The Apology of Critical Theory

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History is receding. No doubt, it is due in part, as numerous social critics have noted, to its appropriation by mass culture and media. But, ironically, it is likewise due to the very work of socio-historical criticism. As Baudrillard argues in The Illusion of the End, the continuous revision of history by critical theory has diffused the possibility for meaning to emerge out of the march of history, out of its temporal progression, and thus its ability to look onward to a better future. Now, it is no doubt important to engage the past with a critical eye. But when criticism turns into suspicion, which in turn threatens to upset the very notion of historicity, it poses a danger not only for this or that historical account, but for the very possibility of progress. To show what I have in mind, I wish myself to turn to the past, namely to the first social critic: Socrates.

Plato’s Apology* is often read as Socrates’ justification of his life and deeds. Indeed, in its Ancient Greek context, an apology is a defense speech made at an Athenian court of law before a large jury, and this is seemingly what Socrates sets to achieve: to refute what he sees as the untrue and unjust allegations made against him of disrespecting the gods and corrupting the Athenian youth. Yet the Apology consists of more than mere self-defensive justification. It is likewise a threat: one that, even as Socrates defends his philosophy and life’s work, indicates their menacing potential.

Such menace, moreover, is bound to come about not, at least not directly, from what Socrates has done during his lifetime, but rather from that which is to take place after he is executed, since the jury finds him guilty and sentences him to death. First, with regard to his condemners, Socrates prophesies that his death will not absolve them of the kind of ethical and dialectical self-examination that he has advanced in his philosophy: “There will be more people to test you,” he tells the jury, “whom I now held back, but you did not notice….You are wrong if you believe that by killing people you will prevent anyone from reproaching you for not living the right way.” These so called others no doubt include his friends and former interlocutors, to whom Socrates then turns to explicate the meaning of what has just occurred, a meaning to which I shall return. Yet he also seems to point to the general fate of martyrs and suppressed ideologies: these, as Derrida has in turn noted in Specters of Marx, tend to return disseminated in ever more ways, making it even more difficult to battle their influence (Derrida writes of Marxism, but we can take a case more closely related, both temporally and thematically to that of Socrates, namely that of Jesus, whose untimely death for his subversive beliefs paradoxically leads to the promulgation of his teachings, and subsequently to Christianity’s ascent).

If the first threat is, as Socrates calls it, something of a “prophecy,” concerning the fate of the living, the second one is more complex and unique in that it concerns the afterlife, of Socrates as well as of other prominent figures from the Greek historic and mythical past. Socrates begins by conceding that one cannot really tell what happens to one after death, but he nevertheless offers two options: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.” Now, if it is the first, says Socrates, then it is like a long dreamless sleep, so apart from it being a “blessing” there is not much to say about it. If it is the second option, however, it offers Socrates the opportunity to meet in Hades “those true jurymen,” as opposed to the unjust ones who tried and sentenced him, “who are said to sit in judgement there.” In other words, Socrates sees the descent into Hades as a chance to encounter prominent figures from the past — and here he names quite a few, such as Triptolemus, Orpheus, Hesiod, Homer, Odysseus and other — and so speak, philosophize and compare impressions with them. This is certainly no big news, as the afterlife has intrigued humankind since the dawn of time, and numerous poetical, philosophical and religious visions of what it might be like have been conjured. In fact, in Phaedo, a Platonic dialogue depicting the last hours of Socrates as he awaits his execution, the latter speaks quite a lot about what might death be and mean. Yet it is when we consider the Socratic method of philosophical interrogation in conjunction with his conjectures in the Apology that the so-called great beyond offers a particularly fascinating and at the very same time menacing possibility.

Let us begin with what makes it menacing. In the course of his defense speech Socrates claims that his “teaching” is nothing more than a dialectical inquiry of his interlocutors, whereby he questions “those…who think they are wise, but are not,” meaning in which he examines who actually possesses the knowledge he claims to know. Socrates arrives at this method, in his youth, after the Delphic oracle proclaims that no one is wiser that he is, but Socrates, being astounded by such an idea, goes on to question many of Athens’ reputed wise men to disprove this claim. He soon finds, however, that many of those so called wise men do not, in fact, posses the wisdom they lay claims to. Socrates thus soon reaches the conclusion that what the Oracle’s message, or rather “riddle” meant was this: “‘This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless'”; that his wisdom derives not from any particular knowledge, but from his ability to say to himself that even though he does not know “‘anything worthwhile,'” so that he is able to say to himself: “‘I am likely to be wiser… to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I  do not know.” In other words, the Socratic method consists of, to use a modern term, deconstructing epistemological premises in order to open up the way for something less tenable yet more truthful. What this suggests, then, if we return to the trial and its other-worldly discussion, is that if Socrates engages the monuments of Greek history and myth in the same type of conversation and philosophical inquiry, he might end up discrediting them, and so the very foundations of Greek culture. We thus again arrive at the notion put forth earlier, albeit somewhat differently, that the Athenians are better off with Socrates contained within his person, circle and city.

What, in turn, is fascinating about this potential (since Socrates, true to his way, does not claim to really know what the afterlife is) threat, is its temporal dynamic — the manner in which it is simultaneously a backward and forward temporal movement. To be sure, as I noted above, the afterlife has had a prominent place in human inquiries, but these tend to treat it precisely as that which comes after something, with its vicissitudes depending on what had come before it. So, for example, in the Homeric Hades the deceased go on thinking regretfully on what they are missing among the living; in Dantein line with the Christian tradition, the dead pay their dues for the way they had lived; even nowadays the vicissitudes of future generations are said to depend, at least in some degree, on how their predecessors had lived. In the Apology, however, we are suggested that the after-life is not continuous with worldly life, but that it is revisionary, that by interacting with and reevaluating the past one can exert powerful influence. In Socrates’ case, moreover, this influence is a threat to the living. For, by hinting at the possibility of showing that those on whose shoulders Ancient Greek culture and, what is more, values — since Socrates is more concerned with justice than with culture — stand, Socrates seems to say that he will be far better equipped to give his condemners their due from the land of the dead, where they will no longer be able to stop him (the dead, Socrates observes, “would certainly not put one to death”). It is, then, simultaneously retroactively and proleptically, in a double move both backward and forward in time, that Socrates envisions his transformation, in the next life, from a present nuisance, to a phantom menace.

What we can take from this reading of the Apology, to go back to the danger posed by critical theory, is that historical revisionism might upset more than our understanding of the past. It can deny us the possibility of a future. This is, in fact, what Socrates threatens to bring about: to interrogate the great men of ancient Greek history and myth is, in fact, to deconstruct the future by means of the past. We can almost imagine, especially in the Greek scheme of Hades being the Underworld, the world of the living crumbling down with each foundational figure that Socrates deconstructs in that of the dead. As poetic as this may sound, an unbridled revisionist critical theory does just that: by questioning and undermining the foundations of our historicity, of our much needed sense that life takes us from point A to point B, whatever the latter might be, revisionist historicism in effect pulls the rug along with the floor from under our feet.

Does this mean that critical theory needs to be done away with? Not at all! I locate my own work within its discursive framework, and I do so because I find it compelling and important.But we must equally remember that the rigor of such a powerful methodology can lead it astray. We must, therefore, seek ways to make critical theory not a method by which to raze all of our cultural foundations, but by which to raise ourselves above and beyond, while building and improving upon, those foundations.

 

 

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