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A City Where Socrates Need Not Die

Jan Patocka’s study of Plato can inform our own political philosophy.

Classic,Statues,Plato,Sitting
(vangelis aragiannis/Shutterstock)

Jan Patocka (1907-1977) was the philosophical godfather of the Czechoslovakian “Charter 77” movement and the corresponding politics of the famous dissident playwright and later president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel (1936-2011). In a Times column, Roger Scruton described Patocka as “the greatest luminary of modern Czech culture.” Studying in PragueParisBerlin, and Freiburg, Patocka worked under Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) before completing his thesis in 1936. He soon became the editor of a journal named The Czech Spirit and went on to produce studies of his countrymen Comenius (1592-1670) and Thomas Masaryk (1850-1937) amongst other thinkers.

Patocka’s best known works in English are Plato and Europe (1973) and Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History (1975), the latter of which received some careful treatment at the hands of Jacques Derrida, while Paul Ricoeur wrote the preface to a subsequent edition (1999). French readers will find Patocka’s Eternite et Historicite to be readily available. In the period from 1968 to his passing, Patocka was banned from teaching in the Czech universities. A film about his life and work, entitled The Socrates of Prague, appeared in 2017.

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Patocka was greatly attracted to “the marvelous Platonic dialogues.” We owe everything to Plato, he says, because it is with him that an insight that was “not present anywhere else” appeared: the discovery of the divinity of true good. With regard to Plato in general, Patocka confesses that he is in agreement with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous statement that “Christianity is Platonism for the people,” but he hastens to add that Nietzsche’s meaning here “differs from my own.”

According to Patocka, it was Socrates’ fate at the hands of the Athenian authorities that motivated Plato to provide us with “the first systematic reflection on the state.” This came in the form of his dialogue The Republic. Patocka interprets this Platonic exercise in political science as giving a very great boost to subsequent dissenters by outlining a city where “Socrates and those like him will not need to die.” Plato’s commission to posterity is to build this city in history. The premise of such a project is that if one would live philosophically, which is to say, live while taking great care of one’s soul, then they should commit themselves to the construction of a city in which both individual human experience and “an outline of all of being” can naturally cohabit. In this way, “the meaning of the figure of Socrates” will be made manifest in history.

To be sure, the fate of Socrates did not mean that philosophy had become any “kind of ruling power” in the city. But her presence was nevertheless felt and as a result of this new influence it turned out that “even the unphilosophical life is forced to somehow make its peace with philosophy.” The legacy of Platonic philosophy forced the unphilosophic citizen body to “incorporate into itself certain elements of philosophy.” Henceforth non-philosophers had available to them new elements of the human experience that they might at some point incorporate into their lives.

Speaking historically, Patocka says that “only in Europe was philosophy born in this way;” or more precisely, Platonic philosophy was in fact “the embryo of Europe-Greece.” In due course, it evolved into a force that could “awaken man out of tradition into the presence of the universe.” Both the historical political order of Western Europe and the distinctively European life of the spirit are attributable to this Platonic heritage.

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Plato’s Socrates seems to have been the main source of inspiration for Patocka’s approach to political matters in general, and with regard to his own public activities in particular. Patocka’s Socrates engages in neither “Ivory Tower, Pie in the Sky” philosophizing nor in the total commitment of the fully engaged citizen or office holder. Plato’s Socrates is both pure philosopher and “solid” citizen and so is completely neither. “Solidity” of soul is a supreme value for Patocka, and his Socrates possesses it just as much as he does the power of dialectic thought. As a result, he is both “a thinker of the immutable essence of things” and a “philosopher of historicity.” He sees the “moving image of eternity” in the here and now but he is also cognizant of the unchangeable forms of things that have their existence beyond the incidents of time.

Patocka describes the Athenian environment of Socrates’ time as made up of an insidious and vulgar culture of “spiritual comfort and cynicism.” The prevailing question of the age was: “Why should we care about tradition, about god, and about everything that is far off and not present?” In the face of this “nihilistic” question, Socrates found himself to be living in a new age. His longevity, however, meant he had a sentimental “soft spot” for the older, more traditional regime of the Marathon fighters. This older Athens was a city where all free noblemen upheld divinely sanctioned rules that taught the citizen not to interfere with, enslave, or rob any other citizen, or as Patocka would have it, the citizen would understand that it is “better to undergo injustice than to commit it.”

With this older ethical tradition as background, Socrates set about “knocking over those who think they have knowledge of the good” by inviting his interlocutors to “responsibly examine their every thought” (emphasis Patocka’s). They should scrutinize their current opinions to see if there is any true insight that can be associated with them, and if not, they should abandon them with a view to acquiring those that do. Unsurprisingly then, this conduct on Socrates’ part had a tendency to shake up “the certainty on the basis on which the city has existed hitherto.”

Patocka further explains that, in the course of carrying out the mission entrusted to him by Apollo, Socrates discovered that “Athenian democracy is in fact eaten through with the poison of tyrannical leanings,” and that the “hypocritical old morality” perdured through exercising a “secret tyranny” over their minds. If we call to mind Patocka’s own political situation, it is only natural for him to be struck by to the possibility of Socrates’ having uncovered the Athenians’ inner tyrannicism.

For Patocka, those susceptible to the tyrannical spirit are prone to “caprice” or the “thirst for power” and the desire “to be admired, flattered and see themselves loved.” They disdain the limitations placed on human conduct and reinforced by the Divine Law and its unconditional requirement that the prevailing morality receive adherence from all citizens. A character like Richard III forgets the moral values inherited from tradition and the “gods” that would hinder his drive to dominate, defeat, kill, betray, dispossess, and destroy any and all obstacles that stand between him and his “Golden Time.” For Patocka, the Richard III’s of this world act out of a deep resentment of the world as it is for its loading them down with “vicissitudes and rigors.”

