A One-Act Play/Socratic Tetralog
Donald T. Williams (B.A., Taylor University, MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is Professor of English and Director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. A past president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, he is the author of The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (Broadman, 1994), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls College Press, 1996), and The Disciple’s Prayer (Christian Publications, 1999), as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophia Christi, Christian Scholar’s Review, Christianity and Literature, Christianity Today, etc. His most recent book is Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006).
Author’s Note: I have argued in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls, Ga.: Toccoa Falls College Press, 1996) that reading is a conversation in which the writers of the past and present conduct an ongoing dialog about the Great Questions, a dialog in which the Reader is enabled to participate. I offer the following as an example of what might happen in the kind of dialog (or tetralog, in this case) that can result in the Reader’s mind. Lest it be thought that I have created a Straw Man, I should say that I have actually had contemporary scholars say to me (with a straight face!) many the things that I have put into the mouth of Post Modernicus. If he is a Straw Man, it is because he fulfills T. S. Eliot’s prophecy: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”
Socrates of Athens
Erasmus of Rotterdam Novus Criticus Post Modernicus Three men occupy comfortable chairs in what seems to be the Senior Common Room of a well-endowed university. The first, wearing a threadbare black robe and a skull cap, is meticulously copying passages in Greek and Latin from large codexes into a smaller notebook. The second, clad in a somewhat outdated suit, the thin lapels of which seem to place him in the 1950’s, clenches a pipe between his teeth. He is going over the pages of a book of lyric poetry with a fine-toothed comb, aided by a magnifying glass. The third gentleman wears proudly an almost new suit of clothes recently purchased second hand from a slightly disreputable Emperor. He is, in plain terms, buck naked, but the first two are either too polite–or too absorbed in their own work–to notice. He is slowly dripping acid onto the pages of his book with a medicine dropper. They are joined by a fourth figure: a scruffy-looking geezer in a tunic and short cloak. He has no book, but wears a quizzical expression on his face and tends to stare at people.
Fourth Figure: Gentlemen, I perceive that, each in your own way, you are altogether absorbed in books. What wisdom do you find in them? Does it bring you true happiness?
Second Figure (looking up suddenly): Did you say something?
Third Figure: Your question seems to be rooted in outmoded categories which presuppose the existence of a viable distinction between wisdom and folly.
First Figure: Well, I find it a pertinent question indeed. But I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure?
Fourth Figure: Oh, sorry. You may call me Socrates–Socrates of Athens.
First Figure (rising and bowing low from the waist): A great honor, Master! I am Erasmus of Rotterdam. May I present my colleagues? This is Professor Novus Criticus.
Second Figure (extending his hand): How do you do?
Socrates: How do I do what?
Erasmus (knowingly tapping his head): And this is . . . er . . . Professor Post. Post Modernicus, to be precise.
Socrates (trying to make sense of this): One of the students of one of my students wrote a book called Posterior Analytics . . .
Post Modernicus (shaking his head dismissively): You’re one of those DWEMS, aren’t you?
Socrates (aside to Erasmus): I do not wish to appear rude . . . but what means he by this barbarous term?
Erasmus (rolling his eyes): Dead White European Males. The cause of all the evil in the universe. Welcome to the club.
Socrates (opens his mouth, then pauses as if resisting temptation, and then returns to his original question): But about books: You have all dedicated your lives completely to them. This means you must believe that they–or something they give you access to–is the Greatest Good. Have you found it to be so?
Post Modernicus: The whole concept of a Summum Bonum implies a totalizing, centering discourse whose only effect can be to destroy the freedom of the individual to choose his own values and fashion himself in accordance with his own impulses, defined only by his social environment.
Socrates: Is he serious?
Erasmus: You remember the Sophists?
Post Modernicus (striking a pose as if lecturing): The text in itself is nothing: a series of arbitrary signs, which refer only to other arbitrary signs. But they hang together with just enough of an illusion of structure to cause the unsophisticated to think they are a narrative, a discourse maybe even describing some external reality. But of course they describe nothing, not even the mind of their author at the time of text construction; they constitute a completely self-contained world of their own. But this gives us the opportunity to construct our own discourse, a meta-narrative which can expose the inner sexual politics of the original discourse. Thereby our students can be liberated from the false, hegemonic language of Authority which exists only to advance the interests of the oppressive white, male, bourgeois, Western power structure. They can then enjoy the free play of the mind in the text untrammeled by its falsely privileged status as a repository of some supposed objective “truth” or “meaning.”
