Not a good day, or a brief comment on Memorabilia IV.2.24-29

Ugh. Put a few hours into a video game in a losing cause. I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating that was. I thought my strategy was going well until I revealed the other players on the map and they had double (!) my score. Back to square one, if I can stomach it.

Worse, I went on Amazon and ordered the wrong thing from a third party with no specific returns policy. I hope I’m not out $20 – I do understand that I’m going to lose some money shipping this thing back and I definitely expect to pay for the money he lost shipping it to me. But it’s entirely possible I lose the money altogether and am stuck with a product I can’t use.

On the other hand, work is progressing, albeit slowly. Memorabilia IV.2.26 has been something I’ve spent too much time thinking about:

“Is this not visible,” he [Socrates] said, “that human beings experience most good things due to knowing themselves, and most bad ones due to being deceived about themselves? For those who know themselves know what suits them and distinguish between what they are capable of and what they are not; and by doing what they understand how to do, they procure what they need and do well, while by refraining from what they don’t understand, they remain free from error and escape doing badly. Due to this they are able to test other human beings as well, and through the use of the others procure the good things and guard against the bad ones.” (trans. Amy Bonnette)

When something in Xenophon looks obvious, it usually isn’t. Socrates’ language above is way too obvious: self-knowledge appears to result in useful, good things. It even allows for using people properly. That last notion is the tip-off that something isn’t right here. Reading the passage backwards makes it clear how cynical Socrates is towards his immediate audience. “Test other human beings?” Does one who really have self-knowledge have to do this? You have to use others for goods? Isn’t the point of self-knowledge to be able to make do with what one absolutely needs? “Refraining from what they don’t understand” seems to divorce the sort of “self-knowledge” Socrates is talking about firmly from knowledge proper. It is true that self-knowledge is not the same thing as knowledge generally: I know I’ve remarked once that self-knowledge is characteristic of soul, knowledge characteristic of mind in Platonic thought. But Socrates is definitely saying above that it is better for some not to understand at all than to do wrong.

So what’s going on here? Socrates is talking to an interlocutor who thinks he knows everything already and is ready to rule, despite never having held office before or having worked with a decent teacher or demonstrating any competence in affairs public or private. This passage is situated between one describing excellent horses (2.25) and considerations of being “well reputed and honored” (2.28). It looks like what Socrates is trying to do is tie knowledge to what is honorable completely in the interlocutor’s mind. If this happens, he is less likely to take risks to further his own ambition. Witness IV.2.29:

“Those, on the other hand, who do not know what they are doing, since they choose badly and fail at the things they attempt, are penalized and punished not only in these very matters, but also due to them they are held in low opinion and ridiculed and live in contempt and dishonor. You see among cities, too, that some of those that, out of ignorance of their power, go to war against stronger cities become ruined, while others who were before free are enslaved.”

Self-knowledge became “know what you’re doing” which became “success results in being honored”/”failure is dishonorable.” The logic doesn’t completely reduce to power: it is “ignorance of… power” that drives the argument. Considerations of honor are not a mere substitute for “ignorance of power:” they are one other facet (so to speak) of being ignorant about one’s power. Power is a means; the end is likely, not necessarily certain. Inasmuch as power involves certainty, it resembles knowledge. What I find interesting, for future consideration: honor and reputation create experts that are limited, always – somebody who really wants to know probably has exchanged self-knowledge for knowledge simply, and is only considered eccentric many times. Experts who are limited do have self-knowledge in the sense outlined above, but the ironic circle continues: those who strive for honor are usually not terribly self-knowledgeable either, to say the least.

Is there anything philosophic to be had here, or is this a bunch of knots created by Socrates’ use of a certain rhetoric? Sometimes it helps to back away from the higher issues and just go for what one can get. I’m pretty sure these passages aren’t going to illuminate the exact relation of self-knowledge to knowledge, or even how philosophy relates to both and what that might mean for politics. What we do get is a notion of political ambition as a social construct: its origin and destiny lie in appeals to honor. That may sound obvious, but the key is that the Socratic interlocutor does not see this as obvious. He sees himself as having a right to rule; we as partisans confer on politicians we like a similar right to rule, especially in this day and age where President Obama and Sarah Palin can do no wrong for some people. I never liked the anti-war whining during the Bush years because it was a knee-jerk reaction that didn’t take foreign policy of any sort seriously. But I do worry in these years to come that we can be ignorant of our own power in a critical way, and that ignorance would be fueled by a bunch of ambitious new politicians armed with rhetoric from MoveOn and the Tea Parties accusing everyone and their mother of being the devil and not demonstrating any qualification for the office they seek. That’s the old world Socrates was in that we’re still in: the President’s initial qualifications for the office (for me, this is not an issue as much any more, he seems to be learning well-enough on the job), as well as the lack of qualifications many in his and the opposing party have, are simply stunning. To such overly ambitious people, a lower notion of self-knowledge has to be advanced, since they don’t care to know themselves. Knowledge itself perhaps has to be kept away to a degree – they have to show they want it and want to use it properly before it can be given. Giving someone enamored of an office and a title the tools to rule, ironically enough, seems to be dangerous; they may need to demonstrate some awareness of others’ opinion, some awareness of what is good other than a love of general popularity or victory. I never thought political science was so exclusive :)

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