Socrates’s Assault on the Ivory Tower

In: Research in Phenomenology
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  • 1 University of Texas, Dallas

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Joseph P. Lawrence

Socrates Among Strangers. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015, xv + 214.

In his poem “Frühling der Seele,” Georg Trakl writes of a humanity whose own discordant and incongruous yearnings burden it with the severest of bequests. There Trakl writes: “the soul is a stranger upon the earth.”1 With this enigmatic utterance Trakl gives voice to a truth that is less a pronouncement about some final human identity than it is a call or summons to rethink the very project of what it means to be human. It is in our strangeness, Trakl seems to say, that we begin our circuitous journey upon the earth. Strangeness in this sense should not be understood as a momentary reaction to an unsettling or disaffecting condition that suddenly comes upon us; rather, it comes to us as an irremediable endowment that marks our every venture in factical life. It is precisely this element of strangeness that, as Martin Heidegger has put it, “shows the soul the path of its essential being.”2 What this strangeness denotes, and how such strangeness comes to shape the very standing of the human being in the world, constitutes one of the oldest questions that besets philosophical thinking. Going back to Sophocles’s Antigone chorus, we find the human being characterized as δεινός—that uncanny, terrible, fearful, marvelous, alarming, and strange being who is stranger than all other beings (δεινότατον). As both awesome and aw(e)ful, it is this being who, as the chorus sings, “stops at nothing” to assert its mastery over an uncertain and threatening world of natural forces.3 In Sophocles’s words, this strangeness is combined with “a cunning ingenuity that exceeds all hope” (v. 365) such that strangeness comes to dwell with excess as its intimate consort. It is in this domain of strangeness that Joseph P. Lawrence tries to situate the whole enterprise of philosophical inquiry.

In Lawrence’s strange and affecting book, Socrates Among Strangers, we come face-to-face with a philosopher whose very way of being offers a challenge to our usual understanding of philosophy, both as an academic field of study and as a way of life. In this early Greek philosopher, Lawrence finds a model for his own efforts to understand what philosophy is and what it purports to be. For him, Socrates is the consummate stranger, the one who is not at home in Athens, not at home in any academy, not at home in his domestic routines and, above all, not at home within himself. As “the perennial outsider” (15)—barefoot, coarse, unkempt, and physically repellent—he comes to personify a certain kind of philosophical detachment from the expectations of others. In this way, by embracing his “strikingly ugly and distinctly … portly [appearance],” he comes to understand himself as the compelling figure he truly is. Freed from the social norms of Athenian conformity, Lawrence’s “Socrates” becomes free for the serious pursuit of self-transformation that lies at the root of all philosophical inquiry. As the stranger, Socrates remains intent on resisting the impulse to accommodate himself to what the πόλις deems suitable. For generations this image of Socratic independence and resistance has conferred upon him a unique status as a kind of philosophical hero, an Odysseus-figure who cunningly navigates a return back to his home after a series of trials and missteps. And if most commentators define Socrates’s heroic traits in terms of his Odysseus-like courage, cunning, determination, and resourcefulness, Lawrence locates it elsewhere: in Socrates’s incessant struggle with the possibility of his own monstrousness. At root, Lawrence tells us, Socrates’s heroic stance—which is inseparable from his strangeness—lies in his ability (and willingness) to pursue the project of self-examination to its most radical limits. The source for such a reading Lawrence finds in the Phaedrus, where Socrates claims: “I inquire into myself. For me the question is whether I happen to be a monster more complex in form and more savage than Typhon, or whether I am a tamer, simpler animal to whom nature has apportioned a divine and un-Typhonic share” (Phaedrus 230a). We find traces of this same suspicion in The Republic (572b) where Socrates admits, “there is some terrible (δεινόν), savage, and lawless brood of desire in every human, even in those who seem to be measured individuals.” It is in this most proper sense that Socrates appears in the dialogue as ἄνοµος: that is, outside of the law, contrary to convention, beset by an anomie so fierce that it serves as both the spur and the seed for the most exacting form of self-scrutiny.

