Realizing the impossible: the master of masters

Socrates is the master of masters–in the world but not of it.  Married with children, a soldier, an occasional (forced) politician, a man of conversation:  he was decidedly mixed up with the world.  But he somehow managed to avoid being mixed up by the world. . . . He wants to understand how to live according to himself while he lives according to others.  That could seem impossible–but Socrates realized the impossibility.   [Reading “RM” 10: A Few Words on Montaigne, Socrates and Stoicism see kellydeanjolley, August 23, 2011 ]

******These words fit well with Jonathan Lear on ironic existence.  Ironic living is distinct from those ironic remarks we encounter and parry and launch, and it is distinct from varying capacities for irony (hearing it, performing it evaluating it) that are distributed among us.  We sometimes think that being ironic is stepping back from engagement, reflecting on it, and in a wink, turning things askance.  So it often is.  But Lear, in A Case for Irony finds an unremarked but remarkable further dimension to irony: ironic living, an excellent way of existence — not a flippant, wise-cracking, aesthetic way, but a Socratic way.

Ironic existence entails stepping reflectively back (so that one is not entirely of the world, but has ironic distance on it) and then, as appropriate, falling back into the world — yet without leaving the first ‘distancing’ behind for good. One recovers native certainties requisite to being fully present in spontaneous action — engaged, not ironically detached.   One is not of the world because one is not mastered by social identities (father, soldier, conversationalist).  One is more and other than these.  One can participate fully in social space as soldier, as father, as citizen, yet there can come into play, at other moments, a full realization that this participation does not exhaust one’s being.  Impossibly, one is both in and not in the world, both not of the world and not not of the world.  One is Socrates.

So I am not saying that when Socrates succeeds as a soldier, or as a devotee of the oracle, or student of Diotima, he is fully in the world displaying the excellent life that makes him “the master of masters.”  Almost, but not quite.  What makes his life excellent is being in the world that way, true — and also maintaining the capacity to have ironic distance on it, a capacity displayed in his frequent protestations of ignorance.  He is fully in the world at those battlefield moments, or as he walks and talks with his friends.  Yet we look in amazement because we know he has not shed an iota of his signature sense of cognitive incapacity, evident as he acknowledges his incapacity to gather sufficient bits of wisdom to disavow ignorance.  He’s not kidding.  He knows how to act but doesn’t know on what theoretical principle to ground that know-how.

To be a finite creature is to acknowledge ignorance of how to articulate and endorse the ‘right’ terms of appraisal — yet this finite creature all the while enacts (or lives out) the full measure of the ‘right’ or ‘good’ in question. Socrates acts ethically in ignorance. Lear calls this living an ironic existence, where ironic distance is intermittent, retreating in moments of worthy action.  Ironic existence embraces a touch or even powerful residue of non-ironic engagement.  Better, non-ironic engagement embraces openness to ironic distance – we might say, in moments  of furlough from action. Reflective distance does not dominate, and is not the mark of excellence.  The mark of excellence is worthy action undertaken without the god-like purview that would give it gleaming rational credentials.

In Lear’s view, Kierkegaard, midway in his career (with a qualified rejection of his  earlier The Concept of Irony), spots this Socratic excellence and tries to live it.  It is to live with an anxious awareness of indeterminacy with regard to theoretical stabilization of one’s viewpoint (Socratic ignorance) while having sufficient stabilization in one’s soul to power a correct, coherent, and worthy life.  Socrates can be fully Socrates and yet can’t give an account of what that amounts to.  Though ‘the master of masters’, he’s only human.

Thoreau also flies this banner.  Athens has much to do with Copenhagen, and also with Concord.


18 comments on “Realizing the impossible: the master of masters

  1. Thanks for this, Ed. Helpful, as always.

  2. dmfant says:

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  3. Steve says:

    >>To be a finite creature is to acknowledge ignorance of how to articulate and endorse the ‘right’ terms of appraisal — yet this finite creature all the while enacts (or lives out) the full measure of the ‘right’ or ‘good’ in question. …[I]ronic distance is intermittent, retreating in moments of worthy action. <<

    Am I reading this correctly? It seems to say that the person here imagined KNOWS the right or the good or the worthy, and even what it means to enact these qualities "to the full measure," but lacks the ability to ARTICULATE this knowledge. Perhaps she knows it with a sure intuition? Either that, or it is WE who know the right or good or worthy, etc., and then apply this knowledge to the inarticulate person's case – as you apparently do. Otherwise, if we're ALL inarticulate, without explicit terms of appraisal, then how exactly do we identify right actions and good character non-arbitrarily, at all, ever? Don't we in real life actually have many readily available criteria that enable us to say whether we or others are "measuring up" in quite specific ways? Such criteria as we have when we ask if a person is completely honest or committed or conscientious or generous or kind? Is the good ironist the sort of person who stands (imaginatively) "outside" honesty, and then says to himself, "Well, maybe being honest is overrated, maybe it's something we do only out of prudence or cowardice or habit, certainly it's inconvenient at times – god knows I don't know – but I'll go ahead being resolutely honest anyway, because…well, just because"? And again, what exactly would make that "good"? If the answer is, Because the person in question is being honest, then that still implies that what it means to be honest is more or less completely transparent and that this knowledge can be imparted to anyone who wants to listen.

