What Would Socrates Do?

tags: books, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

James Romm teaches Classics at Bard College in Annandale, New York. His most recent book is "Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero," published by Knopf.

In recent weeks, increased scrutiny of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man --men who, in most eyes, failed the ethical tests posed by the rise of the Nazis -- has raised questions about the connection between words and deeds, and about the moral responsibilities of thinkers and writers living under brutal regimes. For students of philosophy, these questions have a very long, indeed ancient, pedigree.

Publication in Germany of the first volume of Heidegger’s private notebooks, now known to be tinged by anti-Semitism, has revived debate over the philosopher’s leadership of the University of Freiburg in 1933, during a purge of non-Aryan faculty. In this country, meanwhile, Evelyn Barish’s biography of literary theorist Paul de Man has shed new light on a man who often transformed himself, chameleon-like, to advance his career. As a newspaper editor in occupied Belgium in the early 1940’s, de Man embraced a Nazi agenda, probably without any personal conviction, to rise more quickly through literary ranks.

How badly has collusion with Hitler – whether out of shared racist beliefs, as in Heidegger’s case, or mere opportunism, as in de Man’s -- tainted the writings of these men? Does the rise of autocracy, with its power to bend wills and cloud minds, excuse their bad choices? Within the Greco-Roman philosophic tradition, to which Heidegger and de Man claimed to be heirs, these issues are exemplified by a Roman portrait bust today displayed – appropriately, perhaps – in Berlin.

The bust shows two great thinkers in a Janus-faced arrangement, joined at the back of the head as though sharing a single mind. Looking one direction is Socrates, the great paradigm of lived philosophy, a man famous for never swerving from his moral code. Looking the opposite way is a less familiar visage, and a more complex man; an inscription identifies him as Seneca, the Roman ethical thinker of the mid-1st century A.D. The pairing invites viewers to contrast two very different sages, who differed most in their responses to political power.

Socrates famously refused to collude with despots, even when his life was at stake. The fascistic regime of the Thirty, who ruled Athens briefly in 403 B.C. -- a gang as ruthless as any Gestapo squad—put Socrates to the test by demanding that he help arrest one of their enemies. Socrates, according to Plato’s Apology, dutifully went to the Thirty’s headquarters, along with four other men, to receive his assignment. But then he went home and did nothing. The fall of the regime shortly after saved him from becoming one of its victims – though the democracy that replaced it was no kinder.

Half a millennium later, Seneca, an adherent of the Stoic school with its emphasis on reason and moral awareness, served as chief advisor and head speechwriter to Nero. In the course of a decade at court, he became ever more deeply enmeshed in the emperor’s crimes and perversions. He wrote treatises extolling philosophic virtue even while helping to disguise those crimes. Critics called him a collaborationist, a charge he seemed to concede when, in moments of self-examination, he claimed that his soul was ill with an incurable disease.

Ironically, Seneca revered the courage Socrates had shown in defying potentates. He wrote pointedly of how Socrates declined to join the court of Archelaus, a king of Macedon, despite powerful inducements. Archelaus had usurped the throne in a bloody coup and was buying up Greek thinkers and writers at great expense – the playwright Euripides was one of his acquisitions – to bolster his legitimacy. But Socrates, Seneca explained, knew that the gifts bestowed by a despot can never be repaid. To accept them, inevitably, is to enter a voluntary servitude.

Seneca spoke of such servitude out of first-hand experience. Nero offered lavish handouts to his court circle of intellectuals, and Seneca himself amassed a fortune. Attacked by his his contemporaries, Seneca tried to give back all he had received, but Nero refused to take it: The Roman people, the emperor claimed, would think he had confiscated it. Seneca was doomed to prove his own point, that taking gifts from tyrants makes one a slave of power.

In one of his essays, Seneca sought to justify his wealth by imagining how Socrates might defend him. Yet he also rejected the idea that he should be measured by such a yardstick of moral perfection. “I am not a wise man, nor will I ever be,” he wrote, employing a term of art (sapiens) by which the Stoics anointed their saints and exemplars. “Ask not that I be equal to the best, but better than the bad.” The plea rings hollow, for it was the lives of “the best,” enshrined in stories and anecdotes, by which philosophers, even Seneca himself, imparted their ethical lessons.

Seneca tried one last time to emulate Socrates, but once again fell short. As Nero’s antipathy grew, Seneca collected a cup of hemlock, the numbing poison Socrates had cheerfully drunk at the order of the state, to use as his own means of suicide. When his death sentence at last arrived from the palace, Seneca found that his toxin had no effect. He was forced to end his life by other means. His great role model outshone him right up to the end.

The rise of the Nazis in Europe posed different problems than that of the Thirty at Athens or the Caesars in Rome. But the Janus-faced bust nonetheless offers lessons for modernity, lessons that Heidegger and de Man would have done well to heed. On one side stands Socrates, who taught that the unexamined life is not worth living. On the other stands Seneca, whose collusion with Nero supplied the corollary: Merely to examine life is not enough.

“I profit from a philosopher only insofar as he can be an example,” wrote Nietzsche in 1874. Like Seneca under the Caesars, Heidegger and de Man under the Nazis went astray in their response to autocratic power, the very arena where the Socratic tradition demanded most from them. The books of such tainted sages will endure, as they should. But it is the man who wrote nothing, who taught through deeds rather than words, who continues to inspire.      

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