On the basis of this reading of Socrates as “the stranger,” Lawrence comes to position him in two distinctive ways: first, as a model for the human being who stands as the strangest of all possible creatures—hence, the title: Socrates “among” strangers. Here we are to understand that all human beings are strange, but that culture (νόµος) teaches us to conform to a certain standard of conventionality so as to make us useful citizens and productive members of a social order. This tightly organized economic and social regimen suppresses our most Typhonic impulses for the benefit of the πόλις and so tames the beast within us. Against such societal pressure stands the gadfly Socrates. In his resistance to any form of unreflective accommodation, Socrates offers the model for authentic philosophical practice. Such a practice finds its source in Socrates’s uncanny ability to always remain a stranger, to steadfastly adhere to his role as an outsider; indeed, to comport himself as so eccentric or alien that Alcibiades dares not compare him to other human beings, but solely to Silenus and the satyrs (Symposium 221d). It is in this Platonic identification of Socrates as “the most strange,” “the most unsettling,” “the one most out of place,” (ἀτοπότατος) that Lawrence finds the inspiration for his full-scale assault on the νόµοι of the modern academy. And here Socrates comes to serve as Lawrence’s hero in a singularly personal sense as the “teacher” whose insights are rooted in his own life and not in the conventions of a learning received from others. As Lawrence expresses it, “Insight philosophy is always, because of the intensity of its commitment to truth, painfully aware of the profoundly personal nature of all thinking. The demand this places on us is great: given the inadequacy of what alone really matters—our level of insight—we are forced to take up a kind of project that is different from those offered by the prevailing philosophical schools” (170–171).

Armed with this Socratic insight, Lawrence undertakes a thoroughgoing critique of modern academic life that he identifies with the bloodless standards of scholarly objectivity that command us to suppress all hints of personal identity. This Weberian ethic of “the value free nature of scholarship” appears to Lawrence as profoundly anti-Socratic. Moreover, it is Weber’s assertion that “positively affirming the value of science (Wissenschaft) is the precondition of all teaching,” that Lawrence will contest throughout his whole book.4 Embracing the Nietzschean ethos of self-transformation rooted in life as experience (Erlebnis), Lawrence begins his study of Socrates with an account of his own personal experience of confronting death in the Kobe earthquake of 1995. Amidst this tumultuous disaster that led to 6000 casualties and almost 300,000 people being displaced and resettled, Lawrence begins his inquiry into the sense and purpose of Socrates’s mission. From out of this personal brush with death, Lawrence finds that he cannot conduct his inquiry according to the usual standards of scholarly research and writing. As he reminds his readers, “thinking begins with life itself” (12)—a truth that, he maintains, the modern “scholarly ethos” has wholly forgotten. As he recovers from this Typhonic shock of the Kobe earthquake, Lawrence begins to think philosophy anew (particularly his own chosen role as a “teacher” of philosophy) from the perspective of “Socrates in Japan.” This strange, uncanny juxtaposition of an ancient Greek philosopher with modern Japanese culture, precisely at the interstices of an encounter with death, shapes the whole work. As Lawrence conceives him, Socrates, “did whatever he could to ‘unsettle’ [people] by bringing them into closer contact with the elemental strangeness of being human” (xv). Taking up this Socratic task, Lawrence offers a penetrating critique of the modern university as a site for both the profound disembodiment of philosophical inquiry and of the loss of any spiritual center for human learning. In an academic world where scholarly detachment reigns, Lawrence delivers “a defiant j’accuse against the various gatekeepers of the scholarly industry” (xi). This leads him to challenge some of the most well-known voices in Socratic interpretation—Gregory Vlastos, Leo Strauss, Martha Nussbaum, Alan Bloom, Hans–Joachim Krämer, among others. As he undertakes his assessment of contemporary scholarship, Lawrence delivers his most forceful critique against analytic philosophers, whose implacable commitment to the values of “clarity,” “rationality,” “rigor,” and “self-evidence” (49), he finds enervating. But he also directs a critical eye toward the hermeneutical approach, whose “fixation on words,” he argues, “fails to do justice to the silence” that pervades Socrates’s quest for wisdom.

