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The Structure of Christian Existence by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 8: Socratic Existence


Alongside and dependent on the rich development of aesthetic, scientific, and mathematical distancing arose other modes of understanding man, which were called forth initially by the practical exigencies of political life. The widespread success of Olympian religion, in leading the Greeks into axial existence, made possible a new form of government in which the masses of free citizens participated in basic political decisions. The road to power and influence in this context depended on the ability to persuade. Hence, there appeared teachers, whom we call Sophists, who were prepared to instruct ambitious young men in the arts of rhetoric.

To be able to persuade others, one must be well informed oneself and be able to reason clearly. At the same time, although democracy presupposed a basic rationality on the part of the citizens, few Greeks were under the illusion that men acted according to principles of reason alone. To learn to persuade others effectively, one must understand the nonrational factors in man alongside the rational and also understand how these interact. Hence, the nature of man himself had to be directly considered. Furthermore, some attention had to be given to the ends for which the power involved in the mastery of rhetoric was to be used.

These questions of the nature of man and the goal of life remained peripheral to the concerns of the Sophists as a class. Nevertheless, their presence created a new reflective awareness of aspects of human existence hitherto little recognized. Especially the questions of right and wrong arose in a rational sense quite alien to the Homeric tradition. This situation provided for the possibility of the appearance of Socrates. With him, the two questions of the purpose of life and the nature of man moved to the center of the stage. He was convinced that far more important than the knowledge of how to persuade men is the knowledge of the good to which they should be persuaded.

It is my thesis that, in conjunction with his profound reflections on the good and the thought about the nature of man bound up with it, Socrates entered into a new structure of existence. (Some features of this new structure may be due to Orphic influence, but too little is reliably know of Orphicism to allow anything more than conjectures with respect to its influence on Socrates.) Under his influence this structure of existence permeated important segments of Greek society.

Socrates shared with the more responsible Sophists the view that the good is to be correlated with the reflectively desired. But this could be interpreted in two directions according to the manner in which the process of distancing proceeded. The Sophists took for granted a demythologized world in which human behavior in its social context could be dispassionately studied. Man’s wants and needs, intelligently appraised in terms of the total situation, constituted the basis on which judgments of ends were to be made. Man is the measure.

To Socrates, on the contrary, this view seemed entirely unsatisfactory. In his thought, the relation of the good and reflective desire was reversed. A man did not call things "good" because he desired them, rather, he desired them because he supposed them to be good. Here, the psychic act of distancing was applied to that quality of experience which gives rise to man’s sense of the normative, and this was conceived as standing over against man, possessing just the objectivity that belongs to a visual form when it is distanced in aesthetic experience. Indeed, the visual imagery always clung to the forms or ideas.

However, at this point Socrates far transcended what the visual imagery would suggest. The form of the good was apprehended by reason and not by sight, and the good that was thus apprehended did not qualify the appearance of one man to another, but rather the soul of each man in itself. The good was a form that characterized the experient and rational subject himself rather than the observable appearance and behavior of others.

Socrates thus contrasted the reality of the experient and rational subject, the soul, with the world of appearance in a way quite new for Greek ethical thought. His aim, just as that of Homeric religion, was for human excellence, but whereas for Homeric religion this meant of public excellence of manner and action, for Socrates this meant the perfection of the soul as such. Beauty was a quality of soul rather than of visual form.

Socrates further concluded that it was better to suffer than to inflict injustice, for one might suffer injustice without loss of the intrinsic excellence of the soul, whereas the infliction of injustice was precisely the destruction of the soul’s inherent goodness.

