Sie sind auf Seite 1von 32

Philosophy as Self-Fashioning: Alexander Nehamas's Art of Living

Anderson, R. Lanier. Landy, Joshua, 1965-

Diacritics, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2001, pp. 25-54 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/dia.2003.0002

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by Marshall University at 07/02/12 11:24PM GMT

Alexander Nehamas. THE ART OF LIVING: SOCRATIC REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO TO FOUCAULT. Vol. 61 of the Sather Classical Lectures. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1998. [AL] How can we make things beautiful, attractive, desirable for us when they are not? . . . this we should learn from artists while being wiser than they are in other matters. For with them this subtle power usually comes to an end where art ends and life begins; but we want to be the poets of our life. . . . Nietzsche, The Gay Science To turn philosophy to the service of lifeto become the poet of ones lifeis the animating thought behind Alexander Nehamass recent book, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. The books central aim is to argue that philosophy can be an activity, a way of life, as distinct from a body of scholarly doctrine. While it has become standard to insist that philosophy is a theoretical discipline [AL 1], producing claims about the nature of truth, beauty, causality, and so on, Nehamas draws on an ancient tradition under which practical activity is the core philosophical enterprise, and the true philosopher, like Socrates in the Apology, need not author compelling theories but must live the life of a sage. His efforts to revive the ancient idea give rise to a conundrum, however. For he claims that his own book embodies the essentially practical type of philosophy, even though, to all appearances, it is standard theoretical fare: views are laid out, claims evaluated, and counterarguments refuted (often in extensive footnotes). How can we explain Nehamass conviction that his book belongs on the side of the practical philosophers, when it seems so theoretical?1 Where is the art of living in The Art of Living?
Thanks to Alexander Nehamas, Chris Bobonich, David Johnson, Allison Katsev, Elijah Millgram, Andrea Nightingale, Katherine Preston, Bernard Reginster, and Manuel Vargas for helpful comments on earlier drafts, and to Myles Burnyeat and Heda Segvic for a provocative conversation about some aspects of the piece. 1. In this paper, we always use the practical/theoretical contrast to mark the distinction between philosophy as a body of theory and philosophy as a way of life acted out. Theoretical philosophy in this sense includes all versions of philosophical theorizing, including theories both in the area of what Kant called practical philosophy (i.e., theories about action, like moral, political, and social philosophy), and in what he called theoretical philosophy (i.e., metaphysics, epistemology, logic). The point of calling philosophy practical in our wider sense is not merely to indicate that something about the philosophy is supposed to motivate action (a theory

diacritics / spring 2001

diacritics 31.1: 2554


The question about praxis turns out to be a question about the self, for Nehamas believes that philosophy counts as an art of living only when it embarks on a project of self-fashioning [AL 46 et passim]. While others have noted the contrast between the two conceptions of philosophy,2 Nehamass distinctive move is to locate the primary task of philosophical living in the construction of character. In one sense, of course, every normally functioning individual already has a self, as part of the inevitably present, standard equipment for a human life. But Nehamas points to a stronger, normative notion, under which becoming a genuine self counts as an achievement [AL 25 et passim]. Life presents each of us with a bewildering variety of factors attaching to our person: character traits, physical features, talents and abilities, a sociocultural context, and so on. There is no guarantee that such components will fit together without serious tensions. Achieving selfhood in the stronger sense is a matter of creating a harmonious order out of these elements, thereby fashioning a coherent, perhaps even admirable, way of life. On this view, who we are is not given to us but set for us as a problem, to which the philosophical art of living pursues solutions. Self-fashioning is thus essential to philosophy as a way of life. Nehamas argues further that the tradition of philosophical self-fashioning has an essential relationship to the figure of Socrates, that enigmatic pied piper of Athens [Nietzsche, GS 340; cf. Plato, Symp. 215bd], who searched for knowledge primarily for the sake of making his life more rational. Philosophers who follow Socrates in this respect are trying to live well not to say what a good life is, but to show us how they have fashioned their own lives. Nehamas demonstrates that even in the modern period, in the margins of the modern canon of theoretical philosophy, figures like Montaigne and Nietzsche have practiced philosophy as just such an art of living, turning their reflections on the model of Socrates to the service of a project to live well and beautifully. He thus organizes his book as a series of sustained readings of Plato, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault, examining how they have received the Socratic legacy. Along the way, Nehamas traverses a wide variety of academic fields, including scholarship not only on these four thinkers, but also on Thomas Manns fiction, Kierkegaard, the history of irony, and the Socratic problem.3 Given this structure, it is small wonder that early critics have treated The Art of Living as a secondary text, focusing on its interpretations of other philosophers as the key axis for evaluation. While reviewers have noted the self-referential claim to practice the art of living, they have not explained it.4 Indeed, it defies explanation, as long as Nehamas is treated strictly as a historian of philosophy. After all, his interpretations are knowledge claims concerning the significance of certain philosophical texts and movements, and as such, they belong to the theoretical enterprise of describing historical

could do this, and that is precisely the idea behind the Kantian sense of practical philosophy), but rather to claim that philosophy of this sort is itself practical activity. 2. On the practical conception of philosophy in the classical and Hellenistic periods, see, e.g., Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, and Frede, Euphrates of Tyrus. Millgram, How to Make Something of Yourself, approaches the idea from a contemporary point of view. 3. The Socratic problem is the question of how to identify the historical Socrates behind the various portraits we have of him in the ancient sources. While Nehamas is primarily interested in the (literary) character of Socrates created by Plato, his argument pushes him to make a number of comments about the Socratic problem along the way. See esp. AL 68, 9398, and, for a discussion of the literature, AL 222n83. 4. For example, Jonathan Lears informative review [The Examined Life] treats Nehamass conception of philosophy as an art of living as a device for tying the books secondary studies together. See also Griffin, Platos Grand Design. But for a striking and unusual review that makes more progress with this difficult idea, cf. Quarch, Eros lenke meine Zunge.


features of our culture. How could this project of theorizing qua historian of philosophy also count as a practical art of living proper to Alexander Nehamas? Pressed hard enough, the puzzle threatens to undermine not only Nehamass claim to be a philosopher of the art of living, but also his very distinction between the two modes of philosophy. After all, Nehamas admits on his first page that all philosophy today is routinely considered to be theoretical philosophy. Apparently, then, if his project accomplishes something recognizably philosophical (by current lights), his achievement must be essentially theoretical in character. Conversely, if his work breaks free of the theoretical temperament of present-day philosophy, then it seems he would no longer be doing philosophy at all.5 It is only when we see The Art of Living as a primary text, making its own positive contribution to philosophy, that we can begin to understand Nehamass self-referential claim, and to see how he aims to avoid the dilemma just sketched. For over and above his works scholarly aims in the history of philosophy, Nehamas repeatedly demands that readers evaluate his book not only as a description of but also as a contribution to the practical tradition of philosophy: I have come to realize, he writes, that to study the art of living is to engage in one of its forms [15; cf. 6, 98, and esp. 18788]. Nehamas thereby summons us to examine contemporary philosophy in terms of the lives it makes possible. For his endorsement of philosophy as an art of living amounts to a challenge to current philosophers to show why it should not be more widely pursued and accepted, even within the academy.

Philosophical Self-Fashioning What Makes Self-Fashioning Philosophical? Before we can assess the nature of Nehamass challenge, and propose a solution to the puzzles broached in the introduction, we need a clearer understanding of the nature of philosophical self-fashioning, and of the literary strategies Nehamas thinks appropriate to it. We have said that self-fashioning consists in bringing unity, or coherence, to a variety of features that are relatively closely bound to a persons identity, and that such unity of self can never be thought of as simply given, but must always be achieved. Clearly, however, the general project of self-fashioning need not have anything to do with philosophy. Lord Byron, for example, fashioned an impressive life without doing anything recognizably belonging to the tradition of Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Kant. What, then, makes a life of self-fashioning distinctively philosophical? One tempting, but problematic, answer exploits the now traditional theoretical conception of philosophy and defines a philosopher as someone possessing views on certain broad systematic questions, like the nature and purpose of human life, or the structure of the universe and our place within it. Following this idea, Nehamas suggests that self-fashioning can be a philosophical accomplishment because the content and nature of the self created . . . depends on holding views on issues that have traditionally been considered philosophical, and not on anything one pleases [AL 3]. A philosopher in the practical tradition of the art of living would then be someone who not only has such
5. Nehamas himself thus confronts a version of the same difficulty he earlier diagnosed and investigated in the work of philosophers, like Nietzsche and Richard Rorty, who apparently aim to overcome the philosophical tradition altogether. The worry is that any move in such a program either (1) makes philosophical arguments to explain the failings of the tradition of prior philosophy, and thereby perpetuates that tradition, or (2) lacking such arguments, fails to make sufficient contact with the tradition, and thus simply changes the subject [see Nehamas, NLL, CS].

diacritics / spring 2001



views but actually lives in conformity with them. The internal coherence that Nehamas makes into a key desideratum for self-fashioning may also now take on a theoretical cast. Philosophical beliefs are supposed to be particularly systematic, so the obvious links for unifying the philosopher s life are systematic logical connectionsboth among theoretical beliefs (required, per hypothesis, to make the life philosophical in the first place) and between those beliefs and the philosopher s actions. From this vantage, we can see one reason for Nehamass surprising conclusion that Plato belongs to the practical tradition of the art of living. Plato is usually read as a theoretical philosopher, famous, for example, for his doctrines that a single way of life is best for everyone and that philosophical knowledge (contemplation of the Forms) is crucial to that way of life. As doctrines, these views are indeed theoretical, but their particular content lends Platos project a practical guise. By presenting intellectual contemplation as central to virtue, he invites us to consider thinking and writing as belonging to the realm of praxis, and thus to take his own texts not just as theoretical claims but as acts of philosophizing. The Platonic dialogues thereby work on two distinct levels: on the one hand, they contribute to our knowledge, but on the other, they show us something about Plato qua sage. Nehamas returns our attention to the second of these levels. After reading him, we see that Plato can be understood as a practitioner of the philosophical art of living, because he lives an exemplary life of contemplation. Platos conviction that a single mode of life is best for all has perhaps obscured this practical aspect of his philosophical agenda. Such universalism lends the general theoretical truth about the good life an apparent priority over Platos own practical efforts to attain the good. Moreover, in his attempts to substantiate the universalist thesis, Plato was forced to deploy extensive metaphysical machinery, which, by Nehamass account, itself gave birth to the autonomous tradition of theoretical philosophy [AL 9697]. But such considerations are not decisive: the characterization of Platos project as either theoretical or practical depends on what counts as the fundamental philosophical move and what is merely the means to its realization. Often, readers have taken Platos theoretical aims as basic, and his activity as an author as the mere means to those ends a conclusion that takes aid and comfort from the common assumption that theory is the essence of philosophy. The picture is less clear, however, if we approach the dialogues without deciding in advance whether they present philosophy as a matter of developing theories or as a way of life. The Socrates of the dialogues wants knowledge of the good, it is truebut only in order to live a better life. Nehamass reading raises the serious possibility that for Socrates author Plato, as well, the fundamental philosophical aim is to discover and exemplify the best way of life. Since Plato believes such a life to consist in contemplation, the articulation of theoretical doctrine is a fitting means to his practical end. Nevertheless, the distinctively practical character of the project of self-fashioning doubtless emerges more clearly in individualist versions of the art of living, which Nehamas finds in Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault.6 The individualist philosopher articulates and exemplifies a way of life that distinguishes her as a unique character. While she presents her particular way of life as admirable, it is not supposed to be best for everyone, so she need not establish its universal validity via theory. Other individualist philosophers may well turn to her life for inspiration, but insofar as they, too, are individualists, they can follow it only indirectly, in the way artists take earlier artworks

