Socrates and his clouds

Dear Readers,

It is a privilege and a pleasure for me to offer you the guest post below from William Lyons. Mr. Lyons will be having his new play about Socrates produced in London next summer; previously he had a play about Wittgenstein produced. I’m very pleased to be able to give you Mr. Lyon’s reflections on philosophy and drama.

Happy New Year!

Nick Nielsen

There will always be those who will immediately point out that philosophy and drama never go well together, no matter what form the conjunction takes. While there have been over the history of philosophy many famous philosophical dialogues, written by such great philosophers as Plato, Anselm, Berkeley and Hume, they remain just that, dialogues not drama, just talking heads. Talking heads run an acute risk of being acutely boring for any audience, especially if the heads are talking philosophy. Certainly it is true that a number of classical scholars have suggested that Plato’s dialogues were performed as live dramas at some of the great Athenian dramatic festivals such as the City Dionysia. In the final analysis, however one looks at it, dialogues will always be just that, people talking. So, even if I managed to persuade some artistic director to stage one, I myself, a writer of philosophical plays, have no desire to bore a theatre audience with yet another philosophical dialogue.

Anyone interested in French cinema will be used to characters in films discussing Plato or Descartes or Voltaire or Sartre in some café that resembles the Parisian intellectuals’ Café de Flore or the Café Les Deux Magots. But these films are not really philosophical films but films that display some character’s sophistication by having him or her talk about the views of some famous philosophers. More truly philosophical are those plays by the French Existentialists, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus which not merely often featured philosophers as characters in a play but explored philosophical themes. The French Théatre de l’Absurde, which had an influence on Beckett, also had Existentialist themes at its core – the non‐existence of God, the denial of an after‐life, the repudiation of objective moral values and so, in consequence, the absurdity of life.

My starting point is different. An apt alternative title for what I am trying to achieve might be “the drama of a genuinely philosophical life”. Thus my attempt, in my initial trilogy of plays, at making the connection between philosophy and drama is focused particularly on philosophers themselves, on their philosophical life and the difficulties in leading it. I’m interested in how a philosopher, at least one worthy of the name, goes about his or her business. In particular I’m interested in how a philosopher functions in a world where the core philosophical virtues of intellectual integrity, moral courage, and honesty are generally ignored. Thus I’ve been interested in those philosophers who conspicuously lived by their philosophical beliefs when this was not an easy thing to do, and obversely in those philosophers who, while professing certain philosophical beliefs, conspicuously separated those beliefs from their ordinary lives. In writing this sort of drama I have as an additional aim a desire to draw philosophy to the attention of the “ordinary person” who would not ordinarily come across philosophy during his or her life much less engage with it. I fancy that displaying the philosophical life, or philosophy as incarnated in the life of some philosopher, may well be a good way to do this.

Given this approach, the big question is how can one generate philosophical drama about a philosopher that is true to his or her core ideas but is also alive and engaging? A philosopher is famous mainly because of some core texts of which he or she is the author. But philosophy books are notoriously complex and difficult texts. So in dramatizing the life of a particular philosopher, the temptation is to avoid the philosophy and concentrate instead on the more sensational events, if any, in the philosopher’s life. The film “Iris”, for example, is a brilliant piece of film‐making about the novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch. But the film is about Iris Murdoch’s relations with her husband, the literary critic John Bayley, and especially about the tensions in that relationship caused by Iris’s gradual descent into the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s disease. A viewer gets little or no sense that Iris was a famous novelist nor is provided with any clues about her philosophical ideas or ideals.

Drama involves focusing on the events in people’s lives. If the life in question is that of a philosopher, it seems that one way forward is for a dramatist to be interested in how at least some of those events were shaped by the philosopher’s ideas. A convincing interweaving of the life and thought of a philosopher is possible, particularly in the case of philosophers, like Socrates and Wittgenstein, who lived their philosophy in a profound way. So I have written plays about both Socrates and Wittgenstein. I have also written a play about the relationship between the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. These two also manifested their philosophical views in their lives, though it is arguable that Heidegger spent considerable time and energy denying this. In the course of the post‐war defence of his actions during the Nazi era in Germany, he suggested that philosophy, or at least his philosophy, should be separated from a philosopher’s life. In the play this attitude is contrasted with that of Hannah Arendt whose philosophy was undeniably shaped by her experiences during that same period of history and clearly acknowledged by her as such.

While my play about Heidegger and Arendt is yet to be staged, my play about Wittgenstein, “Wittgenstein — The Crooked Roads”, had its world premiére and subsequent performances in April-May 2011 at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London. At present I am engaged in the pre‐production planning for the world premiére and subsequent performances of my play about Socrates, “Socrates and his Clouds”, at the Jermyn Street Theatre in central London, 3rd June – 22nd June 2013. So, as an example of how I go about writing a “theatre of thought” or “theatre of thinkers” drama, let me say something about this play, in particular something about its inspiration, ideas and form.