Socrates (opens his mouth as if to ask a question but never gets the chance).
Novus Criticus: Now, I really must object to that! I spent my whole career trying to establish that literature is worth studying as literature, not as disguised history or politics or philosophy or biography. We introduced the concept of the Intentional Fallacy to keep people from reading it as autobiography so we could divert attention from the author (whose life is not strictly relevant) to the text where it belongs. We rescued literary study from the false superiority of Science by showing that it gives its own kind of pleasure and knowledge, expanding our sympathies by exposing us to vicarious imaginative experiences of different kinds. And we gave close readings of text after text to substantiate those gains. Now, to have literature reduced to politics and philosophy again, as if we had never even written—it’s almost more than a person can stand!
Post Modernicus (quietly): We learned our way of reading from you, you know.
Novus Criticus (incredulously): You what?
Post Modernicus: You liberated the Text from the tyranny of the Author and made it autonomous. We have to honor you for that. It was really what got the whole process started. You thought the Text could still have a meaning on its own. That was naive; but after all, your discourse was still situated in the false hopes of late modernity.
Socrates (grins impishly and mutters under his breath): This is going to be more fun than I thought!
Novus Criticus: O.K., admittedly the whole concept of meaning is highly problematic. But we still want to maintain a specifically literary value for literary study. If you are really interested in politics, why not study politics?
Post Modernicus: But don’t you see? The problem isn’t just in the relationship of the Author to the Text but in the very nature of language itself. We now know that language is an arbitrary system of signs that are never univocally or simply related to the “signified”; that it is a historical phenomenon situated in particular contexts; that it creates our perceptions, and doesn’t simply express them. It follows that any kind of centering discourse–whether of author or text–is illegitimate. Since we are disabused of the illusory notion that language expresses some kind of universally accessible “truth” or “meaning,” we are able to see it for what it really is: an instrument of power or control. Hence, any criticism that is intellectually respectable and socially responsible inevitably ends in politics.
Novus Criticus: But . . . that seems so limited.
Socrates: Yet you can think of no way to justify a different conclusion?
Novus Criticus: No, I can’t. But this can’t be right. It feels . . . inhumane. And that sentiment has to count for something.
Post Modernicus: It feels uncomfortable to you because it deconstructs the bourgeois power structure that inevitably defines your discourse.
Socrates: I wonder: what power structure defines yours?
Post Modernicus: Uh . . . uh . . .
Socrates: Never mind. I don’t think we have heard from Erasmus yet. Why do you read?
Erasmus: That’s simple: to understand the wisdom of the Ancients, and learn from them. To have contact with great minds that would otherwise be inaccessible through distance in time or space.
Post Modernicus: But they lived in a wholly different world from you, inhabited a wholly different universe of discourse. To think you can just take their thoughts like bricks and plug them into your own intellectual structures without fundamental distortion! You don’t even begin to understand the way in which all truth claims must be radically historicized. That is so naive!
Erasmus: Naive? Historically? I hardly think so. Didn’t Lorenzo Valla expose the Donation of Constantine as a forgery? Didn’t I realize that poenitentiam agere doesn’t mean “do penance?” That In principio erat verbum should have been translated erat sermo?
Post Modernicus: You just don’t even begin to get the point, do you?
Erasmus: Are you saying that poenitentiam agere does mean “do penance?”
Post Modernicus: No! The very idea that either meaning can simplistically be called “correct” is what is simply no longer thinkable.
Socrates: So, you are contending that there is no such thing as an “objective” meaning of a text, external to any individual interpreter, which interpretation must try to approximate as closely as possible?
Post Modernicus: Exactly!
Socrates: On the other hand, if what you have just said is true, you also contend that meaning is an objective reality inherent in the text itself, to which an interpreter must submit.
Post Modernicus: No! That is exactly what I deny.
Socrates: My point exactly. Do you not see that by denying the validity of my deliberate misconstrual of your statement, you deny the validity of your own position? For you attribute to your own discourse precisely all the properties you deny to every other.
Post Modernicus: Come again?
Socrates: For example: when you order one of your modern foods–say, a large pizza with double pepperoni–do you send it back if it comes small with green peppers and anchovies instead?
Post Modernicus: Of course. What kind of question is that?
Erasmus (aside): One you obviously haven’t “digested” yet!