6. This is one reason Nehamas prefers individualist versions of the philosophical art of living over Platos universalist version. On the general distinction between individualist and universalist versions of the art of living see AL 911, 127, et passim. For Nehamass own endorsement of the individualist version, see AL 18588, 98.

diacritics / spring 2001


as models. Producing a copy of the original object would not count as successful use of the model. The challenge is to do something that is like the model in being uniquely admirable, and in other formal, abstract features that enable us to locate the new product in the same tradition. Here, then, what matters most is the practical activity of fashioning a distinctive self, and the fact that a particular self happens to have theoretical philosophical views is only the mark that locates it as a philosophical art of living, within the broader genus of self-fashioners. Now, however, the presence of philosophical views in the fashioned life begins to look almost incidental, raising doubts about our initial working hypothesis that containing philosophical views is what makes an art of living philosophical. The worry can be formulated as a dilemma. On the one hand, if logical connections among the philosophers theoretical beliefs are her primary devices for self-fashioning, then the most important thing about the philosopher is the structure of her theoretical position. But in that case her commitment to logical consistency in theorizing is an intrinsically theoretical norm, not just a desideratum she applies to her life.7 So she is simply a traditional theoretical philosopher, whose philosophical product is a body of doctrine (not a persona), and Nehamas loses the clear distinction between theoretical and practical conceptions of philosophy. If, on the other hand, the coherence a self-fashioner brings to her life is not derived fundamentally from connections among her theoretical commitments, then her philosophical views are not essential to her acts of self-fashioning. They only figure among the materials ordered by those acts. In this respect, they have the same standing as any other materials for self-creation, including personality traits, nonphilosophical beliefs, and so on. There is no a priori reason to privilege the philosophical views over all these other elements by calling her self-fashioning philosophical. The self-fashioner who simply happens to have many philosophical views among the materials of her life need not pursue self-fashioning itself in a fundamentally different way from nonphilosophical self-fashioners. Whichever horn of the dilemma we pick, we have still not identified a separate, essentially practical kind of philosophy that is a way of life. Instead, we have either philosophy, but in a theoretical form, or a practical way of life, but one that is not distinctively philosophical. In effect, then, the working hypothesis treats theoretical philosophy as the only genuine philosophy, and allows an art of living to count as philosophical only insofar as it participates in theoretical philosophy. But it is a major element of Nehamass historical thesis that the practical project of the philosophical art of living actually predates theoretical philosophy as we know it. Therefore, our working hypothesis cannot stand as Nehamass considered view. Nehamas must be advocating a much more deflationary demarcation of philosophical self-fashioning. Philosophical artists of living, like all philosophers, are defined as such by reference to a historical tradition [AL 6]: the admirable and praiseworthy life they fashion takes the traditional philosopherparadigmatically Socratesas its model. One becomes a part of the specific, historical tradition of philosophy as an art of living by allowing oneself to be influenced by that tradition, by identifying with it, and by adopting the project of extending it. This is why the various self-fashioners Nehamas identifies in this tradition not only do in fact, but must in principle, engage with Socrates

7. To see why this must be so, consider what we would say about a person who cared about logical consistency, but only because she liked the idea of being that kind of person. This stance would give her reasons for action and belief, but such reasons would not count as embodying the commitment to logical consistency. To express that commitment, actions and reasons have to be driven by the norms of theoretical consistency themselves, whose normative force is autonomous in this sense. Elijah Millgram pressed us to accommodate this point.


as their ultimate exemplar for the art of living. Only thereby do they count as philosophers at all.8

Two Kinds of Coherence Value The above approach allows Nehamas to distinguish philosophical from nonphilosophical self-fashioning based on an appeal to Socrates as a paradigm, but the resulting demarcation is very thin. There are no deep, simple and general features to which we can point as the essence of philosophy, in either its theoretical or its self-fashioning mode [AL 16, esp. 4]. Indeed, Nehamass historical demarcation is so deflationary that it threatens to obscure the difference between the two kinds of philosophy along a different dimension. For, by his own admission, both traditions go back to Socrates practice of philosophy as their defining source of inspiration, and neither tradition has an essence that fixes its nature independently from their common historical dependence on the same figure. What, then, is the crucial contrast between them? We believe that the fundamental distinction must be drawn in terms of the different coherence values the two modes of philosophy hold up as ideals. In both cases, the pursuit of coherence demands a distinctively philosophical kind of reflection, but different conceptions of coherence give rise to corresponding types of reflection, and thence to two modes of philosophy. Understanding cohesion of self by appeal to coordination among theoretical beliefs simply does not capture the particular kind of coherence aimed at by self-fashioning. In the first place, having a unified system of theoretical philosophical beliefs is not sufficient for fashioning a coherent self. One obvious counterexample is the philosopher who fails to practice what she preaches. But even short of such outright hypocrisy, it is perfectly possible for a philosopher to achieve substantial consistency in her systematic beliefs without attaining anything like coherence of self. Imagine, for example, a philosopher who has devised a compelling account of weakness of will, based on a systematic moral psychology, but who developed this interest precisely because she herself is so often afflicted by weakness of will, and thus not at one with herself.9 Surprisingly, moreover, a coherent system in theoretical philosophy is not even necessary for fashioning a unified philosophical self. Montaigne counts as an exem8. A philosopher of the art of living could avoid the requirement to have Socrates as her model by taking some other philosopher(s) from the tradition as the paradigm(s) of the philosophical life. She could then remain within the tradition going back to Socrates, and have her way of life count as philosophical by virtue of its place in that tradition, without herself actually caring about Socrates. (The relation x takes y as the model of a philosophical life is not transitive.) Even in this case, though, Socrates has a special role as the originator of the tradition that defines the work of philosophers in the practical mode. For a philosopher to belong to this tradition, her models, or their models, or someone even further back in the series, must have taken Socrates as the paradigm. 9. According to James Wood, the opium-addicted Samuel Taylor Coleridge of 180416 was just such a case. In his recent review of Richard Holmess Coleridge, Wood writes that it was at this very moment, while the will was in shabbiest abeyance, that Coleridge began to formulate a coherent theory of the will . . . his interest in the will bloomed at the instance of its actual collapse . . . its central importance was then developed theoretically in inverse proportion to [Coleridges] own lack of it [38]. Note, too, that while we envision that our philosopher is interested in weakness of will because of its role in her own life, there is no reason to suppose that having developed a successful theory will make her more strong-willed, any more than we should suppose that the author of a compelling philosophical account of visual perception would thereby improve her vision.

diacritics / spring 2001


plary self-fashioner, despite his explicit admission that his thinking often contradicts and condemns itself [AD 705]. For example, in the very essay containing this admission [Of the Art of Discussion], Montaigne first praises, and then within the space of thirty lines denounces, sharp disputation [AD 70506]. One might conclude here (from a theoretical point of view) that Montaigne is simply a poor philosopher, but this reaction misses the nature of Montaignes project, and thus the real difference between theorizing and practical self-fashioning as modes of philosophy. To see how, we must follow a short detour. In fact, Montaigne is deeply interested in coherencebut of a different type than that pertaining to the logical order of beliefs. For example, only a few pages further into the essay [AD 711], he makes a strong appeal for coherent arguments, in the context of criticizing discussants who rest their claims on their social authority as experts or officials, nobles or rich men. Montaigne insists that the experiences and authorizations of the would-be expert are worthless unless they have been digested [AD 711] and incorporated into his self, so that he speaks from those experiences and that authority and thus become[s] wiser in the practice of his art [AD 711]. Such incorporation ideally produces a well-integrated self, comparable to a concert of instruments [in which] we do not hear a lute, a spinet, and the flute; we hear a rounded harmony, the effect of various elements joined in a whole [AD 711]. This coherence is a matter of character, not theory or logic. In the special case of expert historians, for example, Montaigne admits the usefulness of their theorizing, but denies that it is the source of their true value: It is always good and useful to listen to . . . [their] fair and laudable instructions. . . . But we are not looking for that at the moment; we are looking to see whether . . . [they] are themselves laudable [AD 711]. The harmonious whole Montaigne commends, then, is not a coherent body of fact or theory; it is the unified self of the theorizer. Indeed, this is the point of the whole essay. All its talk about Discussion is really in the service of Montaignes project to present his own character as an integrated personality. He opens the essay with a claim to present himself as an example for others [AD 703], and then closes on his central point about harmony of character.10 While Tacitus is a great historian, he writes there, it is his well-integrated self that makes him truly admirable. Even his theoretical failures serve to display the underlying unity of his character. For example, Montaigne thinks that history fails to justify Tacituss censure of Pompeys ambition, but despite Tacituss evaluation, his narratives about Pompey remain highly accurateso accurate, indeed, that their sincerity might perhaps be argued from the very fact that they do not always exactly warrant the conclusions of his judgment [AD 719]. The essential point is that Tacituss refusal to slant the facts one little bit [AD 719] so as to strengthen his case expresses the same austere virtue and public-mindedness that underlie his suspicions of Pompey. Here, precisely the theoretical tension between evidence and conclusion in the thought counts as evidence for a more important underlying coherence of self in the thinker.

10. The theme of self-presentation thus serves as the organizing idea that binds the essay into a coherent whole. Not only does Montaigne announce it at the beginning, and then repeat it at the very end (in both cases in its most immediate application, viz., to his own project of selffashioning), but the closing variation proceeds by citing a historian (Tacitus) as an example. On reflection, this move recalls our attention to yet a third statement of the theme (this time in a fully general form), which we saw in the essays central passages treating the successful historians, whose selves can approximate a concert of instruments [in which] we do not hear a lute, a spinet, and the flute; we hear a rounded harmony, the effect of various elements joined in a whole [AD 711].


