Revised DEC 06
Socrates in the Last Days
For Francis Huxley
Do Kamo Amo Sapiens
Chuang Tzu, old Chan wizard and master of the absurd, is
said to have said, The man of Tao has no reputation.
Surely he meant that the man of Tao acts as if he has
no reputation, rather than sees to it that he does not acquire
one. Acquiring a reputation is, after all, not a matter of ones
own choosing. Refrain as you may from doing and saying things
that might contribute to a reputation (and this is hardly possible),
others will see to it that you acquire one, nonetheless. Be you
ever so humble, or ever so grandiose, there will always be a
huge discrepancy between what you make of life and what comes
to be made of your life by others.
A good case in point is Socrates, a man who carries one of the
largest burdens of reputation in world history. Since he left
nothing behind in writing, no self-wrought record of his efforts
and intentions, the reputation that has accrued to him rests
solely upon the report of others. Curiously, considering that
Socrates seems to have viewed himself as a man of no special
achievement, the reputation derived from his life turns out to
be a formidable one.
presents the classic example of character influence profound
enough to extend through the ages. The man survives to this day
by the unique signature of his character, his ironic style. He
appears in Plato as the sly, sincere dialectician who self-effacingly
undermines the pretenses of friend and foe alike. Designated
by the Delphic Oracle to be the wisest of men, he reluctantly
accepts the compliment and then, characteristically, twists it
by insisting that he is only wise in the sense that he knows
how little he knows. Here and elsewhere, he ironizes to enlighten.
Indeed, he might be credited with the invention of irony. As
the directive voice of the Platonic dialogues, he has become
the primary oracle of the Western intellectual tradition.
This in itself may turn out to be the greatest irony of all.
Whether or not the portrait offered by Plato resembles the actual,
lived character of Socrates, we shall never know, but it is probably
fair to see in the Platonic Socrates an instrument of its author
more than a likeness of its model. Plato, after all, was a consummate
literary artist, and the dialogues are high and clever artifice.
Plato also had definite views on things a strong agenda, as
we say today (see the Republic, for instance). Socrates,
for his part, seems to have no such definite views, no clear
and outstanding convictions, no eminent theory of ideas. What
he achieved, if anything, he did purely by an act of exemplification,
although it is not easy to see what he exemplified, either...
In any case, his influence was of character rather than of conviction.
Something innate to his personalityuncannily difficult to pin
down, like a strong odor whose source cannot be located produced
an impression of exceptional force not only on his contemporaries,
but on people living thousands of years after him, right down
to our times.
Writing around 150 CE, Apulieus said of the condemnation of Socrates, this
has left an indelible stain on the reputation of Athenian justice,
because even today the best philosophers, those who aspire to
the highest form of human happiness, regard his system as the
most truly religious of all and swear by his name. (The
Golden Ass, Ch. 17, trans. Robert Graves) A remarkable testimony,
considering that Socrates would, it seems, have been the last
person in the world to claim to present a system, or to be more
truly religious than anyone else. After all he was condemned
for impiety (asebia).
Not to exaggerate, however. The one called Socrates is a literary
persona, nothing more. Although the persona is to date holding
up a lot better than the Parthenon, the decline of academic and
intellectual values, world-wide, since the dawning of the Electronic
Age, makes it likely that the snub-nosed paragon will fade from
collective memory, sooner rather than later. Whoever Socrates
really was, whatever he ultimately contributed, matters less
and less. Before too long, it may cease to make any difference
As the Last Days approach, our Greek trust fund is running out.
If history is cyclic, the indelible stain may come
back to haunt us, spreading through the Western mind even as
it congeals in cyberspace. Maybe it is just the moment to take
one last, over-the-shoulder look at Socrates.
Character rather than conviction: this describes the perennial
influence well enough, but there was also a method to the man,
some will argue. He survives, in character, precisely because his
character embodies a particular method, even a system of
sorts, if Apulieus be believed. It is perhaps the superpersonal
durability of the method that accounts for the longevity of the
man. Strong support from this view comes from Aristotle who credits
Socrates with two specific and concrete achievements: the introduction
of inductive argument and the search for definitions in the moral
realm. This astonishing testimony amounts to a couple of lines
in the Metaphysics.
Western intellect is born with the taste of irony in its mouth.
