Socrates in the Last Days

John Lash

For Francis Huxley
Do Kamo Amo Sapiens


Chuang Tzu, old Ch’an wizard and master of the absurd, is said to have said, “The man of Tao has no reputation.”

Surely he meant that the man of Tao acts as if he has no reputation, rather than sees to it that he does not acquire one. Acquiring a reputation is, after all, not a matter of one’s own choosing. Refrain as you may from doing and saying things that might contribute to a reputation (and this is hardly possible), others will see to it that you acquire one, nonetheless. Be you ever so humble, or ever so grandiose, there will always be a huge discrepancy between what you make of life and what comes to be made of your life by others.


Character Influence:  A good case in point is Socrates, a man who carries one of the largest burdens of reputation in world history. Since he left nothing behind in writing, no self-wrought record of his efforts and intentions, the reputation that has accrued to him rests solely upon the report of others. Curiously, considering that Socrates seems to have viewed himself as a man of no special achievement, the reputation derived from his life turns out to be a formidable one.

Socrates presents the classic example of “character influence” profound enough to extend through the ages. The man survives to this day by the unique signature of his character, his ironic style. He appears in Plato as the sly, sincere dialectician who self-effacingly undermines the pretenses of friend and foe alike. Designated by the Delphic Oracle to be the wisest of men, he reluctantly accepts the compliment and then, characteristically, twists it by insisting that he is only wise in the sense that he knows how little he knows. Here and elsewhere, he ironizes to enlighten. Indeed, he might be credited with the invention of irony. As the directive voice of the Platonic dialogues, he has become the primary oracle of the Western intellectual tradition.

This in itself may turn out to be the greatest irony of all.

Whether or not the portrait offered by Plato resembles the actual, lived character of Socrates, we shall never know, but it is probably fair to see in the Platonic Socrates an instrument of its author more than a likeness of its model. Plato, after all, was a consummate literary artist, and the dialogues are high and clever artifice. Plato also had definite views on things a “strong agenda,” as we say today (see the Republic, for instance). Socrates, for his part, seems to have no such definite views, no clear and outstanding convictions, no eminent theory of ideas. What he achieved, if anything, he did purely by an act of exemplification, although it is not easy to see what he exemplified, either... In any case, his influence was of character rather than of conviction. Something innate to his personalityuncannily difficult to pin down, like a strong odor whose source cannot be located produced an impression of exceptional force not only on his contemporaries, but on people living thousands of years after him, right down to our times.

Writing around 150 CE, Apulieus said of the condemnation of Socrates, “this has left an indelible stain on the reputation of Athenian justice, because even today the best philosophers, those who aspire to the highest form of human happiness, regard his system as the most truly religious of all and swear by his name.” (The Golden Ass, Ch. 17, trans. Robert Graves) A remarkable testimony, considering that Socrates would, it seems, have been the last person in the world to claim to present a system, or to be more truly religious than anyone else. After all he was condemned for impiety (asebia).

Not to exaggerate, however. The one called Socrates is a literary persona, nothing more. Although the persona is to date holding up a lot better than the Parthenon, the decline of academic and intellectual values, world-wide, since the dawning of the Electronic Age, makes it likely that the snub-nosed paragon will fade from collective memory, sooner rather than later. Whoever Socrates really was, whatever he ultimately contributed, matters less and less. Before too long, it may cease to make any difference at all.

As the Last Days approach, our Greek trust fund is running out. If history is cyclic, the “indelible stain” may come back to haunt us, spreading through the Western mind even as it congeals in cyberspace. Maybe it is just the moment to take one last, over-the-shoulder look at Socrates.


A Unique Problem:   Character rather than conviction: this describes the perennial influence well enough, but there was also a method to the man, some will argue. He survives, in character, precisely because his character embodies a particular method, even a “system” of sorts, if Apulieus be believed. It is perhaps the superpersonal durability of the method that accounts for the longevity of the man. Strong support from this view comes from Aristotle who credits Socrates with two specific and concrete achievements: the introduction of inductive argument and the search for definitions in the moral realm. This astonishing testimony amounts to a couple of lines in the Metaphysics.