The “Patockean” Socrates then represents the abjuration of the tyrannical way of life, as symbolized by the fact that he was not at all in legal jeopardy because the civic authorities assumed it was within his capacity to engross all the political power of the Athenian democracy to himself. Patocka would have us understand rather that it was Socrates’ “whole existence (that was) a provocation to the city.” The fact of Socrates simply “being there” is the ultimate reason why he ended up as a condemned man in the executioner’s dungeon.

But when we consider the life of the tyrant within the same range of vision as that of Socrates, we recall that, unlike the tyrant, Socrates always appeared to be unaffected by the “vicissitudes and rigors” of existence. Throughout his life, he is especially distinguished by the cheerfulness and placidity that accompanied him all the way up until and including the moment when the hemlock seeps into his bloodstream, at which time he was nothing if not “cool, calm and collected.” Socrates seeks no real changes in his fortunes as they stand, and he can rightly be described as never having “had a bad day.” For Socrates, the contingency of existence would seem to reflect nothing so much as La Comedie Humaine.

But however this might be, the Socrates presented to us by Patocka calls much more to mind the classic portrait of the tragic hero. The “fatalistic” or “comic” image of Socrates who laughs but never cries would be for Patocka a philosopher unlikely to show the “somber profundity” and spiritual “depth” characteristic of a Czech national hero at least. This spirit of gravitas on the part of Patocka’s philosopher is of the essence if any purchase is to be gained in the struggle against the trials imposed by political tyranny.

For Patocka, the portrait of a “somber” and “deep” Socrates needs to be highlighted if the Platonic tradition of philosophy is to be salient to any serious political considerations. His Socrates is as much a man of moral courage as he is of critical knowledge. He emerges as a figure who would never say that “Might is Right!” and who is much more inclined to say with Thomas Hobbes that “the fool in his heart says there is no justice.”

So it is that Socrates’ discovery of the “secret” and “tyrannical leanings” of the Athenians meant he had no choice but to play the role of “the messenger of the gods.”At his trial, he reverses the field on his judges and becomes himself the mouthpiece for what Patocka calls the “divine anger" against the hypocritical officials condemning him. Patocka’s Socrates becomes a Jeremiah of the true divinity that has been purified of all its old superstitiousness. He proclaims to his people: “Repent Ye Athenians—for the End is at Hand!! Your judgment day awaits you for your ‘secret tyrannical leanings’ which I have uncovered in your very own presence!!”

Patocka’s reflections on the condition of Europe leads him to the conclusion that it is most needful for her to come to terms with the over-politicization of her inner spirit that she has allowed to occur. Political Europe has been far too absorbed in the quest for world domination and mastery. As a result it has allowed the older “Europe of the Spirit” to disappear “before our very own eyes,” and probably forever. The best way to respond to this crisis, Patocka argues, is to resort to a revised version of Nietzsche’s famous doctrine of the Eternal Return. The “Patockean” version of this doctrine involves innovation even as it accepts inevitable repetition. “We have to say what is, again, over and over, and always in a different way, but it always has to be the same thing!” Nietzsche’s effort to resign himself to the fact that the famous “Last Man” will be returning forever did not lead Patocka to accept the prospect of an ever-returning political tyranny.

In a recent article on the American Founding, political theorist Michael Anton comes close to Patocka when he says that “Tyranny can recur,” and “it can happen here” (emphasis Anton’s). Presumably, Anton joins with Patocka in thinking that it is the responsibility of all men of good will to maintain an unrelenting effort to block this return. So it was that in 1977 Patocka bid farewell to the temporal order shortly after undergoing extensive interrogation at the hands of the Czechoslovak Secret Police. But that was in 1977, a world away in terms of Czech and world politics as they appear today. Patocka’s country became “Czechia,” which today is a member of NATO and the EU; as such, it has left the dreary, dispiriting world portrayed in the novels of Josef Skvorecky far behind.

One lesson that the study of Patocka teaches is that it is the privilege of only prosperous and secure societies to reflect a zeitgeist of postmodern “ironism” and nihilist fatalism. But such a psychology is of no value at a time when, to use the famous words of Sir Edward Grey in 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.” For Patocka, a time of genuine human need calls less for irony and more for true spiritual empowerment. And from whence might such an energization of the spirit be best derived? Why from nowhere else but its highest source in Europe-Greece’s past: the legacy of Platonic philosophy.

Patocka is saying to his readers that we can either cultivate a sensitivity to that light that transcends the public square, however faint it might be or we can condemn ourselves to the illusory life of Plato’s famous cave. Such a choice is especially fraught today because our cave’s walls extend around the whole wide world and are built so high as to prevent the tiniest shaft of light from reaching the people below. Under these circumstances, the question raised by Patocka’s labors is whether it will be adequately appreciated in our time that there is a very real possibility that civilization might obliviously wander into what some great writers have variously called the “Heart of Darkness” or “The Night of the World.” Will we understand with Patocka that we are legatees of Plato’s long ago “founding” and as such we must always be ready to repeat for ourselves that moment in history when Socrates insists to his accusers “that wherever a man stations himself it is for the best that he should remain there and run his risks?"

Author’s Note: I would like to thank Dr. Jan Frei, director of the Jan Patocka Archive in Prague, for his hospitality and assistance.

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