Lest we miss the true aim of the example, Montaigne pauses in the midst of discussing Tacitus to remind us that I dare not only to speak of myself, but to speak only of myself [AD 720, our emphasis]. The essays point about character applies (secondarily) to Tacitus, but primarily to Montaigne himself. As we have seen, the discrepancies among the various theoretical views expressed in the Essays are real. Nevertheless, they all arise from Montaignes project to present [him]self [AD 721] as a harmonious character. To that end, he advances not only considered opinions, but also passing thoughts and trial balloons: I who am king of the matter I treat [viz., himself] . . . do not for all that believe myself in all I write. I often hazard sallies of my mind which I mistrust, . . . but I let them run at a venture [AD 72021]. It is no wonder, then, that some of these sallies of the mind conflict with others. Nor is it surprising that a Montaigne essay rarely gives the surface appearance of inconsistency, even when, as in the present case, conflicting claims are made in close proximity. The reader tends to glide right over the contradictions, since the essay hangs together. It does so, however, because of the force of Montaignes persona, rather than the rigor of a sustained argument. For example, it is just as much in Montaignes spirit to complain about the use of disputation to promote rancor [AD 706] as it is for him to encourage people to dispute with him, in the hope that he might gain instruction [AD 705]. Both express the same characteristic open-mindedness toward people and their (potentially instructive) ideas. Thus, Montaignes own art of discussion is to present a variety of ideasfor the sake of argument, as we saywith the underlying aim of introducing us to the personality who would have such thoughts. There are, then, two essentially different kinds of coherence of philosophical interest. On the one hand, there is systematic consistency among theoretical beliefs; on the other, there is what we will call aesthetic unity of character. It is striking that the second type of coherence applies not only to personality traits and the like, but also to philosophical views,11 which are usually considered the exclusive province of theoretical consistency. Of course, aesthetic coherence of Montaignes sort unifies our beliefs in a fundamentally different way than does theoretical consistency. Here it is not a matter of logical or systematic connections among the contents of the views. Rather, a set of
11. Martha Nussbaum fails to do justice to this point in her review of The Art of Living [Cult of the Personality]. Nussbaum takes Nehamas to be focusing on superficial traits and tics of great philosophersthe shape of their nose, the manner of their walk, the wittiness of their conversationrather than on their ideas about truth, goodness, and so on [37]. But Nehamas makes it clear that philosophical self-fashioning depends crucially on such views, as well as the aesthetic coherence among them: It is a philosophical accomplishment because the content and nature of the self created . . . depends on holding views on issues that have traditionally been considered philosophical and not on anything one pleases. It is literary because the connection between those philosophical views is not only a matter of systematic logical interrelations but also, more centrally, a matter of style. It is a question of putting those views together so that, even when the connections between them are not strictly logical, it makes psychological and interpretative sense to attribute them to a single, coherent character. [AL 3] Doubtless, the disagreement here arises because Nussbaum simply does not feel the force of Nehamass claim that there is more than one way to do philosophy. Starting from the premise that philosophy is essentially universal, she concludes, for example, that whenever Nietzsche failed to make universalist claims he veered away from his strictly philosophical projects [35]. This, however, is not to refute the idea that there is a separate, individualist and practical tradition of philosophy, distinct from theoretical philosophy, but rather to take the point for granted by refusing a priori to characterize the tradition Nehamas is interested in as philosophy at all.

diacritics / spring 2001


commitments will have aesthetic coherence when they make sense together as views all held by the same (relatively cohesive) personality. That is, if the beliefs stand in theoretical tension with one another, this fact will have a satisfying explanation in terms of the character of the believer. The sort of reflection needed to unify ones beliefs in this second way takes a fundamentally different and more radical form than theoretical reflection. Careful attention to the contents of ones beliefs is insufficient. Instead, ones reflection itself must fall within the scope of reflection, for the task is to fashion a character such that all the acts and thoughts of ones life, including the acts of reflection, can be seen as natural expressions of one unified self. Thus, one must reflect constantly and on all the aspects of ones life, in order to stay in charactereven in the process of fashioning the character itself. As we have seen, such aesthetic unity is independent from strictly theoretical coherence; the latter is neither sufficient nor necessary for the former. The independence of the two coherence values thereby marks a serious difference between the two traditions of philosophical reflection. If there is a strategy for achieving coherence among philosophical views that is proper to the realm of life and character, rather than that of theory, then the possibility arises that some views will be integrated into a philosopher s achievement by means of connections to her character, even though they clash with other aspects of her theoretical viewpoint. In the converse case, the theoretical philosopher may be driven by purely systematic considerations to beliefs that are not realized in her life, or even stand in deep tension with the practical commitments that organize her character. We thus have a preliminary answer to our demarcation question. The philosophical art of living is distinguished from self-fashioning in general by a historical criterion: philosophical self-fashioners work within a particular tradition that goes back to Socrates and his special reflective way of life. And philosophers of the art of living are distinguished from theoretical philosophers, who also claim descent from Socratic techniques of reflective examination, because they pursue as their ultimate value aesthetic coherence of character rather than systematic coherence in theorizing. We suggested that these two coherence values are associated with characteristic types of reflection, and it is tempting to treat the demand for reflection as distinctively philosophical and then use it to strengthen the thin, merely historical demarcation of philosophy from nonphilosophy. Nehamas has recently been attracted by a version of this move, on which philosophy is identified by its self-referential character (which arises, arguably, from its demand for reflection) [Nehamas, pers. comm.]. For reasons we discuss below, we see this move as especially distinctive of Nehamas himself qua philosopher. But to our mind, the very thinness of the historical criterion is a major advantage. Figures like Wilde and Proust are certainly reflective, highly self-referential self-fashioners, but their status as philosopherseven philosophers of the art of livingis bound to be controversial, precisely because their work makes less contact with the tradition of Socrates than we have come to expect of intellectuals we class as philosophers. Such boundary controversies are less likely to be advanced by definitions seeking to isolate philosophys essential characteristics (for example, reflectiveness, self-referentiality), than by detailed interpretation of the historical tradition of philosophy. The demarcation we have just offered remains preliminary owing to an outstanding worry about the notion of aesthetic coherence it deploys. We called the sort of unification proper to self-fashioning aesthetic because it has features normally associated with artworks. In reading a literary work, for example, we begin from the idea that its every attribute has a reason, in terms of other attributes of the work. If a feature turns out to be merely accidentalwhere accidental means inexplicable by appeal to the othersthen it is a fault, either of our interpretation (that is, we do not yet understand


this feature), or of the author s art (that is, there is nothing to understand; the feature does not in fact belong).12 By contrast, in normal cases many characteristics of our real life selves are accidental, and we attain consistency only through care and effort. Selffashioning thus becomes a project of art, aiming to make ones life more understandable, coherent, and meaningful, in the way that well-formed literary works are. Complete unity, however, in which all accident is banished and every feature and event of a life has its explanation in terms of the others, is the province of fiction. It seems an impossible ideal for the lives of actual philosophers. How, then, can a philosopher fashion a self that realizes something deserving the title of aesthetic coherence? Nehamas clearly believes that modern philosophers like Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault achieved it, but that only sharpens the question. After all, the goal here is devising a way of life, and if we look at what these modern philosophers actually did, it must be admitted that they devoted most of their efforts to writingan activity more obviously suited for theoretical philosophy than for the practical art of living. How, then, can we understand these writers as self-fashioners?

Self-Fashioning in Philosophical Writing Nehamas proposes an ingenious answer to this worry, based on his 1981 essay The Postulated Author [PA], arguably the definitive statement on the vexed authorship question in literary study. There, Nehamas acknowledges that the writer (that is, the historical person who actually put pen to paper) may not have fully understood everything her opus successfully expresses, so that it would be an intentional fallacy to limit interpretation to a search for the writer s actual intentions [see Wimsatt and Beardsley]. But he nevertheless insists that, in one sense, we cannot do without the author if we are to interpret at all. A text is an expressive action, and to interpret such an action is to take the text as a set of intentional effects and assign them an intending cause [PA 144]. We can therefore make sense of a text only by positing an individual, or set of individuals, whose meaning it could serve to convey. Such a postulated author functions as a regulative ideal designed to explain the features of a given text: The author is postulated as the agent whose actions account for the texts features; he is a character, a hypothesis which is accepted provisionally, guides interpretation, and is in turn modified in its light [PA 145]. By its very nature, a postulated author will possess some of the integrity proper to a consummate work of art: each of her features is determined by its relation to the work that grounds her postulation. But while this consideration promises that the author s every attribute will have some explanation, it by no means guarantees that her character
12. This ideal is of classical origin. According to John Cooper [Reason, Moral Virtue 10609], several ancient philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, see ` (the fine, the noble, the beautiful) in general as primarily consisting in order ( ) and symmetry ( ). Thus, it is no accident that the perfect dramatic plot, for Aristotle, is one in which there are no detachable components: just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is always of one thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole. [Poetics 1451a 3035] Nehamas cites this text to make a related point in What We Should Expect from Reading 3637.

diacritics / spring 2001


will form a harmonious whole. How unified the postulated author is depends on how well the various elements of her work fit together. In the ideal case, the works features as a group express an overall authorial intention that is itself relatively homogeneous, even if the surface of the text is not.13 By contrast, a postulated author will be less unified to the extent that her work fails to make sense as a whole. Thus, we may be forced to account for certain properties of a textthese might be considered flawsby positing conflicts within the author s set of intentions. Fashioning a deeply coherent postulated author therefore constitutes a serious achievement of literary art. It is by means of such achievements, Nehamas thinks, that the modern philosophers he discusses can count lives of writing as experiments in the art of living. For by producing a strongly unified text a philosopher can create (that is, require us as readers to postulate) an author with an interesting, admirable, and deeply coherent character, of the sort aimed at by self-fashioning. The postulated author of such a philosophical text need not be a theorizer, whose success would be measured in terms of her doctrines, but can instead be considered as a character, who may or may not exemplify the type of self envisioned by a picture of the philosophical life. As we saw with Montaigne, the systematic logical connections among philosophical ideas in the text are not the most important virtues in such a case. What really matters is that the views, moves, arguments, and opinions brought forward in the text belong together as expressions of the philosopher s character, and fit with her conception of how to live. The natural worries about Nehamass solution arise from the fact that the postulated author in question is, after all, a postulate, not a real agent. An abstract entity deployed as a heuristic device in interpretation cannot engage in real activity. Even if we took the author as a fictional character created by the writer, so that she would have a practical life in a (fictional) sense, still her life would apparently not be the right kind of practical achievement on the part of the philosopher, her creator. The philosopher presents this life perhaps, but does not live it. Creating a postulated author might more obviously count as giving a clever kind of example, which merely illustrates the (theoretical) claim that a particular way of life is good. This way of thinking about the relation of the philosopher to her postulated author misses the intensely personal quality of the voice assumed by authors in the tradition of the art of living. These thinkers present themselves, to borrow Montaignes phrase. In each case the philosopher identifies with her postulated author, claiming features of the latter as features of her own life.14 That is, the writerly artist of living creates a postu13. This principle of unity has a powerfully comprehensive application. For example, even if a writer makes her character perform an action for no reason, as a way of creating a more realistic character, the principle of unity can still recuperate that feature of the work. To take Roland Barthess most famous example, the ubiquitous barometer in Flauberts Un coeur simple could just as well have been a thermometer, a vase, or an umbrella stand: it does not say much about the Aubains, and even less about their employee Flicit, who is the focus of the story. The barometer per se is therefore not an indispensable element within it. Yet some such arbitrarily chosen detail must be present. Precisely because they do not carry any meaning relevant to the narration, details of this sort appear to guarantee the latter s plausibilityto generate a reality effectsince real life, as we all know, is full of meaning-neutral objects. And so items like Flauberts barometer do indeed end up signifying something, namely reality (or at least realism) itself [Barthes 148]. 14. Montaigne exhibits this kind of identification in an especially strong form, as Nehamas notes. He spent a great deal of his life fashioning the Essays, and shaping the character of its narrator, so that by the end he could claim that In modeling this figure upon myself, I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken


lated author as an idealized persona for herself, as a kind of regulative ideal for her life. Once the philosopher has made such a move of identification, then precisely by working at the construction of this persona, she can fashion her self, smoothing over its accidents, making it more understandable and coherent. In this context, the relation between the authorial persona and the writer s everyday self works in two directions. On the one side, the philosophical self-fashioner strives to regulate her actions and beliefs so that they live up to her ideal. On the other, when certain everyday dispositions are too important to her to be wished away, she shapes and reshapes her ideal so as to make them affirmable under it. There is thus a productive give and take between the two selves. As she progresses on this path, the philosopher will gradually identify more with the ideal, and less with the given mass of local beliefs and dispositions. Her fashioned authorial self becomes her genuine self; after all, she is a writer, and her self qua author is arguably the most important part of her life (as it certainly was for Nietzsche and Montaigne). Perhaps writers never quite live up to their idealized personae, but the more successful a persons writing is, and the more integral it is to the achievement of her life, the more closely she can be identified with her author-ideal, that is, with the self she fashions and presents to the world as the voice behind her texts. The result is that our philosophical self-fashioner ultimately achieves, by means of writing, a coherent persona which stands above and apart from the intractable features of her everyday self.15 She may even attain a sagelike detachment from features that do not fit well with her ideal, stating or implying that she did not really mean to express them. She need not deny their existence; she has only to treat them ironically. For the important question is what the features mean for her life, which ironic detachment throws into question. By taking up a new attitude toward them, she changes not only how she sees them, but also what their significance for her life actually is. For example, viewing ones past love ironically can transform it from the all-consuming passion it seemed into a silly, childish trifle, or (in tragic cases) vice versa, from the trifle it had seemed into a life-organizing force one had failed to recognize. Which features count as parts of the genuine self thereby comes to depend on the attitudes taken up in this ironic stance, and the philosopher acquires an almost Olympian standpoint from which she adjudicates which expressions count as really hers and under what meaning she identifies with them. We can take one final step. As the philosopher s readers, we will feel satisfied that we have attributed the correct meaning to her various (possibly ironic) expressions only when we can tell a unified story about who she was and how her features fit together. Once we know she is an ironist, we can take her expressions at face valueor for that matter, confidently take them as ironiconly if we can securely fit them (under our
shape. Painting myself for others, I have painted my own inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made mea book consubstantial with its author, concerned with my own self, an integral part of my life. [Of Giving the Lie 504, qtd. in AL 104] Not every self-fashioner goes so far as to claim consubstantiality with her writing, as Montaigne did, but this is just the limit case for Nehamass writerly artists of living. And perhaps this limit is more frequently approximated than one would at first think. Consider, for example, that when we nowadays use the name Nietzsche, we almost always mean the postulated author Nietzsche, rather than, or in addition to, the illness-ridden former Basel professor. 15. Elijah Millgram has emphasized that philosophy as a way of life can be understood as persona creation in his paper on Robert Nozicks The Examined Life [see Millgram, How to Make Something of Yourself]. Millgrams notion of a persona is different from ours, but we have benefited from pressure brought against our conception by Millgram, both in the paper (section 1) and in conversation.

diacritics / spring 2001


interpretation) into the whole of her life. Thus, we count ourselves as understanding her only when the coherence of the philosopher s life comes into focus through our interpretation. By ironizing in this way, then, the philosopher of the art of living pressures us to treat her as unified, coopting us into the project of fashioning her life into a coherent whole. If this is right, then the device of irony has a special relationship to philosophy in the tradition of the art of living. If writers like Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault appeal to Socrates, it is not merely because he is the founder of philosophy, nor even because he founded a specific (practical) mode of philosophical reflection, but also because Socrates is the very paradigm of an ironized self. It is worth examining Platos Socrates in greater detail, in order to see how Socratic irony functions as a model for philosophical self-fashioning.

Irony and Self-Fashioning Plato and Socrates: Two Kinds of Irony For more than two millennia, Platos dialogues were felt to be dominated by Socrates, a single character who remains the same throughout, unfailingly presenting the views of his author. In The Art of Living, by contrast, Nehamas follows the twentieth-century consensus in making a basic distinction between Plato and Socrates. Indeed, the books overall argument requires a Socrates without the full universalist commitments of the Republic, so that he can serve as a compelling model for thinkers in the individualist philosophical art of living, like Montaigne, Nietzsche, and ultimately Nehamas himself. To understand Nehamass move, it is essential to keep apart four separate entities designated by the single term Socrates: the Man (the historical Socrates), the Reflection (what Plato takes Socrates to have been), the Mouthpiece (a fictional character designed to carry Platos own views) and the Invention (a fictional character designed to serve other ends).16 Nehamas demonstrates that our discussion can ignore the Man, about whom we lack sufficient information to say anything substantial, and center instead on a difference between the Reflection and the Mouthpiece. Plato, for Nehamas, is a doubly universalist thinker, using Socrates the Mouthpiece to present ideas purportedly true for everyone, and arguing for a mode of life purportedly good for everyone; Platos Reflection of Socrates, on the other hand, has no universal arguments with which to back up his vision of the good life [AL 910]. Nehamas distinguishes Plato and Socrates by dividing the Platonic corpus into two main parts, a first phase in which the character is Platos Reflection of Socrates, and a second phase in which he serves as the author s Mouthpiece. Here Nehamas takes up a now widespread recognition of salient differences in structure, characterization, and content among the dialogues. Works like the Phaedo or the Republic reach positive conclusions on the matters they discuss, rather than ending in aporia, with both interlocutors admitting defeat; the Socrates of these texts is confident in his knowledge, and the type of knowledge he claims for himself dramatically exceeds anything allowed for by the worldview of the Apology or the Euthyphro. One famous topic is the doctrine of Forms as independently existing real universals (Goodness, Beauty, and so on). Another equally important concept dividing the dialogues is akrasia, or weakness of the
16. We should not forget that the Socratic dialogue is an extremely common genre in fourthcentury Athens [AL 35], with what seems to be the same character being made to hold a variety of different views by a variety of different authors. See Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue.


will: the psychology of the Phaedrus and Republic envisions three parts of the soul, which serve as competing sources of motivation, so that reason must struggle against serious challenges from below, but that of the Apology [29d230a2] assumes that the human soul . . . [is] in principle indivisible [AL 7], so that all virtue (aret) is the product of knowledge, all vice that of ignorance, and rational knowledge both necessary and sufficient for ethical behavior [AL 95]. Following many recent scholars, Nehamas explains these differences by means of a developmental hypothesis [AL 196n33]. Nehamass version invites us to attribute the views expressed by the Socrates of the early dialogues to the Reflection, but to consider the Socrates of the transitional, middle, and late periods as Platos Mouthpiece.17 According to Nehamas, the Mouthpiece is a metaphysician, but the Reflection is a consummate ironist. The early Socrates irony does not consist in always saying the opposite of what he means (claiming ignorance, for example, when he knows he is wise). If it did, we could reliably understand what he means simply by inverting the obvious sense of his words. But this will not do. Even Alcibiades, who has developed his own substantial account of Socratic irony, is unable to determine how serious Socrates is when he declines the offer of sex in exchange for knowledge [Symp. 218d619a1]. And he has every reason to be confused, since Socrates gives apparently contradictory reasons for refusing: first, that the trade would be unfair, with Alcibiades gaining true beauty (that is, knowledge of virtue) and Socrates its mere shadow (physical good looks); second, that Socrates himself may lack the knowledge Alcibiades seeks. Nehamas deploys such cases to show that Socrates irony is not saying the opposite but merely saying something different from what he means [AL 12], or even simply not knowing whether he means what he says or not, with the surprising but persuasive consequence that Socrates may be ironic even by telling the truth [AL 57]. When, as in the present example, he disavows fullfledged knowledge of virtue, he may be stating his real belief, but simultaneously using it for strictly strategic purposes tailored to the conversation at hand [cf. Phdr. 271b1 2a4]; Alcibiades can be fully forgiven for taking it as ironic [AL 61]. An ironist of this ilk hovers above the surface of his or her words as if they were those of another person; there is no guarantee of a commitment to any given utterance, since each may be delivered to fit the needs of the particular encounter. Such ironism can become a way of life, leading to the still more unsettling case in which one no longer knows what ones own true attitude is. Irony can make it impossible to decide whether ironists are or are not serious either about what they say or about what they mean. Sometimes it makes it impossible to know whether ironists even know who they really are [AL 86]. Nehamass Socrates is such an ironist, and his silence [AL 69, 17; VA 102] helps explain not only Platos early dialogues but also their legacy. For despite his reputation as a monolithic metaphysician, Plato contributed to the genesis of several sharply dissimilar, and indeed competing, philosophical movements in antiquity, owing to the highly ambiguous portrait he painted of the first philosopher [VA 99]. In addition, if we are to believe Nehamas, Plato is responsible for the way in which individualist artists of living like Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault center their project of selffashioning around the figure of Socrates. Thanks to his all-pervasive irony, Platos Reflection of Socrates ends up an inviting blank [AL 185] on which anyone may draw whatever likeness she wishes.
17. In Nehamass version of the classification, the early dialogues are Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, and Protagoras; Gorgias, Hippias Major, Lysis, Menexenus, and Meno are transitional; the middle period includes Symposium, Phaedo, Republic, Euthydemus, Cratylus, Parmenides, Phaedrus, and Theaetetus; and finally, Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Politicus, Philebus, and Laws are late [AL 196n33].

diacritics / spring 2001


Socratic irony in Nehamass sense also serves two purposes within the sphere of the Platonic corpus. First of all, it contributes to verisimilitude by helping to explain the one incontrovertible historical fact about its subject: that he was executed. In contradistinction to Xenophons Socrates, who is so innocuous that Kierkegaard wondered why the Athenians would have ever been tempted to put such a man to death [AL 107, cf. 209n68], Platos character is constantly insinuating by means of his haughty irony that he is superior to anyone around. Secondly and more intriguingly, it suggests an equal arrogance on the part of Plato himself. For as Nehamas explains, it is a central principle of the early works that only an expert in aret can recognize another expert: novices may seek to learn virtue from a teacher, but they can never judge whether a given teacher is improving or corrupting them; to know that would be already to know what virtue is, which is what they need to learn in the first place. The corollary is that if one person can recognize another as an expert, then she, too, is an expert. To judge by the unfailingly virtuous portrait in Platos early dialogues, Socrates is an expert in aret, construed in the broadest sense; yet no one within the world of these dialogues is aware of it, even among those who respect Socrates particular courage, temperance, piety, or justice.18 Platos writing, however, leaves us with the irresistible impression that Socrates is as complete an expert in aret as anyone ever has been, and since whatever idea we have of this virtue is a direct result of Platos depiction, Plato must himself have recognized Socrates expertise. The early dialogues thereby make the dramatic (albeit implicit) claim that Plato is an expert in virtue, unlike all other Athenians [AL 89]. It is here that Socrates irony toward his interlocutors intersects with a second level of irony, one between Plato and his readers. For not only does Plato imply that none of Socrates contemporaries truly understood him; he also implies that few of his own readers will fare any better. In a brilliant analysis of the Euthyphro, Nehamas describes what one might term the Euthyphro Trap: while reading the dialogue, we take our distance from its title character, doubtless the most signally dim-witted of Socrates many victims. We blame him for slinking away at the end of the dialogue rather than pursuing the quest for knowledge and the rational life. And yet, as soon as we put the book down, we repeat his very gesture. Instead of taking Socrates words to heart and actively setting out to change our lives, we resume our everyday routine. So we, too, turn out to be signally dim-witted: the unusual obtuseness of Euthyphro is, Nehamas argues, a subtle warning (if we see it) or censure (if we do not) aimed directly at us. Such is Platonic irony in Nehamass sense, a deep, dark and disdainful [AL 44] downward glance across the ages in the direction of anyone brave enough to read the dialogues.

