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  • The Ancient Quarrel Revisited:Literary Theory and the Return to Ethics
  • Joseph G. Kronick

The modern quarrel between theory and practice, like the ancient one between philosophy and poetry, is at once a practical one—at its heart is the question how we should live—and a pedagogical one—who or what is the proper teacher of virtue? Today, the quarrel is between theory and literature rather than between philosophy and poetry, a change that has not been beneficial. The modern complaint against the abstractions of theory reflects a diminution in the quality of the argument. For the ancient Greeks, to ask about the virtuous life was to inquire into what it is to be human, for aretê, which is typically translated as "virtue," but is understood to mean "excellence" or "goodness," meant acting in accordance with what it is to be fully human. 1 The notion that "real issues," as one prominent theorist argues, belong to the realm of action and epistemological and ontological questions to the abstract realm of theory is a simplification of the more serious question of the relation of particulars to universals. It reverses the Platonic and Aristotelian hierarchy that makes thinking the highest form of activity. But something else is going on in this call to action: in denigrating thinking as abstract, it elevates doxa, opinion, in its place. Under the regime of doxa, two things occur: philosophy and poetry are looked upon as useless because utility becomes the criteria for measuring value, and singularity is looked upon with disdain, if it is, indeed, acknowledged at all, because to the extent the world as it appears is common to us all, doxa is not distinct or individual but uniform or the same. Philosophy and poetry share not only the stigma of being deemed useless, but they are dismissed as odd, singular, not common.

This essay is concerned with the status of the singular in philosophy [End Page 436] and poetry. The ancient quarrel has not been settled, which may indeed be a good thing because the quarrel keeps alive the question, who is to speak for that which cannot be spoken of, the singular? Silence may be the appropriate response, yet to preserve the experience of that which resists language is the task of philosophy and poetry, hence the quarrel. A long tradition has it that the philosopher seeks universals, while the poet offers particular images of virtue, but at the heart of this argument over ethics is the question of how to account for the singular or unique. To do so, I turn to Socrates, whose singularity remains unaccounted for to this day.

Socrates may be said to embody the very problem of the relation between philosophy and literature, for he left us no writings and exists for us primarily through the writings of Plato. Yet there is widespread acceptance of Plato's portrait of him, particularly as to Socrates' method, the elenchus, and his principle of the priority of definitions. However, Socrates' insistence upon the priority of definition is not an example of the philosopher elevating theory over experience but a practical issue involving the care of the self. Furthermore, in ancient Greece, moral and philosophical questions concerning the soul were as much the provenance of poetry as they were of philosophy. The search for truth is a practical matter concerning the conduct of life, but the Platonic philosopher wishes to give a rational account, or logos, that would link conduct to knowledge, whereas the poet's examples are bound to their representations. Nevertheless, to presume that Socrates was seeking a definition of virtue on the grounds that possession of the definition would translate into a good life is an absurdity, for he could never have sought after the knowledge of virtue if his mode of life depended upon the definition rather than on his character. 2

The error is to accuse Socrates of placing abstract knowledge before virtuous conduct. When Socrates asks for a definition of the beautiful, for instance, he does not reject the answer, "the beautiful is a beautiful woman," because it confuses a particular with a universal (when compared to the beauty of the gods, the woman is...


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