The Political and the Theoretic Life – The Challenge of Socrates
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Nietzsche famously derided Socrates with being the epitome of “theoretical man.” Nietzsche was correct if we understand by this that Socrates was the lived embodiment of a capacious philosophical or theoretic life. Nietzsche erred however in associating the Socratic “theoretical man” with the modern scientific spirit. On the contrary, where scientific modernity has turned man’s toward the physical world, the significance of Socrates was to reorient philosophy toward the problem of the good life and the excellence of the soul. Insofar as Socrates understands the problem of the good life as a problem for the community and not only the individual, it is with politics and not the natural sciences which is his domain of contention. This concern with the problem of the good leads him to become the spokesman for philosophy in its contention with rhetoric to define the nature of the human good. On this contention rested the right understanding of education, culture, and politics. In making excellence of the soul rather than power as the chief political good, Socrates is led into a clash with the polis which ends in his death. Socrates enigmatic life and tragic vindicated the idea of the philosopher rather than the rhetor as embodying the true “political life.” But establishing the philosophic or theoretic life as an ideal independent of politics was the specific work of his successor Aristotle.
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