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Eva Brann

Philosophy and Literature, Volume 38, Number 1, April 2014, pp. 30-40
DOI: 10.1353/phl.2014.0010

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Eva Brann

Socrates: Antitragedian

Abstract. In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche depicts Socrates as the initiator

of a new human type: the shallowly optimistic rationalist, constitutionally
incapable of seeing into the dionysian abyss of delight of tragedy. This
is a brilliant travesty. Platos Socrates is, indeed, an ontological optimist,
who thinks that Being is both knowable and good. He is also a staunch
antitragedian, who sees in tragic poetry a third-hand imitation of genuine Being and an incitement to unhealthy, even sadistic, emotionalism.
The true Socrates is anti-dionysian from a passionate love of wisdom.

o no one will it be news that Socrates is a philosophos, a philosophical man, in the preprofessional sense, when the word was still fully
felt as a modifying adjective and was not yet a noun denoting a member
of an occupational category, such that philosophia, the love of wisdom,
could pass into a dead metaphor. Dead metaphors are figures of speech
whose figurativeness has been sedimented, covered over by the sands
of time, so that their metaphorical force is no longer visualized or felt
in passing speech. Their desedimentation and revitalization can be a
source of wicked fun; heres an example: A truck rear-ended him, a
case of usage-worn metonymy, a part-for-whole figure in which the passenger is said to be butted by a vehicular fender-bender. I want to claim
that, by and large, philosophy is, in current usage, understood to be
a metaphorsince all academic philosophers know enough Greek to
know that it once meant the love that desires wisdomand a dead one,
since it is now the polemic that defends positions.
But is it even right to take Socratess philosophia as a metaphorthat
is, to take this love as a figurative exaggeration for interest, concern,

Philosophy and Literature, 2014, 38: 3040. 2014 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Eva Brann


engagement, the cool if tenacious love we all feel for our work, our
vocationa sentiment that grows pale in the face of erotic passion? Is
Socratic philosophia a metonymic metaphor of the full blown for the
skimpy type?
No, its no metaphor at all. In the Gorgias Socrates speaks, entirely
without shame, of my boy-love, philosophy (ta ema paidika, 482a),
and that locution (which might in the context be taken as an accommodation to the tastes of his company) achieves full standing in the
Phaedrus, where the wisdom-loving man is called, in the same breath,
a beauty-loving and a kind of musical and erotic man (248d), and the
soul itself is presented in a figure of erotic arousal, which is a figure
only because there is no way to speak of the soul that is not a somatic
metaphor (25152). Here philosophos goes into erotikosophos, an erotic
lover of wisdom, and this is, I think, how the person of the Platonic
Socrates becomes pivotal in philosophy. It is this view of him I wanted
first to establish.
There is another view of him, and it is too germane to the issue of
Socratic passion to omit: There is the Socrates of Nietzsches Birth of
Tragedy, the antitragic Socrates invented in modernity. This portrait
happens to be a brilliant travesty. Here is what the Nietzschean Socrates
looks like: He turns his great Cyclopean eye . . . on tragedy, that eye
in which the lovely madness of artistic enthusiasm has never glowed.
Monocular vision, recall, precludes full depth perception, and Nietzsche
goes on: Let us imagine how it was denied to that eye to look into the
dionysian abysses of delight (Wohlgefallen, para. 14).1 This Socrates is
the man that hath no music in himself.
What, then, was tragedy to this Nietzschean Socrates and to his disciple
Plato, whom he seduced into burning his own early tragedies?
Something pretty irrational, with causes that seem to be without effects
and effects without causes; add to this that the whole is so colorful and
various that it must repel a thoughtful disposition, but be a dangerous
tinder to irritable and sensitive souls. (para. 14)

Nietzsches Socrates leads in the establishment of a type of existence

never heard of before him, the type of theoretical man. There is in this
dialectical devotion
an optimistic element . . . that celebrates in every conclusion drawn a
jubilee and can breathe only in cool brightness,

and this optimism infects tragedy and drives it to suicide.


