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The Art of LivingReview - The Art of Living
Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault
by Alexander Nehamas
University of California Press, 1998
Review by Robert Makus, Ph.D.
Mar 19th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 12)

There are subtle, articulate, meticulously supported arguments in the Art of Living.  Yet searching for an argument may be futile.    The intricately woven premises, evidence, and conclusions of this meditation on the history of Socratic interpretations combine to form not so much a single, portable point that one can pack up and take with them to the next book, as much as a shimmering hologram  which reveals different faces as it is turned slowly in the mind.

It reveals many faces of Socrates, but new and engaging faces of Plato, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault emerge as well.  They are faces captured in the art of living, the aesthetics of creating a self.  Reflecting on them, one finds that this hologram has a bonus feature: it acts from one angle as philosophical mirror, reflecting back one’s own aesthetic of self-creation.  It is a book from which one is unable to remove oneself.  As Nehamas states in his wonderfully understated voice, this book has “resulted in a slightly different manner of doing things.” (p 188).

            Like any truly original inquiry, the traditional categories of analysis do not apply to the Art of Living.  It is a mixture of philosophy, history of ideas, literary interpretations, and comparative analysis. Yet the sum is more than its parts.  In what follows, I cannot hope to compute that sum, but will attempt instead to provide a glimpse of some of its additives. 

            The book dispenses with a traditional ground as starting point, and begins its reflections in the context of a literary irony that sets the stage for the shifting images of Socrates.   Irony, according to Nehamas, is a mask behind which its user hides.  He comes to this conclusion after a thorough analysis of irony drawn from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.  He demonstrates how Mann’s ironic creation of his main character, Hans Castorp, draws us into the game of deception, making us first believe that we stand outside of the story with the author and then coming to understand that we have been as much an object of irony as Hans.  

            This gives Nehamas the framework he needs to show how subtly Plato accomplishes the same end.  We begin the Euthyphro thinking that we are participants in an ironic conspiracy against the dull interlocuter, who never really catches on to Socrates’ true meaning the way we do.  Yet by the end of the dialogue we realize that we have been as much the objects of Plato’s disdainful irony as Euthyphro was of Socrates’, and we realize as a result that we do not know who Socrates was after all.  Since irony tells us only that what is said is not what is meant, Socrates’ irony pulls around him a veil of silence.

            With our eyes now adjusted to such an ironic light, we begin to see the paradoxes that swirl around Socrates, such as the claim that his wisdom is rooted in a lack of knowledge, though he is willing to die for what he understands is the correct knowledge about how one should respond to the injustice of the state. Socrates also claims that one ought only study with those who they are certain understand arête. Yet one could only recognize it if one had it oneself—in which case one would not need to study with another.  Since, according to Socrates, no one has arête, least of all himself, Plato is presented with an additional paradox.  How is it Socrates could not have had the knowledge for living the life that Plato clearly thought that he lived?  As Nehamas says, “If knowledge of arête is required for having arête, and so for living well, then Socrates who lacked that knowledge could not have been virtuous and could not have lived well.  Yet he was, and he did.” (p 68).  This paradox, according to Nehamas, is never resolved by Plato to whom Socrates is as opaque as he is to us.  Yet this very opacity gives Socrates a realism that invites us to use him as a model for creating our own art of living. We can, says Nehamas “emulate the structure of his project without accepting the particular shape he gave his own life.” (98)  This process of creating an art of living in the shadow of Socrates is precisely what he ascribes to Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault.

            Each of these authors is explored through the ironic silence that surrounds Socrates, and each reveals their own mode of creating a philosophical life in the Socratic shadow. Montaigne relies on the accounts of Plato, Cicero, and Xenophon to create an ironic image with which he replaces himself, “showing his readers in a manner as empty as Socrates’ own, how he became himself and how, if that is what we want, we can do the same ourselves.”

            Nietzsche, more hostile to Socrates, also displays such an art of living, but he does so in opposition to, rather than in imitation of Socrates.  Yet one is led by Nehamas’s reflections to wonder if the energy of Nietzsche’s rejection of Socrates was fueled not so much by his disdain for the universalism of reason that Socrates propounds, as by his own suspicion that all his attempts to create his own life have not simply bound him even closer to the silent, ironic image of Socrates. Nehamas concludes with a final irony in his discussion of Foucault’s Socrates. He demonstrates how, by the end of his life, this philosopher who championed the idea of the self as myth looks to Socrates as a model for how to care for his self.

None of these three interpretations is proposed as the right one, or even the last word in their domain.  Rather, they serve as carefully articulated models from which Nehamas offers philosophers and non-philosophers alike the opportunity to create their own art of living, just as he has clearly done for himself through this splendid book.  

 

© 2002 Robert Makus, Ph. D.

Robert Makus received his Ph. D. in Hermeneutics from the Pennsylvania State University 1989. He is currently an associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco where he teaches Continental philosophy, and is director of the Northern California Center for Philosophical Practice. His interest in integrating philosophy and mental health has grown out of his twenty-five year history of learning to deal with chronic, debilitating, and, recently, terminal illness.


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