Simple enough, this. The reputation of Socrates does indeed rest
upon two enormous and long-standing achievements, which together
constitute a breakthrough unique for its time and seminal to
all successive efforts. This may be all that can be said, or
needs to be said, on the man and the matter.
But Gilbert Murray, scrabbling in an old hod, once came up with
a rather different and startling assessment of Socrates life
and work: He was working incessantly at a problem he could
never really frame to himself, which mankind has never been able
to frame. The Literature of Ancient Greece, Phoenix
Books, University of Chicago Press, 1956, p. 172)
This comment will, perhaps, be even more revealing than the word
of Aristotle to anyone intent on getting to the man through the
reputation. What if the great methodological advances Aristotle
describes, the cog and wheel of Western intellectual discourse,
were not considered by Socrates himself as anything but improvisational
measures? What if they merely graze the contours of a problem
that is still impossible to solve, having never been clearly
and adequately framed? Now that would be ironic.
Irony, by one definition, is a technique for disclosing the truth
through the preclusion of a part of it. Ironic in style, certainly,
Socrates may also have been ironic in life, substantively, and
in the long term, as we say. Do we find here a twisty invitation
to deep collusion, as if he insinuates that we can trust him
not to be trusted? Or as if he insists, I really accomplished
nothing, but what I left to be accomplished now that was really
If so, he left us a statement of radical incompletion, deeply
implicating all later generations in the intentions of the dialectician
who sees no aim or conclusion in the species task of finding
its way to Truth. For Socrates, its the journey, not the
goal. Refusing initiation in the Mysteries, he refused the telos,
the ultimate aim. He leaves no track to a goal, just
tracks. His inheritors face the dilemma so concisely intuited
by Murray: a problem stands before them which mankind has
never been able to frame.
How then might we begin to frame it?
Suppose we assume, yes, that Socrates left a method for seeking
the truth. But what if in the method, or in the way he demonstrated
the method, he included the implicit message that we must in
no way count on getting ultimate results from it. A nice trick,
there. A neat way to tangle us in his intentions. Its disarming,
but Socrates in his own authentic tracks is nothing if not disarming.
We may be getting on the true wavelength of the man when we entertain
this subtle qualification.
Also, the nuance tallies with the tradition that Socrates in
his early years had studied with some of the Greek scientists,
notably Anaxagoras. Presumably, he transposed the rigor of scientific
inquiry into the realm of philosophical and moral discourse.
But doing so he insisted on the supreme irony that we must be
strictly methodical without counting on strict results from the
method. If this is an achievement, it is unfortunately elusive.
It begins to look as if Socrates may have demonstrated a certain
proposition that has never been as clear to anyone who followed
him as it was to himself. It is easy enough to say that moral
inquiry, even when undertaken with scientific rigor of method,
will never bring us anything like scientifically valid results,
but it is damned hard to remember in practice.
Now the essence of science, analytic knowledge, is proof. Science
is proof-directed and its intentional format is twofold: results
and predictability. Science is true, we say, when it can produce
certain preconceived results or, at the very least, predict a
certain course of events. But in the dialectic discourse of Socrates
there is no direction toward either results or prediction. Pressed
on this tricky point, he might have replied that there is no
ultimate way to Truth, although there is a truthful way of handling
our inquiries into where it inheres.
Socrates is still significant in the Last Days, and perhaps for
the first time on his own terms, by the way he stands like a
menhir in the field of human thought where we must sight toward
scientific inquiry in one direction and moral enlightenment in
another. The same marking stone is useful for both sightings,
but the directions are entirely divergent. We have need for such
a stone, for in the Last Days we face the crucial issue of the
complementarity of mind and nature, a notion about which
we cannot afford to be deluded. And Socrates, lets assume,
offers the missing advantage on this issue, an advantage effecting
the crucial task (inherited from the Romantics) of revising the
transcendent. For him, Truth may have been a mere
euphemism, while for us it has to be a floating indicator, to
borrow an anthropological term. Put the two end to end and we
can finally characterize the method of Socrates in a way that
may be consistent with his own way of seeing what he did. Rigorous
and relentless in pursuit of Truth, he nevertheless rejects all
formulations and interpretations of Truth.
But why? In this not purely anarchistic? Absurd? Even maddening?