Simple enough, this. The reputation of Socrates does indeed rest upon two enormous and long-standing achievements, which together constitute a breakthrough unique for its time and seminal to all successive efforts. This may be all that can be said, or needs to be said, on the man and the matter.

But Gilbert Murray, scrabbling in an old hod, once came up with a rather different and startling assessment of Socrates’ life and work: “He was working incessantly at a problem he could never really frame to himself, which mankind has never been able to frame.” The Literature of Ancient Greece, Phoenix Books, University of Chicago Press, 1956, p. 172)

This comment will, perhaps, be even more revealing than the word of Aristotle to anyone intent on getting to the man through the reputation. What if the great methodological advances Aristotle describes, the cog and wheel of Western intellectual discourse, were not considered by Socrates himself as anything but improvisational measures? What if they merely graze the contours of a problem that is still impossible to solve, having never been clearly and adequately framed? Now that would be ironic.

Irony, by one definition, is a technique for disclosing the truth through the preclusion of a part of it. Ironic in style, certainly, Socrates may also have been ironic in life, substantively, and in the long term, as we say. Do we find here a twisty invitation to deep collusion, as if he insinuates that we can trust him not to be trusted? Or as if he insists, “I really accomplished nothing, but what I left to be accomplished now that was really something.”

If so, he left us a statement of radical incompletion, deeply implicating all later generations in the intentions of the dialectician who sees no aim or conclusion in the species’ task of finding its way to Truth. For Socrates, it’s the journey, not the goal. Refusing initiation in the Mysteries, he refused the telos, the “ultimate aim.” He leaves no track to a goal, just tracks. His inheritors face the dilemma so concisely intuited by Murray: a problem stands before them “which mankind has never been able to frame.”

How then might we begin to frame it?

Suppose we assume, yes, that Socrates left a method for seeking the truth. But what if in the method, or in the way he demonstrated the method, he included the implicit message that we must in no way count on getting ultimate results from it. A nice trick, there. A neat way to tangle us in his intentions. It’s disarming, but Socrates in his own authentic tracks is nothing if not disarming. We may be getting on the true wavelength of the man when we entertain this subtle qualification.

Also, the nuance tallies with the tradition that Socrates in his early years had studied with some of the Greek scientists, notably Anaxagoras. Presumably, he transposed the rigor of scientific inquiry into the realm of philosophical and moral discourse. But doing so he insisted on the supreme irony that we must be strictly methodical without counting on strict results from the method. If this is an achievement, it is unfortunately elusive. It begins to look as if Socrates may have demonstrated a certain proposition that has never been as clear to anyone who followed him as it was to himself. It is easy enough to say that moral inquiry, even when undertaken with scientific rigor of method, will never bring us anything like scientifically valid results, but it is damned hard to remember in practice.

Now the essence of science, analytic knowledge, is proof. Science is proof-directed and its intentional format is twofold: results and predictability. Science is true, we say, when it can produce certain preconceived results or, at the very least, predict a certain course of events. But in the dialectic discourse of Socrates there is no direction toward either results or prediction. Pressed on this tricky point, he might have replied that there is no ultimate way to Truth, although there is a truthful way of handling our inquiries into where it inheres.

Socrates is still significant in the Last Days, and perhaps for the first time on his own terms, by the way he stands like a menhir in the field of human thought where we must sight toward scientific inquiry in one direction and moral enlightenment in another. The same marking stone is useful for both sightings, but the directions are entirely divergent. We have need for such a stone, for in the Last Days we face the crucial issue of the complementarity of mind and nature, a notion about which we cannot afford to be deluded. And Socrates, let’s assume, offers the missing advantage on this issue, an advantage effecting the crucial task (inherited from the Romantics) of revising the transcendent. For him, “Truth” may have been a mere euphemism, while for us it has to be a floating indicator, to borrow an anthropological term. Put the two end to end and we can finally characterize the method of Socrates in a way that may be consistent with his own way of seeing what he did. Rigorous and relentless in pursuit of Truth, he nevertheless rejects all formulations and interpretations of Truth.

But why? In this not purely anarchistic? Absurd? Even maddening? After all, what is there to “Truth” outside our formulations of it?

 Western intellect is born with the taste of irony in its mouth.