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This Socrates, who releases wave after wave of a never-imagined

universality of knowledge-greed, is the archetype of the theoretical
optimist. Three Socratic maxims underwrite this knowledge-optimism:
Virtue is knowledge; sinning comes only from ignorance; the virtuous are
happy. In these basic forms of optimism lies the death of tragedy. This
optimistic Socratism is for Nietzsche the vortex and pivot of our world.
The academic classicists attack on The Birth of Tragedy began the
very year of its publication, led by Wilamowitz-Mllendorffs pamphlet
Future-philology (1872). And indeed there is very little in the Birth of
Tragedy that corresponds with what I learned as a graduate student in
classics. These departmental cavils, however, arent much to the point,
though I cant resist adding one of my own, dear to my heart. Nietzsche
himself thinks that the Dionysian ground of tragedy had already begun
to go shallow under Sophocles, which leaves Aeschylus as the sole
genuine Dionysian-Apollonian tragedian. But in the Eumenides, for me
the play of plays, it is Apollofor Nietzsche the god of the luminous
dream-world so essential as the sponsor of form-giving art that shapes
Dionysian depthswho wants heedlessly to abrogate the powers of
elemental darkness. Meanwhile the wisely realistic goddess Athena has
it in her to show the Furies respect and so to elicit their shapeliness.
But let that gomy focus is on this Socrates, the theoretical optimist,
whose optimism is patently shallow.
Theoretical, as Nietzsche uses it, means standoffishly rational; optimistic means superficially logical. The terms have the same dispositional
root: a defensive negation of the stormy abyss of aboriginal vitality by
retreat to the snug shallows of noninstinctual rationalization.
Now heres my project for the day: There cant be much question
that Platos Socrates is a tragoidmachos, a tragedy-fighter, to coin a
term. Ill bring evidence in a moment. But this Platonic Socrates is not
a shallow optimist, a tendentious rationalizer. Not only is he not one
in whom enthusiasm has never glowedhe is the very incarnation of
enthusiasm. For that enthousiasmos is a phrase contained in a noun; it
means having the god within, being entheos, full of god. Recall that
Alcibiades says of this potbellied old man that he is like one of the
Silenus figures for sale that can be taken apart and then reveal images
of gods within (Symposium 215b). As for the Cyclopean lack of vision,
it is Socrates who sees a deep world inside the soul, open to anyone
who has the courage to go within, to practice that kind of recollection
which men call learning (Meno 81d).
And yet this Socrates is certainly critical of tragedy, and if pessimism is
the essence of tragedy (leaving aside the inconvenient fact that it isnt,

Eva Brann


since many dramas composed by Greeks called tragedians end optimally

well), then the critic of tragedy might indeed by a loose logic be suspected
of optimism. Moreover, the three handy maxims that Nietzsche extracts
as the essence of Socratic optimism can indeed be cheerily interpreted:
If virtue is knowledge, a little learnable logic will make us good; if sin
is ignorance, there is no real evil; if the virtuous are happy, lifes afflictions are neutralized, and Socrates is simply preaching a proto-Stoicism.
Socrates may indeed be an optimist, but not that kind of optimist,
an amystical, noninstinctual talking head. Let me anticipate myself by
saying what kind of optimist I think he is: an ontological optimist.
So now to Socrates as a documentable antitragedian. First, Socrates
had plenty of experience with tragedy. Nietzsche mentions an old tale
it is actually reported by Diogenes Laertius (2, 18, Socrates)that
Socrates helped Euripedes write his tragedies, which were consequently
nicknamed sokratogomphous, Socrates-bolted, that is, put in shape by
him. Socrates gives much evidence of knowing tragic texts, even if it
is true that he only attended Euripedean performanceswhich is not
credible to me. Moreover, Euripedes is, to my taste, an almost hysterically
pessimistic dramatist, to be read with avidity and recalled with aversion;
so Socrates knew best the most tragic of poets, as Aristotle calls him
(Poetics 1453a30).
Therefore he knows whereof he speaks. Sometimes he uses tragedy
words ironically for high-flown diction, as of people who tamper with
the primal form of words for the sake of tragoidein auta, making them
theatrical (Cratylus 414c), sometimes for a tragike apokrisis, a dramatic
answer, which applies not so much to overblown style as to a fancy,
elitist definition (Meno 76e); Socrates is for plain, popular speech (see
E. S. Thompsons note in his 1901 edition2). Once, in the Gorgias, he
speaks ironically of that solemn and wondrous thingthe poetry of
tragedy, he semne haute kai thaumaste he tes tragoidias poiesis (502b), only
to follow with the observation that tragic poetry is pleasure-bent viewer
gratification. The poetry Socrates ironizes as grave and marvelous is
almost universally regarded quite seriously in just that way. Thus Hegel,
whose analysis of tragedy in his Aesthetics is the keenest I know, calls
dramatic poetry the highest stage of poetry and art in general (section 3, chapter 3, C III).
But these are digs Socrates administers by the way. The serious critique and utter condemnations are set out in the Republic and delivered
in two tiers. The first comes early in books 23, before the ontological