Our deeper interest, however, is not with the conceptual doctrine of Socrates, but with the structure of existence therein expressed. I have defined axial existence in terms of the movement of the seat of the soul to its reflective consciousness and its dominance over the unconscious. The movement was witnessed from an early point in the rise of Homeric religion as the mythical meanings became subject to rational and aesthetic organization rather than simply providing the context of meaning in which life is lived. But the emergence of the reflective consciousness as the seat of human existence did not necessarily entail an awareness by the soul of itself. In Greece, this emerged gradually and fleetingly with only vague recognition of the problems of the relations of the soul to the total psychophysical organism. In the discussion of Homeric man, we saw how men understood themselves not as subjects, or souls, but from the public world and in terms of their role and appearance in that world, or else identified themselves with the impersonal principle of reason.

First in Socrates did the individual soul attain to self-awareness in the sense of knowing itself as an object of its own inquiry and its own activity. Socrates knew himself to be his soul, hence to be an invisible reality quite other than the appearances of his body to other men. In this respect, he resembled the Hindu sages, who had come much earlier than the Greeks to a clear awareness of the soul in sharp antithesis to sensory appearances. Yet there was a profound and fateful difference between Socrates and the Hindu thinker. The latter saw the rational ego-consciousness in its anxiety and suffering as something to be escaped. He identified himself as an undifferentiated subject underlying and transcending the concrete particularity of the individualized soul. Socrates, in contrast, identified himself with the soul as such, or more precisely, with the active reason that was, for him, the true essence of the soul. Hence, whereas the Indian sage sought to disengage his true self from the reality or illusion of the particularized soul, Socrates sought to achieve the proper excellence of the soul. Hence in him, the reflective consciousness made the soul the object of its reflection to discover the soul’s peculiar character and to achieve the ideal embodiment of that character.

In the preceding paragraph, the word "reason" has begun to play an important role. Prior to the preceding chapter, this word has been avoided, and reference has been made instead to rational consciousness. By rational consciousness is meant reflective consciousness insofar as the symbolization by which it is ordered conforms to the world as given in unreflective consciousness rather than in the autonomous activity of the unconscious. Such conformation is witnessed just as clearly by accurate descriptions of natural and historical events as by abstraction, generalization, and inference. It is rational consciousness, in this broad sense, that is characteristic of all axial men.

As rational consciousness grew in strength, it provided for the possibility also of such activities as abstraction, generalization, and inference. These activities and the capacity to carry them out constitute "reason." Since rational consciousness was highly developed in the preaxial civilizations, reason played in them an important role. In India, reason gained still further provinces of activity. Nevertheless, it was among the scientist-philosophers of Greece that reason was carried to the highest pitch of development and that the activity of reason came to be prized most highly for its own sake. It was in Greece that reason came to be most closely identified with man’s essential nature. Socrates’ identification of himself with his reason was one of the fateful events of history.

It may still not be clear in what way the self-identification with reason led to and expressed a new structure of existence rather than simply to a new idea about existence. Perhaps the novelty of the structure is more readily understood in contrast with Homeric man who lacked self-awareness of himself as subject. But the structure of existence that emerged in Socrates is also to be sharply differentiated from that of the highly self-aware Hindu. This is because with each different fundamental mode of self-identification, conscious or unconscious, there is associated a different structuring of the elements of the soul. When the Hindu identified himself with an undifferentiated reality beyond the experientially diversified soul, the various elements in the soul -- its passions, appetites, hopes, fears, sense experience, and reason -- were all indifferently there to be recognized, described, and ultimately experienced as so many mere psychic elements over against the true self. When Socrates, in contrast, identified himself with his reason, no transcendent self came into play. Instead, a deep divide was introduced within the soul itself between reason and all other elements of the soul. The soul experienced itself in terms of this duality, within which one part was self, the other, alien. Again, this was not a mere opinion about the soul, but a structuring of the elements within the soul determining the roles they could play in the ongoing psychic life.