Today we are still (just barely, perhaps) impressed that Socrates was an outstanding ironist. Ironia, it is said, was his unique aptitude and gift. I venture to add that the impressiveness of this gift is not purely an intellectual matter, has nothing to do with brilliance of ideas, profundity of content, etc. It secret of the endowment inheres in the force of ironic comment, how it affects us, still effects us, and not always in a pleasant way. For irony is a strange attractor. This force imbues the Platonic dialogues with their persistent appeal, quite apart from the vaunted importance of the “ideas” being discussed.


Divine Madness:   With Socrates, everything is style. In the stylistic and characterological nuances of the literary persona, he can at last be encountered on his own terms. This in any case is as close as we mortals shall get. Apart from what is ascribed to him, we might now glimpse what he innately demonstrates, strangely highlighted by what he ascribes to himself. There are only a few clues here, but a few is all it takes, as long as we know what crime (i.e., problem) the clues are meant to solve. Consider:

First, his intellectual baptism in the spirit of Greek science, already noted.

Second, there is an odd attribution Socrates makes to himself, as if in a momentary lapse of modesty. In the Symposium (201D) he claims to an initiate of erotika due to his tutelage by the crone, Diotima. This is an astounding claim, come to think of it. In a time, mind you, when the word Eros packed a real wallop, not the titillating echo it yields today. Socrates never follows up to explain the implications of this untypical claim, but Plato seizes upon it to turn the old sage into the mouthpiece for his pet theory of transcendental LOVE in four ascending stages.

Now it must be said, if translating “love” for Eros is a serious mistake, it has been a fruitful one. The entire classical doctrine of transcendentalism in the West, including the Platonic and Neoplatonic agendas and their Christian conflations, are speciously founded on this mistake, the likes of which we may not survive. Although Plato wrote only in Greek, he may justly be accused of converting Eros into Love which, on second thought, is less a mistake than a grave misdirection, if not a gross indiscretion, dictated I reckon by Plato’s sexual-pedagogic preferences, not shared by his mentor. There is more to say on this, but on to the third clue.

At the end of the Phaedrus Socrates expounds with a kind of breathless excitement on the subject of divine madness, mania. Notably, this is the only Dialogue that takes place outside the urban setting of Athens. In the countryside, near a bend in the river Ilissos (now paved over, although part of it survives as a wretched gully running from Koukaki to the Tzitziftos beach at Pireaus), Socrates reclines with his friend, Phaedrus, a lanky fellow with an earnest brow. At a given moment in the aura of high noon, Socrates appears to fall into a peculiar state. He goes manic and ends up offering an ecstatic prayer to Pan, spirit of the wild and rude embodiment of the untamed, utterly non-transcendental Eros, the plasmatic surge of raw desire. Here is one instance where the old sage clearly exhibits his own temperament, distinct from didactic mien of the Platonic persona. A major clue, as we shall see.

Yet another clue lies in Socrates’ appearance. Tradition from a good many sources indicates that he is a hardy hunk of Greek manhood with a touch of the beast in his countenance. At the end of the Symposium, the drunken Alcibiades compares his face to Silenus, the very image of Pan humanized: snub-nosed, thick-lipped, bug-eyed and brutish in expression. The allusion persists throughout antiquity right up to Rabelais, who applies it in the preface to Gargantua and Pantagruel where he compares the image of Socrates to the sileni, little trick-boxes, finely and grotesquely decorated, which when opened prove to contain a bounty of subtle and marvelous delights.

All this tells us that Socrates-Silenus, considered physiognomically, is a direct descendant of Pan. The phallic goat-god of ancient Phrygia, he is Pappo-Silenus, the same shaggy orgiast who plays sometimes mentor to Dionysos, God of manic rapture and the Underworld, darling of ravening maenads. This is a significant spiritual lineage. In his homely and brutish countenance, Socrates clearly embodies the Dionysian power of nature raw, orgiastic, rapturous. In his personal style, he is all persuasion and depth, contrasting sharply with the stock attributes of the Apollonian culture-set: precision, order, stunning looks and the power of high definition, the glorification of appearances and hierarchal form streaming from the celestial matrix of the Eidos, fountainhead of Platonic glamour.

