On the Authority of Conscience

How strange are the clarities in
furtive enigmas
requesting the
lover of wisdom to
shield the beloved from
all profane.

Forgetfulness, i.e., amnesia, spells the moral turbulences known as akrasia: a disturbance of the mind only memory can heal. This, in brief, is the thesis of this essay which is taken from a remark made by Archibald MacLeish. He says that when an epoch’s carrying metaphors are on the wane, its time is up and a new world age is dawning. But he leaves it open whether the Muse of Memory, Mnemosyne, should be invoked to help endow the original tales and images with renewed strength, or whether such attempts are simply futile. The words that make up the body of this essay would like, without doubt, to inspire a magic wand’s conjuring trick. As it stands, they form but a few elements of an experimental exercise in pursuit of an answer to a query: The query if memory can be quickened and continuity with origins re-established. It takes only one person to raise the question, it takes many to look for an answer. Meanwhile, thank you for the kindness to give your attention to a few accounts from Homeric and classical times, accounts that intend to remind you how the birth of authorizing conscience has been recorded and transmitted to philosophy, for the sake of moral action in perpetuity.

The First Illustration

Achilles is beside himself with hurt pride and filled with anger over insults and injustice he has been made to suffer. When he is almost drowning in the turbulence of his rage, his mother Thetis, so Homer’s tale goes, comes, appealing to his conscience and bringing him the most precious gift. From a fellow god she has upon request obtained a shield for her son to ward off attack. Yet the shield’s prime function is to provide Achilles’ mind, or soul, by virtue of depictions representative of human life, with full knowledge of the nature of reality. Achilles accepts the gift. His rage and grief give way to excellent resolve with which he then responsibly accomplishes his mission. He turns into a hero’s hero who submits his wishes and actions in the service of the greater common cause.

Much later, Hamlet says in his monologue that “conscience doth make cowards of us all.” But is this true? Does not Achilles, Athena’s favorite, prefigure the heroic courage of philosophers in the classical age? During Hellenism? The Renaissance? The Enlightenment? Perhaps even today? Of all the classical virtues, justice, prudence, fortitude, moderation, generosity, courage, to name the more important ones, courage is most needed by people whose love of wisdom puts them at odds with their societies. This oddity brings us to the next example, Socrates.

The Second Illustration

This instance is more humble, democratic, yet perhaps more instructive to current practitioners of philosophy. Socrates was a lad when he was apprenticed by his father Sophroniscus, who worked as a sculptor for the municipality of Athens. These were the Greek glory days of public projects. A small army of sculptors furnished the city with statuary and the friezes adorning temples and the assembly halls of the free citizenry. Sculpting was an honest trade which required, apart from skill and strength, the gift to perceive in living human beings the form divine we as humans embody in actions, thoughts, and speech, in motion and at rest.

The sculptor’s art, his techne, was, and perhaps is, to render a permanent, conscientiously made copy in the image of the fleeting model’s representative likeness. The yardstick of the finished work, by popular consent, was its fidelity, its faithfulness to the significant details of the underlying original. That art has to render the invisible visible and, in the case of sculpture, tangible, was a commonplace among the Athenians and not a bit of speculative, leave alone esoteric, philosophy. In Plato’s THEAETETUS, Socrates makes the case for the indispensability of the underlying and transcendent principle of forms to counter the heraclitian flux by drawing on this commonplace in Athenian culture. Here, in these teachings the experience of being an Athenian sculptor’s son comes to philosophic fruition. What a preparation for a teacher of philosophy! But this apprenticeship was only half of the gift Socrates received from his parents, bringing honor to them.

The mother was a midwife employed by the Athenian public health service. Local, and relatively enlightened custom required that the midwife attending to a delivery pronounce the newborn baby fit to live or fit to die, soon after arrival. A grasp of the hippocratic indicators for soundness based on experience was the staple of the midwife’s expertise on which to make her diagnosis, prognosis and judgement. Hope was not prominent among the classical virtues, so it did not interfere with a sober reading of the life-and-death-related signs at hand. To interpret these signs from conscience, to the best of her abilities, was the Athenian midwife’s personal and professional code. Having to decide a newborn’s fate means wielding awesome power, a power that exacts the price of complete mental readiness.