What lies at the root of Lawrence’s ongoing remonstrations against academic learning and its scholarly ethos is the latter’s toxic separation of philosophy from life. For Lawrence, following a thread from Pierre Hadot, philosophy takes the form of a “spiritual exercise” that is less a method of scholarly research than it is “a way of life.”5 What matters above all is the moral education of the soul, this quintessentially Socratic practice that turns the focus of inquiry away from the heavens above towards the rooted life of the human being upon the earth. A university system organized around the suppression of “personal narrative” (ix) can never reveal the genuine nature of philosophy, Lawrence argues. Neither can it help us to understand that strangest and most enigmatic figure that stands at the beginning of modern philosophical thinking: Socrates. What Lawrence seeks, then, is not a historical-philological account of the fifth-century Socrates as the source for later thinking. Rather, Lawrence’s “Socrates” functions as a figure that emerges out of myth to become our contemporary. It is this “living” Socrates whom Lawrence presents as both student and teacher in his relations to Protagoras and Parmenides in the first case and to Alcibiades and Plato in the second. This Socratic search for wisdom does not, like most contemporary academic “research,” “turn away from the student” (95). On the contrary, it brings the student face-to-face with the most compelling of life-questions: erotic love, the power of beauty, the confrontation with death, the attunement to ambiguity, enigma, and mystery. And here is where Lawrence’s book shows its real strength.

Socrates Among Strangers positions itself as both a study of the historical Socrates and as a critique of contemporary academic practice. But it goes far beyond this as an attempt to channel Socrates’s genuine search for “life-wisdom.” Styling himself as a modern day Socrates, Lawrence enters into the agora of the modern university and finds there an academic ethos out of touch with the authentic spirit of philosophical inquiry. As Lawrence puts it, “The philosophical quest begins where we happen to find ourselves, trying to make sense of the world as we ourselves experience it. If philosophy should provide us with glimpses of truth, it should also show us what truth might have to do with life. If we regard ourselves as having grown too sophisticated to search for life-wisdom, we should consider the possibility that we have simply insulated ourselves from the always looming catastrophe of our mortality” (23). For Lawrence, academic philosophy’s “disembodiment” and its commitment to “the model of detached objectivity” (165) render it incapable of getting to the heart of the Socratic quest, one that involves nothing less than an authentic confrontation with our own mortality. As Lawrence surveys the corpus of Platonic dialogues, he “finds [Socrates] thinking constantly about death,” so much so that he argues that it is this “relationship to death [that] constitute[s] the whole of his philosophical being” (58). Sometimes it appears as if Lawrence’s pathway into his understanding of Socrates leads directly out of sections 46–53 from Heidegger’s Being and Time. Here death appears not only as “the ownmost possibility” of Socrates’s Dasein, but as the very basis for any authentic philosophical engagement with the world. It is this relentless impulse to get behind the surface of everyday life and to penetrate the core of the mystery of death, and what he calls “the resurrection of the body,” that marks Lawrence’s work in both a positive and negative sense.