Yet Socrates is presented by Plato as the mouthpiece of Platonic-Apollonian doctrines. Of course, the role was assigned to him after he died. Clearly, it’s a retrofitted job that preludes our seeing what the man himself may really have been about. The ironia he embodies is truly satiric: satyric. His love of dialectic intercourse is, as it were, a refinement of orgiastic tastes, and on the subject of sex he is perhaps a bit sheepish for an old goat: all talk, no action. He is certainly seductive and able to hold his own with the badinage of local high-class courtesans, if we are to believe the anecdotal sketches of Xenophanes.

A reincarnated satyr, indeed, the granpappy of all satyrs, he is close to the Gaian wellspring of Eros, chthonian powers of madness and ecstasy, far and away from the palatial Eidos Plato would have him proclaim. The conversion put in his mouth is so convincing, so slick, that we easily miss the cloven hooves.


Rhinestone Tether:   So, taking note of these clues to his authentic identity, as distinguished from his literary persona and fabricated reputation, we perhaps gain an intuitive glimpse of how the man stood, on his own terms, in the milieu of his times.

At the dawn of intellectual life in the west, Socrates already occupies the outmost and receding boundary. He is an ungainly intruder from the backwoods, an outsider with a beast in his bonnet. Interloper as much as interlocutor, he plays the mock-humble wise-ass ironist who defies the very formulas he uses to prove that his sophistic adversaries know even less about what they are saying than he does. In the stellar array of Athenian intellectuals of the 5th Century, he is the odd man out. (Are he and Plato the original “odd couple”?) In a society thrilled by mind-power and mannish looks, he is a barefooted goof in a shabby chiton, the Dionysian double agent in the Apollonian think-tank. Athens in the 5th century BC is a Hollywood production studded with big names and lavishly decorated by Phidias. Dominating the Parthenon is the image of Pallas Athena, all white marble and gold, the consummate fantasy of the warrior-goddess as pure intellect enforcing the rule and measure of Apollonian will, a bull-dyke effigy looming protectively over an effete colony of cerebro-gymnastic dandies.

In this crowd, Socrates amuses himself at everyone’s expense. He pretends to be dumb so that he can expose what’s really dumb. Anything but chic, he plays the chic Western games of nascent intellectuality with the best of them. Alternatively bemused and disabused, he exploits the glittering gifts of dianoia lavished on lips aspill with sophistic charm. In the highbrow haunts below the Acropolis, he an old goat on a rhinestone tether. Compared often to a gadfly, he hassles the local wits with ironic deconstruction and radical induction. Seemingly, he has no other aim in mind but to expose the patent banalities of their mental posturing. Everywhere he attacks abstraction, theory, formula, ready-made conclusions. The crime later ascribed to him is asebia, irreverence regarding the local and accepted deities. This may well connote his primary characterological mark: defiance of authority, especially so-called spiritual authorities. He defies Apollo (mind you, the supreme authority of that time and place) in the same way as the satyr Marsyas, who was flayed alive for his presumption. He defies the Eidos and the slick pretensions it generates, the snobbism of intellectual parvenus.

He corrupts the young, alright, exactly as he might have done in America in the Sixties: by encouraging them to resist argument, question authority, challenge all pre-set agendas and foregone solutions. A genuine existentialist, as Walter Kaufmann has noted, he teaches them not to rely on ultimate formulations of truth, but to remain committed to a truthful way of handling what Sartre called “that thing of indefinite approximation.” Like Sartre, he stood against “the mode of life in which reasoning and research play but a subordinate role, in which one never seeks but that which one has already found.” (From "Portrait of the Anti-Semite". Cited by Walter Kaufmann in The Faith of a Heretic, New American Library, 1978, p. 79.)

So Socrates, reputed through Plato to have been the paragon of intellectuality, looks to have been on his own terms a ruthless exposeur of the bad faith that so often conceals itself in clever formulas and well-worded propositions, the sanction of transcendental pretenses. Beyond knowing that he knows nothing, he proves there is nothing to prove. He uses the intellect better than anyone else although he values it less.

And for this he is not looked upon kindly.


