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.