After all, what is there to Truth outside our formulations
Today we are still (just barely, perhaps) impressed that Socrates
was an outstanding ironist. Ironia, it is said, was his
unique aptitude and gift. I venture to add that the impressiveness
of this gift is not purely an intellectual matter, has nothing
to do with brilliance of ideas, profundity of content, etc. It
secret of the endowment inheres in the force of ironic
comment, how it affects us, still effects us, and not always
in a pleasant way. For irony is a strange attractor. This force
imbues the Platonic dialogues with their persistent appeal, quite
apart from the vaunted importance of the ideas being
With Socrates, everything is style. In the stylistic and characterological
nuances of the literary persona, he can at last be encountered
on his own terms. This in any case is as close as we mortals shall
get. Apart from what is ascribed to him, we might now glimpse what
he innately demonstrates, strangely highlighted by what he ascribes
to himself. There are only a few clues here, but a few is all it
takes, as long as we know what crime (i.e., problem) the clues
are meant to solve. Consider:
First, his intellectual baptism in the spirit of Greek science,
Second, there is an odd attribution Socrates makes to himself,
as if in a momentary lapse of modesty. In the Symposium (201D)
he claims to an initiate of erotika due to his tutelage
by the crone, Diotima. This is an astounding claim, come to think
of it. In a time, mind you, when the word Eros packed a
real wallop, not the titillating echo it yields today. Socrates
never follows up to explain the implications of this untypical
claim, but Plato seizes upon it to turn the old sage into the mouthpiece
for his pet theory of transcendental LOVE in four ascending stages.
Now it must be said, if translating love for Eros is
a serious mistake, it has been a fruitful one. The entire classical
doctrine of transcendentalism in the West, including the Platonic
and Neoplatonic agendas and their Christian conflations, are speciously
founded on this mistake, the likes of which we may not survive.
Although Plato wrote only in Greek, he may justly be accused of
converting Eros into Love which, on second thought,
is less a mistake than a grave misdirection, if not a gross indiscretion,
dictated I reckon by Platos sexual-pedagogic preferences,
not shared by his mentor. There is more to say on this, but on
to the third clue.
At the end of the Phaedrus Socrates expounds with a kind
of breathless excitement on the subject of divine madness, mania.
Notably, this is the only Dialogue that takes place outside the
urban setting of Athens. In the countryside, near a bend in the
river Ilissos (now paved over, although part of it survives as
a wretched gully running from Koukaki to the Tzitziftos beach at
Pireaus), Socrates reclines with his friend, Phaedrus, a lanky
fellow with an earnest brow. At a given moment in the aura of high
noon, Socrates appears to fall into a peculiar state. He goes manic
and ends up offering an ecstatic prayer to Pan, spirit of the wild
and rude embodiment of the untamed, utterly non-transcendental Eros,
the plasmatic surge of raw desire. Here is one instance where the
old sage clearly exhibits his own temperament, distinct from didactic
mien of the Platonic persona. A major clue, as we shall see.
Yet another clue lies in Socrates appearance. Tradition from
a good many sources indicates that he is a hardy hunk of Greek
manhood with a touch of the beast in his countenance. At the end
of the Symposium, the drunken Alcibiades compares his face
to Silenus, the very image of Pan humanized: snub-nosed, thick-lipped,
bug-eyed and brutish in expression. The allusion persists throughout
antiquity right up to Rabelais, who applies it in the preface to Gargantua
and Pantagruel where he compares the image of Socrates to the sileni,
little trick-boxes, finely and grotesquely decorated, which when
opened prove to contain a bounty of subtle and marvelous delights.
All this tells us that Socrates-Silenus, considered physiognomically,
is a direct descendant of Pan. The phallic goat-god of ancient
Phrygia, he is Pappo-Silenus, the same shaggy orgiast who plays
sometimes mentor to Dionysos, God of manic rapture and the Underworld,
darling of ravening maenads. This is a significant spiritual lineage.
In his homely and brutish countenance, Socrates clearly embodies
the Dionysian power of nature raw, orgiastic, rapturous. In his
personal style, he is all persuasion and depth, contrasting sharply
with the stock attributes of the Apollonian culture-set: precision,
order, stunning looks and the power of high definition, the glorification
of appearances and hierarchal form streaming from the celestial
matrix of the Eidos, fountainhead of Platonic glamour.
