession of the means of influence created by culture and, perfecting them, turn these means against themselves. His art could be called “deconstruction,” had this term not, when it entered circulation in the twentieth century, become the name of one of the most vicious techniques designed by the representatives of doxa to block access to the “unwritten laws” and make social rules the ultimate limit of knowledge and existence.

Whatever the case, the direction that Socrates impressed upon philosophy will be unfailingly followed by Plato and Aristotle, and with slight modifications, will continue to inspire and guide philosophers until at least the eighteenth century. Platonic dialectic raises the participant up to where he can grasp something of the “unwritten laws,” but when dialectic gets to this point, it then gives way to mythical narrative or closes itself in the discreet circle of oral teaching, inaccessible to outsiders. Aristotle does not even try to express the divine laws: he only refers to God as “first unmoved mover,” but, by describing him as pure spirit constituted of noesis noeseos (“knowledge of knowledge” or, as we say today, “consciousness of consciousness”), he vetoes in advance any attempt to reify Him as external cause of material events (Dr. Richard Dawkins has not been notified of this yet) and thus paves the way for Dante to describe Him better as  l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,” the force that acts from the inmost of all beings and keeps them tied to a Center through the irresistible attraction of eternal love. This is a symbol that summarizes the three dimensions of divinity glimpsed by Socrates: the transcendent immutable law, the divine agency in the world, and the voice of God in the human heart.

The mission of philosophy is to lead souls up to the portal of the “unwritten laws” and then to become silent so that God Himself might begin to speak. Wittgenstein foresaw this somehow, but he then looked away. Long before him, Clement of Alexandria had realized this when he characterized philosophy as “a pedagogue who leads to Christ.”

Without this perspective, what goes by the name of philosophy can only be doxa struggling with itself to break free, with no way out, endlessly, like a rat trapped in a sewer pipe. One day the rat dies and begins to rot. Worms, then, take the initiative, decomposing the rat with a furiously analytical lust. At least some of them are driven by the blind hope of finding the “God particle” that will abolish the unwritten laws. Others know they will not find anything and move on precisely because of that: since there are no answers, the extinction of the questioners amounts to an answer. Nietzsche diving into the frenzy of syphilis, Michel Foucault self-destructing in rituals of sadomasochism, Louis Althusser confined to a mental hospital after killing his wife, were not merely adventitious events, just as the transmutation of philosophy into ideologies of genocide in the USSR, Germany, and China was not an accidental event either: all were inescapable conclusions of a wrong turn taken in a long argument that has crossed the centuries.

If philosophy has reached this point, why should one not expect the entire civilization to follow its example? Without a constant philosophical effort to rediscover the meaning of symbols in concrete experience, religious preaching itself, which believers take to be the voice of God, congeals into an oppressive verbal formalism, which is “fundamentalist” in the technical, and not the popular sense of the term. Insight into the unwritten laws is brought down to the level of pure “faith,” in the vulgar meaning of belief, and is expelled from the “secular” and “neutral” “high” culture.  The divine image of man splinters into millions of unconnected fragments, and each person, as long as he has money, power and a mass of activists, can impose upon others whatever morality suits him.

Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute. This article was translated from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota and revised by Graham Foster.

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