DID SOCRATES TELL THE TRUTH?
D. R. Khashaba
ta ge alêthê ethelô eipein. Symposium, 199a.
In Plato’s Symposium a company of friends are at a dinner celebrating Agathon’s first victory as a tragic poet. They agree that, for entertainment, they will take turns at making a speech in praise of the love god Eros. Plato first gives the speeches of five who spoke before Socrates. When it is Socrates’ turn to speak, he demurs. He has agreed to participate in the belief that “the right thing was to speak the truth about the subject proposed for panegyric, whatever it might be.” But, from the speeches made thus far, it appears “that the proper method is to ascribe to the subject of the panegyric all the loftiest and loveliest qualities, whether it actually possesses them or not.” He protests that he cannot do that . He affirms, “I am quite willing to tell the truth in my own style.” (Symposium, 198b-199b, tr. W. Hamilton).
So did Socrates tell the truth? What truth did he speak?
As in the Meno Socrates, to affirm the priority of ideas born in the mind to all knowledge and all understanding, relates tales told by ancient priests and priestesses, so here he gives us the prophetic teaching of the wise Diotima. Diotima offers no argument but an insight clothed in a meaningful vision, in the light of which the mysteries of being obtain intelligibility.
At 199d Socrates, beginning his brief preliminary argument with Agathon, asks whether love is of something or of nothing. He hastens to remove a possible confusion, since the Greek einai tinos could, following its common usage, readily be taken to be asking about the parentage of Eros. In explaining that the question is not about the parentage of Eros but about the object of love, Socrates lifts the discussion from the plane of mythology to the plane of conceptual thinking. We are concerned with love not as a god nor as an entity but as a relationship and as a power. Though Further on Socrates resorts to myth, it is no longer naïve myth dogmatically purporting to report fact, but symbolic myth clothing ineffable meaning in the garb of a ‘noble lie’ that does not conceal or deceive but intimates.
Diotima tells us that the drive of love is towards procreation in beauty. esti gar touto tokos en kalôi kai kata to soma kai kata tên psuchên (206b). Here we have Diotima’s oracular proclamation, the central principle and the springboard for the vision of the ascent to the Form of Beauty. This is the sum and substance of all intelligent creativity. All art, all philosophy, all deeds of love, are tokos en kalôi and in all such creativity we live in the eternity of creative intelligence.
Love, Diotima tells us, does not desire to possess beauty or the good or anything else. Love is an outflow, a divine urge to give, to create. Love, as what is ultimately real, is simply creativity, creative intelligence or intelligent creativity. Everything else that lays claim to the name ‘reality’ is an impostor, a sham, an empty shadow.
Diotima then takes us on a celestial pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Form of Beauty. It is the same pilgrim’s progress delineated in an oracular passage in the Republic (490a-b) where the journey of the true philosophical nature also culminates in tokos en kalôi when “she grasps the essence of every reality by that in her soul to which it is becoming – namely, what is akin – to grasp that, approaching and mingling with what has true being, gives birth to reason and reality; enjoys knowledge and true life”. In these words the Republic passage clearly depicts hê kuêsis kai hê genesis (the conception and giving birth) of the philosophic spirit. Indeed, the metaphors of Symposium 206d-e can be translated phrase by phrase into the abstractions of Republic 490a-b.
Love in Diotima’s teaching is the Principle of Creativity working through all becoming to affirm the being of the real in the transience of vanishing existents. At any rate this is what it is in my philosophy of Creative Eternity.
Did Socrates tell the truth? Did Socrates’ Diotima tell the truth?
A genuine philosopher must always be poor, wanting, never in possession of knowledge. That is the deeper import of Plato’s phrase; to porizomenon aei hupekrei. A philosopher never reaches a resting place in her or his pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Holy Sophia but, philosophizing throughout life, philosophôn dia pantos tou biou,she or he lives in the eternity of creative becoming, realized in the ceaseless vanishing of transient existents. Every answer to a philosophical question, if the answer is genuinely philosophical, engenders a new question.
Did Socrates tell the truth? He didn’t and he couldn’t.
I will say something that I know sounds outrageous. The concept of truth is foreign to philosophy. It has no place and no function in philosophy. Truth relates to the empirical and the objective and philosophy proper has nothing to do with the empirical and the objective. Let me make another equally outrageous statement. Reasoning is not the major or a major tool of philosophizing but is a plaything of philosophers. In making these statements I am not trying to be or to sound paradoxical. I mean my words to be taken literally and seriously.
The vision of Diotima is creatively oracular and “does not rest on reasoning at all” (as Kenneth Dover comments in his edition of the Symoisium, 1980, p.144). Reasoning yields nothing but a gossamer tissue that, as the Parmenides shows and as Kant’s Antinomies of Pure Reason demonstrate, must be dialectically demolished if we are to appreciate what meaning is housed in them. It is in the process of raising rational structures only to demolish them dialectically that we enjoy philosophical enlightenment. The halfway house of established truth is a mortuary.
The proper embodiment of living, dynamic phronêsis is nothing but that fecund aporia, that restless aspiration to express the ineffable in ever-crumbling structures of ideal formulations. That is the pregnant state the dialogues of Plato leave us in. The great gift of Socrates, conveyed to us in Plato’s works, is not any truth but is philosophical ignorance, enlightened ignorance, the only wisdom, as Socrates affirmed, possible to and proper to a human being.
Did Socrates tell the truth? What truth could he speak?
Socrates neither did nor could tell the truth, nor was he concerned to tell any truth in the commonly accepted sense of truth. Dear reader, bear with me. What I say may sound shockingly outrageous, but in the end, I hope, you will not only find that what I say makes sense, but also that my approach is the only way that leads safely through between the Scylla of dogma and the Charybdis of condemning all properly philosophical thinking as nonsense to be consigned to Hume’s flames.
Cairo, October 8, 2014.