Remembering What Cannot Be Forgotten:  Imagine, then, that we encounter Socrates, finally on his own terms, in a stance of profound contrariety to the fashionable thinking of his milieu. Just how profound is all the more evident when we consider the one remaining essential clue: his fix on the Platonic doctrine of memory.

The deepest appropriation of Socrates to a message alien to his character probably occurs in the Symposium where Plato presents the doctrine of idealized Eros. This is the ultimate formula of Apollonian transcendence: the long reach toward to Kalon, Beauty above and beyond the realm of the senses. Here Plato looses a chimera upon the species, a torment of the spirit that has perennially been taken for the ultimate test of spiritual breeding. He inaugurates the dogma of otherworldliness destined to support the transmundane savior mythos of Christianity. Scaling Beauty upwards through four stages from sense perception to the supersensible heights, Plato directs our gaze to the world of the Eides, the archetypal Forms. These, he argues elsewhere, cannot be seen or even thought, though all thought-forms flow from them. They can be retrieved after a fashion through the process of thinking insofar as it resembles memory. Technically, this recall is known as the anamnesis: anti-amnesia, or unforgetting. Rather like the “undelete” function on a computer.

For Plato, all knowledge worthy of the name is really a memory of events experienced by the soul in the realms where it existed before birth, before the lethe of incarnation. His doctrine of the anamnesis becomes the basis for psychology and pedagogy up to the Renaissance. The imperative is clear: we must try to remember what we knew, numinous and first-hand, naked and nescient in the Ideal.

But Socrates may be trying to remember something else. Where he left his sandals, for instance. Perhaps, like the Zen monk on the way back from the well at midnight, full moon shining in the brimming water, he is trying to remember his own mind at the moment the bottom drops out of the bucket. Or perhaps he is trying to remember something, to play on the phrase of Murray, “which mankind has never (yet) been able to remember.”

Pause and consider: Socrates is really trying to remember something, but not to remember what Plato supposes. But if not the Eides, then what?

The answer might be approached by taking a clue from Mircea Eliade whose apt description of the archetypal contents of the Jungian collective unconscious reads like this:

the series of psychic structures prior to those of the individual psyche, which cannot be said to have been forgotten since they were not constituted by individual experiences. [And he goes on to add:] The world of the archetypes of Jung is like the Platonic world of Ideas, in that the archetypes are impersonal and do not participate in the historical time of the life of the individual, but in the Time of the species even of organic life itself. (Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, Harper & Row, New York, 1967, p. 54.)

Comparison to the Platonic Eidos is striking, and although it seems perfectly appropriate, it is quite misleading. Here Eliade slurs the boundary of interpretation because he refers to “psychic structures” that cannot be forgotten, whereas Plato insists that the Ideas are forgotten, and therefore can be remembered. This is a telling glitch, indicative of an epochal intellectual error that has served as the main pretext for fudging the record in Plato’s favor: i.e., we think we need him to get back something we lost. Even Eliade with his incomparable grasp of comparative materials equates the non-forgettable psychic structures with the rememberable ones, those we had to forget in order, later, to retrieve them...

(Ponder on that one, Critobolous, while I dodge off to scam a couple of pita sandwiches from the wall-eyed Syrian on Hermou.)

Socrates, we might imagine, represents the experience Eliade really wants to designate, for he is intent upon remembering something “which cannot be said to have been forgotten.” So the anamnesis, the exercise of unforgetting, does not apply for Socrates at all.

Now it is typical of the dynamics of memory that we know we have forgotten something only when we remember that it’s been forgotten, which is not the same as remembering what was forgotten. If I am driving to see a friend at his new home, and I realize momentarily that I have forgotten his address, there is still another step before memory retrieves the address. At least I know what it is that I want to retrieve. This is the first step of remembering: realizing that something has been forgotten and needs to be recalled. The second step is the actual retrieval of the item.