18. This, according to Nehamas, is the point of all the aporia. If, he says, the early dialogues fail to reach positive conclusions, it is not because the elenchus (Socratic question-and-answer) is incapable of producing them; in fact, it has already done so, and in spectacular fashion [AL 83]. Socrates quest to find someone wiser than him, described in the Apology [21b1c2], should be seen as an elenchus of the famous oracle which declared him to be the wisest man in Athens, and an elenchus, moreover, which culminates in a type of certainty (that he is the wisest because he is aware of his ignorance). The early dialogues, concludes Nehamas [AL 8485], do not end aporetically because they have to, but because Plato chooses to deny Socrates interlocutors the knowledge necessary to bring any debate to a satisfactory resolution. Indeed, Plato deliberately ensures that Socrates does not find anyone wiser than himselfif so, the oracle would be refutednor even anyone equally wise, anyone capable of recognizing him as an expert in virtue. For criticism of Nehamass earlier statement of this idea, see Brickhouse and Smith, Socrates on Trial 9697. Nehamas responds at AL 217n56.


diacritics / spring 2001


Plato versus Socrates: Platonic Irony Aside from Socratic irony, and from the troubling strain of Platonic irony we have just mentioned, Nehamas finds a third fundamental type of irony proper to the early dialogues, one which he deems an instance of Romantic irony.19 Platos character Socrates, according to the single most paradoxical claim in The Art of Living, is ironic not only toward his fellow characters but also toward his own author [AL 87]. This is a view we cannot accept in its strong form, but reflection on a possible third level of irony does point to a new type of distance between Plato and his character, one which offers distinctive strategies for pursuing philosophy as an art of living. Nehamass theory of Romantic irony is based on what he calls the enigma of Socrates, an inconsistent triad of features attaching to the early-period character. Socrates is the most virtuous man of his generation and, what is more, serenely confident in his own virtue [AL 86]. He also appears to believe, and indeed cannot stop reiterating,20 that knowledge is both necessary and sufficient for virtue. And yet Socrates consistently denies possessing any such knowledge.21 How, then, can Socrates (a) be and believe himself to be virtuous, while (b) knowing he is ignorant and (c) being convinced that the ignorant cannot be good? Plato, according to Nehamas, will eventually come up with an answer (based on the theory of Forms he introduces in the transitional dialogues Gorgias and Meno), but while composing the early works he allows Socrates to remain a mystery, contenting himself with a statement of the problem, a picture of Socrates as he, Plato, sees him. This is how Socrates ends up being ironic toward Plato himself, who implicitly and paradoxically admits that he does not understand his very own literary character.22 But can it really be true that Plato is manipulated by a character he himself had created [AL 88], who hides himself from his own author behind an ironic stance? The paradox gains traction only if we take the early Socrates to be an Invention forged by Plato. Yet Nehamas must consider him rather a Reflection, Socrates not as Plato created him but as he saw him [also at AL 88]. For if Plato is to make the implicit claim that he alone recognizes Socrates as an expert in virtue, then his dialogues must provide evi19. Romantic irony is a rhetorical device by which an author, in an act of apparent selfdeprecation, undermines her own writings, implying that they are either insignificant successes or consequential failures. The most obvious example of the first case is that of a novelist calling attention to the fictionality of her novel (e.g., Proust: in this novel . . . every single fact is invented) and thus interrupting the referential illusion; what Nehamas calls Romantic irony in Plato, namely the author s implicit acknowledgment that he does not understand his own character, falls under the second category. By way of comparison, one might think of Stendhals Le rouge et le noir, in which Julien Sorels motivation in shooting Mme de Rnal is implicitly presented as opaque even to the author [see Brooks, The Novel and the Guillotine]. 20. See Apol. 29d230a2; Lach. 193d11e6; Prot. 345d9e3, 358c7d2; Lys. 212a17, 223b48; Gorg. 460b67, 468c15. 21. As Nehamas puts the problem, He held that knowledge of aret is necessary for the good and happy human life. He disavowed that knowledge and the ability to communicate it. And yet he succeeded in living as good a life as anyone had ever done so far [AL 67]. 22. This particular ironic effect has striking literary consequences, according to Nehamas. If modern readers have taken Platos Reflection (rather than, say, Xenophons) to be an accurate portrait of the Man Socrates, it is, he says, because we nowadays associate opacity of character with verisimilitude, so that these dialogues exude an overwhelming effet de rel. Platos implicit admission that he does not understand him, his amazing success in reproducing Socrates irony not only toward his interlocutors but also toward himself, is the mechanism that explains why generations of readers have inevitably returned to these texts, convinced that they provide a transparent window that opens directly onto the light of reality [AL 91].


dence of a real recognition, not just testimony to a flight of inventive fancy. But if the early Socrates must be the Reflection, then the Romantic irony Nehamas finds in the early dialogues is not there: Plato intimates not that he fails to understand the creature of his own imagination, but simply that he fails to understand Socrates as he takes him really to have been. Nehamass view that the later dialogues represent Platos attempt to explain the Socrates Enigma [AL 13, 67, 88, 184; cf. VA 66, 72] also requires qualification. First of all, the middle-period (Mouthpiece) Socrates does not account for the early Socrates directly, by being the same character with greater self-awareness (by implicitly or explicitly explaining himself, as it were). Instead, the two are quite different characters one a teacher with a communicable program of virtue, the other a divine accident [AL 91]; one a fount of metaphysical views, the other reluctant to claim knowledge on any subject.23 Indeed, as Nehamas admits, this Socrates explicitly criticizes that Socrates. Socrates, then, wrongly equates knowledge with virtue, inhumanly identifies virtue with happiness, and imprudently encourages everyone, whatever their moral fiber, to become well versed in the sort of argument that can as easily destroy as establish moral value. These are serious charges, not obviously compatible with his canonical status as moral exemplar. It is deeply ironic that one of the earliest versions of these charges was made by none other than Plato24 himself. The criticism appears at Republic 539bd. The charge is that argument (logos) should not be taught to very young men, who are likely to indulge in it only for the pleasure of contradicting others. [VA 6061; cf. AL 210n73] Nor does the middle-period Socrates really succeed in explaining the early Socrates indirectly, by providing theoretical tools with which to resolve the Enigma. To be sure, the transitional and middle dialogues introduce a theory of Forms and doctrine of recollection that apparently take care of Socrates professed ignorance and thus explain his ability to act virtuously [AL 210n79]. Given the existence of Forms as real universals, it is supposed to be possible to recollect prenatal experience of them, so as at least to form correct opinions about the good and act accordingly. But the removal of ignorance is merely apparent. True belief may allow Socrates to act virtuously on some occasions, but only absolute Knowledge of the kind he disavows can guarantee excellence in all circumstances, the excellence Plato believed Socrates to have had. And so, Nehamas concedes, That answer is not entirely successful. If belief, as the Meno argues, is unstable, then Socrates remarkable reliability in always acting well is still left unexplained. True belief about aret can explain how one can act well on some, perhaps many, occasions. But Socrates consistently unerring behavior requires
23. That is, if Socrates in the middle works is now a different character with a different function, then what he says and does in the ordinary course of affairs does not count as an explanation of features of the early Socrates (who is, ex hypothesi, a different character). To take a particular example, given Nehamass own position that the Phaedo represents a very different Socrates, it cannot be claimed that it is also an element in Platos conscious effort to understand Socrates [AL 211n9]. For the Phaedo to play this latter role, it must be about the same Socrates, the one Plato is trying to understand. Of course, it could have been the case that the middle Socrates explicitly discovered that he was an enigma, and set about explaining his earlier self to us in so many words, but this does not happen either. 24. Plato here means, of course, Platos (middle-period) Socrates, i.e., the Mouthpiece.

