The testing of souls

I still ascribe to the quaint notion that philosophy is ultimately about living well. Everything else — epistemology, ontology, ethics, metaphysics, etc. — is valuable to only to the extent it is interesting, since interest points us toward what is vital in life. A corollary (too often neglected) is that each of us should apply ourselves to abstract notions of living well only to the extent they illuminate the concrete act of living well. (This is why I shrink from teaching classes in ethics — the academic concern tends to overwhelm the performative.) Whatever habit formation is required to translate from abstract philosophical theory into the concrete cultivation of practical wisdom is also part of philosophy, in fact, its most important part. Let me therefore distinguish the theoretical component of philosophy from its performative component. The former can be inscribed with ink on paper, but the latter can only be inscribe on a living soul and is not reducible to ink.

I can, by own admission, therefore only point or gesture toward this difference. One of the first things to understand both in theory and in performance is that there is a difference between theory and performance. And let me wonder out loud whether there might exist theories that can only be grasped in performance. (For the philosophy that I am primarily interested in, I suspect this is mostly the case.) Our writings have to be defective in order to be true.

So our concern is living rightly. To grow in this concern requires revealing to ourselves the divergence between what we understand about right living and our lives as concrete attempts to live well. Philosophy as a practice is a therapy, and all therapy requires that we face the uncomfortable divergence between our notions of ourselves and some reality still hidden from us. We must again and again test ourselves against what we can know about this reality in order to discover the defects in our self-knowledge. Here is what Socrates says about this testing:

You see, I think that one who intends to test a soul adequately about living rightly and not [rightly] must have three things all of which you have — knowledge (episteme), good will (eunoia) and frankness (parrhesia). — Plato’s Gorgias, Arieti/Barrus translation, 487a

Here is some commentary on the passage:

1. This statement is obviously ironic in context. Socrates is discoursing with Callicles, who lacks both knowledge and good will, but is at least openly frank about his aspirations to tyrannical rule. But the statement is only ironic in performance; I think Socrates/Plato would hold it as true in theory. In fact, Callicles himself does not gainsay this theory, even though he diverges from 2/3 of it in performance — an illustration of the distinction I drew above.

2a. Knowledge/episteme — Knowledge never occurs in a vacuum, but is always related to other knowledge. This is especially true of self-knowledge. An analogy to help us understand something only works if we know the other three terms. For example, if I tell you that a cesta is to Jai Alai what a racquet is to tennis, that will make sense only if you know about tennis and racquets and that Jai Alai is a sport. We must rely on some knowledge to make any advance on our ignorance. As Aristotle wrote: “All instruction given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge.” (Posterior Analytics, 71a1)

2b. Goodwill/eunoia — So far, I have made it seem as if personal development is a solitary task. But we need others, and not just any others, but those with whom we can share the intimacies of our inner being. Obviously, this requires a trusted other, someone who wants the best for us, and someone who is not looking to take advantage of our openness. We need someone who is able to criticize us without such criticism being merely an assertion of their superiority over us. Never trust anyone who is not openly critical of themselves. Another sign of someone appropriately trustworthy is that they open their intimacies to you as well, that they expose themselves to your critique — they must have skin in the game. Theoretical philosophy can be a solitary affair, but performative philosophy is almost always communal in some degree.

2c. Frankness/parrhesia — The Socratic therapeia requires that we give voice to what we really think, what we really feel, what we really lack. To put it in the form of injunctions: (a) Own your ignorance. (b) Confess your opinions as yours. (c) Don’t conspire in your own diminishment* by maintaining separate spheres for theory and practice. (*I owe this phrase to Parker Palmer.)

3. Also, while I think that “confessing to oneself” is sometimes a valid means of self-testing, it is far inferior to confessing to another, for several reasons: (i) we are much more sensitive to qualms when we anticipate them in the reactions of another; (ii) we are much less able to paper-over, and leave unexplored, gaps and vagueness in our self-conception when another person is there; (iii) it is precisely our self-delusion that we are trying to overcome — if we were sufficiently self-critical, we wouldn’t need therapy in the first place!

4. The first rule of performative philosophy is to find a philosophical friend or two. Philosophy is stillborn without friendship.

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