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  • Proximity, Power, and the Practice of Citizenship
  • Jason Frank (bio)
Dana R. Villa, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 370pages.

In Socratic Citizenship Dana Villa seeks to redress a “failure of the contemporary theoretical imagination . . . to articulate a genuinely critical conception of citizenship.” (248) In doing so, he elaborates a practiced conception of citizenship that contrasts sharply with those found in much contemporary political theory, whether these conceptions are articulated in the juridical voice of deontological liberalism, through the agonistic antifoundationalism of radical democrats, or under the civilitarian imperatives of neo-Aristotelians and neo-Tocquevillians. Villa shares with the liberals a marked wariness of public power and an overriding commitment to “moral individualism.” With the radical democrats he emphasizes the centrality of ongoing critique to loosening the sedimented conventions of social life. And with the neo-Aristotelians and neo-Tocquevillians he shares . . . well, very little, almost nothing.

In fact, many of Villa’s arguments concerning the political value of Socratic citizenship are propelled by resistance to the frequent (and frequently moralizing) calls in both contemporary political theory and contemporary political life for more civic engagement, more attention to the common, more sacrifice, more duty, a more moral polity. He affirms instead a “conscientious, moderately alienated citizenship,” (2) one oriented not by the familiar worry over skepticism, relativism, and the withdrawal of meaning from public life — “we have,” Villa contends, “no lack of things to believe in” — but by a contrasting worry over the thoughtless conformity and habitude endemic to human life and its attending pull towards injustice. This is a propensity reiterated throughout the book and is attributed to the “essentially mimetic character of social life” (21) and the way “dogmatism is woven into the very fabric of our moral being.” (79)

It might be expected that Socrates’ examined life would play an important role in a book exploring these themes, but Villa’s book addresses them in rich, insightful, and occasionally quite surprising ways. Perhaps the book’s greatest surprise is Villa’s sustained attempt to elaborate a practice of citizenship wholly disconnected from, and even opposed to, political action. But before turning to this provocative attempt to revise a core historical and theoretical assumption behind citizenship, some preliminary account of Villa’s interpretations of particular thinkers is required. It is only through these encounters that the outlines of Socratic citizenship, and the nuances of Villa’s own position, become readily apparent.

The book is divided into five chapters, each devoted primarily to the work of one or two canonical theorists: Socrates/Plato, Mill, Nietzsche, Weber, Strauss/Arendt. Each chapter stands on its own as a worthy example of Villa’s strengths at close reading and clearly traced argumentation. The opening engagement with the Apology and the Gorgias provides a particularly good example of Villa’s general approach to canonical texts, which tends to highlight tensions or contradictions in the work of his chosen theorist, then proceeds to show how this tension illuminates the very core of his own concerns regarding Socratic citizenship. In this initial chapter, the professed ignorance of moral ends by the Socrates of the Apology is contrasted with the Gorgias’ apparent embrace of the role of expert knowledge in the proper governance of a polity. This first chapter also provides the most sustained account of what Villa means by Socratic citizenship. For Villa, the Socratic elenchus, the practice enacting Socratic citizenship, is described as a thoroughly critical activity, as a via negativa oriented not by the pursuit of common or collective goals but by the “care for the soul,” the overriding and interrelated demands of integrity, intellectual honesty, and the avoidance of injustice. These are demands carried out through ongoing critical self-examination of oneself and others. Villa’s Socrates, like the Socrates of Hegel and Kierkegaard, is committed to a “morality of abstention.”

For Villa, the Socratic elenchus is defined first and foremost through its opposition to the “aesthetic monumentalism” of Pericles’ Funeral Oration. On this reading, Pericles’ famed elicitation of political daring signals the inherent dangers of all calls to political action, which Villa associates with invitations to be “intoxicated by an ideal.” Action is mobilized, Villa argues, by the necessary suspension...

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