To a great extent, the Platonic theory of knowledge is an abstract makeover of the secret teachings from Orphic and Pythagorean Mysteries concerning the experiences of the human soul in the realm of the “planetary spheres” before rebirth. Credit where credit is due. Plato invented nothing in this respect. Taking a mythico-imaginal scenario based upon the experience of mystic transport and ritually enacted in the cult, he refashioned the esoteric teaching into an intellectual program or more precisely, a pedagogical program. It can be said then that Plato poses the first step in the memory-dynamic: he designates what has been forgotten. Namely, the Ideas, the Archetypes, cosmic impressions replete with noetic content, experienced before birth. Then, taking the persona of Socrates for model pedagogue, he applies the Socratic skill of dialectic to the act of retrieval. In the Dialogues, Socrates is shown inquiring after certain abstractions such as the Good, True, Beautiful. According to his script-writer, there are nothing but intellectual-verbal formulations of the lofty pre-incarnational Ideas.

Plato really believes there is a pure intellectual item called Truth, pure and disembodied, standing behind all human formulations of truth, and he sends Socrates after it like a hunting dog. He is credo-bound to misrepresent Socrates who only believes there are some arresting moments of insight to be had on the way to seeking what we call Truth, although we might as well call it Hoot. In literary pretence, Socrates does what Plato requires him to so, but in real life, in the true skin of the man he was, Socrates defies the transcendental Eidos in favor of loping his goat-footed way to nowhere in particular. He engages others in the journey, as he has engaged a good many of us for over two thousand years, without imposing its destination.

Finally the old goat chews off his rhinestone tether and disappears.


Participation Mystique:   Now just think of it like this: Socrates is not trying to remember the pre-incarnational Eidos of pure intellect, but the pre-intellectual moment of complete participation.

Ah, that word: participation. It is the key to Socrates’ true identity and his epochal mission. A technical term in anthropology, it was introduced by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl [1857-1939] to describe the mentality of primitive peoples for whom the world is unmediated by conceptual structures in the way it is for us, the way it has been, more or less globally, since the Golden Age of Greece. In short, it is the conceptual format that prevailed before Greek rationality defined the subject-object axis.

Working definition: participation is the involvement that comes with discovering how the external world forms its own relationships with the world of the internal psyche, prior to the mind dictating how these two are to be related. It is, by definition, a pre-intellectual moment, but the horizon it presents contains a whole range of intellectual discoveries. The greatest difficulty in grasping the actual, lived character of participation stems from the error of thinking that it is our thinking that dichotomizes the world. This is simply wrong. For the archaic mentality, living in full participation, the world is already Two. Thinking does not make the world Two, and to assume it does is to invest it with power is does not have. Thinking merely decides to order the Twoness of the world on particular terms and thereafter all we know of the Twoness is what thinking tells us, what thinking designates. Since Plato, we live face to face with the secondary, conceptualized Twoness, not the original or “pre-logical” Twoness. Before the split of self-awareness into world-and-self, we participated in an autonomously split world, a realm of reflections, doubles, counterparts and chirality, a maze of mirror symmetry and, even more baffling, mirror asymmetry.


Erotic Flux:   Now the gist of Socrates’ feat of remembering becomes evident at last: he is trying to remember how it felt to encounter the Twoness directly before designating it as ”this” and “that,” “self” and “other.” So-called primitives experience the world as self/other, a primary dyadic structure, but without clear and final designations as to which is which. In the archaic experience of humankind, and today, still, in the worldview of some indigenous peoples, the self/other dyad is fluidic and ambiguous. Participation is living in the field of vital intercourse between self and other, this and that, here and there. In the original Twoness, these mirroring aspects are not fixed by terms or formulas that then come to exert a preclusive power over our capacity to be involved in what we behold.

There is much that could be said about participation and primary dyadic structure much, indeed, that needs to be said. It will suffice to associate the concept with the figure of Socrates at the near boundary of our species’ “domain shift,” the birthing of Western intellectual dualism. Domain shift entailed the movement from participation into a conceptual mind-set of the kind that dawned, more or less planet-wide, in the 6th Century BC, probably due to the hypertrophy of our forebrain capacities around that time.

Previous to domain shift, we discovered the correlates between internal psyche and external world as directed from the world itself, based in its dyadic structure, and not as a matter of our own devising. What we then experienced was not the mental impact of transcendent Ideas, fictions of the dichotomizing mind, but moments of numinous contact, fluctuating wildly between the pitch of overwhelming and the pitch of overwhelmed. Eros is this flux, this interfusion, this wild and unpredictable sex-like current pulsing through the dyadic plenum of the world. It takes Two to know One.