To live with the daily exercise of such power in good conscience constitutes an extraordinary challenge. Socrates saw this power wielded with care and prudence from up close. He later patterns his own method of inquiry, combined with his paedagogy, on his mother’s example. On many occasions, most prominently in the MENO, Socrates refers to himself as midwife, giving the maeieutic metaphor currency in the philosophic practice known as elenchus and dialectic.

On reflection Socrates became aware that conscience by itself cannot verify, only validate. Though indispensable to the moral side of the philosophic enterprise, it lacks objectivity, the scientific edge. There remains always a residue of doubt, a shadow, a sense that more questioning is needed and uncertainty must be endured. Hence dialectical-elenchic inquiry by division and collection in continuity becomes the Socratic principle, or way of life. Knowledge, even its definition, though infinitely desirable and consistently wished for, remains elusive. Like a hunter’s nimble prey on the steep, cloud-capped slopes of Mount Parnassus, it is a moving target that can be killed and overtaken, but not reached. This paradox leads to the next question: Whence does Socrates derive the authority to pronounce the intellectual offspring of his interlocutors fit to live or die? How does he give legitimacy to his stern paedagogic judgments?

Custom does not lend legitimacy to the maeieutic method, since it is new. Society does not underwrite it since Socrates and his method have been regarded with suspicion, even derision, from the start. The fountainhead of his authority is simply the clear and certain knowledge of the responsibility the use of words and arguments entails when they investigate the nature of reality. Much is at stake when the mind, free from distractions, is bent on looking for what really is the case: To wit, the integrity of the inquiry-in-process. This process has been updated by Charles Sanders Peirce in his essay “On the Fixation of Belief” and refined into the scientific method as distinct from methods based on tenacity, authority, or a priori notions. Yet the quintessential integrity of moral as well as scientific inquiry is all too easily compromised, forgotten, lost, corrupted and maligned. What goes today under the Socratic method’s label is mostly sham and a sorry farce. A lot of empirical evidence notwithstanding, language is not cheap, only easily cheapened. Yet by virtue of Socrates’ administrations to his students, as recorded by Xenophon and Plato, we can learn how philosophic language practices enact the very conscience of the logos.

This is the source from whence proceeds the ancient discipline’s ability to instill abiding trust and loyalty in its best adepts. When language is patiently utilized by the teacher to find out what underlies and overarches the world of phenomena accessible to the senses, the mind of each individual student may re-discover its own individually distinct, yet universal, nature. From there, it is but one small step to comprehend the principle of ontological parity that is the linchpin of the moral life. On scrutinizing Socratic inquiry one finds that, despite of all its anthropocentricity, it is securely founded on the logos and that it attains a gravity commensurate to its important purpose: For thought to be free, it must unblinkingly and singlemindedly be pointed like an arrow at the goal of knowing justice. Here in the talks on the Athenian agora, where reason and necessity come to constitute the cosmos, and where Eros plays his games with great allure, the mind, or soul, comes to know itself. It knows itself not as a Lockean tabula rasa, nor as a crazed bundle of drives, or one of perceptions, nor as a mere blip within the swirling and oscillating patterns of an indifferent universe. NO! The soul, or mind, comes to know itself, in obedience to the divine command of KNOW THYSELF in Delphi. This knowledge says clearly and with certainty that the human mind-soul-consciousness owns by inheritance the treasure of living, universal, forever valid, beneficent wisdom. It is this original wisdom in human consciousness that, when it is remembered, promotes Socratic conduct in private and public: in thought, word, and deed.