    I hope these questions aren't impertinent.

    • efmooney says:

      Odd as it sounds, I think in one sense the agent in fact DOESN’T know the right or the good — except as a robust sort of “knowing how” — like the batter who knows how to swing for the fences, but has no articulate propositional knowledge of what that involves, and in fact may confess, “I don’t know, I can’t say how, but I just do it” — and he certainly has no theoretical justification back in the dugout that backs up the intuitive ‘enacting’, an engagement that, while in full force, has no room for ironic distance.

      I think in the moral case, we have at hand ready (but only minimally articulate) evaluative perceptions of ‘nasty’, ‘kind’, ‘two-faced’, ‘tender, ‘atrocious’, ‘plain stupid’ — etc etc. But pretty quickly, if challenged HOW we know x is ‘nasty’, ‘kind’, ‘two-faced’, etc. we throw up our hands: either you get it or you don’t. Let me show you more examples. etc.

      I’m suggesting that Socrates ‘throws up his hands” if he’s asked, “But why trust Diotima? How does SHE know? Intuition?”// Or shrugs if he’s asked, “And why believe the oracle, or that a good man can’t be harmed?”

      Now I don’t get into this, but of course when irony invades (as perhaps it should — perhaps, in that case, I WAS too quick to think I was tender, . . . really . . .) then, at that point, we have a chance to question our intuitive engagements (thank God). Self-doubt in the context of “living an ironic existence” is gentler on us that self-doubt as a general skeptical stance, for the latter has no acknowledgment of a zestful moment of reverting to the flow of everyday life. The skeptic would think of that as a failure of intellectual nerve; the ironist of existence would think of it as . . . well, just the fate of human creatures — not to be cursed, not to be mocked, not to be dubbed a failure. A tragi-comic response, perhaps, rather than a would-be rationalist sense of intellectual defeat.
      Thanks, Steve

  4. dmfant says:

    Going south, we watched spring
    unroll like a proper novel:
    forsythia, dogwood, rose;
    bare trees, green lace, full shade.
    By the time we arrived in Georgia
    the complications were deep.

    When we drove back, we read
    from back to front. Maroon went wild,
    went scarlet, burned once more
    and then withdrew into pink,
    tentative, still in bud.
    I thought if only we could go on
    and meet again, shy as strangers.

    “Fiction” by Lisel Mueller,

  5. Steve says:

    I say ‘knowledge,’ you say ‘know-how,’ let’s call the whole thing off? But Oh! if we call the whole thing off….

    Sticking with your baseball analogy and retaining ‘honesty’ as our sample virtue, here’s why I continue to think of moral understanding as more like knowledge than not. I think you’d agree that the batter of your analogy knows what a home run is and would have no problem defining it in the context of baseball. He can also demonstrate it by knocking one out of the park. He can even explain, in general terms, how he does it, by describing his stance, how he holds the bat, how he sweeps the bat through the hitting zone, etc. As for the marvel of how he actually brings these elements together into one graceful, explosive act of hitting, that, too, is perfectly intelligible: practice, practice, practice until it becomes second nature, just like any other activity you learn to perform with spontaneous accuracy.

    Now let’s put honesty in place of the home run. Oddly enough, at the most basic level, there’s almost nothing to be said about honesty. Both the knowledge of honesty (it’s definition, along with concrete examples) and the know-how of being honest are nowhere nearly as difficult as a highly specialized skill like hitting a home run. –Definition of honesty? “The disposition not to deceive or defraud.” –How to be honest? “Consciously intend not to deceive and defraud.” I suppose one could continue to ask, “Well, how do you ‘intend’?” But that would be changing the subject. I’m putting this all too simply, no doubt, but I do think there’s an important contrast to be made between what I’m calling basic moral knowledge and the specialized skills you describe in your analogy.

    As you say, when it comes to basics like this, people either know them or they don’t, except that I think almost all people in fact do know them. Special cases aside, no one is ignorant of what honesty is or of how to go about being honest, partly because no one is ignorant of what dissembling is or how to dissemble. The knowledge comes, I’m almost tempted to say, with being human. No exceptional skills are required; only the resolve to say and do what is true when faced with temptations or opportunities to dissemble, motivated by a conscientious wish to be a person of good character. My point is that ethical knowledge and know-how, again at this very basic, virtue-specific level, is perfectly transparent. Except for the quibble about whether it’s knowledge or know-how, I think we probably agreement.