Yet Socrates is presented by Plato as the mouthpiece of Platonic-Apollonian
doctrines. Of course, the role was assigned to him after he died.
Clearly, its a retrofitted job that preludes our seeing what
the man himself may really have been about. The ironia he
embodies is truly satiric: satyric. His love of dialectic intercourse
is, as it were, a refinement of orgiastic tastes, and on the subject
of sex he is perhaps a bit sheepish for an old goat: all talk,
no action. He is certainly seductive and able to hold his own with
the badinage of local high-class courtesans, if we are to believe
the anecdotal sketches of Xenophanes.
A reincarnated satyr, indeed, the granpappy of all satyrs, he is
close to the Gaian wellspring of Eros, chthonian powers
of madness and ecstasy, far and away from the palatial Eidos Plato
would have him proclaim. The conversion put in his mouth is so
convincing, so slick, that we easily miss the cloven hooves.
So, taking note of these clues to his authentic identity, as
distinguished from his literary persona and fabricated reputation,
we perhaps gain an intuitive glimpse of how the man stood, on
his own terms, in the milieu of his times.
At the dawn of intellectual life in the west, Socrates already
occupies the outmost and receding boundary. He is an ungainly
intruder from the backwoods, an outsider with a beast in his
bonnet. Interloper as much as interlocutor, he plays the mock-humble
wise-ass ironist who defies the very formulas he uses to prove
that his sophistic adversaries know even less about what they
are saying than he does. In the stellar array of Athenian intellectuals
of the 5th Century, he is the odd man out. (Are he and Plato
the original odd couple?) In a society thrilled by
mind-power and mannish looks, he is a barefooted goof in a shabby
chiton, the Dionysian double agent in the Apollonian think-tank.
Athens in the 5th century BC is a Hollywood production studded
with big names and lavishly decorated by Phidias. Dominating
the Parthenon is the image of Pallas Athena, all white marble
and gold, the consummate fantasy of the warrior-goddess as pure
intellect enforcing the rule and measure of Apollonian will,
a bull-dyke effigy looming protectively over an effete colony
of cerebro-gymnastic dandies.
In this crowd, Socrates amuses himself at everyones expense.
He pretends to be dumb so that he can expose whats really
dumb. Anything but chic, he plays the chic Western games of nascent
intellectuality with the best of them. Alternatively bemused
and disabused, he exploits the glittering gifts of dianoia lavished
on lips aspill with sophistic charm. In the highbrow haunts below
the Acropolis, he an old goat on a rhinestone tether. Compared
often to a gadfly, he hassles the local wits with ironic deconstruction
and radical induction. Seemingly, he has no other aim in mind
but to expose the patent banalities of their mental posturing.
Everywhere he attacks abstraction, theory, formula, ready-made
conclusions. The crime later ascribed to him is asebia,
irreverence regarding the local and accepted deities. This may
well connote his primary characterological mark: defiance of
authority, especially so-called spiritual authorities. He defies
Apollo (mind you, the supreme authority of that time and place)
in the same way as the satyr Marsyas, who was flayed alive for
his presumption. He defies the Eidos and the slick pretensions
it generates, the snobbism of intellectual parvenus.
He corrupts the young, alright, exactly as he might have done
in America in the Sixties: by encouraging them to resist argument,
question authority, challenge all pre-set agendas and foregone
solutions. A genuine existentialist, as Walter Kaufmann has noted,
he teaches them not to rely on ultimate formulations of truth,
but to remain committed to a truthful way of handling what Sartre
called that thing of indefinite approximation. Like
Sartre, he stood against the mode of life in which reasoning
and research play but a subordinate role, in which one never
seeks but that which one has already found. (From "Portrait
of the Anti-Semite". Cited by Walter Kaufmann in The
Faith of a Heretic, New American Library, 1978, p. 79.)
So Socrates, reputed through Plato to have been the paragon of
intellectuality, looks to have been on his own terms a ruthless exposeur of
the bad faith that so often conceals itself in clever formulas
and well-worded propositions, the sanction of transcendental
pretenses. Beyond knowing that he knows nothing, he proves there
is nothing to prove. He uses the intellect better than anyone
else although he values it less.
And for this he is not looked upon kindly.
