The Problem of Socrates

"The Problem of Socrates," Interpretation, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring 1995).  Talk given on April 17, 1970, at St. John's College, Annapolis.


[I was told that the local paper has announced that I lecture tonight on “The problems of Socrates.” This was an engaging printing error; for there is more than one problem of Socrates, in the first place, the problem with which Socrates was concerned. But one could say, the problem with which Socrates was concerned may be of no concern to us, that it may not be relevant. Therefore after all there are so many things which concern us so much more obviously and urgently than the problem with which Socrates was concerned. But we receive an answer why we should be concerned with Socrates’ problem by listening to the man from whom I took the title of this lecture, and which, as far as I remember, was coined by him.]1 “The problem of Socrates” is the first, immediately revealing title of a section in Nietzsche’s Dawn of Idols, one of his last publications. Socrates and Plato, we hear, were decadents. More precisely, Socrates was a decadent who belonged to the lowest stratum of the common people, to the riff-raff. [I quote:] “Everything is exaggerated, buffo, caricature in him, everything is at the same time¬†concealed, rich in afterthoughts, subterranean.” The enigma of Socrates is the idiotic equation of reason, virtue and happiness an equation opposed to all instincts of the earlier Greeks, of [the] Greek health and nobility. The key is supplied by Socrates’ discovery of dialectics, i.e. the quest for reasons. The earlier and high-class Greeks disdained to seek for, and to present, the reasons of their conduct. To abide by authority, by the command either of the gods or of themselves, was for them simply a matter of good manners. Only those people have recourse to dialectics who have no other means for getting listened to and respected. It is a kind of revenge which the low-born take of the high-born. “The dialectician leaves it to his adversary to prove that he is not an idiot. He enrages and at the same time makes help less.” Socrates fascinated because he discovered in dialectics a new form of agon, [of contest]; he thus won over the noble youth of Athens and among them above all Plato. In an age when the instincts had lost their ancient surety, and [were disintegrating]3, one needed a non-instinctual tyrant; this tyrant was reason. Yet the cure belongs as much to decadence as the illness.