diacritics / spring 2001


something considerably strongersomething much closer to the knowledge he disavows having. [AL 88] Even the doctrine of Forms, then, cannot explain the Socrates Plato has tried to portray: Did Socrates then perhaps keep something back even from his author, who presents himself as his greatest student? Plato never knew. He always regarded Socrates [as] a mystery, a divine accident [AL 90, our emphasis]. But there is more than one way of responding to the Enigma (any two of its three elements being compossible), and there is more than one new view introduced in the middle period. While the theory of Forms does not do away with Socratic ignorance, akrasia defeats Socrates claim that knowledge is necessary and sufficient for virtue. That the middle-period Plato rejects the virtue = knowledge equation can even be seen independently25 of the words of Socrates the Mouthpiece, since Plato provides us, in the Symposium, with a perfect instantiation of akrasia. While Socrates sticks to his intellectualist dictum that what everyone loves is really nothing other than the good [205e8 6a1], in strides Alcibiades as a living counterexample, a man who knows what he should be doing but cannot bring himself to do it [216b36].26 The solution to the Enigma is not, then, that all along Socrates had the knowledge he disavowed, but that he was wrong to think he needed it. What the middle dialogues offer is not an explanation for the Enigma, using the theory of Forms to show how Socrates had the knowledge he thought he lacked, but a refutation of the terms of the
25. Aristotle appears to offer independent confirmation that Socrates, rather than Plato, held knowledge to be necessary and sufficient for virtue [Nicomachean Ethics 7: 2, 1145b2528]. 26. Some scholars will resist this reading of Alcibiadess role, dismissing his claim to be akratic. One interesting stratagem takes Alcibiades as a case of pseudo-akrasia: Alcibiades merely thinks he lacks the ability to do what he wants, whereas what he really lacks is knowledge. Such an approach can take comfort from the Protagoras [352a1358a6], where Socrates argues that people who believe they are akratic are really just pseudo-akratic. We find this way out implausible. First, the Symposium is a middle-period dialogue. It is uncontroversial that Plato admits the possibility of akrasia by the time of the Republic, so we see no reason Symposium might not represent inchoate dissatisfaction on Platos part with his earlier view rejecting akrasia. There are suggestions of dissatisfaction already in the Gorgias characterization of virtue as a kind of self-mastery [491d492a]. Second, and more important, Plato offers nothing in the dialogues closing scenes to undermine the impression that Alcibiades is genuinely akratic, rather than just bad at measuring pleasures and pains, like a Protagoras-style pseudo-akratic. Alcibiadess bathetic entrance immediately undermines the serious tone, and he takes his lack of self-control as a major theme of his speech [see 216bc, 217a, 219d]. Tellingly, Plato also has him act akratically, coming in so drunk he can hardly walk [212de], and repeatedly confessing [215ce, 216b, bc, and 217a], and even acting out [213e, 214d, 222c] his inability to resist Socrates. Indeed, this last weakness indicates that Alcibiadess akrasia is much deeper than anything envisioned in the Protagoras, for he not only displays ordinary akrasia (inability to stick to the prescriptions for virtue he accepted from Socrates), but also a more complicated condition we might call inverse akrasia: Alcibiades (or part of him) clearly wishes he could simply ignore Socrates and go over wholly to vice, but somehow he cannot; he is always overcome by Socrates and prevented from remaining wholly himself in his vice. The point of Alcibiadess recurrent musical metaphors is precisely that Socrates is irresistible for him; he is a fluteplayer . . . more marvelous than Marsyas [215bc], and even like the Sirens [216b]. Platos Alcibiades is riven by deep, unresolved inner conflictfully aware of (and moved by [see 222a]) Socrates arguments against his way of life, but unable to relinquish either that life or Socrates: Sometimes, believe me, I think I would be happier if he were dead. And yet I know that if he dies Ill be even more miserable. I cant live with him, and I cant live without him! What can I do about him? [216c].


problem. The possibility of akrasia indicates that knowledge is not sufficient for virtue, since we also need the strength to do what we believe is best. Moreover, other elements of the transitional and middle dialogues [for example, Meno 99e3100c2] suggest that knowledge is not even necessary, since we can be good by divine dispensation [AL 89]. Platos ultimate response to the Enigma posed by Socrates was, perhaps, that the only way to be reliably virtuous is to be born that way (not everyone, after all, has a daimonion to tell her what actions to avoid). For the rest of us, an approximation based on imperfect training will have to suffice. So in the end, it is misleading to speak of a current of irony running from the enigmatic Socrates to his creator. In the early dialogues, it is the Reflection, not the Invention, who escapes Plato; and in the middle dialogues, the positions are reversed, with Plato taking a certain amount of distance from his character. We have already seen how Plato, in the Symposium, allows his so-called Mouthpiece to uphold a principle (what everyone loves is really nothing other than the good) that he himself refutes with a counterexample (the weak-willed Alcibiades). Similarly, in the Gorgias, Plato makes Calliclesbut not Socrates27recognize the possibility of a difference between strong and weak wills [see Cooper, RE 57]. The same dialogue features what may be the clearest case of Platos ironic treatment of Socrates, namely the extraordinary pair of statements Socrates makes: (1) that Pericles cannot have been a successful leader, because his own flock nearly voted to condemn him to death [Gorg. 515e16a]; and (2) that he, Socrates, is the only contemporary Athenian who practices the true politics [521d], that is, the only person genuinely working for the improvement of his fellow citizens [521d22a]. It is hard to miss the irony here. Pericless charges may have come close to executing him, but the citizens Socrates improved actually did put him to death.28 (Nehamas himself notes [AL 65-66] that in fact we never see the early Socrates improving anyone, and the pattern continues even into the middle period.) This cannot be a case of Socrates being ironic toward his interlocutor: within the frame of the fiction, he has no way of knowing his own impending fate; only Plato can know it, and thus use it in a sly wink to the reader. Nor are we dealing with an irony directed by Socrates at Plato. Instead, we are left unmistakably with a genuine case of Romantic irony. It is not Socrates who outwits his author, but Plato who, from time to time and for specific strategic purposes, undermines his Mouthpiece, exactly in the way Romantic authors like Stendhal sometimes undermine their heroes. Platonic irony thus operates not just between author and

27. See Irwin, Gorgias, notes to 468ab, and 475d. 28. There is no outright contradiction, since Socrates claims only to be trying to improve his fellows, not to be succeeding where Pericles had not. But this does not defuse the Platonic irony. If the argument condemning Pericles at 515e16a is sound, then Socrates execution undermines any claim that he improved the Athenians, and he must be counted as a failure in his political practicea practice to which he attributes great importance in the climactic final words of the dialogue at 527e. The conclusion can be avoided only by the hypothesis that Socrates earlier argument against Pericles was itself ironic. This move comes at a very high cost, however, for the point of that earlier argument was to show that we cannot excuse politicians, sophists, and rhetors, who ought to be improving their charges, from responsibility when those they educate turn out badly. This is one of the core arguments supporting the main negative conclusions of the dialogue about sophistry and rhetoric [cf., e.g., the argument against sophistry at 520ae]. Thus, it is not a question of whether the statements cited in the text indicate a serious form of Platonic irony, but one of which ironic stance Plato is taking at Socrates expense: for we must conclude either that Socrates attempted to be a successful politician and was a dismal failure, or that Plato undermines one of Socrates main lines of argument in the dialogue. (The first interpretation seems preferable.)

diacritics / spring 2001


reader but, crucially, between author and character.29

Irony in the Philosophical Art of Living We have been trained by long tradition to expect certain things from Plato. We expect, first of all, that the dialogues will convey positive doctrines, since, we believe, Plato is doing theoretical philosophy, not philosophy as a way of life. We also expect that this information will be delivered directly by Socrates; we readily write, Plato says . . . or Plato believes . . . and simply append a line spoken by his character, without carefully determining whether Socrates speaks for Plato in the given instance. And we expect, finally, that the doctrines are addressed to everyone, since they apply to everyone alike: Platos philosophy is universalist, as are the individual arguments sustaining it. An investigation into Platonic irony, however, leads us to a different conclusion about each of these three expectations. To take the last one first, Nehamass diagnosis of the Euthyphro Trap shows that Plato does not consider his reading audience to be homogeneous, and does not want his dialogues, like other writings, to rol[l] about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it [Phdr. 275e13]. Instead the Euthyphro speaks differently to casual readers [AL 43]those who repeat the title character s gesture by closing the book and going back to their routinethan it does to experts who notice Platos irony and recognize its imperative of life transformation.30 Turning now to the first and second expectations, what does Plato teach, and through whom does he teach it? Gregory Vlastos (like many others) believed that the dialogues straightforwardly communicate an overt philosophical message. Leo Strauss and his followers argued that there is also a hidden message which comes through in the literary features of the dialogues. Nehamas, we saw, has strong reservations about Vlastoss view, but he also rejects the Straussian approach, on the grounds that it subordinates literature to philosophy and transforms it into a supplementary carrier of a detachable philosophical message [AL 36, cf. 217n55]. His own position strikes a careful balance, allowing for some direct communication, some indirect communication (as in the Euthyphro Trap), and some strictly literary, nondidactic aspects. We suggest that there is still a fourth level of author-reader interaction to be taken into account, a type of teaching that consists less in conveying doctrine than in training students in a variety of techniques [cf. Hadot 64, 9293]. In particular, Platonic irony in our sensethat is, the deliberate strategy of having Socrates fail, at times, to make the best possible argumentsmay be designed to encourage the reader to dialogue, as it were, with the dialogues, and thus already to begin the all-important process of dialectic.31 Ascertaining
29. This is also what Christopher Rowe means by Platonic irony [cf. also Griswold, SelfKnowledge 1014, Rosens Introduction, and Krentz, Dramatic Form passim]. There may perhaps be Platonic irony of this sort operating even in some of the early dialogues (particularly Protagoras). After all, the very existence of Socratic irony, which relies on a divided subject [AL 60], seems to defeat Socrates belief that the human soul, the self, is itself in principle indivisible [AL 7]. 30. In this sense, one could say that the difficulty of deciphering Platonic irony is part of the point. There is thus an interesting parallel between the early dialogues claim that only one expert in virtue can recognize another and Nehamass own recognition of this special case of Platonic irony. Perhaps only one ironist can recognize another, as well. By spotting the Euthyphro trap, Nehamas positions himself as that dialogues (possibly) lone good reader in over two millennia, in something like the way that Plato positions himself as the one who understood Socrates virtue. 31. In the Symposium, for example, Socrates claims that Eros cannot be beautiful, since Eros is desire for beauty, and one only desires what one lacks [201b4c4]. But he himself has just


Platos view on a given subject is thus a complicated matter. We cannot simply extract Socrates speeches from the dialogues and rearrange them in a convenient order. Nor can we content ourselves with picking out statements that seem to make sense, regardless of who has said them and in what context. But the character/author distinction canvassed here is not merely an admonition to read carefully. It also makes a positive contribution to Nehamass project of outlining a philosophical mode of self-fashioning. If we take into account all of the levels of irony outlined above, we come to a picture of Plato different from the usual one, a Plato who is ultimately closer to Nehamass Socrates than Nehamas himself sees. While he has some universalist advice to give the world at large, he also sometimes speaks in a privileged way to the happy few; while on occasion he communicates his views with great force, he is also capable of being just as silent and ironic as the character of his early dialogues. At times, as in the Parmenides, it is difficult to know exactly what he believes, and perhaps even he is not sure.32 Plato can thereby detach himself from the views presented in his dialogues: while Socrates mainly serves as his mouthpiece, he can also be a foil, and there may even be times when the content of Socrates speeches is unimportant.33 By such means, Plato can delegate his own dilemmas to a fictional character. While we would not argue that Plato chose the dialogue form solely for this reason, he seems to have realized the opportunity it granted him to take an ironic distance from his own inner debates, by staging them as dialogues between, say, Socrates and Parmenides. This somewhat clandestine feature of Platos writing helps explain why practitioners of the art of living are so drawn to Platos Socrates. The specifically philosophical type of self-fashioning in which they engage consists, we recall, in the construction of a unified character, in relation to which all the philosopher s (otherwise perhaps conflicting) views have a kind of aesthetic coherence. Philosophical self-fashioners end up identifying themselves not so much with the contents of their viewswhich, after all,
pointed out that it is possible to desire what one has, if the desire is for continued possession [200b6e6]. Someone less witless than Agathon might have used Socrates own words against him, and suggested that Eros could in fact be beautiful and merely desire to keep possession of his beauty. Socrates even appears to invite it, insisting that it is not hard at all to challenge Socrates [201c68]. In this particular example, it is unclear whether Socrates or Plato is being ironic; in the Gorgias, however, it must be Plato. John Cooper concurs [Socrates and Plato 31] that the job for readers of the Gorgias is in part to find the best arguments against Socrates, not limited to those provided by his interlocutors: the outcome, for the reader, is not at all a recommendation to focus on Socrates arguments so as to discover their truth, but instead a recommendation to question deeply their presuppositions [50]; readers are being directed to think hard [51]. 32. Who speaks for Plato in the Parmenides? On the one hand, Nehamas believes in a general way that the voice of the middle- and late-period Socrates has always been considered to be unmistakably Platos own [AL 101]. On the other, Nehamas recognizes that the character Parmenides articulates doubts besetting the author Plato, who came to see that the metaphysics and epistemology . . . of the Republic presented serious problems [AL 221n74]. Can both statements be correct? Only if we understand the dialogue as staging an internal debate in the mind of a conflicted philosopher, who wishes to hold onto the theory of Forms but also feels the force of objections to the theory as formulated so far. To see things this way is to see neither character as having a monopoly on the truth, or on Platos real view. 33. In the introduction to his translation of the Phaedrus, Nehamas makes the claim that the glorious imagery of the famous Great Speech, in which Socrates describes the souls peregrinations through the heavens prior to birth or rebirth, is not to be taken as Platos own considered view, since Plato has abandoned this particular theory of Forms by the time of writing the dialogue. Instead we are to understand the Great Speech as an example of persuasive discourse, its particular content less important than its rhetorical structure [VA 35152].

