Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

Socrates and Polis in the Thought of Hannah Arendt and Jan Patočka

Michal Zvarík

Thursday 2 December 2021

15:40 - 16:20

Zoom 1-3

The contribution will address Jan Patočka’s and Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the relation between Socrates and the city. For both thinkers, Socrates in a certain sense represents a kind of a paradigm of the philosopher and of philosophizing. In comparison, similarities between Patočka’s and late Arendt’s considerations arise. Socrates is a thinker of problematicity/negativity, who subjugates every positive opinion to philosophical scrutiny, in order to test its coherence. And if the protagonist of a dialogue is not able to prove such coherence, as is usually the case, the given opinion is refuted. Both authors claim that Socrates points to a unity of life, which is a task yet to be attained, a unity, in which there exists a harmony between words, on the one hand, and between words and deeds, on the other.

Patočka and Arendt, however, differ in answering the question of how Socratic philosophizing relates to the polis and its institutions. The issue is not merely of historical significance, because the relation between Socrates and the city is seen on the wider background of the problematic relation between philosophy and politics. For Patočka, the openness towards the non-given, wherefrom Socrates’s examination stems, brings the possibility of a spiritual renewal of the political sphere, the authentic option of ascension from decadence, which is grounded in the alleged certainty of a positive, non-problematic meaning. For Arendt, on the other hand, the Socratic examination presents a permanent threat for the political sphere and actions within it. Action is dependent on doxai, that is, on positive opinions. Socrates, who for Arendt embodies the paradigm or model of thinking as an end in itself, by the means of questioning inhibits and removes these opinions, and for this reason paralyzes all positive action. Thinking is not able to prescribe a course of action, it rather warns and calls for non-participation, since it cannot legitimize a positive opinion. For this reason, a thinking person can become a political actor only indirectly and in a negative manner. Such situations happen at times of political crises where the disengagement from politics is seen as threatening.

The root of differences we can observe in the answers to the question of relation between politics and philosophy can be tracked to the problem of givenness and especially the givenness of the world as a kind of transcendence of limited viewpoints. For Arendt, the world is co-constituted as a space of visibility, which arises in-between the actors with their manifold, yet limited doxai. The thinker adopts a detached stance from the world, but attains a self-relation, the self-appearing in an inner dialogue instead. Between the thinker and the actor, the self-appearance and the appearance of the world exists a rift. For Patočka, on the other hand, the world is a transcendence in the sense of a non-given, all-encompassing horizon, which is the source of problematicity and, thus, threatens the opinion, which is inevitably finite.