Despite his caviling at the pretensions and platitudes of academic practice, however, Lawrence shows himself to be a gifted and articulate academic researcher. His scholarship here is rich and well-informed, drawing on original language sources in Greek, German, French, Norwegian, and Japanese that deepen and extend his reading of Socratic strangeness in a concrete way. Moreover, the book is gracefully written and engagingly argued. We find, for example, an essayistic portrait of Socrates’s relationship with Alcibiades that positions it between erotic attraction and genuine teacherly solicitude. We are also provided with an original and fascinating account of Socrates’s twenty-four hour trance at Potidaea (Apology 28e; Symposium 220c); his communion with his δαίµων on a porch outside of Agathon’s feast (Symposium 175a); his embrace of the art of midwifery (Theaetetus 149a–151d; Symposium 209 a–c); the death scene in the Phaedo, and the image of “the second sailing” as the proper course for philosophy (Phaedo 99d). In all these nuanced and insightful readings, Lawrence offers us not only a provocative and discerning account of texts whose meaning is ever in question. He also challenges us to think on our own and to engage him in our own kind of Socratic ἔλεγχος so that we may join the festival of thinking that his work celebrates. Lawrence’s ambitions here are not insubstantial. Assuming the role of the classroom teacher, yet schooled in the scholarship of Socratic reception, he seeks to rescue Socrates from the library, the conference room, the academic publishing world, and the canonical precepts of accepted philosophical practice, so as to finally shake us all loose from our ingrained academic slumbers. As a timely assault on all complacency and on any unassailable obeisance to venerable scholarly conventions, I find his book to be a refreshing change.

Yet Lawrence’s bold and ambitious project is not without its own problems, foremost among which is the simple question: “Whose Socrates?” Lawrence’s book attempts to separate Socrates and Plato, casting the teacher as the Odyssean hero and the student as the front man for the cult of scholarly objectivity (xiv). It is Plato, Lawrence contends, who commands us to “disappear in the face of one’s work,” as if it is “only dead men [who] can see the truth” (9). But where does Lawrence’s “Socrates” emerge most powerfully? It is without question in the dialogues of Plato. Lawrence offers the occasional reference to the Sokratesbild put forward by Xenophon and Aristophanes, but it is in Plato’s dialogues that he discovers the core of the authentic philosopher as midwife and as the courageous soldier unafraid to look death in the face. It is this Socrates who emerges as the monstrous, Typhonic stranger bent on unsettling us all and dislodging us from our doctrinaire, yet unreflected, assumptions. How does such a strange, perplexing figure emerge from the writings of the father of the scholarly ethos? Lawrence never really comes to terms with this paradox. Instead, he comes to accept Plato’s descriptions of Socrates in uncritical fashion without submitting them to the same rigorous examination that he offers elsewhere in his work. Why does he refrain from exploring this difficult hermeneutic terrain? Throughout this impressive book Lawrence shows himself to be a dexterous reader, one who cannily sorts through the various palimpsestic inscriptions on Plato’s writings that constitute the history of Western philosophy. But even as he astutely navigates the difficult waters of Plato-interpretation, he seems to fall back upon one telling assumption—namely, that the character of Socrates drawn in Plato’s dialogues is essentially trustworthy and historically reliable. But Plato was not Xenophon. His literary talents always presented Socrates within the framework of both the mythic and the quotidian. Apollodorus’s recollection of Aristodemus’s narration of the banquet at Agathon’s; Socrates’s recollection of an evening spent in Piraeus worshipping Bendis; Phaedo’s recollection of Socrates’s death-scene—all are presented against the rich background of Greek myth and religion (Silenus and Dionysus in the Symposium; Bendis as moon goddess in the Republic; the Theseus mission to Apollo at Delos at the beginning of the Phaedo). Given all of these intricate enframing devices that Plato employs to narrate these dialogues, we can hardly assume any kind of direct access to either the character or the teachings of Socrates. Everything is mediated, filtered, qualified, repositioned, and refashioned. Here I find Gadamer’s Platonbild to be a welcome corrective, for in his work Gadamer stresses the essentially provisional nature of the Socratic ἔλεγχος where the dialogic and interpretive elements predominate. For example, Gadamer questions whether Plato was really sick on the day of Socrates’s death and thus did not appear in the Phaedo.6 Or was this perhaps just another literary ploy that Plato unfolded to complicate and darken the whole relation of the philosopher to death?