Socrates: In your opinion, ought a philosopher and instructor of youth to live in accordance with his own teachings?
Post Modernicus: That is undeniably so. Hypocrisy is perhaps the only clear and unequivocal evil. But I would add that the whole concept of “accordance” is highly problematic.
Socrates: In your case especially. If you say that meaning and truth are purely subjective phenomena, determined by the social and historical position of the interpreter so that there is no absolute or universal “right” or “wrong,” yet you send back the incorrectly prepared pizza, why then should any of your pupils ever again take seriously any word that proceeds from your mouth?
Post Modernicus: That’s entirely different.
Socrates: Can you explain precisely wherein lies the difference? Your teaching is that language relates only to other language and does not correspond to any objective external reality; but your action is that you expect it to correspond with your pizza.
Post Modernicus (patronizingly): As I have already explained, language is not the repository of some kind of objective “meaning,” but it is an instrument of power. It allows you to do things, to perform illocutionary acts like ordering pizza. And one does expect the waiter to get one’s order right.
Socrates: I’m afraid I do not understand your use of the word “right.”
Post Modernicus: One expects the waiter to be a member of an interpretive community that defines certain parameters of competence in the use of the system of signs that forms its discourse. We can crudely say that the order is “rightly” or “wrongly” interpreted; but these are not simple objective absolutes. Their meaning is relative to the constantly changing dynamics of the community of discourse.
Socrates: I see. But if the waiter spoke English as a second language, would you still expect him to be competent enough to get the order right?
Post Modernicus: This kind of thing has obviously happened.
Socrates: If you wrote the order down, would you still expect it to be filled correctly?
Post Modernicus: Well, they are in fact frequently written down–by the one who takes the order if you phone it in.
Socrates: Fascinating. The number of intermediate steps keeps increasing, yet you would still expect to get the pizza you requested. If the message was read the following day, by a third party, would the reader know what kind of pizza had been ordered–say, as a day-old historical fact?
Post Modernicus: Well yes, but . . .
Socrates: And if a week had passed? A year?
Post Modernicus (reluctantly): Yes, I suppose.
Socrates: And if it were after the death of the one who had ordered the pizza?
Post Modernicus (with irritation): Yes! But it is not the same. Literary interpretation is much more complex.
Socrates: Yet we have already begun to introduce complexities without altering the situation in the least. Suppose that hundreds of years had passed, the language was no longer intelligible except to scholars, and the message had been much more complex than our example. Are not these only differences of degree?
Post Modernicus: No, of kind. A fictional discourse is not the same as a seemingly straightforward specification of a pizza order.
Socrates: Granted, the genre matters. But do not writers have means at their disposal for indicating that they are writing a fictional story rather than a factual account or an order? And would not these cues be part of the message? On the issue of whether the utterance has a meaning capable of objective determination, then, the differences are still only differences of degree, are they not?
Post Modernicus: Let us grant that they are. What then?
Socrates: Then in principle, there is no reason why, given sufficient care, we should not be able to know with moral certainty what was in the mind of the one who composed the message. Is there?
Post Modernicus: Very clever. But the validity of such linear reasoning is one of the things we have learned to question as a tool of the oppressor. And when the complexity reaches a certain critical mass–which happens much more quickly than you seem to realize–how can you ever be sure without being intellectually irresponsible–sure enough to privilege your reading as superior to any other?
Erasmus: I just do it.
Post Modernicus: I beg your pardon?
Erasmus: I just do it. The fact is that human beings do have the capacity to imaginatively enter into the world of another mind–even one as convoluted as yours–and understand it through the miracle of language.
Post Modernicus (incredulously): Miracle?
Erasmus: If you were a modernist, your objection to the concept of miracle would be understandable, if illogical, since language does indeed have a divine origin. But you claim to have outgrown modernism. I wonder if you really have. I myself find the miraculous completely intelligible.
Post Modernicus: You have got to be kidding.
Erasmus: Not at the moment; there is not a single bi-lingual pun in my mind. For look you: everybody communicates successfully all the time–or I should say most of the time. You are doing it right now, even in (and in spite of) your very efforts to deny it. And we used to do it quite well in my day. My contemporary Machiavelli (not one whose thinking I would generally recommend, by the way) put it very nicely: “In the evening I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off the clothes I have worn all day, mud-spotted and dirty, and put on regal and courtly garments. Thus appropriately clothed, I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men, where, being lovingly received, I feed on that food which alone is mine, and which I was born for; for I am not ashamed to ask the reasons for their actions, and they courteously answer me.” Now, I would accept his testimony over yours, for, while he did recommend lying in certain situations, he at least knew what a lie was; and based on my own experience, I believe that he did as he said, and that the Ancients did what he says they did.
