Everyday Daimons

The problem of Socrates:-    The two antitheses: the tragic disposition, the Socratic disposition – measured according to the law of life… his equalisation of reason = virtue = happiness. It was with this absurdity of a doctrine of identity that he fascinated… Absolute lack of objective interest: hatred for science; the idiosyncrasy of feeling oneself as a problem. Socrates’ acoustic hallucination: morbid element. When the spirit is rich and independent it resists any preoccupation with morality. How came it that Socrates was a monomaniac in regard to morality?- In emergencies, “practical” philisophy steps at once to the fore. Morality and religion as chief interests are signs of an emergency.

Nietzsche, The Will To Power notebooks (432), March-June 1888

Flaceliere finishes his Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles by devoting a chapter to Socrates. His analysis of everyday life in Greece balances the extolment of the Greeks in their culture as the birthplace of democracy, theatre, philosophy and science. The filthy alleys and unclean practices of the Athenians with little or no concept of public health, shows up the negation in a too often crystal temple to which the Greeks are paid tribute. The Dionysiac is present in this work by Flaceliere.

The testament to Socrates is the bringer of an ethic and morality to an otherwise superstitious race. But perhaps Aristophanes the comic provides the best insights into a Greek attitude. The comedy as a form of theatre enjoyed more freedom than the tragedy. For example, in The Frogs, Dionysus is portrayed as wily joker, irreverent and at times even cowardly. The scene in which he swaps his clothes with his servant for example, might well have caused an affront to pious priests of Dionysus – or won over their gratitude at a true representation of the essence of the Dionysiac.

In some ways, this book by Flaceliere is an echo of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, written in 1871 before Nietzsche took himself less “seriously.” Nietzsche was caught up in the Wagner movement at time of the writing of this book. The last dozen or so sections are devoted to Wagner and upset the flow of an argument concerning the ancient Greeks well-summarised in a line from Zarathustra: “I would not believe in a god that does not know how to dance.” The principal feature of the divine being an aspect of existence that includes the dance, frivolity, panpipes, shepherds in the country, set apart from the serious and sober discourse of the urban setting with its political intrigue at the Assembly and its “philosophising” at the Academy, men selling ideas in the marketplace.

The book complements my own understanding of the Greeks. Robert had a great passion for the Greeks and his book is not only a “corrective” of a shiny ideal picture of fifth century Greece but also a plumbing of the depths and an attempt to understand the context in which the drama is staged.  Festivals were common and were almost always religious affairs including the dramatic festival, the Greater Dionysia. Flaceliere does not accept the mask at its face value as if the Greek culture embodied or captured a beautiful ideal, but was in fact the collective work of a consciousness of one multiplicity: Athens.

The social is what transcends the individual, even in his lonely, tortured independence.

Like Apollo’s flaying of Marsyas, the society holds the individual to account and little can be done about the weight of public opinion. It is important to try however – the contest is the object in our culture as much as it was for the Greeks with their drama competitions and Olympic Games. Culture is a perpetual field of interaction. Only fools and hermits blatantly ignore and express disdain for the public sphere that at times, the words of Heidegger still ring true today: “When language enters into the public sphere, it enters into a pit of nihilism.”

If we had to oppose a discourse to the political in the public sphere, it is art that produces the statements, the symbols of a society’s collective unconscious. The painting by Ribera doesn’t “speak” to me but still affects me. Or it speaks to me of the relentless pursuit of civilisation and the daring of a musician to challenge the gods to a competition, the questioning of Apollo’s worth as a musician especially as it exists in relation to Marsyas’ own self-estimation, what Nietzsche repeatedly refers to as a “revaluation of values” or more crudely, a “will to power.” The painted outcome of Marsyas’ failure is not to inspire fear but courage I believe, to illustrate a daring in the face of hopeless odds and a terrible punishment. Marsyas had his skin flayed from his body by Apollo after he lost a musical competition with Apollo. “‘Help!’ Marsyas clamoured. ‘Why are you stripping me from myself? Never again, I promise! Playing a pipe is not worth this!'” (Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 6, 386-7)

To protest and contest what transcends the individual – an essentially “punk” attitude. Even the contest between the ineffable and language is a worthy pursuit in a modern society. Not even a society alone but down to the community, wholes within wholes, fragments and life-systems, private lives and public faces running right through the culture of the public sphere.

Socrates was one of those “punks” outside the normal run of society. OR rather he existed within it. Socrates fought in battles as a hoplite and often visited with the aristocrats as well as the common folk, according to Plato. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates disavows himself of public life and gives his reason for this in his first appearance before the public Assembly when he is on trial for corrupting the youth and for not recognising the gods of the city, Athens: an inner daemon, a supernatural or divine voice speaks to him although this voice only tells him “no” (not wholly speech)when he was about to engage in an activity the daimonic thought was wrong. Flaceliere richly situates the figure of Socrates in the context of the life Socrates loved the most – everyday Athens – to the point where Socrate was willing to die for his own private daimon.

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