diacritics / spring 2001


may even be inconsistentas with their authorial personae, their ideal selves, which do not have these views so much as float above them, using them almost instrumentally for the construction of a distinctive and impressive character. Given the always threatening potential of intractable divisions within the self, the best solution may be to delegate such divisions to a fictional character or characters, as Plato did with Socrates, or Nietzsche and Montaigne with the first-person narrators of their texts. Then the philosopher can think of herself not primarily as the character presented, but as the author in charge of presentation. As we saw above, a philosophical self-fashioner may be both character and author at once in some ways, but by means of ironic distance, she can simultaneously imply that the latter represents her genuine self, so that any wayward features of the character must be mere epiphenomena. By showing the way down this path, Platos irony toward his sometime mouthpiece thus serves as the ultimate model for the writerly/philosophical art of living.

Conclusion: Alexander Nehamass Art of Living We have now seen in general how Nehamas thinks writing (especially ironic writing) can contribute to a project of self-fashioning, and we can therefore return to his puzzling claim that his book exemplifies the philosophical art of living [AL 6, 15, 98, 187 88]. Some readers will be tempted to treat the move as mere rhetoric. Nehamas has long been given to the artifice of finishing his writings with a self-referential twist, suggesting that they are continuous with the subject matter they treat. For example, the closing paragraphs of Nietzsche: Life as Literature assert that the entire study has been an extension of Nietzsches own enterprise as Nehamas reads itan attempt to construct an impressive character who will endure in the philosophical imagination: Nietzsche has succeeded in writing himself into history. But as he also knew, this is not a task one can ever accomplish alone: every text is at the mercy of its readers. And just as Nietzsches texts are at the mercy of their readers, so too is this one. . . . It has taken the same risk [as Nietzsches], though on a lesser scale, itself. But if this reading even provokes a refutation, then Nietzsche will have acquired one more reader. . . . [NLL 234] And by that reader s very reading, Nietzsches project of writing himself into history will be carried one step further, thanks to Nehamass book. Nehamas makes similar self-reflexive moves repeatedly in his critical essays.34 In a clear sign of the value he places on such tropes, he even attributes one to his mentor Gregory Vlastos, as the highest accolade he could pay: Whether we agree with Vlastos conclusions or not, we must admire the way in which [Vlastoss] book combines the ancients fascination with Socrates virtue with the moderns concern with his rationality. In pursuing these two traits and their interconnections, it succeeds in exhibiting them itself. And so it manifests the very features of the Socrates it has created. . . . [VA 10304] Perhaps, however, Nehamas is constantly self-referential not as a literary conceit, but because his underlying views demand it. We noted that he is tempted to characterize
34. See, for example, Writer, Text Work, Author 289; What an Author Is 691; VA 353 54; Gregory Vlastos 34950; Nietzsche as Self-Made Man 487, 91; and, in a way, Can We Change the Subject? 41213.


self-referentiality as the defining mark of philosophy. The claim to practice philosophy as an art of living suggests further that he counts even academic, scholarly philosophy as a practical activity, which owes its readers not only a theoretical description of its subject matter but also an account of what it is doing. Given such commitments, we should consider Nehamass claim to exemplify an art of living as a philosophical, and not just a literary, move. That would mean reading The Art of Living as an act of selffashioningas Nehamass attempt to forge an authorial persona, to impose artistic order on his intellectual life, to turn that life into a model exemplifying a hitherto unsuspected form of philosophical life worth living. Has the book done this? Nehamas makes coherence the cardinal virtue for the admirable philosophical life, but at first glance, his own public persona appears unusually disunified. In professional life, for example, Nehamas has always been committed to philosophy as a disciplinary identity, but at the same time, he has devoted substantial energy to scholarly endeavor in fields distinguished by their high degree of unpopularity with most of his colleagues in analytic philosophy. These include literary theory (we saw Nehamas as a player in the death of the author debates), and also scholarship in literary criticism proper, where he has contributed a series of papers on television as an art form, and substantial pieces on the fiction of Mann and the poetry of C. P. Cavafy.35 In addition, Nehamas has sought to bring philosophy down out of the academy and give it a public voice. The most obvious fruit of that agenda was a series of pieces he wrote for the New Republic in the 1980s and 90s, assessing for a general audience the projects of major continental thinkers like Foucault, Habermas, Derrida, and Bataille, whom most analytic philosophers ignore.36 Even in Nehamass strictly academic scholarship, a similarly incongruous pattern emerges. His attention as a historian of philosophy has been divided between Plato, on whom he has by now written enough essays to fill an entire volume [VA], and Nietzsche, the subject of his influential 1985 book [NLL]. Two more antithetical poles of the philosophical endowment [Nietzsche GM 3: 7] than Plato and Nietzsche could hardly be imagined: in one we confront the metaphysician of real absolutes who posits, for example, a beauty that is beautiful eternally, in every respect, and for every observer [Symp. 211ab]; in the other we find a dedicated perspectivist, who insists not only that there is no such true world of the metaphysically real, but that the very idea is a dangerous slander against the temporal and changeable life human beings are capable of living [Nietzsche, TI, vols. 34]. Far from skirting such differences, Nehamass work has focused directly on Platos metaphysics37 and Nietzsches perspectivist attacks against it.38 In short, Nehamass persona appears to be essentially eclectic, and if he simultaneously insists on the maximal value of internal coherence, that paradox seems just the apogee of his eclecticism.
35. On Mann, see Getting Used to Not Getting Used to It; on Cavafy, Memory, Pleasure, and Poetry and Cavafys World of Art; and on television, Plato and the Mass Media and Serious Watching. It should also be noted here that Nehamas has advanced important views on Proust in the context of his Nietzsche work [see NLL 14169, 188, 229]. 36. In this case both the particular philosophers Nehamas has addressed, and the popularity of his presentation, have proven difficult for some of his colleagues within philosophy (including, and even especially, admirers of his more strictly scholarly work) to understand as worthwhile objects of his time and attention. For Nehamass call for philosophy to develop a public voice, see Trends in Recent American Philosophy. 37. See papers collected in VA, part 2, including Self-Predication and Platos Theory of Forms [VA 17695], Participation and Predication in Platos Later Thought [VA 196223], and Episteme and Logos in Platos Later Thought [VA 22448]. 38. See, notably, Immanent and Transcendent Perspectivism in Nietzsche [NLL], Who Are the Philosophers of the Future?, and Nietzsche, Modernity, Aestheticism.

diacritics / spring 2001


With The Art of Living, however, a deeper unity of interest underlying such apparent incongruity emerges. Take the opposition between Plato and Nietzsche. If, as we suggested above, they both fall under Nehamass conception of the writerly artist of living, then they are counterparts as well as antagonists. As soon as we step back from the particular views expressed by Nietzsche and implied by Plato, we can consider their works as acts of self-fashioning, and thereby see them as engaged in projects belonging to a common tradition. For Nehamas, as an advocate of the individualistic art of living, the divergence of their positive views is no objection to this strategy for reconciliation. By his lights, each fashioned life should aspire to uniqueness, so any two philosophical self-fashioners not only may, but should and must, disagree over specifics. Nehamass two primary objects of scholarly attention thereby turn out to be far closer than anyone would initially have imagined, and the overt peace Nehamas brokers between Nietzsche and Socrates in chapter 5 of The Art of Living is complemented by an additional, covert truce between Nietzsche and Plato. From this vantage, even Nehamass work on the theory of Forms appears in a new light. On one level, these early papers still read like theoretical inquiries into Platonic metaphysics, but now it is striking how often Nehamass reading depends on observations about what it makes sense for Platos characters to say, which Socratic claims they should grant easily, which they rightly resist, and so on.39 Readers of The Art of Living who return to this recently republished work see that all along Nehamas has been captivated by the questions of character in Platos writing that led to his later ideas about the figure of Socrates and Platos irony. Similar questions of authorial voice arise, mutatis mutandis, in Nehamass work on Nietzsche. In this context, it is worth reflecting on Nehamass own authorial persona as a historian of philosophy. Qua historian, Nehamas naturally never committed himself to a world of unchanging and unqualifiedly good Forms. While he assumes interpretive commitments in his own full voice, the metaphysical commitments here are Platos. In his writings on Plato, then, Nehamas himself deploys something like Platonic irony, presenting the beliefs of a character (Plato), often without indicating the degree to which he lends them assent. With Nehamas as with the artists of living he discusses, it can be difficult to determine when he is being ironic, concealing his own view behind the positions of a mouthpiece. And so too, in Nehamass case the onus falls on us to reconstruct a unified authorial persona behind his various statements. Suppose, then, we accept Nehamass strategy for treating Montaigne, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Plato as writerly philosophers of the art of living, and apply it to his own case: What sort of author must we postulate to explain the diversity of Nehamass intellectual life? Once we read his new book with this problem in mind, it is remarkable how it intertwines the various elements we saw above. Consider first Nehamass variety of scholarly pursuits, which seemed to stand in tension with one another. Naturally, The Art of Living affords Nehamas ample opportunity to exercise his talents as a historian of philosophy, but he also deploys his skills as a literary critic and theorist, his ambition to make philosophy available to a wider audience, and even his avocational interest in classical philology [see AL ix]. Before Nehamas even begins interpreting traditional philosophers, Chapter 1 offers an extended literary reading of Manns Magic Mountain [AL 1932], which Nehamas mines for insights into the nature of irony and its connection to character. When, in the next chapter, he argues against Vlastoss conception of Socratic irony [AL 4669], he does so not only by thinking through the modern development of irony in literary practice and rhetorical theory, but also with constant refer39. The very earliest paper (1975) reprinted in Virtues of Authenticity, Confusing Universals and Particulars [VA 15975], is an excellent example of this tendency.


