Philosophy, with Socrates, emerged as a critical analysis of collective knowledge in the light of the unity, integrity and self-transparency of individual consciousness. Not, therefore, of any individual conscience, but of one that fought for that unity, integrity and self-transparency and that, with a great deal of hardship, was at the same time digging up and erecting them until lifting them above the murky confusion of passions and self-deceptions; confusion that, in part at least, arises from the passive, disorderly and uncritical absorption of collective beliefs.

It is this struggle that gives the philosopher, together and inseparably, the authority and the cognitive tools to analyze, judge and, if necessary, condemn the established beliefs. And it becomes possible and necessary only because of the double and self-conflicting constitution of the individual conscience itself. On one hand, this awareness is formed following various currents of influence, genetic and environmental, which pull it in every direction and awaken multiple mutually contradictory demands. On the other hand, it tends to the unity due to the continuity of the bodily existence, as well as the need for decisions and choices that call for the unity of an active subject equipped with self-remembering, perseverance in actions and the ability to respond towards other players around it.

A second layer of conflicting demands arises from the fact that the individual does not only have to develop as an activesubject, but must find or accept a place in society, almost always sacrificing part of his sense of internal unity to the demands of the social role and to the feeling of group identity that sustains and protects, but also limits and distorts their individuality.

No human being would be able to rise to the status of a critic independent of collective beliefs if the only forces at play in the process of self-discovery – or self-constitution – of his individual conscience were his own individuating impulse and the demands and pressures of the social environment. On one hand, that impulse is not a causa sui but depends on stimuli and cognitive means – including language – that come from the social environment itself. On the other hand, this environment is based, in part, on inherent needs to the very biological constitution of the individual being. Any evolutionary conflict that may arise between these two forces therefore takes place within the framework of an inseparable symbiotic unity. In the very act of asserting his sovereignty, the individual relies on the social context and implicitly confesses his dependence on it. This is clearlyrevealed in cases of congenital or acquired maladaptation, in which the individual, when turning against the human environment around him, is expelled to a lower social level where he enjoys even less freedom of movement than that granted to his better adapted peers.

This, evidently, is not the case with Socrates. His inner independence is real and, instead of restricting, it expands his freedom of movement, opening up the space for him to exercise a sui generis social role, in many ways superior to that of other members of society, of which some admire him to the extent of veneration, others envy and fear him to the point of wanting to kill him.

The achievement of this inner independence – and even to a certain extent an outside one – would not be possible in a framework delimited exclusively by the biological and social factors of the symbiotic competition between individual and society, a competition that unfolds within the existing social standards and, ultimately, reaffirms the primacy of society.

The independence that Socrates achieves, exercises and demonstrates is clearly supported by the interference of a third element, superior and independent both of himself and of the social environment, irreducible, therefore, be it to the natural constitution of individuality, or to the set of availablesocio-cultural data.

It is this element that Socrates calls his daimon, the spirit that guides him through the demands of life, imposing choices and behaviors that transcend both the impulses of his mere individuality and the rules and precepts of the society around him.

Therefore, what bases and defines the philosopher’s activity is not the mere criticism of society, nor the use of the faculty as an instrument of this criticism at a natural and social time of “reason”, but rather the appeal to a higher authority qualified to guide and judge both the individual and the society.

By submitting consciously and voluntarily to the dictates of this superior instance, the philosopher becomes an emissary of it, but not the perfect and unique incarnation of its authority, which he recognizes is also spread at the bottom of the current social order, as degraded and confused that thisorder is. Hence the apparent paradox that the most independent of Athenian citizens bow obediently to the sentence of the court that condemns him, thus refusing to assert in the field of empirical social reality an independence equivalent to that which he had demonstrated in the field of personal thought and ethics.

Socrates is a spokesman for “unwritten laws” that transcend the existing social order, but not a prophet-legislator charged with changing that order to the standard set by those laws. His function is to remind men of the existence of the transcendent order, not to implement it in the world by the force of authority.

This will remain, over the centuries, the mission of philosophers and the very definition of their way of being.

Olavo de Carvalho
Preparatory text for the class of the 30th of June, 2012.
Translation by Daniel Bertorelli

3 thoughts on “Philosophy and Self-Awareness

Leave a Reply