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Translated by Joe Pryce

518. The Problem of Socrates. This cursory overview of our understanding of Socrates should be sufficient to prove that the alleged "problem" of Socrates was solved a long time ago. We confess that our standpoint is in marked opposition to prevailing beliefs; thus, our major emphasis will be placed on the pedantry and the sheer lack of creativity of Socrates. We will review the record thematically, and we will draw upon the opinions of clear heads of earlier times, so that with their assistance we will be able to present an unambiguous portrait of the character and the teaching of this most peculiar thinker.

There have been attempts to link the character of Socrates with a decisive turning point in the spiritual history of the Greeks; in large part, these attempts have misfired. Certainly, the unique importance of Socrates, that which has made him the most popular figure in the entire history of philosophy, lies, in any case, not so much in his doctrine as in his personality and his fate. He was not the founder of a religion, although he does invite comparison with certain earlier founders, e. g., Pythagoras, in that Socrates, instead of crafting a written doctrine, attempted instead to bring about a change in the lives of his auditors through a spoken teaching that was religiously conditioned and morally tendentious. In a profound sense, he is the Greek world’s unacknowledged forerunner of the Christian consciousness. Nietzsche goes so far as to attack Socrates as the instigator of the "revolt of the slaves in morality." With him there appears for the first time the unbounded self-mastery of an alien-racial and, so to speak, international rationalism. He even referred to himself as a "citizen of the world." We are instructed in the Socratic teaching in part through Xenophon; in part through Plato, who situated an idealized representation of Socrates in his dialogues; and, finally, through the mockery of Aristophanes. Xenophon, who was, after all, an historian, may provide us with the most faithful account of the deeds and drives of Socrates; Plato, who placed his own doctrine in the mouth of his master, reveals to us, more critically than Socrates himself would have been able to do, the yet unknown aim of the Socratic direction of the spirit. In order to comprehend the specific meaning of the character of Socrates, we must focus our hindsight more closely on the life of this thinker than is the case with most other philosophers.

Socrates was born in Athens in 469 B.C.E.; he was the son of the sculptor Sophroniskos and the mid-wife Phainarete. He devoted his early years to sculpture, but he soon relinquished all vocational activity in order to develop a startling and unprecedented type of teaching career. He married a woman named Xanthippe who bore his children but who, as the result of his indifference to her, has unjustly received from the hands of posterity her reputation as the archetypal "shrew." In a word, Socrates was a professional guest, who spent his time engaged in endless discussions, in part with laborers, in part, and above all, with attractive and cultured young men. The workshop, the gymnasium, and the drinking-bout were the favorite haunts of this amusing loafer. 

With regard to the spiritual history of the Greeks in its general outlines, he would boast that he had never even made an attempt to study the doctrines of his philosophical predecessors, and, all things considered, Socrates presents the perfect picture of the half-educated, self-taught amateur, who, armed with the arrows of his naturally sharp critical sense and the acid of his plebeian mother-wit, upsets dull-witted men in general and the more highly-educated in particular. 