Post Modernicus: Haven’t you heard anything I said about the nature of language?
Erasmus: I heard you indeed very well, and understood you well enough also. You say that it does not enable us to know or communicate the truth. But like the Schoolmen you have woven a net of abstract theory in which you are yourself ensnared; for your distracted reasonings about language have nothing to do with the way any human being other than those whose minds are corrupted and unhinged by the Schools actually talks, writes, or reads. For I tell you that language can sometimes actually bring you closer to the truth even than unmediated experience. I wrote that the Scriptures can render Christ “so fully present that you would see less if you gazed upon him with your very eyes.” And this is quite true, as untold numbers of His followers throughout history would be prepared to testify. Yet because false words can blind us, as even your unreal abstractions have blinded you, you would have it that all must be blinded by all words at all times. And this is nothing but sophistry.
Post Modernicus: But you are yourself a walking example of the situatedness of all discourse. You don’t understand the conditions of modern thought, and your friend Socrates started off by misconstruing Novus Criticus’ greeting. You simply can’t jump across culture like that, and we now know that each individual is a cultural and linguistic system unto himself.
Erasmus: Aha! You said he misconstrued it–and so he did. I never said accurate interpretation was always easy–just that it is possible. And if there were no objective meaning to our statements, you could not even point out this misconstrual as evidence for the radical subjectivity of meaning.
Novus Criticus: But wait a minute. It’s like you never even heard of the Intentional Fallacy!
Erasmus: I had not, of course. But now that I have, I recognize its usefulness but also think it is a fallacy to press it too strongly.
Novus Criticus: But once a text has been created, it becomes an artifact with its own independent existence.
Erasmus: Quite right.
Novus Criticus: And it then means what the words mean when interpreted in the total context of their recorded usage and the structures they create.
Erasmus: I fully agree.
Novus Criticus: And our only access to that meaning is through a close reading of the words themselves.
Erasmus: If you include the historical context, I would agree most heartily.
Novus Criticus: And because only the words themselves can tell us this, the Author’s alleged or purported “intention” can be a misleading distraction in that process. People sometimes fail to express the meaning they intended.
Erasmus: I would not even dispute that this is a potential danger. But it remains true that when we applied this process to our example, we knew what kind of pizza Post Modernicus wanted. We knew the kind he intended to get, in other words, and that intention was precisely the meaning of his utterance. Hence, it follows that Authorial Intention is necessarily foundational to a true understanding of the meaning of the text. I do not claim that it necessarily exhausts that meaning, but I do insist that it is necessarily foundational to it.
Socrates: You have reasoned well, my friend.
Post Modernicus: I don’t follow that at all. The only evidence you two have offered for your alleged objective meaning is a bunch of logical slight of hand.
Erasmus (looking concerned): If there is a fallacy in my reasoning, I would gladly have it pointed out.
Novus Criticus (beginning to understand): I think he simply means that you used logic.
Socrates: Well, to clarify, how do you prove your assertions?
Erasmus: I don’t need to. That real communication happens every day is an inescapable fact of human experience which Post Modernicus, with all his sophistication, has been unable to avoid.
Socrates: In other words, you mean it is what we used to call a First Principle–what I believe today’s philosophers call “something properly basic.”
Erasmus: Exactly. We take the existence of an objective meaning of an utterance–which corresponds to a real subjective state that existed in its author and to which the subjective state of the interpreter can arrive, or at least approximate–and which the interpreter can therefore get either right or wrong–as our starting point. There simply is no other way to proceed without giving up our sanity, because to deny this is simultaneously to deny our right to deny it. And the job of the philosopher or literary critic is, by starting from first principles, to build up our ability to receive the Author’s message in its fullness and richness, with precision–not to rip out from under us through his sophistry the very foundations that make such building possible. That is to betray the whole enterprise of good learning and to lead our culture on the short route to madness, irrelevance, barbarism, and chaos.
Post Modernicus (desperately): But didn’t you hear yourself? You just used the word “approximate.” My subjective state can never be known to be identical to anyone else’s. So your precious “objective meaning” is still a complete chimera.