Remembering What Cannot Be Forgotten
Imagine, then, that we encounter Socrates, finally on his own terms,
in a stance of profound contrariety to the fashionable thinking
of his milieu. Just how profound is all the more evident when we
consider the one remaining essential clue: his fix on the Platonic
doctrine of memory.
Now just think of it like this: Socrates is not trying to remember
the pre-incarnational Eidos of pure intellect, but the pre-intellectual
moment of complete participation.
The deepest appropriation of Socrates to a message alien to his
character probably occurs in the Symposium where Plato presents
the doctrine of idealized Eros. This is the ultimate formula
of Apollonian transcendence: the long reach toward to Kalon,
Beauty above and beyond the realm of the senses. Here Plato looses
a chimera upon the species, a torment of the spirit that has perennially
been taken for the ultimate test of spiritual breeding. He inaugurates
the dogma of otherworldliness destined to support the transmundane
savior mythos of Christianity. Scaling Beauty upwards through four
stages from sense perception to the supersensible heights, Plato
directs our gaze to the world of the Eides, the archetypal
Forms. These, he argues elsewhere, cannot be seen or even thought,
though all thought-forms flow from them. They can be retrieved
after a fashion through the process of thinking insofar as it resembles
memory. Technically, this recall is known as the anamnesis:
anti-amnesia, or unforgetting. Rather like the undelete function
on a computer.
For Plato, all knowledge worthy of the name is really a memory
of events experienced by the soul in the realms where it existed
before birth, before the lethe of incarnation. His doctrine
of the anamnesis becomes the basis for psychology and pedagogy
up to the Renaissance. The imperative is clear: we must try to
remember what we knew, numinous and first-hand, naked and nescient
in the Ideal.
But Socrates may be trying to remember something else. Where he
left his sandals, for instance. Perhaps, like the Zen monk on the
way back from the well at midnight, full moon shining in the brimming
water, he is trying to remember his own mind at the moment the
bottom drops out of the bucket. Or perhaps he is trying to remember
something, to play on the phrase of Murray, which mankind
has never (yet) been able to remember.
Pause and consider: Socrates is really trying to remember
something, but not to remember what Plato supposes. But if not
the Eides, then what?
The answer might be approached by taking a clue from Mircea Eliade
whose apt description of the archetypal contents of the Jungian
collective unconscious reads like this:
the series of psychic structures prior to those of the individual
psyche, which cannot be said to have been forgotten since they
were not constituted by individual experiences. [And he goes on
to add:] The world of the archetypes of Jung is like the Platonic
world of Ideas, in that the archetypes are impersonal and do not
participate in the historical time of the life of the individual,
but in the Time of the species even of organic life itself. (Myths,
Dreams and Mysteries, Harper & Row, New York, 1967, p.
Comparison to the Platonic Eidos is striking, and although
it seems perfectly appropriate, it is quite misleading. Here Eliade
slurs the boundary of interpretation because he refers to psychic
structures that cannot be forgotten, whereas Plato insists
that the Ideas are forgotten, and therefore can be remembered.
This is a telling glitch, indicative of an epochal intellectual
error that has served as the main pretext for fudging the record
in Platos favor: i.e., we think we need him to get back something
we lost. Even Eliade with his incomparable grasp of comparative
materials equates the non-forgettable psychic structures with the
rememberable ones, those we had to forget in order, later, to retrieve
(Ponder on that one, Critobolous, while I dodge off to scam a couple
of pita sandwiches from the wall-eyed Syrian on Hermou.)
Socrates, we might imagine, represents the experience Eliade really wants
to designate, for he is intent upon remembering something which
cannot be said to have been forgotten. So the anamnesis,
the exercise of unforgetting, does not apply for Socrates at all.
Now it is typical of the dynamics of memory that we know we have
forgotten something only when we remember that its been
forgotten, which is not the same as remembering what was
forgotten. If I am driving to see a friend at his new home, and
I realize momentarily that I have forgotten his address, there
is still another step before memory retrieves the address. At least
I know what it is that I want to retrieve. This is the first step
of remembering: realizing that something has been forgotten and
needs to be recalled. The second step is the actual retrieval of
To a great extent, the Platonic theory of knowledge is an abstract
makeover of the secret teachings from Orphic and Pythagorean Mysteries
concerning the experiences of the human soul in the realm of the planetary
spheres before rebirth. Credit where credit is due. Plato
invented nothing in this respect. Taking a mythico-imaginal scenario
based upon the experience of mystic transport and ritually enacted
in the cult, he refashioned the esoteric teaching into an intellectual
program or more precisely, a pedagogical program. It can be said
then that Plato poses the first step in the memory-dynamic: he
designates what has been forgotten. Namely, the Ideas, the Archetypes,
cosmic impressions replete with noetic content, experienced before
birth. Then, taking the persona of Socrates for model pedagogue,
he applies the Socratic skill of dialectic to the act of retrieval.