Given this structuring of the soul’s life, a man’s proper excellence must be the perfect dominance of his reason over all other elements of his psychic and physical life. The astounding greatness of Socrates was that he not only pioneered a new structure of psychic existence, but that, at the same time, he embodied this existence in ideal form. His own life and death were in perfect harmony with his teaching. In him, reason did triumph over the forces of the unconscious and the body and attain just that excellence it sought. He made no effort to attain pleasure or success, on the one hand, or the admiration of his fellows, on the other. He sought continuously to bring others to the knowledge of the truth regardless of what injustice this might cause them to inflict on him. Even when on trial for his life, he attempted to use the occasion to bring the Athenians to the truth rather than employing the rhetorical devices by which he could play on their sympathy. Thus he went to a voluntary death as the completion and fulfillment of a life dedicated to the good. In terms of the structure of existence he embodied, Socrates is not only unsurpassed but unsurpassable.

It has been emphasized that the psychic act of distancing underlay the peculiar structures of Greek existence in the axial period. This idea had quite ready application to Homeric man for whom man was understood as he was given in visual experience. However, its relevance to Socrates is far less obvious, for Socrates knew man as a rational subject.

Nevertheless, Socrates’ understanding of man can also be seen as presupposing and involving a new level of the basic psychic act of distancing. This further level of distancing is similar in some respects to that involved in Greek mathematics where, on the one hand, one had to abstract from the visual forms in order to distance the quantitative forms, but, on the other hand, the quantitative forms remained tinged by the kind of spatiality known in vision. For Socrates, the soul was certainly not an object in the visual field (nor a quantitative form) , yet insofar as it was conceptually grasped, the imagery carried a visual flavor. More important, this meant that for Socrates the categories in which he thought about the soul were derived from the experience of the world as it was given especially in vision. This meant also that in the process of thinking about the soul, the soul was distanced as object. The soul that was thought about was not the soul that was thinking in its dynamic immediacy, but an objectified, and thereby distanced, entity.

While emphasizing the amazing achievement of Socrates, we should not overlook the limitations inherent in Socratic existence. These limitations were inevitable, given the primacy of the psychic act of distancing as the foundation of Greek existence. The soul seen in this way, and therefore also the soul that came into existence in this way, could only be understood as made up of a plurality of elements or forces such as appetite, spirit, and reason. The interaction of such forces must be a function of their essentially impersonal activities. What the total soul was or became was the resultant of these forces. There could be no freedom or transcendence by the self over these forces.

In this context, a self that was identified with reason always, by definition, behaved rationally. If the soul as a whole did not behave rationally, this could only mean that the other, and hence alien, forces in the soul had been stronger. The rational self could hardly be responsible for its defeat by these irrational forces.

Socrates certainly is not to be understood as simply and fully acquiescing in the implications of his conceptual situation. He accepted responsibility for the victory of reason within his own soul in a way that implied an inner transcendence over the irrational and rational forces alike. Furthermore, he exhorted others to live by reason in a way that assumed a transcendent responsibility also on their part. Nevertheless, the limitation remained. The transcendent selfhood was unrecognized and, therefore, was only incipiently effective. In their brilliant ethical reflections, the Greeks always explained failure to do the good in such a way that from our point of view no real responsibility therefor can be attributed to the wrongdoer. The clear emergence of responsible personhood, with the quite different categories and problems it entailed, occurred only in Israel and will be the subject of the next chapter.

That the Greeks interpreted man in terms of categories derived from the distancing of the world, and that this entailed certain limitations in the apprehension of personal responsibility, should not be difficult to understand in our day. Modern psychology has been basically Greek, and its two major forms, academic psychology and depth psychology, have remarkable analogies respectively with Homeric and Socratic views of man.

In modern academic psychology, one attempts to gain knowledge of man through careful observation of his behavior in controlled situations. This observation is primarily visual, although the visual data can be supplemented by other sensory information. The man observed is asked questions, and his answers are recorded. But when the psychologist is most "scientific," he regards these answers as a part of the behavior of the subject and not as a source of knowledge of some inner, unobservable state. The theories about man that are scientifically developed avoid positing any such inner state. This means that very intensive efforts are made to understand man according to forms and methods applicable in man’s knowledge of the rest of the natural world.

