Socrates haunts apologies for the humanities, and the ghost is not entirely benevolent. This essay emphasizes the dangers he represents, not because it is any more possible to banish Socrates in death than it was in life, but in order to bring his great lucidity about the dangers of literature — the side of Socrates least likely to appear in contemporary apologies for the humanities — to bear upon his paradigmatic contribution to the genre of apology. Beginning by remarking the violence of Socrates’s claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (the most often quoted line in the Apology), the essay argues that defending the humanities as good leads to unacceptable conclusions. In the realm of literary studies, these take the form of exclusions of the kind (though not necessarily the degree) that Socrates models in the Republic. Any such censorship is unacceptable not because censorship is bad but because it forecloses the examination of life. If the examination of life is defensible, it is not because it is good in opposition to an unexamined life that is bad (to the point of being worthless). In saying otherwise, the “good” Socrates of the Apology and the other early dialogues overlaps with the “bad” Socrates of the Republic, offering in the process an object lesson in the instability of distinctions between good and bad objects.
Dangers of Literature: On the Use of Socrates in Recent Apologies for the Humanities
Herschel Farbman is associate professor of French and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of The Other Night: Dreaming, Writing, and Restlessness in Twentieth-Century Literature (2008, 2012).
Herschel Farbman; Dangers of Literature: On the Use of Socrates in Recent Apologies for the Humanities. the minnesota review 1 November 2018; 2018 (91): 56–67. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00265667-7137263
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