In the Dialogues, Socrates is shown inquiring after certain abstractions
such as the Good, True, Beautiful. According to his script-writer,
there are nothing but intellectual-verbal formulations of the lofty
Plato really believes there is a pure intellectual item called
Truth, pure and disembodied, standing behind all human formulations
of truth, and he sends Socrates after it like a hunting dog. He
is credo-bound to misrepresent Socrates who only believes there
are some arresting moments of insight to be had on the way to seeking
what we call Truth, although we might as well call it Hoot. In
literary pretence, Socrates does what Plato requires him to so,
but in real life, in the true skin of the man he was, Socrates
defies the transcendental Eidos in favor of loping his goat-footed
way to nowhere in particular. He engages others in the journey,
as he has engaged a good many of us for over two thousand years,
without imposing its destination.
Finally the old goat chews off his rhinestone tether and disappears.
Ah, that word: participation. It is the key to Socrates true
identity and his epochal mission. A technical term in anthropology,
it was introduced by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl [1857-1939] to describe
the mentality of primitive peoples for whom the world is unmediated
by conceptual structures in the way it is for us, the way it has
been, more or less globally, since the Golden Age of Greece. In
short, it is the conceptual format that prevailed before Greek
rationality defined the subject-object axis.
Working definition: participation is the involvement that comes
with discovering how the external world forms its own relationships
with the world of the internal psyche, prior to the mind dictating
how these two are to be related. It is, by definition, a pre-intellectual
moment, but the horizon it presents contains a whole range of intellectual
discoveries. The greatest difficulty in grasping the actual, lived
character of participation stems from the error of thinking that
it is our thinking that dichotomizes the world. This is simply
wrong. For the archaic mentality, living in full participation,
the world is already Two. Thinking does not make the world Two,
and to assume it does is to invest it with power is does not have.
Thinking merely decides to order the Twoness of the world on particular
terms and thereafter all we know of the Twoness is what thinking
tells us, what thinking designates. Since Plato, we live face to
face with the secondary, conceptualized Twoness, not the original
or pre-logical Twoness. Before the split of self-awareness
into world-and-self, we participated in an autonomously split world,
a realm of reflections, doubles, counterparts and chirality, a
maze of mirror symmetry and, even more baffling, mirror asymmetry.
Now the gist of Socrates feat of remembering becomes evident
at last: he is trying to remember how it felt to encounter the
Twoness directly before designating it as this and that, self and other. So-called
primitives experience the world as self/other, a primary dyadic
structure, but without clear and final designations as to which
is which. In the archaic experience of humankind, and today, still,
in the worldview of some indigenous peoples, the self/other dyad
is fluidic and ambiguous. Participation is living in the field
of vital intercourse between self and other, this and that, here
and there. In the original Twoness, these mirroring aspects are
not fixed by terms or formulas that then come to exert a preclusive
power over our capacity to be involved in what we behold.
There is much that could be said about participation and primary
dyadic structure much, indeed, that needs to be said. It will suffice
to associate the concept with the figure of Socrates at the near
boundary of our species domain shift, the birthing
of Western intellectual dualism. Domain shift entailed the movement
from participation into a conceptual mind-set of the kind that
dawned, more or less planet-wide, in the 6th Century BC, probably
due to the hypertrophy of our forebrain capacities around that
Previous to domain shift, we discovered the correlates between
internal psyche and external world as directed from the world
itself, based in its dyadic structure, and not as a matter of our
own devising. What we then experienced was not the mental impact of
transcendent Ideas, fictions of the dichotomizing mind, but moments
of numinous contact, fluctuating wildly between the pitch
of overwhelming and the pitch of overwhelmed. Eros is this
flux, this interfusion, this wild and unpredictable sex-like current
pulsing through the dyadic plenum of the world. It takes Two to
Coming out of participation, not only do we substitute a specious,
pre-designated dichotomy for the prelogical dyadic one, not only
do we slide back from the visionary into the invisible, but we
lose the current, lose the sense of being vulnerable and porous
before an awesome force that plays through our pores, permeates
our very bowels, pulses in the heart and flutters in the eyes,
without letting on for long which way its going to play us.