There are attempts even today to portray Socrates as a uniquely "harmonious" character. If we are not in error, Hegel was alone in disputing this error until Nietzsche, in his "Twilight of the Idols," applied his unmasking technique to Socrates, thus providing, in its essentials, such a definitive demolition that no one reading it could have worn a more ironic smile on his face than—Socrates himself! To what extent his life-hostile doctrine deceived Socrates himself, it would be difficult to determine; but that he, thanks to his penetrating and all-dissolving, inner-directed rationalism, possessed an extraordinary understanding of himself, is almost beyond doubt, provided that there is at least some measure of truth in the stories that have been told about him. Thus, he is said to have responded to the remarks of a stranger who concluded, from an examination of the philosopher’s face, that Socrates concealed every lust and every craving within his soul: "You know me well! But I have overcome them all." This proves that in no way did he consider himself to be a "harmonious" character, but rather a character who—to speak with Nietzsche—has become master over the anarchy of his drives, and who maintains his mastery by means of the clear light of rationality. We are also struck in no small way by what tradition tells us about his physical appearance. The rachitic, bulging eyes; the recessed, snub nose; the bald head and the pot belly must have made him appear hideous even to himself, for already during his lifetime, people had begun to compare him to Silenus. "Socrates," says Nietzsche, "belonged to the dregs of the populace, Socrates was rabble. One understands, one sees for oneself even now how ugly he was. But ugliness constitutes an objection. Among the Greeks, it amounted to a refutation. Was Socrates really a Greek?" In the Platonic dialogues much still shines through to indicate that aristocratic contemporaries of ancient racial stock saw Socrates in just this way. Aristophanes, in whose savage ridicule—perhaps!—the love of the ancient religiosity wages war with the self-seeking "enlightenment" of an already secular atmosphere, has, with sure instinct, in his comedy "The Clouds," selected Socrates as the very embodiment of the vendor of sophistries; contemptuously, he says that, with dialectical fallacies as a foundation, the sophist’s only purpose is to undermine tradition.

How did it come about that this character was surrounded by a halo in the eyes of the most talented young men of Athens? How could the Delphic oracle have concluded that Socrates was the wisest of men? There were superficial grounds that may account for this judgment. Socrates manifested in the highest degree the quality that the Greeks called Sophrosyne, which is equivalent to our notion of "self-possession." In modern terms, he was a thoroughly unemotional character, cautious and eminently cold-blooded. In certain respects, he anticipated the Cynics, who, like Socrates, were able to bear poverty, fatigue, and danger with an unruffled equanimity. He actually participated in many of the military campaigns conducted by Athens (Potidaea, Amphipolis, Delion), and, without the slightest trace of the "rush" of combat, he still maintained his iron courage on the day of battle. After a nocturnal drinking-bout, when the sprightliest among his young companions were overcome with wine, he would remain sober to the last, and, without a minute’s sleep he would head off to the Forum. This man was in every moment of his life the master of himself to such an extent that he embodied the very principle of his fencing mode of dialectic.

But he was also a great eroticist, and the novel style of his approach to young men was to endure throughout the rest of Greek history: the tendency to establish an erotic bond between an older man and a youth in the pursuit of education. From the time of Socrates, instead of the older lover, we have now the "master" and critic; and instead of the younger beloved, we have now the "student" and learner. This type of relationship had, in fact, had long been the custom in Sparta; but, from the outset, the Socratic education no longer meant a teaching designed to develop courage, but one designed to develop that which Socrates called wisdom. Finally, Socrates was attended by a "presence," an apparition that we moderns might relegate to the precincts of "occultism." Periodically, an absent-minded, trance-like state would come over him, and it was said that he could become insensible for as long as one hour. At such times he would become oblivious to everything that was transpiring around him, and his stance became absolutely rigid. Then he would hear an inner voice that warned him to do this or that; sometimes he is given a serious task to perform, and at other times he is commanded to do something completely unimportant. He himself claimed that, without exception, the warnings were correct. In addition, the voice at times spoke, not to Socrates, but to one of his friends; and we have many instances in which the philosopher, thanks to this voice, avoided actions that, if he had performed them, would have led to disaster. Thus, he became accustomed to the promptings of a bright, visionary somnambulism, which, it was understood, strengthened the man who was under its sway.

Still, the astonishing vigor of its operation resides not so much within the "voice" as it does within the other party involved.

The soul of Greece was fragmented and exhausted when it gave birth to this nay-sayer who, like every prophet of dissolution, made his appearance in the guise of a "healer of souls." As we have said, Socrates was the complete master of himself; but he was more than that: he proved, or at least attempted to prove, that the assistance, not to say salvation, of which everyone stood in need, resided in the complete mastery of one’s self. He will claim that such mastery is to be found in subordinating our uprooted drives to a detached rationality. He derided strong drives and an affirmative attitude towards life, and an impoverished and unsettled generation would have been startled at the forcefulness with which he announced his views.