Socrates is a central figure in the history of Western philosophy and thereby an iconic figure in Western civilization. While there is not even one piece of philosophical writing published under his own name, he appears to have been such a memorable and successful teacher of philosophy that he was written about by contemporaries such as Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes, and, some centuries later, he is a central figure in Diogenes Laertius’s “Lives and Opinions of the Philosophers”. What draws authors to Socrates is the single‐minded intensity, integrity and dialectical force of his enquiry into the nature of the virtues, the ideals of education, the best way to organize a society and above all the best way for an individual to live his or her own life. He is the philosophers’ philosopher as well as the ordinary person’s, or ordinary educated person’s, ideal of a philosopher. He is the initial paradigm in Western culture of what a philosopher should be like.

But there have been many plays written about Socrates, almost all of them concentrating on his trial and conviction on the twin charges of corrupting the youth and of impiety or belittling the traditional religion, and so in turn on his subsequent death sentence and execution by poisoning. So I decided to avoid going down that well‐trodden path. This led me to look at Aristophanes’ famous debunking of Socrates in his play “Clouds”. This is a powerful piece of what has subsequently come to be called “Old Comedy” or “Comedy of Ideas”. Indeed this form of serious farce was invented by Aristophanes. Some critics have suggested that his depiction in the “Clouds” of Socrates as a sophistic charlatan and dithering buffoon seriously undermined Socrates’ defence in his trial before the democratic court of 501 male citizens in 399 b.c. I decided to give a different account of Socrates as teacher of philosophy but at the same time not to neglect the wit and fun of serious comedy. So “Socrates and his Clouds” is my attempt to revive “Old Comedy” or “Comedy of Ideas” with, of course, as the title implies, much homage to the master himself, Aristophanes. But, among other things, I substitute someone more like the witty, wry and wise Socrates of Plato’s dialogues for the buffoon of Aristophanes. I depict Socrates as aged 70, just before he is indicted for his crimes of corrupting the youth and impiety but fully conscious of the fact that his enemies are closing in on him. I borrow some of the characters from Aristophanes’ “Clouds” and some of the plot. But the text is otherwise completely new and original. I turn the play into a serious‐comedy about the ever‐fraught father‐son relationship, the nature of education, the place of religion in a society, the role of reason, and the perennial problem about how one should live one’s life.

The theatre company producing the play is a Greek one so that, whether intentionally or not, the production is bound to be imbued with an appropriately Greek flavour. Perhaps I should describe the company as Anglo‐Greek as most of those involved in it are young Greeks or Cypriots now living in London. This Anglo‐Greek company, called The Meddlers Theatre Company, is led by Melina Theocharidou. She is a Cypriot Greek who studied for an arts degree in Nicosia, then studied drama at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London), King’s College London, the Athinais Theatre in Athens and, as a summer intern, at the Lincoln Center Theater Directors’ Lab in New York (where she and fellow interns work‐shopped “Socrates and his Clouds” in 2012). The designer of the set and costumes is in the hands of Katerina Angelopoulou, daughter of the late great Greek film director, Theo Angelopoulos, on whose last films she worked. She is also an award‐winning theatre designer in her own right. As there is in the play a singing and dancing Greek Chorus of street buskers who might also be, it seems, The Fates, so there are music directors. These are also Greek — Olivios Karaolides (composition) and Constantine Andronikou (singing).

That the production will have a pronounced Greek flavour seems to me to be timely and apt. Over the last year and a half Greece has being endlessly criticized and belittled by the world’s press. Through its focus on Socrates, I hope that this Greek production will remind us of the fact that, since the golden age of Athenian civilization, Greece has been the source of so many of the great aspects of our culture.

The theatre where the production will be staged is the Jermyn Street Theatre in central London, an outfield baseball throw from Piccadilly Circus. It is a small intimate studio theatre, seating c. 75 persons grouped around three sides of the stage area. In short it is very audience friendly. The theatre was named as the Fringe Theatre of the Year 2012 and has an acclaimed artistic director, Antony Biggs, as well as an experienced and dedicated staff.

What I have not yet mentioned is the dispiriting and wearying work of trying to raise sufficient sponsorship for this production. Because sponsorship for drama from the British Arts Council has been decimated, so few theatres now receive support from it, so that theatre rental costs have climbed alarmingly. Fringe theatre in Britain, the home of new writing, has rarely received much commercial sponsorship as commercial sponsors tend to support sporting events or pop concerts which gain wide tv coverage and so provide prime advertising time for them. As the life of an actor is always financially fragile, we would also like to pay our cast basic Equity rates of pay. So if there are any kind souls out there, who love theatre or philosophy, or both, and would love to help sponsor the London production of “Socrates and his Clouds”, please contact me (at I should also make clear that I myself will neither be asking for nor accepting any form of fee, royalty or even expenses.