ence to the ancient rhetorical sources, especially Quintilian and Cicero. And the books closing chapter [AL 15787] continues Nehamass longstanding attempt, begun in the New Republic [see Subject and Abject], to reclaim and explain Foucaults life and work for a wide American audience. If this were all, a skeptic might insist that Nehamass strategy of blending together elements from his intellectual life is merely an ornamental flourish grafted onto what is still essentially a theoretical, scholarly book. But the approach is deeply built into the core argument of The Art of Living. We saw that the idea of postulated authorship (from Nehamass literary theory) plays a central role in the argument, by explaining how it is possible to consider writing as a practical art of living. In his earlier book, moreover, Nehamas attributed to Nietzsche a similar approach to the problem of fashioning a philosophical self through writing: Nietzsche, he wrote, sought to be the Plato of his own Socrates [NLL 234]. It is thus natural to see The Art of Living as a development and completion of Nehamass older ideas in the history of philosophy. What there appeared as a highly idiosyncratic philosophical project invented by Nietzsche out of thin air is now revealed as one special case in a broader tradition. Finally, we have just seen that the idea of a philosophical art of living allows Nehamas to bring under the covers of one book his long enduring interests in the universalist Plato and in individualist philosophers like Nietzsche and Foucault. His argument surprisingly but convincingly locates all of these writers in a single philosophical tradition, thereby revealing that, all along, Nehamass apparently eclectic philosophical taste was tracking a common philosophical ideaindeed, a common idea of philosophy. In fact, then, Nehamas succeeds not only in describing an essentially practical tradition of philosophy, but also in participating in it through his own writing in The Art of Living. By the way he weaves together his argument that philosophy has been, and could be, an art of living, he simultaneously shows us how the parts of his own scholarly lifethe history of philosophy, the interpretive flair, the literary and cultural criticism, and even the popularizing of recent philosophyall fit together into a coherent whole. In the new light of The Art of Living, Nehamass previous work, despite its apparent eclecticism, takes on what we have called aesthetic coherence: it makes sense together as the work of one coherent person with a consistent and compelling set of interests. These features of The Art of Living have not attracted the notice they deserve, perhaps because the life Nehamas presents is one of scholarship, a theoretical enterprise subject to corresponding criteria of success. It can therefore seem that Nehamas the scholar counts as a philosopher in the same way that any other American philosophy professor does, that is, as a theorizer, not as an artist of living. The response to this objection parallels a point we saw from the beginning in the case of Plato. Just as Platos view that contemplation is essential to the good life allows us to see his theorizing as itself a practical way of living, Nehamas by his example asks us to think of scholarship not merely in terms of the content it produces, but also as a particular way of life, subject to the standards of aesthetic coherence that govern the art of living. We are not used to considering scholarship as a way of life. We tend to focus on the (theoretical) output of our scholarship, neglecting the question of what kinds of people we have become by producing it. But insofar as our intellectual tradition is descended from Socrates that bothersome gadfly, reminding his contemporaries that an unexamined life is worthlessour common lack of self-reflectiveness about the value of our way of life is troubling. When Nehamas uncovers the marginalized modern tradition of the philosophical art of living and places his own life of scholarship within it, he is laying a challenge before American philosophy. Philosophy as an art of living remains almost completely invisible to current academic philosophers, but Nehamass

diacritics / spring 2001


example asks us to show why this other half of Socrates legacy to philosophy should not be included in our conception of the field. That is, Nehamass ordering of his scholarly life is not simply a self-description but a recommendation. When he locates his book in the tradition of the art of living, Nehamas implicitly claims that the life of scholarship and philosophy is a good life to haveone that he proposes for some people to pursue, extend, and further perfect. It is one version of the many-sided, possible perfectibility of the human spirit, and one that merits serious attention as a competitor for the good life, for anyone with the right kind of personality, temperament, abilities, and interests. Here Nehamas places himself in a tradition of American perfectionism that goes back to Emerson, the first philosopher to call for the perfection of the life of the American scholar, as the opening step in a new American revolution to be wrought through the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture [66]. Perfectionism of this sort has a special place in the American imagination, and by attaching himself to this American idea, Nehamas thereby explains yet one more aspect of his intellectual lifewhy a highly cosmopolitan Greek has spent his whole adult life in America. Before now, Nehamas has never seemed especially American, but perhaps only because we have not thought enough about what the designation should mean. The spirit of the country, if there is such a thing, is not rooted in fixed traditions, but in the visions of people who have come here from foreign shores, as Nehamas did, to seek their fortunes. In his essay on the American scholar, Emerson paints a world waiting for the day when the American spirit would recognize the fortune contained in his idea of Culture, and not just the easily visible fortunes of power and money. Ever since, the fortune of Culture and the perfection of life it promises have been essential parts of the mission of the American university, as well. At the turn of the last century, another perfectionist, W. E. B. DuBois, made the point well in defending the tradition of Atlanta University against the job training ideal of Tuskegee. The function of the university, he wrote, is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to provide teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is above all to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization. . . . The true college will ever have but one goal,not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes. [59, 58] Nehamass challenge to American philosophy shows that in the intervening century the fortune seekers of Culture, too, have begun to flock to our shores. It has taken one of them to remind us that there is something valuable about the scholarly/philosophical life, as a life, and not just as a way to produce a product and make a living. The mutual adjustment of real life and knowledge that DuBois recalls to our attentionthe task of learning what the life that meat sustains is formay not be the only task for philosophy, but Nehamas reminds us that it is one of philosophys tasks, and one that we ignore to our detriment. Whether the American academy will make a place for philosophy in its practical mode as the art of living is now a question for us. WORKS CITED Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941. Barthes, Roland. The Reality Effect. Trans. Richard Howard. The Rustle of Language. New York: Hill & Wang, 1986. 14148.


Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith. Socrates on Trial. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. Brooks, Peter. The Novel and the Guillotine, or Fathers and Sons in Le Rouge et le noir. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. 6289. Cooper, John. Reason and Emotion: Essays on Ancient Moral Psychology and Ethical Theory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. [RE] ________ . Reason, Moral Virtue, and Moral Value. Rationality in Greek Thought. Ed. Michael Frede and Gisela Striker. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996. 81114. Rpt. in Cooper, Reason and Emotion 25380. ________ . Socrates and Plato in Platos Gorgias. Reason and Emotion: Essays on Ancient Moral Psychology and Ethical Theory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. 29 75. DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Bantam, 1989. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The American Scholar. The Portable Emerson. Sel., arr., and intro. Mark Van Doren. New York: Viking, 1946. 5171. Frede, Michael. Euphrates of Tyrus. Unpublished ms. Keble College, Oxford. Griffin, Jasper. Platos Grand Design: The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, by Alexander Nehamas, and Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: the Philosophical Use of a Literary Form, by Charles H. Kahn. New York Review of Books May 6, 1999. Griswold, Charles L. Self-Knowledge in Platos Phaedrus. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 18041834. New York: Pantheon, 1999. Irwin, Terence. Platos Gorgias, Translated with Notes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979. Krentz, Arthur A. Dramatic Form and Philosophical Content in Platos Dialogues. Philosophy and Literature 7 (1983): 3247. Lear, Jonathan. The Examined Life: The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, by Alexander Nehamas. New York Times Book Review October 25, 1998: 26. Millgram, Elijah. How to Make Something of Yourself. Ed. David Schmidtz. Robert Nozick. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 17598. Montaigne, Michel de. Of Giving the Lie. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1958. 50306. ________ . Of the Art of Discussion. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1958. 70321. [AD] Nehamas, Alexander. The Attraction of Repulsion: The Deep and Ugly Thought of Georges Bataille. New Republic Sept. 23, 1989: 3136. ________ . Can We Ever Quite Change the Subject? Richard Rorty on Science, Literature, Culture, and the Future of Philosophy. Boundary 2 12 (1982): 395413. [CS] ________ . Cavafys World of Art. Grand Street 8 (1989): 12946. ________ . Getting Used to Not Getting Used to It: Nietzsche in The Magic Mountain. Philosophy and Literature 5 (1981): 7388. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: The Magic Mountain. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. ________ . Gregory Vlastos. Luminaries: Princeton Faculty Remembered. Ed. Patricia H. Marks. Princeton, NJ: Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni, 1996. 341-50. ________ . Immanent and Transcendent Perspectivism in Nietzsche. Nietzsche Studien 12 (1983): 473-90.

diacritics / spring 2001



. Memory, Pleasure, and Poetry: The Grammar of the Self in the Writing of Cavafy. Journal of Modern Greek Studies 1 (1983): 295-319. ________ . Nietzsche as Self-Made Man: Composing the Soul: Reaches of Nietzsches Psychology, by Graham Parkes. Philosophy and Literature 20 (1996): 487-91. ________ . Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985. [NLL] ________ . Nietzsche, Modernity, Aestheticism. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Ed. Bernd Magnus and Kathleen Higgins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 223 51. ________ . Plato and the Mass Media. VA 27999. ________ . The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal. Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 13349. [PA] ________ . Serious Watching. South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (1990): 15780. The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, Culture. Ed. David R. Hiley, James F. Bohman, and Richard Shusterman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991. 26081. ________ . Subject and Abject: The Examined Life of Michel Foucault. New Republic Feb. 15, 1993: 2736. ________ . Trends in Recent American Philosophy. Daedalus 126.1 (1997): 20923. ________ . Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. [VA] ________ . What an Author Is. Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 68591. ________ . What We Should Expect from Reading (There Are Only Aesthetic Values). Salmagundi 111 (1996): 2758. [WER] ________ . Who Are the Philosophers of the Future? A Reading of Beyond Good and Evil. Reading Nietzsche. Ed. Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. 4667. ________ . Writer, Text, Work, Author. Literature and the Question of Philosophy. Ed. Anthony J. Cascardi. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 26791. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974. [GS] ________ . On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. [GM] ________ . Twilight of the Idols. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking, 1954. [TI] Nightingale, Andrea. Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Nussbaum, Martha. The Cult of the Personality: The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, by Alexander Nehamas. New Republic Jan. 4 and 11, 1999: 3237. Plato. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997. Quarch, Christoph. Eros lenke meine Zunge. Rev. of The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, by Alexander Nehamas. Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung 23 October 1999: 48. Rosen, Stanley, ed. Platos Symposium. New Haven: Yale UP, 1968. Rowe, Christopher. Platonic Irony. Nova Tellus 5 (1987): 83101. Wimsatt, William K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Intentional Fallacy. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. By Wimsatt. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1954. Wood, James. The Conundrumizer: Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 18041834, by Richard Holmes. New Republic Sept. 6, 1999: 3541.


diacritics / spring 2001