The heart of the matter of human morality is laid bare in Plato’s GORGIAS. Here one finds a summation, a sort of parabasis to the dramatic play of Socrates’ trial and death. Form, for Plato, is the source and the judge of life. He had to accept the truth of this belief when he tried in vain to represent the life and death of his teacher Socrates as tragedy. It did not work because, though tragic in outcome, the Socratic life was akin to Divine Comedy: a via salutis; a way of salvation. So Plato, after failure, a catastrophe of sorts, turned around. Graced by genius, and patient with trial and error, he was able to invent the talk for the walk with his new form, the dialogue: The dramatization of the soul’s interior conversation and controversy with herself. Within the vastness of her inner spaces there is a stage where the personages of the cast are made to represent an array of typical virtues and vices with Socrates in the role of conscience. Thanks to the new form of the dialogue, Socrates’ immortality has been prefigured and posterity received, not always gratefully, a paradigmatic record of the ever present tug-of-war between the natural, the conventional and the eternal. Irony’s drapery often disguises, and thus highlights for subtle vision, the ultimate nature of the matter at hand.

A brief digression into the Judeo-Christian tradition may help spell out crucial contrasts as well as confirm the Socratic teachings. In chapter six of the Book of Micah a human soul, despairing and utterly aggrieved in conscience, cries out:

Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousand rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

The answer is:

O soul of man, he hath showed thee what is good: and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

Back in Athens, the conversation in the GORGIAS approaches a high point. Callicles speaks in the voice of the law of the natural man’s nature, the law which propagandizes slogans like might makes right; more is always better; nothing is ever enough to satiate my desires. Callicles, annoyed by the turn the conversation had been taking, accuses Socrates of confusing his dialogue partners by playing tricks on them: that he mixes the language of convention, i.e. positive law, with the so-called language of nature. Socrates, in fact, does nothing of that sort. In a conversational move worthy of Houdini, he unties the Calliclean knot and offers a clue to what he is really doing. A clue, Callicles, and he is not alone in that, simply does not get. Socrates tells him that the words he is speaking are but an echo of his love for wisdom’s message he, Socrates, receives and repeats. He does so because he is wisdom’s loyal follower and spokesman.

Socrates makes the same point in the SYMPOSIUM where he insists that he is drawing from memory a speech he received by chance and word of messenger who obtained the words originally from Diotima, whose name means daughter of the most high. And, in a variant with an ironic twist, he vouches that he received his knowledge of the more mundane language skills known as rhetoric from Aspasia, mistress of Pericles. In the MENEXENUS he treats one of his young and impressionable students to the stunning performance of repeating from memory the funeral oration for the first batch of fallen heroes in the Peloponnesian war. Aspasia, so the tale goes, ghost-wrote this speech for Pericles and recited it to Socrates before it was delivered to the populace. Socrates’ recitation in turn shows that his insistence on cultivating the art of remembrance is no idle talk. He knew, like any good coach, what he was talking about from experience, reflection and practice.

And what is it, precisely, what Socrates remember in the GORGIAS?

1) The soul, or mind, is that in us which prospers and thrives on justice and is injured, or sickened, by injustice.

2) The soul’s health is virtue in the same way that the body’s virtue is health.

3) Justice is a human being’s true excellence, i.e. virtue, and to make humans greedy and thus lacking in justice is the most grievous violation of their being.

4) The true aim of politics is to educate people in matters of justice.

5) Last, not least, the paradox on whose head the world of moral discourse turns: It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.

The upshot of these remembrances from Athens, the Philosophers’ Paradise Lost, is this: Reviving the Socratic midwively metaphor and practicing the elenchus may be philosophy’s new adventure, even responsibility. Capable people may wish to employ the Socratic technique to purify and thus renew some minds. The elenchus, if wielded skillfully, can cut down the colossal presumptions and expose the irresponsible inferences against distributive justice of, say, a Pareto, or Nietzsche, not to mention names picked from the herd of followers. Philosophy has no traffic with brutality. Nor with tyrannies, be they exercised internally by an ill-governed psyche’s turmoil, or externally, by governments, bureaucracies, personalities who are out of bounds, media frenzies, or the market place. Moral philosophy was born in the fight against tyranny and opposes it in all its Protean forms to the death with the strategies of the Socratic principle of free inquiry.