Coming out of participation, not only do we substitute a specious, pre-designated dichotomy for the prelogical dyadic one, not only do we slide back from the visionary into the invisible, but we lose the current, lose the sense of being vulnerable and porous before an awesome force that plays through our pores, permeates our very bowels, pulses in the heart and flutters in the eyes, without letting on for long which way it’s going to play us. Exactly like sex but far more consuming, Erotic excitation is polaric, dyadic. Losing the current, we are unable to encounter anything in its naked Otherness, unable to participate.

We encounter Socrates at last in his own tracks when we grant that he represents the native mind, profoundly disoriented by this situation. He reacts to the shift from participation with a stunned incomprehension, nevertheless imbued with the uncanny intuition that all the thinking in the world is not going to put us back into what we’re missing. While others seem completely “unphased” by the Greek shift, the emergence from participation into logical dichotomy, Socrates falters, lingers on the threshold. The old satyr has one foot in archaic intuition and the other in the clever Greek mind-trap. He wants to say something that never quite comes to mind, wants to remember in logical terms what transpired in the prelogical encounter, but this is impossible.

No wonder he stands around for a day or so, now and then, frozen in his peculiar trance, trying to remember what cannot have been forgotten, trying to retrieve the impression of the last moment before thinking intervened and broke the connecting link: not the link between mind and nature, self and world, but between the two vitalities, psychic and natural.

And it is not, let’s note, any such thing as a “lost wholeness,” lost unity or even lost sense of unity, that Socrates senses we are missing. The crucial question he represents is: Can participation be remembered? This is tantamount to asking, Can it be forgotten in the first place? Well, yes and no. What can we imagine that Socrates, dumbstruck by the intuition that rational thinking has displaced the species from its habitat, would say about the passionate trajectory of the Western Mind? Perhaps that we acquire the sense of embarking on a journey solely due to having lost our sense of place. His dilemma can now be seen as our own. There is no place to go with thinking. All the clues in the world don’t count, unless you know what crime has been committed.

Let’s say, yes, participation can be forgotten, so it can also be remembered in the sense of realizing what we need to remember something, but not in the sense of retrieving it. In other words, we can realize that we have indeed emerged from participation. This is like realizing that we have lost something. At least we know what we have lost, and there is occasion for true grieving. But retrieval, regaining what we have lost, is another matter. Except by non-ordinary methods, participation cannot be retrieved or recreated. It cannot, I would insist, be commanded. Participation is bigger than we are. Children are closer to it and we consider them less able to cope with the world because we see how it claims them, without knowing what we see... Participation cannot be retrieved, but it will reclaim the species in due time. To speak apocalyptically, when it comes to the Last Days, the Endtime, humanity will sink again into participation.


Do Kamo:  Were he here today, Socrates would not likely endorse the fabled complementarity of mind and nature, and it ought to be obvious why not. This is like a simulated form of participation, a wannabe version of the genuine experience. Formulated in elegant, almost Goethean terms by Geoffrey Bateson, the complementarity of mind and nature is a latter-day, post-Romantic makeover of the Platonic theory of knowledge, the booby prize for those who fail to realize that participation is irretrievable. All the thinking in the world won’t get us there, and no morphogenetic field will show the way. No sacerdotal equations from Karnak, either.

There is a way, however, to reinstate our lives, personally and culturally, with the value-rich resonance of participation, the sheer delight of hieratic play and metamorphic identity that arise naturally from the pulsation of primordial Twoness. The way is by Eros, not Eidos. The supreme challenge human nature poses to itself began perhaps with Socrates’ uncanny sense of alienation. Its resolution lies in the direction of that intimacy that arises with communion in rapture and mystery.

Put forward by Plato as spokesman for the Eidos, Socrates is really the last living embodiment of Eros. Far from trying to remember what he knew before birth, he stands for the memoria naturae, the Memory of Nature, matrix of the species from which thinking itself was born. In him Nature was trying to remember itself, on its original terms.