Depth psychology, of course, is very different. Here the reports of the patient or subject about his inner life are taken very seriously. A whole world of reality is assumed that is not directly observable by the scientist. Observable behavior is interpreted as to its meaning according to the categories of understanding developed in relation to this inner world. Nevertheless, also in most depth psychology, the categories by which the inner world is understood are modeled on the forms observed through the senses in the outer world. The id, the ego, and the superego, for example, are treated as entities or forces whose interactions are not unlike those of entities or forces observed by physics or chemistry. Psychic states and overt behavior are interpreted as the outcome of the interaction of these several forces.

Since these forces are themselves fundamentally impersonal, their resultant in feeling and action cannot be a person in the sense in which Hebrew man came to understand himself. The " I " or " ego is one force alongside others, to be understood in its functioning according to psychic laws having the same deterministic character as natural laws. In actual practice, the psychoanalyst does attribute to the "I" of his patient a greater transcendence over these psychic forces than his theories justify, just as the academic psychologist, consciously or unconsciously, attributes to his subjects an inwardness that his science ignores. The point is that, even today when we attempt to develop a conceptual scheme for the understanding of man, we ordinarily bring to our task an understanding of concepts and a set of concepts which arise in our dealings with the external world as mediated by sense experience. It is certainly not surprising that the Greeks, who first discovered and achieved the possibility of observing the external world as such, should have proceeded in the same manner.

There is, however, also a difference between the situation of the Greeks in this respect and modern man. Modern man somehow knows that the scientific picture of himself is an abstraction. This is more glaringly true of the picture drawn by academic psychology than of that drawn by depth psychology. But even with respect to the latter, wide segments of the intellectual community know that the individual man cannot finally be grasped in the impersonal categories that constitute the science. Alongside the scientific understanding of man in impersonal categories, there are passionately personalistic protests that play a very large role in our art and culture.

We should not expect to find this among the Greeks. Western man has entered into a personalistic individualism out of centuries of interaction with the Biblical God. Hence, this individuality and personality cannot simply disappear when his conceptual theories cease to justify them and his religious practices cease to reinforce them. There remains a powerful tension between what man knows himself to be in his immediate givenness to himself and what he is taught conceptually about himself. This tension is at the heart of the peculiarly modern experience of anxiety and meaninglessness in which a person, who is formed in a context of meaning, finds himself attempting to understand himself in categories that preclude the possibility of meaning. But this was not the situation of Greek man. He did not know himself as a person in the modern sense. There was little tension at this point between his art and his science. His conceptual self-understanding in terms of reason and passion corresponded to his existence as it was given to him. The question of the relation of himself as person to these impersonal forces which constituted him hardly arose, except insofar as he might identify one or the other of these forces as alien to his true humanity.

The achievement of Socrates was, then, that in him the seat of individual existence became firmly identified with reason. Further, reason knew itself as such and was able to understand and deal with other aspects of the psychic life from this new perspective. The limitation which has been noted was that Socratic man’s self-identification with one factor within the soul alongside other factors prevented the incipient sense of personal responsibility for the psychic life in general from coming to fruition.

In the discussion of Socratic existence, only Socrates himself has been treated. In conclusion, it should be made clear that the kind of existence ideally embodied in him is reflected also in most of the Greek and Roman philosophy that followed him and looked back to him with special reverence. We can assume that what was expressed in this literature was also widely prevalent among cultivated people other than writers, and that it has continued to our own day as a viable and influential structure of existence.

What is common to all these embodiments of Socratic existence is that the self is identified with reason. Other factors in the life of the soul and body are objectified from this point of view as other and alien. But this fundamental common starting point allows for great diversity of development according to how reason is understood. There is a great difference, for example, between the Stoics, on the one hand, and Aristotle, on the other. However, for the purposes of this book, their unity is of paramount interest.

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