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center of the roughly twelve-hour conversation (377403). The second

comes late and afterwards, in book 10 (595608).
I should get a possible difficulty out of the way here. The two critiques
seem to focus on and cite the epic Homer much more than the tragic
Athenians. However, at the beginning of the second discussion, when
he is about to reinforce the outrage (lobe) imitative works inflict on
the auditors understanding, he begs Glaucon:
Dont denounce me to the poets of tragedy and all those other imitative
ones . . . I must pronounce on this matter, though a certain love and
respect that have possessed me from childhood on prevent me from
speaking about Homer. He seems to have been the prime teacher and
leader of all those fine tragedians. (595bc)

And so also in the earlier discussion, its Homer and the other poets
(387b, 388a). That he is speaking of the tragedians will be obvious when
he begins to specify them.
And he specifies them in a very original way: by diction (lexis, 392c).
Epic Homer might be called a seminarrative poet (394b). Sometimes he
tells what happens in his own person and, without concealing himself
(393b), reports what is said inthis is a latter-day termindirect discourse. Sometimes, however, he imitates his characters speech directly.
In drama all speech is direct; there is no narration (diegesis), only
dramatic diction. Thus on the stage, when the narrator has disappeared,
the actors are entirely impersonators, totally given over to imitation.
This holds, Socrates says, equally of tragedy and comedy; they are close
to each other (395a), though neither actors nor writers can succeed in
both at once. Recall that at the end of the Symposium Socrates says that
the same man who is by craft (tei technei) a tragedy-maker can also be
a comedy-maker (223d).
I think this ispartlyan issue of could and should; the same
writer can, by his skilled use of direct diction, make stage plays of any
sort, any dramata, doings. But, in the setting of the best city, should
he be conceded such versatility? But, what matters more, should the
specialized tragic actor be allowed to impersonate empatheticallywhat?
Socrates answers: the sensibility of women, caught up in calamity as
well as sufferings and weepings (395e).
Here, as so often, Socrates is presented as critiquing Aristotle before
the fact. For he asks Adeimantus if he hasnt noticed how imitation
[mimesis, 395d], when engaged in from childhood on, settles down

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into habits in body and in utterance and in understanding. As you