    What has this to do with irony? An ironist, philosophical or otherwise, likes to introduce second-order questions as a way of getting between us and what we know. He might start off with “Why hit home runs?” or “Why be honest?” The answers to these questions will normally refer to a context or form of life: “Because home runs help win baseball games” or “Because being honest is a mark of good character.” Then the resolute ironist will force the questioning one whole level higher, putting his whole person, so to speak, between us and what we know: “Why engage in anything as frivolous as baseball, anyway?” or “What’s so ‘good’ about a ‘good character’?” Probably the only sound response to this challenge is a bit of good-humored ad hominem: “You must have been deprived of sports when you were a kid!” or “You must have been raised in a kennel!” In other words, when theory’s irony leads us into notional dead-ends, we double back to what we know, and trust that the ironist, when disengaged, will do the same. Either that or we let theory draw us, hypnotically as it were, into full-blown Romantic irony. (See Hegel and Kierkegaard for antidotes!)

    This is far as my un- (anti-?) philosophical brain can take it today. Many thanks, Ed, for your always stimulating thoughts!

    • dmfant says:

      a deep lived sense of the contingency of things (especially human constructions) is not merely a matter of second-order questions, existentialism is primarily about experience and/as know-how
      and so living with/in irony (as opposed to adopting an ironic stance/posture) is a way of being in the world, as to whether such a way of being can be shared with (cultivated in) those who are blind to such aspects I’m less sanguine about such possibilities as time goes on.

  6. Steve says:

    Thank you, Dirk. You are right to point out a serious oversight in my earlier comments. I failed to make a clear distinction between existential irony, the way of being in the world that experiences all values as radically contingent, and intellectual irony, the way of pursuing second-order doubts that don’t necessarily express existential irony in the doubter. An intellectual ironist may lack the courage of his (negative) convictions, or worse, may not have those convictions in the first place but merely be playing a skeptical game with no real impact on the practical tenor of his life. In that case, he might be called an insincere intellectual ironist, a poseur of a certain kind, and perhaps a bad fellow to boot, since his ironic game may negatively affect susceptible people who are less adept at separating what they think from how they live. On the other hand, an intellectual ironist may also be completely sincere, in which case his questionings and doubts will reflect and support a deeply lived existential irony as well.

    Similarly, a person may be an existential ironist while evincing no intellectual irony to speak of. She may not be a thinker in any formal sense of the word but simply someone who has willy-nilly picked up from the surrounding culture an pervasive attitude of “double-mindedness” toward everything of “value.” She is in her society, as the saying goes, but not of it, at least not wholeheartedly. Her ironic mode of existence is entirely accidental, a function of historical and social conditions of which she is completely ignorant. I think our society is full of unwitting existential ironists of this sort, people who are quite sincere in their ironic orientation (that’s who they genuinely are) but who aren’t particularly conscious of how they came to live ironically in the first place, or even that there’s such a thing as irony. It’s just the way things are for them, the way they’ve always been.

    The degree to which existential ironists are aware of their identity varies greatly from person to person, I imagine, but the person with little intellectual awareness of her ironic existence can’t help being sincere about it. This is because – perverse though it may sound – she lacks the requisite detachment from her way of being that would enable her to ironize her irony itself. Here, in passing, I need to mention her opposite but equally important type: the insincere existential ironist. He is a person who has at least some consciousness of the cultural/historical phenomenon, but who, for whatever reason, makes a kind of social sport of it, as though being an ironist were the au currant thing to do. While self-consciously running with the ironic crowd, so to speak, he still retains an intellectual awareness that the ironic lifestyle is not in fact self-validating. With this awareness, he has the potential to become either a sincere ironist or a sincere non-ironist; but to become either, his intellectual wrestling will have to reach a critical either/or that forces him to a final decision: to exist ironically in truth, or not. Needless to say, this ironic take on irony itself carries with it risks of hopeless vacillation. (Ironies within ironies!)

    The underlying problem with all of this, it seems to me, Dirk, is that the concept of irony has become exasperatingly overloaded and ambiguous. Personally, I find it hard to get a clear view of anything distinct that isn’t narrowly stipulative. You and Ed, and I guess Jonathan Lear, whom I haven’t read (my bad!), seem to have a positive sense of irony – with all manner of qualifications, of course. With you in particular, it seems to mean something like courageously facing up to the contingencies of our humanly constructed world while at the same time carrying on with resolution and dignity. But as I’ve been suggesting, existential irony may unwittingly participate in a type of irony that tends to undercut confidence in our basic ethical form of life: that god-like milieu of moral understandings in which we all live and move and have our being. This form of life, I’ve been saying (pigheadedly, no doubt), is best captured by reflecting on those qualities of character that make an absolute claim on every thoughtful (n.b.) person’s respect and love, qualities such as honesty, openness, resolution, commitment, courage, imagination, creativity, attentiveness, sympathy, kindness, mercy, and love.

