“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.” The deservedly famous opening line of A Thousand Plateaus. The punch of the line comes from the at-first striking image of two people in a room constituting a crowd.
It turns out, though, that this idea is as old as the hills. In Book 4 of The Republic Socrates suggests that there are multiple elements that make up each person, that each of us is several. When Glaucon is unsure, Socrates spends several pages arguing the case. Take a thirsty person, he says, who decides not to drink. This person must have two different elements operating, since one element cannot do two opposite things at once (want drink and not-want drink) (439b). Socrates goes on to declare that there are three elements of the soul: rational, spirited, and desiring. And he badly wants to convince Glaucon of something more: that the rational element should rule the other elements. In the just (or good) person, Socrates implores us to accept, the desiring element will agree that the rational element is superior to the other elements and that the rational element should rule (442d).
And so Deleuze and Guattari’s opening line turns out to be less thrilling than it appears. We have known that each of us is several for thousands of years. What D&G have against Socrates is his passionate mission to bring the desiring element under the control of reason. The two of them wrote Anti-Oedipus together to do precisely what Glaucon and Adeimantus fail to do: raise a resounding cry against Socrates’ insistence that reason should rule desire.
From What is Philosophy? (p. 29)
Philosophy [as we understand it] has a horror of discussions. It always has something else to do. Debate is unbearable to it, but not because it is too sure of itself. On the contrary, it is its uncertainties that take it down other, more solitary paths. But in Socrates wasn’t philosophy a free discussion among friends? Is it not, as the conversation of free men, the summit of Greek sociability? In fact, Socrates constantly made all discussion impossible, both in the short form of the contest of questions and answers and in the long form of a rivalry between discourses. He turned the friend into the friend of a single concept, and the concept into a pitiless monologue that eliminates the rivals one by one.
A very good Nietzschean reading. Socrates claims to be engaged in a search for Truth. He is rather engaged in ridding the earth of the Sophists. And so back to Callicles, back to Thrasymachus! Reanimate their spirit, make their speech possible again. Discover what they were just about to say, what other concepts they were creating, when Plato had Socrates extinguish their light. There is joy to be found in that project, I think.
We are reading Plato’s Gorgias in my ethics class, and I am reminded again how much of Nietzsche’s arguments about morality (in BGE and OGM) are lifted directly from Callicles, Socrates’ main antagonist in these dialogues. Callicles says that conventional morality is a scheme invented by the weak to trick the strong into not using their power. By this ruse, he says, “men tame lions,” an image that echoes Nietzsche’s “blond beast.” Callicles goes on to hack at the foundation of Plato’s entire worldview–which is that people should use their reason to tame their desires–arguing instead that we should not repress our appetites but let them grow strong, and then we should use our natural powers to satisfy our appetites by any means necessary. We should, in other words, live fully by discharging our strength into the world. When Plato objects that this would amount to little more than perpetually scratching an itch, Callicles responds that Plato’s ideal life, in which we moderate and temper our desires through reason, “is the life of a stone.”
It is almost as though Nietzsche, a keen student of the Greeks, built his whole moral and political philosophy by scouring Plato’s dialogues, finding the characters whose arguments Plato was clearly most threatened by, and rearticulating them with a German accent. Maybe!
Latour, in Reassembling the Social, reports this opening statement from a 1914 lecture* of Durkheim’s on the challenge posed by the arguments of pragmatism, which were then a relatively new presence in the academic landscape:
We are currently witnessing an attack on reason which is truly militant and determined…
While Durkheim acknowledges “the need for a reform of traditional rationalism,” he says pragmatism is a “form of irrationalism” that goes much too far. He says that the task of resisting pragmatism is
of philosophical importance…the entire philosophical tradition, right from the very beginnings of philosophical speculation, is inspired by rationalism. If pragmatism were valid, we should have to embark on a complete reversal of this whole tradition.
It is revealing to see just how existential the establishment thought pragmatism’s challenge to the philosophical order was. I have a tendency to think of people like Rorty or Deleuze and Guattari as engaging in a project of radicalizing the ‘traditional’ pragmatists, taking them in dangerous new directions. Moments like this remind me again not to underestimate the radical challenge people like Dewey and William James were offering.
Durkheim’s words are also timely because my students just read Books IV and V of The Republic, where Socrates lays down those “very beginnings” of rationalism Durkeim is talking about.
*Latour cites: Durkheim, E. (1955) Pragmatisme et sociologie. Paris: Vrin.