will recall, moral habituation is an Aristotelian topic, only mostly with
a positive sign (Nicomachean Ethics 2, 1). What Socrates adds, as it were,
is that imitation is the motor of habituationand tends toward the bad.
For the dramatists are not only themselves imitators but the cause of
imitation in othersif they have their way.
And that way is to be extreme, to drive the passions to their highest
pitch, be it the suffering of tragedy or the ridicule of comedy, though
the excruciating terrors of high tragedy are the more powerful.
And again Socrates anticipates and subverts Aristotle. In the Poetics,
you will recall, the nature and function of tragedy are famously said to
be an imitation of a serious action . . . which accomplishes through
pity and fear the catharsis of such affections (1449b 2428); nobody
knows for certain in whom, how, and to what effect such affections
are purified. A certain plainspoken seventeenth-century critic says of
purgation that no one has hitherto understood it, not even Aristotle
himself.3 In any case, Socrates thinks that the opposite is the case: These
frisson-inducing affects are augmented and aggravated in the watcher
and weaken and warp his constitution.
There is an implication here that is indeed only implicit. As I said,
almost all writers on tragedy extol its existential grandeur. I recall talking
to my colleague Jon Badger after he had given a lecture on Sophocless
Antigone, saying that I thought of that heroine as a teenage monster. No,
no, he said. Tragedies are not about people but about the incomposable
collision of transhuman forces. And that is exactly how Hegel views the
ancient genre: Dramatic action is based simply on colliding circumstances, passions, and characters (Aesthetics, section 3, chapter 3, C III).
Tragedy is therefore more general or, better, it is more abstract than
epic. The protagonist is, on the one hand, ethically a subject reduced
to a simplicity of inner purpose, on the other, ethnically constrained by
a whole complex of external necessities.
The ever-skeptical Hume draws direct attention to a ticklish question:
What really makes tragedy enjoyable? Aristotle had ridden over it lightly:
We see [horomen] things with distress, whose very accurate images we
contemplate [theorountes] with delight. The reason is that such viewing
offers the pleasure of learning, namely learning that this is that. This
sweetness of identification is felt by all human beings to some degree,
but mostly by philosophers (1448b 1115).
The Republic will, at its center, develop a whole ontology based on the
cascading imaging of realms and successive modes of imitation (books


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67, 50811). There imaging, shadow casting, is a generative activity.

One might call it a world-making, a kosmo-poiesis, whose telling similes
offer immediate access to a dialectically forbidding whole.
But here, at the beginning, we are at the bottom, where imaging has
lost the truth of genuine being and is something below nothing, namely
bad, so that passion-laden images bring involvement in evil. Hume,
in his essay Of Tragedy, thus forthrightly calls the delight in tragic
representation an unaccountable pleasure. The more [spectators]
are touched and affected, he says, the more they are delighted with
the spectacle, and as soon as the uneasy passions cease to operate, the
piece is at an end.4
He partially accepts some critics explanations; Fontenelle says, in
effect, that the heart likes naturally to be moved and affected, and in
the theater that happensbut not too much, because what we see is
only a falsehood. Hume modifies: Imitation is in itself agreeable and
that transmutes the passions into enjoyment. He employs hereit is
his own analogya hydrostatic theory of the passions, by which they
put pressure on each other and by transfusion of power effect inversions (Of the Passions). It is the business of genius, encompassing
the imagination and the arts of poetry, to subvert tragic terror by the
counterforce of the charms always exercised by fictions eloquently told.
Thus Hume faces the problem boldly and solves it lamely: Tragedy
is enjoyable because art is agreeable. I think that in the early books of
the Republic Socrates doesnt articulate the issue so squarely but settles
it more resolutely: Tragedy is fiercely engaging because human beings
hunger for excruciating stimulation, and manynot alltragedies provide what can, anachronistically, be called sadistic arousal, together
with the release of sympathetic emotionality.
I would have loved the chance to ask Socrates and his companions
if this new word fit his unexpressed sense. In any case, he sees no cure
for this expert exacerbation of a human propensity except the expulsion of such an expert in arousal, such a tragedian, from their noble
city. They will make obeisance before him as holy and wondrous and
suave and send him on to the next town (398a). The outcome [of
this purge] is that the muses matter is [now only] passionate love for
the noble (ta tou kalou erotika, 403c). Socrates himself will provide an
example of this purified music at the end.
To summarize: In this part of the conversation Socrates excoriates
the passions and their deliberate arousal by all poetry and storytelling
(mythologia, 394b), be they epic, tragic, or comic. This sally might be