    When you strike your spade against these rocks, don’t they throw off sparks?

    • dmfant says:

      there is a lot in your comment but if I might I’ll just focus in on “This form of life, I’ve been saying (pigheadedly, no doubt), is best captured by reflecting on those qualities of character that make an absolute claim on every thoughtful (n.b.) person’s respect and love”, I would say that such matters are not in fact self-evident to All people including many that are thoughtful/ethical and there lies the rub, Ed wants to make a kind of qualified gesture in the more universal way that you are suggesting while I am saying that these matters of taste (writ large) are closer to ways of being in the world that we cannot step out of and weigh out and that are not grounded in some-thing other than all our too human particularities/pre-judices. So we do not so much come up against the same imagined bedrocks, rather in terms of talking across (negotiating) such inevitable divides there is a point at which we individually can dig no deeper to find possible bridges/connections/evidence to offer someone who does not share our orientations does not have eyes to see, ears to hear, as we do. Imagine say trying to convince someone who can only hear modern free-form jazz as cacophonous noise that there is something deep going on there that speaks to your soul let alone resonating with something deeper more universal. So I wouldn’t say that you are more pig-headed than anyone else writing here but that we are differently formed and so differently attuned/biased.

  7. Steve says:

    Dirk, much of what I said above about irony is murky at best, I have to admit. I said that one has to stipulate what one means by irony, and then forgot to stipulate! However, I do stick to my main assertion: that the non-contingent ethical basics are known by us at the level of everyday life, and that they constitute (or should constitute) the solid “premise” of ethics as a reflective discipline, not its conclusion. One way to bring this out, I’ve been saying, is simply to enumerate good character traits side-by-side with bad ones, and then to ask the doubter or ironist or relativist if he can seriously envisage even the possibility that the “good” traits might actually be bad and the “bad” traits good.

    So let’s consider the following series of opposites: honest/deceitful, resolute/waffling, industrious/lazy, courageous/cowardly, sympathetic/indifferent, tolerant/bigoted. Now, to bring the matter out as vividly as we can, let’s collect all the bad traits together and infuse them into one hypothetical individual. Can any thoughtful ethical person honestly say that it’s so much as possible that a deceitful, waffling, lazy, cowardly, indifferent, bigoted man or woman might, under any circumstances imaginable, be considered a good person? Or to put it differently – and perhaps bring it back around to irony – is there the remotest chance that if we don’t maintain a certain looseness in our general disapproval of such a person, we might be running a grave risk of lapsing into bigotry ourselves? I don’t mean that it might not be desirable to understand this person or how he became so drearily flawed, or to judge him leniently in the hope of turning him into a better path. I only mean that he *is* flawed and that it’s impossible to deny it. So why, I keep wondering, would anyone try to do so, except perhaps on trumped-up and otiose theoretical grounds? If the objective of ethics is one of elucidating – as opposed to establishing – the ethical basics in all their variety, nuance, and interaction, then let’s get to it and cut out all the “ironic” delicacy and prevarication.

    Big “If”? Ethics for simpletons? Each must decide, I guess. In yielding the last word to you, Dirk, I leave you with a nice line by C. S. Peirce: “Let us not pretend to doubt in our philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” I would modify this to say: “Let us not pretend to doubt in our philosophy what we must not doubt in our hearts.” Thanks again for your challenging thoughts. I yield the last word to you. And this blog to its owner! (Sorry, Ed…)

    • dmfant says:

      the devil, as they say, is in the details what counts as say “tolerant” vs “bigoted” (think of the to and fro over the recent court cases on same-sex marriage) and here of course I think that we will not find universal agreement and will be left not to some idealized ethics but politics…

  8. dmfant says:

    The character truest to itself becomes eccentric rather than immovably centered, as Emerson defined the noble character of the hero. At the edge, the certainty of borders gives way. We are more subject to invasions, less able to mobilize defenses, less sure of who we really are, even as we may be perceived by others as a person of character. The dislocation of self from center to indefinite edge merges us more with the world, so that we can feel “blest by everything.”
    -James Hillman

  9. Dean says:

    Ah, got it. Thanks a lot.

  10. […] Mooney, a famous and eloquent scholar of Kierkegaard (among other things), provides a compelling analysis of the destabilized self at his blog, Mists on the Rivers. His insights confirm for me what I have been thinking about with […]

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