We cannot retrieve participation. We cannot, acting as a species, ever see where we fit into nature, for the intellect we use to discern our place requires that we design ourselves a niche, rather than assume we have one, pre-allotted. Our intellectual precocity is also the measure of our dispensability. If we do not use our exceptional forebrain capacities to make a niche for ourselves, we will eventually be discarded.

How can we characterize the experience of participating in nature’s act of giving us our identity, the way it happened before domain shift? Perhaps it would resemble a Zen-like clarity of looking into the depths of extra-human nature, the whole fluidic environing natural world, and finding there the reflection of a creature which, as a creature, has no existence apart from its animate, reflected image. “Man” is not the image of God looming over Nature, defined by Platonic narcissism and enshrined in Christian dogma, but the dissociated reflection of Nature beholding itself. “Man,” the self-image of the human species in pure Eidos, is the first and final danger of domain shift, the chimera of self-extinction, the sphinx on the Way Out.

Beware of Greeks bearing abstractions.

Human sapience, the wisdom that makes us what we are as species, is the intelligence inspired from the love that supports the image, not the love of the image for itself. Amo sapiens.

To love and support the human image as the expression of Nature rather than of ourselves, is to find ourselves Do Kamo in authenticity. Do Kamo (DOKE-amo) is the expression in Canaque, spoken among the natives of New Caledonia, for what is seen to be genuinely human because it exhibits a certain style, a gift for clarity and competence, tenderness and timing. The Canaque say you can tell a human by the way he or she holds a yam or paddles a canoe.

Becoming human depends upon participation, and this in turn depends upon overcoming the false dichotomy of the rational mind. Rational reflection produces a self-regarding ego that cleverly abstracts itself from anything that does not confirm its fictive autonomy. As long as this self-regarding ego is not dissolved, participation is impossible. The tendency in Western “spiritual life” since Plato has been to enshrine the ego among the Eidos and declare it to be sacred. Applied to our cherished spiritual pretences, Socratic irony is like an acid that melts the foundations of this monumental presumption.

Survival in the ultimate sense is about finding a style for our freak capacities and using the wisdom nature has invested in us to design our niche in the natural world. Through the intellect we are free to dabble, to indulge in a lot of experimentation. Since Plato we have been living irresponsibly on a trust fund, namely, trust in abstraction. As the fund runs out, we confront the immanence of the Last Days, the time when our pretenses collapse and we are thrown back into participation, into the primal conflux between overwhelmed and overwhelming. Violence is how nature reclaims its strays, and the violence, inequity and deprivation of our world show how close humanity is to being reclaimed.

But there is Eros, intimate and vital contact. It is the universal solvent that dissolves violence into ecstasy. Problematically, what was formerly the human-nature current is now almost totally inter-human. This means that we will have to stimulate a high degree of euphoria in each other, so that we can regain the intensity of unmediated contact with Nature. “Eros is a mighty daimon,” Diotima advised. For us today, Eros can be the euphoric bond between self and other, humanity and nature, species and cosmos. When Socrates admitted to being “master of eros,” he asserted consecration, not a personal claim. His example might inspire a newfound dedication to preserve the linkage, the bonding force inherent to participation, still accessible even after we have shifted out of the paradisical state where we know ourselves by nature’s presence in us.

The shift from participation precipitates the identity crisis of modern times. Also its desacralization: making the ego sacred, we lose all sense of how anything else can be. Better said, “modern man” is the euphemism for this crisis, for the identity we ascribe to ourselves on Platonic terms in a schizoid fiction. Today we face the task of inventing a true identity for the species. In the Last Days when our excuses and pretenses run out, there is a sense of being overtaken by something vaguely familiar, a hint of coming doom that strikes panic in the general populace but delights those lonely few who, naked of ego, still commune with Gaia in the Mysteries.

As the sensation of impending doom mounts, Socrates remains poised in his peculiar trance of expectation, an uncanny, off-stage presence. Comfortable with the threat of chthonian night, the deep archaic darkness where things reassume their magical and metaphoric roles, he is (we might imagine) musing on some lines from Rilke:

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night.
What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in...
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself into wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter...

And we too might do well to muse on this, the deepest loss we as a species have suffered, what defines us as human in the tragic sense.

All the clues in the world don’t count, if you don’t know what’s gone missing.