Eva Brann


called his attack on psychological grounds. But he also begins what

will become his ontological battle, here preliminarily waged for ethicopolitical reasons. These are the actors absorption in and the viewers
empathy for all the multitudinous variations of stage business, which
contravene what theyve already laid down as the ethical feature of the
polity they are building in words: None of its citizens is to be a manifold man (aner pollaplous, 397e) but is to do his one, own thing. Here
imaging and imitation are first charged with the great Socratic sin of
spawning multiplicity: many motions of the soul, many expressions of
the passions, many roles for each actorwhen goodness is in unity and
So I must backtrack briefly to the very beginning of the critique of
poetry. Socrates begins it with an exposition of the pernicious effect that
the poets rambunctiously impious presentation of the gods behavior
has on the city (380b383c). To comprehend Socratess fears, only read
what the Athenians say to the Melesian aristocrats during that infamous
debate held at the first nadir of their moral existence: In effect, they
proclaim that there is no need to fear the gods censure, since they are
no better than men (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 5, 105)and where
did the Athenians learn that but from the poets?
Socrates gives lots of examples from Hesiod, Homer, and, interestingly,
one from Aeschylus. Then he establishes three rules for speaking rightly
of the gods: First, a god is not responsible for everything, but only for
good things (380c); here I might have reminded Socrates that that is
just about what Zeus saysin self-defense, to be surein the Odyssey (1,
3234). Second, a god does not change himself but remains steadfastly
in his own shape (381c). Third, god is simple and true in deed and
word; There is no lying poet in a god (382d).
This triplet of maxims is wonderfully reminiscent, in its bright optimism, of Nietzsches Socratic extracts. The gods of the poetsthis is
Socratess complaintare neither kind nor constant nor candid, while
the true gods have every bright virtue. But the point of differencea
whole worlds worthis that Socrates is speaking of divinity, not of
humanity. In fact, he uses the generic singular with its article in framing
these rules (ho theos), which mean a god or the god. His language
here is betwixt Olympian theology and transcendental ontology. In
truth, Socratess human maxims, reintegrated into all their thoughtenvironment, are not so unexceptionably cheery, since the eradication
of ignorance in oneself takes a tough courage and the consequent happiness requires a tense effort such as smooth-gliding rationalism never


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knew of. For it means the extirpation of the true lie, . . . the ignorance
in the soul about the highest matters (382ab).
Adeimantus doesnt follow. Socrates says its because he thinks hes
being told something solemn, semnonthe very word Socrates had used
ironically of tragic diction in the Gorgias. In fact what he is soberly saying
is this: What all people would not accept and do especially hate is to
have and possess the lie in the soul, to let it in and tolerate it therein
effect to lie to themselvesabout the things that are, ta onta. And so,
many, many hours later the dialectical part of the dialogue culminates
in an ontology of poetry, for poetry puts the lie into the soul.
Thus Socrates is no naive cynic (as Nietzsche calls him), contemptuously looking down on the instinct-driven, logic-lacking crowd (as
Nietzsche describes them). Indeed Socrates has just attributed ontological longing to everyone, and he will later accord ontological capability
to all, arguing that the power by which everyone learns is already within
the soul of each human being (518c).
In what is for us book 10the last book, reporting a conversation that
has gone late into the night, way past the time for beda bed becomes
the exemplary item for Socratess imitative cascade of onta, of beings.
Ill summarize, since the hierarchy is well known; its the particular
application of that Divided Line that diagrams the image-descent of
levels of Being into levels of Becoming (book 5, 509d511e). Socrates
begins in the usual way (methodos, 596a). He posits:
1. the one form or ideal aspect, the invisible look or eidos, the true being
by naturefashioned, well say, by god,
2. the many bodily beds made by a carpenter, imitating the one divine form,
3. the multiform images of beds, produced by a maker, poietes, who
paints beds, tertiary image-beds.

This tripartite account of the image-generated world differs from the

fourfold Divided Line in that the mathematical image of Being, there
the second stage, is omitted. Its easily supplied: Its the carpenters
sketch of his mental blueprint.
The bed example is readily applied to the other arts: The wondrous
wiseacre (sophistes, 596d) who paints beds, so to speak, by simply holding up a mirror to them is, as it were, a universal poet. The poet in
particular, the tragedy maker (tragoidopoios, 597e), is similarly a professional producer of apparitions, phantasmata, and phantoms, eidola
(598b, whence our idol).