Socrates knew exactly what he was doing when he embarked on the course that led to his own condemnation to death. As a living man, he had been the ruler of but one faction. As a martyr, he would conquer the world! In 399 B. C. E. the democratic forces who had just re-established their rule over Athens, accused Socrates of "misleading the young" and "introducing new gods." At least the first and most important charge of the indictment was, as Hegel was the first to demonstrate, unimpeachable with regard to theory and perfectly in order with regard to practice. For we must bear in mind that among the dearest pupils of Socrates there had been Kritias, the bloodiest of all the Thirty Tyrants on one side, and, on the other, there was Alkibiades, who was responsible in large part for the crushing defeat, and attendant fall from power, of Athens in the disastrous Peloponnesian War. Socrates was found guilty, and had he now followed Athenian custom and requested a lenient sentence, he would undoubtedly have been let off lightly. Instead, he not only abjured every admission of guilt, but he even had the nerve to request that Athens bestow rewards upon him in recognition of the benefits that he has showered on the state and its youth! Certain now that their teacher will perish if he remains in Athens, his pupils arrange matters so that he will be permitted, without being hindered by the authorities, to escape his predicament. He categorically refuses the offer: for he wants to be executed, thus showing himself to be, once again, a forerunner of the Christian "redeemer."

Let us now begin to separate that which is fundamentally new in the Socratic teaching from that which can be dismissed as the stale wares of an epigone. In his own time, Socrates was judged to be the consummate Sophist. This judgment was certainly not intended to be a flattering one. He brought the hair-splitting dialectic and disputatious verbal jugglery of the Sophist to the pitch of perfection. The entire philosophy of the West has been encumbered ever since with this legacy. The sport of excelling by means of craft and the setting of snares (one side of which can be seen in the American competition-mania) was first perfected by the Socrates who described himself as a philosophical "mid-wife." Likewise, he was a Sophist to the letter in his ceaseless war against traditional order and traditional morality; he was the self-mastering man who submitted all weighty matters to his personal conscience. However—and here we come to the truly new Socratic turning—it is not the personality that is made out to be the measure of all values, but solely that element of personality, which enables man to separate himself from the Cosmos in order to ascend to a "higher" rank: the spirit, reason, or, more accurately, the sense of rational purposefulness!

We have it from Socrates himself that the consideration of cosmological hypotheses left him cold. He utterly despised such modes of "speculation," and, because he was completely ignorant of the magnificent cosmologies that had been achieved by the hylozoists, he insisted on viewing the whole of nature totally from the perspective of one who is only interested in its rational, practical applications.

The content of his philosophy is nothing but educational moralism.