I also find problematic Lawrence’s ex cathedra pronouncement about what he terms “the reality of evil” (3). As Lawrence puts it, “Evil … is what most emphatically requires an explanation: it should not be (indeed, it cannot be), yet it is” (144). Where this reality of evil comes from, Lawrence never tells us. Instead, contra Socrates’s own claim to ignorance in matters ontological, Lawrence asserts the reality of something that, I believe, Socrates would have claimed to be unable to know. Moreover, this kind of assertion goes against the spirit of Lawrence’s own subtle and nuanced portrait of a Socrates unmoored from the conventions of traditional Platonic interpretation. To be fair to Lawrence, this book harbors many virtues: it is eminently readable, philosophically engaging, and filled with a range of wonderful insights and asides that challenge the conventional style and narrative pace of most traditional academic scholarship. Amidst all his censure of staid academic practice, Lawrence manages to ably navigate the murky waters of modern Platonic scholarship with his own kind of rigor. As part of this journey, we are offered an inventive reading of Plato’s Republic, which Lawrence contends is anti-Socratic. He argues that a πόλις hierarchically organized and led by a philosopher-king does not let us make our own decisions. Rather, it imposes them from above. It is as if, here, Plato wished to fill in the formally indicative aspects of human existence with his own more enlightened solutions. This anti-Socratic Plato manages to undermine the core of Lawrence’s “Socrates”: the commitment to freedom and with it the right to make poor choices and suffer the consequences. Lawrence also reminds us, by way of a thoughtful reading of Hölderlin, of Socrates’s profound love of nature and beauty and how any interpretation of his mission needs to take these into account. Whether reflecting on politics, myth, beauty, eros, wisdom, authenticity, desire, education, or death, Lawrence never forgets to relate each of these problems to the philosophical life in all its aporias and perplexity. And it is when he honors such perplexity in all its labyrinthine forms that he is at his best.

As he keeps pressing forward in his captivating portrait of Socrates as the model philosopher, Lawrence’s underlying thesis endures: Socrates is strange. Indeed, in the most exemplary way possible, he is the stranger among strangers, perhaps even a stranger to Plato. Despite his dramatic license and his willful appropriation of Socrates as the mouthpiece for his own theory of ideas, however, Plato did get something right. For what emerges out of Plato’s dialogues, Lawrence argues, is “not the dissolution of character and abstract universality” but, rather, a vision of Socrates in terms of “authentic selfhood” (114). This Socrates is at root ethical. His character (ἦθος) “outweigh[s] in importance both his deeds and his thoughts” (136). What matters then for Lawrence’s Socrates is not knowledge of the forms, but “knowledge that makes one good.” And yet the power of Lawrence’s portrait does not reside here, in acknowledging what many other Plato scholars have already argued. Rather, Lawrence’s interpretive strength lies in pushing to its limits his insight into Socrates’s strangeness. Such an insight leads him to challenge Hegel’s “Socrates” as the forerunner and model for Christian “ethics,” the philosopher who, by dint of his passion for self-knowledge, comes to instantiate the Good. As Lawrence sees it, Socrates never achieves self-knowledge; on the contrary, it is his incessant search for the possibility of such knowledge that remains shrouded in mystery and concealment. Socrates remains a stranger to wisdom. He remains pledged to the conviction that confusion is something positive—and necessary—for all who wish to pursue philosophy. As Socrates puts it in the Meno (80a-d): “Questions come before answers. Pain precedes birth” (141). In his ongoing commitment to stand in the storm of perplexity and to resist the facile answers of the agora, Lawrence’s “Socrates” helps us in the end to reflect on that most pressing of questions: What is it that we do when we abide the calling of the philosopher?


Georg Trakl, “Frühling der Seele,” Gedichte (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1965), 85.


Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zur Sprache, Gesamtausgabe 12 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1985), 77.


Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1994), 34–37; and Sophocles, Antigone, trans. David Mulroy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), 20–21.


Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures ed. Tracy Strong (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 27; “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (Tübingen: Mohr, 1922), 551.


Pierre Hadot, Philosophy As a Way of Life (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1995).


Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Platon als Porträtist,” Gesammelte Werke vii (Tübingen: Mohr, 1991), 226.

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