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The long and short of it is that tragedians just dont have the genuine
knowledge either of the crafts or of the virtues that some people are
heard to attribute to them (598de). Someone who understood in truth
what it was he was imitating would much rather apply himself to real
works than to imitations (599b)as Plato did when he met Socrates
and burnt his tragedies.
So that is what Socrates calls a certain ancient difference [palaia
diaphora] between philosophy and the poetic art (607b)though
probably he means more original than ancient. For how old could
the quarrel be, when the Presocratics were poets themselves, except
for one, Heraclitus, who attacked Homer along with everyone else?
Socrates cites some lines, probably from lost comedies, in support of his
quarrel claim. He might have introduced a personal note: he himself
was the protagonist of a comedy published only twelve years before 411
BCE, the putative dramatic date for the Republic, namely Aristophaness
Clouds. This old comic Socrates and his thinkaterion (phrontisterion,
l. 94), his sophistical think tank, are as much a witty travesty as will be
the passionate distortion that produced the modern antitragic Socrates
and his all-conquering rationalismonly, as he himself thought, the
Aristophanic comedy was immediately harmful to himself (Apology 18b),
while the Nietzschean travesty perhaps even enhanced his significance.
But all that is merely circumstantial, and the true crux of the difference between philosophy and poetry for Socrates is that the latter is
ontologically debased: neither knowledgeable in the crafts, nor very
reliable about the conduct proper to the workaday world of variable
appearance, nor closely enough related to the contemplated realm of
unitary beings for truth telling. For this is, I think, the basic and surely
the truly scandalizing maxim of his ontological optimism: The cosmos
is so structured that its lower levels do in fact hold us by the turbulent
excitement of colorfully variable (poikilon, e.g., 558c, 605a), beingdeprived abstractions, when its upper reaches should attract us by the
lucid stability of its beautifully formed, fully vital beings.
It could, of course, be otherwise:
For in much wisdom is much grief:
and he that increaseth knowledge
increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

It is the specific presupposition of philos-sophia, taken literally, that truth

comes on beauty and knowledge gathers delight. Socrates might, then,


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agree to this formulation: Tragedy excels in excitation but fails in eros

not so philosophy, which to him is the greatest music (Phaedo 61a).5
A Hebrew wisdom book, an Athenian tragic drama, a Nietzschean
subversive essayin all of these, knowledge starts with harsh experience and ends in the exhilaration of high hurt. In Socratic dialogical
inquiry the beginning is in wonder and the end in the quiescence of
fulfilled love. Here is my next question: Does this delineation diminish
or magnify philosophia taken literally?
St. Johns College, Annapolis

Adapted from a paper presented at the Conference on Phenomenology and the Metaphysics of the
Tragic, sponsored by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Crete at Rethymno, Crete,
June 2012.
1.Nietzsche references apply to all editions; translations from German are mine.
2. E. S. Thompson, The Meno of Plato (London: Macmillan, 1901).
3.Charles de Saint-vremond, Of Tragedy, Ancient and Modern, 1672.
4.David Hume, Four Dissertations and Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul
(South Bend: St. Augustines Press, 1992), p. 185.
5. To complete its triumph, philosophy turns out to have in Socrates the very poet of
Being that he himself was seeking for his kallipolis (608a). The cosmological part of the
Myth of Er, Socratess prose poem with which the Republic ends, is a highly colorful image
of the dialectical diagram called the Divided Line. In particular, I think, the Idea of the
Good (509b), the principle of a cosmic polity, the source of unity and wholeness from
beyond Being, that both infuses and encompasses all levels of Being, is depicted as a
light-shedding pole traversing the cosmos within, connected to the luminous meridianlike understrapping that comes together at its tips, having enclasped the cosmos from
beyond (616bc).

There is yet another way in which Socrates the philosopher triumphs: as himself the
very model of the antitragic hero. For he stages his death (death being the hallmark
culmination of many a tragedy) as a most deliberate antitragedy. He proves with his own
blithe end that to give oneself to the love that is philosophy is to be liberated, above
all, from tragedy and its deathbound Muse (Plato, Phaedo, trans., intro., and glossary
Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem [Newburyport: Focus Publishing/R Pullins
Company, 1998], p. 25).