The exposition of the Socratic findings must be subordinated to the exposition of the Socratic method, for it is not in the findings but in the method that his characteristic and unique contribution is to be found. Socrates employed a witty allusion to the vocation of his mother when he described his method as the maieutic, i. e., that of the mid-wife. He held the opinion that knowledge slumbers already in the soul of the student, and that it could be awakened solely through the employment of suitable concepts; thus, he sees his dialectical process, in a sense, as a birth. He was obviously denied the capacity to give birth himself in the natural fashion; but he says that he does have the modest gift that enables him to assist others to give birth—in the spiritual sense. The apparent modesty of this claim shows itself, on closer examination, to be rather startlingly arrogant. In the first place, Socrates insists that his opinion is to be accepted unconditionally by his students; but will it really be the opinion of his audience if it has managed to slumber within the listener to this very hour? In the second place, the entire procedure is presented as if, in fact, we are not concerned with the views of Socrates, or with any views under the sun, but, rather, with something that is beyond doubt, something certain, that only waits to be discovered. There is already a sophistical trick here, which, for sheer cunning, puts all previous sophistical tricks quite in the shade, for we never discover just how this spiritual obstetrics is to be set in motion. On the first point, it is quite obvious that the Socratic claim cannot be demonstrated in the style of the earlier Sophists, who announced their views in well-prepared lectures, skillfully delivered; the Sophists really attempted to persuade their audiences. Instead of that we get with Socrates a game of questions and answers, in which Socrates wards of all objections in the manner of the Japanese jiu-jitsu master warding off blows. Socrates never announces a proposition and defends his conclusion in statement and contradiction; instead, he causes the other speaker to advance judgments of his own. Socrates sees his first duty to be the refutation of such judgments. Placing the entire burden of proof upon the shoulders of the other speaker, Socrates easily demonstrates the untenable nature of the proofs that have been advanced by involving the speaker in absurdities. One may, perhaps, find that not everyone is inclined to follow this procedure of advancing propositions. In such cases, Socrates performs his unique trick. He stands silent; he laments that he still does not know what justice, virtue, and truth really are. He movingly begs the gods to teach him. This is the so-called Socratic irony; it is purely verbal, and, hence, a mere pretense. Soon a hesitant voice pronounces an opinion; in the blink of an eye Socrates is back at his dreadful and disputatious irony! Socrates is equipped with the perfect response to such fools as might ask additional questions: he has a hundred answers on hand. Every new answer unleashes ten new questions. The end is finally reached when the unlucky speaker lands himself in self-contradiction. The supposed knowledge was not real knowledge. At the beginning, Socrates was ignorant; the other speaker has shown him that he is even more ignorant than he had supposed. The first phase of the dialogue closes in an orderly manner, with this admission of ignorance. Now there begins the positive phase of the Socratic variety of mid-wifery, which, as we have already indicated, consists in bringing to conscious birth the knowledge that already exists within man. At this point in the proceedings, Socrates states that the other speaker’s ignorance was actually a limited, or incorrect, knowledge of himself, and Socrates proceeds to assist in enabling the other speaker to attain to the correct understanding.

We now observe the results that follow from the formal side. Once again, we see that Socrates merely continued a scientific direction that had already been initiated by the Sophists. To wit, he proceeds by way of the analysis of concepts, or, more accurately, through analyzing the conceptual content of words. Although the Sophists had, in fact, employed this method, it constituted merely a secondary matter for them. With Socrates, it becomes the over-mastering priority, and thus there begins with him a new direction of the history of spirit. The Ionic hylozoists philosophized on the basis of the consciousness of the object; the Sophists on the basis of the consciousness of the self; Socrates, finally, philosophizes on the basis of the consciousness of connection: for him the concept is the spiritual bond that connects the object and the self (object and subject).

First, there is established, in the midst of a many-sided research program into linguistics, the exact analysis of semantics; second, there is an attempt to fix the conceptual boundaries of words, by defining them. The purpose of all Socratic dialectic is, after all, to make decisions that relate to concepts. It used to be said of Socrates that he cleverly planted in words opinions that he already held. But he provided a not inconsiderable epistemological service, for he was the first to open up the study of concepts, and therefore he can be said to have inaugurated for the Western World a research trend that has remained in operation to this very day. For the West, it is not so much the facts regarding the external world, but more the linguistic facts, that have been solidly established; thus, induction has won the day as our (questionable) conceptual mediator. It is readily understood that for Socrates, the designation of concepts is intimately intertwined with the discovery of truth. Nevertheless, the prevailing interest in all of the Socratic dialectic is the arousing of the soul of the listener: that is the true meaning of the Socratic Eros.

We ourselves have given some thought to the biological tendency exhibited in such a method, and our reflections have led us to the following conclusion: Socratism is founded upon a faith in the exclusive worthiness of conceptual thought (or consciousness). Regardless of whether an act was performed by a superior or an inferior person, the act can have no serious consequences so long as the person in question understands the motives for his actions; instinct, drive, and finally life itself are explained by Socrates as ignorance, and not, as with St. Paul as sin. On the other hand, all good arises from (reflective) cognition. The Socratic method entails the Socratic findings, about which we will now have a few words.