Exactly like sex but far more consuming, Erotic excitation is polaric,
dyadic. Losing the current, we are unable to encounter anything in
its naked Otherness, unable to participate.
We encounter Socrates at last in his own tracks when we grant that
he represents the native mind, profoundly disoriented by this situation.
He reacts to the shift from participation with a stunned incomprehension,
nevertheless imbued with the uncanny intuition that all the thinking
in the world is not going to put us back into what were missing.
While others seem completely unphased by the Greek
shift, the emergence from participation into logical dichotomy,
Socrates falters, lingers on the threshold. The old satyr has one
foot in archaic intuition and the other in the clever Greek mind-trap.
He wants to say something that never quite comes to mind, wants
to remember in logical terms what transpired in the prelogical
encounter, but this is impossible.
No wonder he stands around for a day or so, now and then, frozen
in his peculiar trance, trying to remember what cannot have been
forgotten, trying to retrieve the impression of the last moment
before thinking intervened and broke the connecting link: not the
link between mind and nature, self and world, but between the two
vitalities, psychic and natural.
And it is not, lets note, any such thing as a lost
wholeness, lost unity or even lost sense of unity, that Socrates
senses we are missing. The crucial question he represents is: Can
participation be remembered? This is tantamount to asking, Can
it be forgotten in the first place? Well, yes and no. What can
we imagine that Socrates, dumbstruck by the intuition that rational
thinking has displaced the species from its habitat, would say
about the passionate trajectory of the Western Mind? Perhaps that
we acquire the sense of embarking on a journey solely due to having
lost our sense of place. His dilemma can now be seen as our own.
There is no place to go with thinking. All the clues in the world
dont count, unless you know what crime has been committed.
Lets say, yes, participation can be forgotten, so it can
also be remembered in the sense of realizing what we need to remember
something, but not in the sense of retrieving it. In other words,
we can realize that we have indeed emerged from participation.
This is like realizing that we have lost something. At least we
know what we have lost, and there is occasion for true grieving.
But retrieval, regaining what we have lost, is another matter.
Except by non-ordinary methods, participation cannot be retrieved
or recreated. It cannot, I would insist, be commanded. Participation
is bigger than we are. Children are closer to it and we consider
them less able to cope with the world because we see how it claims
them, without knowing what we see... Participation cannot be retrieved,
but it will reclaim the species in due time. To speak apocalyptically,
when it comes to the Last Days, the Endtime, humanity will sink
again into participation.
Were he here today, Socrates would not likely endorse the fabled
complementarity of mind and nature, and it ought to be obvious
why not. This is like a simulated form of participation, a wannabe
version of the genuine experience. Formulated in elegant, almost
Goethean terms by Geoffrey Bateson, the complementarity of mind
and nature is a latter-day, post-Romantic makeover of the Platonic
theory of knowledge, the booby prize for those who fail to realize
that participation is irretrievable. All the thinking in the
world wont get us there, and no morphogenetic field will
show the way. No sacerdotal equations from Karnak, either.
There is a way, however, to reinstate our lives, personally and
culturally, with the value-rich resonance of participation, the
sheer delight of hieratic play and metamorphic identity that
arise naturally from the pulsation of primordial Twoness. The
way is by Eros, not Eidos. The supreme challenge
human nature poses to itself began perhaps with Socrates uncanny
sense of alienation. Its resolution lies in the direction of
that intimacy that arises with communion in rapture and mystery.
Put forward by Plato as spokesman for the Eidos, Socrates
is really the last living embodiment of Eros. Far from
trying to remember what he knew before birth, he stands for the memoria
naturae, the Memory of Nature, matrix of the species from
which thinking itself was born. In him Nature was trying to remember
itself, on its original terms.
We cannot retrieve participation. We cannot, acting as a species,
ever see where we fit into nature, for the intellect we use to
discern our place requires that we design ourselves a niche,
rather than assume we have one, pre-allotted. Our intellectual
precocity is also the measure of our dispensability. If we do
not use our exceptional forebrain capacities to make a niche
for ourselves, we will eventually be discarded.