Erasmus: Not at all. Analogy is quite sufficient, as even the Schoolmen recognized, even with their insufferably barbarous Latin. But let me ask you this: Is the semantic cup half empty . . . or half full? Actually, it is frequently almost completely full (as even you would be if you had ever gotten the right pizza). So I do not understand why you insist on concentrating on the twentieth part that is empty to the point that you are unwilling to allow anyone to drink the rich wine that is so abundantly and deliciously there! If you do not like wine, that is your own business–but why then seek work as a wine taster? Go perform honest labor with your hands and bring benefit to your fellow citizens.
Post Modernicus: You make everything sound so simple. If it is all so cut and dried, why bother to read–or teach–at all?
Socrates: Why do you teach?
Post Modernicus: Our role is to problematize the Text so that our students will see past its pretensions of meaning to realize that it unavoidably radically undermines its own purported message.
Novus Criticus: Hmmm . . . Is it possible that you are projecting the conflict in you own mind onto other writers who may not have shared it?
Post Modernicus (looks offended).
Socrates: What then is the end of instruction?
Novus Criticus: To help students understand and appreciate as fully as possible the text that was actually written–not to encourage them to impose their own biases on it.
Post Modernicus (rolls his eyes).
Erasmus: To guide them in the quest for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
Post Modernicus (buries his head in his hands).
Novus Criticus: To teach critical methodology.
Socrates: To ask the right questions.
Erasmus: Yes, all of this: as the servant of the Text and its Author–not their enemy!
Post Modernicus: I find your language highly offensive.
Socrates: If the sandal fits . . .
Novus Criticus (looking up suddenly as if seeing Post Modernicus clearly for the first time): Er . . . excuse me . . . but aren’t you a bit . . . er . . . underdressed?
Post Modernicus (shaking his head sadly): I see that you are not really committed to being part of the academic community. As head of the English Department and chair of the Tenure Committee, I am afraid I must inform you that your contracts will not be renewed. Regrettable–but we simply cannot tolerate such offensive attitudes and the hate speech they promote on our campus.
Socrates, Erasmus, and Novus Criticus (in unison): What!?
Lights go down. When they come back up, Socrates, Erasmus, and Novus Criticus are out in the street, with an ivy-covered brick wall in the background.
Novus Criticus: What the . . . ?
Erasmus (sighs): In my day, I had to contend with the intransigent ignorance of the monks and the empty speculations of the Schoolmen.
Socrates: And I with the Sophists.
Erasmus: But even in their wrongheadedness, they believed that Truth existed, and in their way they loved it. I called them enemies of good letters and sound learning, and so they were. But now: who would ever have thought that I could feel nostalgic for Scotus and Aquinas!
Socrates: The sophists did not love truth, or wisdom. They loved sophistication for its own sake . . . and money.
Novus Criticus: And I’ve been listening rather closely (pardon me—it’s an old habit, but a good one). And Post Modernicus, by his own admission, seems to love only . . . power.
Socrates: In my day, we had a precise, technical word for people like that. We called them Tyrants.
Novus Criticus: So, what do we do now?
Erasmus: At least our books are still in the Library.
Socrates: For now.
Novus Criticus: But the way they’re being taught to read them . . .
Erasmus: Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis! Holy Socrates, pray for us!
Socrates: Why do you call me sanctus? Pius, maybe (though I was accused of the opposite). And I don’t even have a cock to sacrifice. But if I did, what grounds have you for believing that I could alter the will of Zeus?
Erasmus: Never mind. Or, ask me again sometime. I would love to tell you about the Philosophy of Christ.
Novus Criticus: In the meantime, what are we going to do?
Socrates (grinning wickedly): You know, I never even held a professorship. All I did was ask questions. Yet I managed to garner a rather killing reputation for corrupting the youth!
Erasmus (almost doubles over with laughter): Post Modernicus actually means to say that meaning is meaningless! He’s trying to communicate that texts can’t communicate–in a text!
Novus Criticus: You are right. No matter how trendy–and powerful–and entrenched Post Modernicus seems now, his castle really is built on sand. He cannot beat us in the long run. Shall we pop over to the Student Center for a beer? And maybe a little conversation with some students?
Erasmus: A little red wine for me . . .
Socrates (rubbing his hands with glee): Yes, let’s. . . . as long as they don’t serve hemlock!
They link arms and head off stage right. As they disappear, Socrates is heard to say
Socrates: I wonder if Asclepius ever got that chicken . . .