Nor is philosophy a handmaiden to the vulgar, neo-pagan ideologies, decked out in gnostic finery, which hawk, in the name of individualism, shoddy justifications for the widening abyss between rich and poor. The spectacle of entire populations in free fall toward a netherworld of destitution would make even a master class supremacist, such as Callicles, — I’m not sure about Thrasymachus, — blush and feel ashamed enough in his undeveloped conscience to change his mind in order to abide by the Socratic ethics.

In these dark times, where much of humankind is treated by human institutions as roadkill in the names of productivity and progress, there is solace in remembering that the humane Socratic ethics is encoded in philosophy’s own tongue. There is solace and encouragement in knowing that these teachings, which are as necessary to human moral progress as water, fire, earth and air is to life, are a recoverable resource. And there is more than solace in remembering that philosophy’s voice does not change. A new confidence issues from opening one’s ears to the Socratic echo’s constant beat repeating wisdom’s selfsame message. Conscience atrophies and ethics goes astray when ripped from metaphysics. The hecatombs of human sacrifice devoured by the molochs of this century tell the sorry tale of what follows in the wake of such a severance. Philosophers who live today may do well to remember and act on this insight bought at exorbitant price. After all, it was philosophers, who, wittingly and unwittingly, wrote much of the script for the catastrophes. Thus it may be worthwhile to recall that catastrophe not only means disaster but also a fresh turn. Today, the ancient discipline of philosophy, in order to recover integrity and strength, may sincerely come to wish to purify its conscience and repent of its institutionalized akrasia.

The Third Illustration

When the medieval order of things collapsed amidst moral abominations and the revulsions against them, a new reformed conscience was born. This turn of events, even from the perspective of the five hundred years that have elapsed since then, still strikes the observer at least as surprising as the birth of Athena from the aching head of her father Zeus: An event mythographers recorded to legitimate an earlier changing of the guard. Cronus, during the preceding generational turn, had gained power by cunning and violent exertion. When in the midst of parricide he cut off his father Uranos’ testicles, he flung the bloody parts into the sea. There they impregnated the roiling waters and from the foamy waves arose, quite unexpectedly, love’s goddess, anarchic Aphrodite. The Birth of Venus, set against the horror of Uranos’ murder and castration, — a kind of mythic dialectic, — has been presented to the modern age at its inception by Botticelli (d. 1510). This well known depiction of the love goddess’ emergence from the waves serves also as reminder, a pictorial pointer, to the emergence of the soul’s knowledge in Plato’s Socratism and as a prefiguration, a cosmic parallel, to the birth of Christ. These complex metaphors, in what may seem to jaded eyes as their naivete, go a fair stretch explicating the laws that rule in the succession of the world’s ages.

These laws are not for the faint of heart but for the steadfast who stand ready to be tested in their knowledge and belief, even during crisis. Crisis means judgement when emergency turns into emergence. It signals the moment, the kairos, in time-space, where the eternal power drastically intervenes in earthly affairs and, in the great controversy of world history, a new chapter, or trial, opens. In silent patience the logos suffers the ravages of logomachia. But whatever reaches existence abides by time’s law of succession. God is not mocked. The conscience cannot lie, nor die. Her knowledge cannot be controverted, but it can be forgotten and forsaken.

This paper was presented by Elf S. Raymond at the REALIA conference in Estes Park, CO on August 17, 1995. Published in CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHY, VOL.XVII, No.3

Synopsis: This essay invokes and re-affirms Plato’s theory of mind. This theory holds that the human possesses the latent knowledge of what is good and has to activate this knowledge by drawing it from memory’s arena of forgetfulness. Once remembered, this intensely personal , yet objective knowledge cannot but come to fruition in a form of life that gives integrity to the individual and benefits the community at large. Access to this knowledge, which is a human birthright, ought to be provided by education employing the Socratic method and principle of free intellectual inquiry.