How can we characterize the experience of participating in natures
act of giving us our identity, the way it happened before domain
shift? Perhaps it would resemble a Zen-like clarity of looking
into the depths of extra-human nature, the whole fluidic environing
natural world, and finding there the reflection of a creature
which, as a creature, has no existence apart from its animate,
reflected image. Man is not the image of God looming
over Nature, defined by Platonic narcissism and enshrined in
Christian dogma, but the dissociated reflection of Nature beholding
itself. Man, the self-image of the human species
in pure Eidos, is the first and final danger of domain
shift, the chimera of self-extinction, the sphinx on the Way
Beware of Greeks bearing abstractions.
Human sapience, the wisdom that makes us what we are as species,
is the intelligence inspired from the love that supports the
image, not the love of the image for itself. Amo sapiens.
To love and support the human image as the expression of Nature
rather than of ourselves, is to find ourselves Do Kamo in
authenticity. Do Kamo (DOKE-amo) is the expression in
Canaque, spoken among the natives of New Caledonia, for what
is seen to be genuinely human because it exhibits a certain style,
a gift for clarity and competence, tenderness and timing. The
Canaque say you can tell a human by the way he or she holds a
yam or paddles a canoe.
Becoming human depends upon participation, and this in turn depends
upon overcoming the false dichotomy of the rational mind. Rational
reflection produces a self-regarding ego that cleverly abstracts
itself from anything that does not confirm its fictive autonomy.
As long as this self-regarding ego is not dissolved, participation
is impossible. The tendency in Western spiritual life since
Plato has been to enshrine the ego among the Eidos and
declare it to be sacred. Applied to our cherished spiritual pretences,
Socratic irony is like an acid that melts the foundations of
this monumental presumption.
Survival in the ultimate sense is about finding a style for our
freak capacities and using the wisdom nature has invested in
us to design our niche in the natural world. Through the intellect
we are free to dabble, to indulge in a lot of experimentation.
Since Plato we have been living irresponsibly on a trust fund,
namely, trust in abstraction. As the fund runs out, we confront
the immanence of the Last Days, the time when our pretenses collapse
and we are thrown back into participation, into the primal conflux
between overwhelmed and overwhelming. Violence is how nature
reclaims its strays, and the violence, inequity and deprivation
of our world show how close humanity is to being reclaimed.
But there is Eros, intimate and vital contact. It is the
universal solvent that dissolves violence into ecstasy. Problematically,
what was formerly the human-nature current is now almost totally
inter-human. This means that we will have to stimulate a high
degree of euphoria in each other, so that we can regain the intensity
of unmediated contact with Nature. Eros is a mighty daimon, Diotima
advised. For us today, Eros can be the euphoric bond between
self and other, humanity and nature, species and cosmos. When
Socrates admitted to being master of eros, he asserted
consecration, not a personal claim. His example might inspire
a newfound dedication to preserve the linkage, the bonding force
inherent to participation, still accessible even after we have
shifted out of the paradisical state where we know ourselves
by natures presence in us.
The shift from participation precipitates the identity crisis
of modern times. Also its desacralization: making the
ego sacred, we lose all sense of how anything else can be. Better
said, modern man is the euphemism for this crisis,
for the identity we ascribe to ourselves on Platonic terms in
a schizoid fiction. Today we face the task of inventing a true
identity for the species. In the Last Days when our excuses and
pretenses run out, there is a sense of being overtaken by something
vaguely familiar, a hint of coming doom that strikes panic in
the general populace but delights those lonely few who, naked
of ego, still commune with Gaia in the Mysteries.
As the sensation of impending doom mounts, Socrates remains poised
in his peculiar trance of expectation, an uncanny, off-stage
presence. Comfortable with the threat of chthonian night, the
deep archaic darkness where things reassume their magical and
metaphoric roles, he is (we might imagine) musing on some lines
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night.
What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in...
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself into wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter...
And we too might do well to muse on this, the deepest loss we as
a species have suffered, what defines us as human in the tragic
All the clues in the world dont count, if you dont
know whats gone missing.
Kamini, island of Hydra, Greece
where this essay was written, winter 1991-2