William Lyons.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Aftermath of War

6 December 2010


The first great age of Western philosophy — the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — occurred in the aftermath of war. I don’t think that this has been sufficiently appreciated. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was not the Athens that saw the foundations of the Parthenon laid, not the Athens of Pericles, not the Athens that transformed the Delian League into an Athenian empire, and not the confident (if not overweening) Athens that allowed itself to become involved in the Peloponnesian War. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was a defeated Athens, an Athens that had witnessed catastrophic escalation and radicalization, had been ravaged by a plague, and was administered by a puppet government installed by the Spartans.

The Peloponnesian War was the World War of classical antiquity. There were many wars in antiquity, and many wars before the Peloponnesian War, but there was never before anything like the Peloponnesian War, when almost all the city-states of Hellas were forced to take sides in a brutal conflict that lasted almost thirty years (and more than fifty years if we count the First Peloponnesian War and the Thirty Years’ Peace). If there had been such things as nation-states in classical antiquity, the Peloponnesian War would have been the great example of a civil war. As it was, the Greeks knew that the Peloponnesian War turned Greek against Greek and father against son.

I have had occasion in other posts to quote some of the famous passages in Thucydides that describe the radicalization and brutalization that occurred as a result of the war, and since only longer extracts can do justice to the topic, I won’t repeat them here. Those of us who lived in the twentieth century know enough about radicalization and brutalization that we have some understanding of what happens to societies when war becomes a way of life. If you’re interested, you can read about the Corcyrean Revolution in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and you can read Thucydides’ descriptions of Athens and Sparta in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective. Better yet, get yourself a copy of The History of the Peloponnesian War and read the whole thing.

What interests me today is the way that this great conflict shaped Western intellectual history. Before the Peloponnesian War Athens in particular and the Greeks in general were already famous for their philosophers and philosophical schools, but we note that this philosophy was largely cosmological and metaphysical. Thales said that the world was made of water, and Democritus said that there were only atoms whirling around in a void. This sort of thought, if carried on today, would be science, but in classical antiquity there was as yet no distinction between science and philosophy. One might even say that the distinction between science and philosophy begins, or at least has its roots, in the intellectual shift that happened during the Peloponnesian War.

The Golden Age of Athens had its philosophers, but it was much more famous for its poets and playwrights, its art and architecture, and its famous statesmen like Pericles. This was a vigorous culture that produced great monuments of building and literature that still astonish us today. It is thrilling even today to read Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and to hear the hero contemptuously tell Hermes, “Tell your master Zeus that I hate and despise him.” Prometheus not only gave us fire, he also gave us the omertà. We Westerners recognize ourselves in this immediately; our rebelliousness is not the least of our Hellenism.

But Hellenism has a long history, and after the Peloponnesian War we do not see this confident, outward-directed energy, or the kind of overflowing vitality that made Greece (Hellas) the wonder of the world. What we do see is domestic comedy, like the New Comedy of Menander, and the emergence of moral philosophy. Socrates is the most important figure here. While Plato’s Socratic dialogues have their share of metaphysics and epistemology, the central concern is moral. The Republic is devoted to an inquiry into justice. The paradigmatic philosophical question for Socrates and Plato was, “Can virtue be taught?”

It is easy to understand, once we see this great age of philosophy in historical context, that the Greeks probably did a lot of soul-searching in the aftermath of the war. One form that this soul-searching took was explicit philosophical inquiry into virtue and justice, as we find in Socrates and Plato. The radicalization and homicidal fury that Thucydides described, while it is all-too-real in the moment, cannot last. Tempers run high in war, but eventually the war ends, tempers cool, even if bitterness remains, and thoughtful men reflect on their deeds and misdeeds. Perhaps they even say to themselves as Nietzsche said, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.”

In several posts I have written about what some historians call the Axial Age, in which the world’s great mythological traditions had their origins and formative years. The Axial Age of Greece was the heroic age, even before the Golden Age of Athens. The formation of axial age mythology was, in a sense, the intellectual background to the Peloponnesian War, and following the ravages of the world, a novel and different kind of intellectual activity emerges. As I have suggested that civilizations undergo a process that we may call axialization once they reach a certain stage of maturity, we can also posit a process of philosophicalization when this mature form of civilization reaps the wind after having sown the whirlwind in mythological enthusiasm.

We find ourselves today in the aftermath of war — the aftermath of the Cold War. The Cold War was a long conflict fought on many fronts, through several proxy wars, between ideological enemies. Despite being a long contest, of the sort from which we do not expect a clear winner to emerge, in fact it was settled decisively in favor of one of the agents to the conflict. All of these things the Cold War has in common with the Peloponnesian War: its length, the many proxy wars fought by allies putatively aligned with one side or the other, the clear ideological difference between traditionalist Sparta and democratic Athens, and the decisive outcome.

We think in the aftermath of the Cold War as the Greeks thought in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, in terms of the structural influences that our civilization brings to bear on us. If we were to produce another Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, it might all be worth it.

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