Vice, sin, and deficiency of all sort, arise in error; virtue, excellence, and privilege are the results of correct insight (Phronesis). Phronesis can be taught, because its substance already resides within the soul of the erring person; but it is, as yet, only unconscious. Thus, virtue can be taught. Whoever attains to the correct insight, gains total possession of the self; he adopts a style of self-control that also enables him to hold himself accountable to that insight. This is done to achieve temporal as well as eternal blessedness (eudemonism). The Socratic ethic is, therefore, eudemonistic, but it is, at the same time, completely intellectual (the Kantian ethic is only the most recent model!). In its intellectualism, it establishes that it holds the primacy of virtue (or rectitude), in contrast to the Sophists, to be impersonal as well as universally binding; in its eudemonism, it remains utterly external, as this very principal ordains, because Socrates has told us that universally binding rectitude results in a completely practical purposefulness (aimed at attaining an even more absolute blessedness). Thus we revolve in an endless circle, for we are given no yardstick by which we can differentiate between a personal purposefulness and an impersonal one. It is merely a matter of formula when we are told that the true measure lies not outside us but rather within. Telling us that the true measure can be found within us remains the last word of the Socratic morality.

519. Images and their Messages. Consciousness is no active power, but is, instead, the token that, in the sphere of life, individual acts having no temporal extension have taken place, partly at the demand of spirit and partly under the compulsion of vitality; and similarly, the feelings (which here also include moods) are not active powers, but, metaphorically expressed, are messengers bearing instructions; messengers, in the animal, of active images to the active body-soul of the animal, and, in man, messengers of his active vitality to his active ego. Man too, of course, receives messages from his images, and even less than the animals has he the faculty of entering into communication with them by contemplation, and without the intervention of messengers: but this state is no longer feeling, and those messages generally pass, by way of his vitality, to the new center of his body, the ego, where they receive an immediate response, being either accepted or declined, in such a manner that they must rather be considered as signals which inform us about the never-resting traffic between the "it" (Id) and the ego. Instructions given by the ego to the "it," when followed, manifest themselves in feelings of self-assertion, whose active side (that of urges) very often occasions acts of will; instructions given by the "it" to the ego, when followed, manifest themselves in feelings of self-devotion, the urge-side of which can likewise occasion acts of will, but more often leads to a dethronement of the ego, which has very different mental states for signal. This description is slightly incomplete, because disturbances take place already in the sphere of the ego, which also are signaled by feelings. (SW 4 pp. 363-4)

Translated by Joe Pryce from the original sources. For reference, notes refer to the more easily obtainable texts:

AC=Klages, L. Zur Ausdruckslehre und Charakterkunde. Heidelberg. 1926. 

AG=Klages, L. Ausdrucksbewegung und Gestaltungskraft. Munich. 1968.

LK GL=Schroeder, H. E. Ludwig Klages Die Geschichte Seines Lebens. Bonn. 1966-1992. 

PEN=Klages, L. Die psychologischen Errungenschaften Nietzsches. Leipzig. 1926

RR=Klages, L. Rhythmen und Runen. Leipzig. 1944. 

SW=Klages, L. Sämtliche Werke. Bonn. 1965-92.

NEW  The Biocentric Metaphysics of Ludwig Klages | Introduction to Cosmogonic Reflections | Aphorisms 1-100 | Aphorisms 101-200 | Aphorisms 201-300 | Aphorisms 301-400 | Aphorisms 401-515 | A Letter On Ethics and Imagination and the Images | The Problem of Socrates and Images and their Messages | Reflections on "Psychoanalysis" | Man and Earth | Soul and Spirit | Selected Poetry | Consciousness and Life | Rosenberg contra Klages | Webmaster: Kevin Alfred Strom | Kevin Alfred Strom Historical Archive

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