The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; the word that I have spoken will serve as judge on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment of what to say and what to speak.
Do we have responsibility for our words, our actions, the form we give to our life and the way we live in the world? And, if so, to what or to whom are we responsible? These are not easy questions for us in a world that so values autonomy and individualism. In a very positive sense, we have slowly over time begun to free ourselves from unwitting submission to structures, be they social, governmental or ecclesial, that have tended to dominate and suppress the human spirit. Yet, even as that began, for example in France, personal liberty was not seen as unqualified. It was to be balanced by equality and fraternity. The search for personal autonomy was always to be balanced by responsibility toward and for others.
In truth, however, living “in balance” is extremely difficult for us. In these struggling, and perhaps terminal, days of the American experiment in “self-governance,” we see how far the “self” has come to dominate our consciousness and concern. As the individual increasingly becomes the measure of all, any sense of responsibility outside of ourselves, and so of judgment, becomes foreign to us. For the most part, the image of God as judge is untenable for us. We, probably quite correctly, realize that human institutions and structures have for far too often used such an image as a means of power and control over others. As Jesus makes clear in today’s gospel, “I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world.” (Jn 12:47)
Though God is not a judge, however, does not mean that we are not judged. Jesus says that it is the truth of his word that will judge us. Thus, it must be that it is to the word that we are responsible. It is because Jesus speaks the truth that his word judges us; so, it is to the truth, to reality that we are responsible.
We currently live with a symptom of an extreme individualism that ceases to be grounded in responsibility toward the reality outside of our own interpretation of it. When we fail to realize that we have a responsibility to a reality of self, or God, or life, or world that is beyond our own capacity to comprehend and contain it, we cease to understand the difference between the real and and our own imaginations. We begin to confuse our own ideas and thoughts and beliefs for the truth, and so can speak of “alternative facts.”
It is not easy to balance the value and appreciation of the view and opinion of each individual with the truth that is beyond the view or perspective of any of us. This is true, at least in part, because we always tend toward a pride and arrogance that sees our own perspective as ultimate. For millennia societies were ordered by suppressing the perspectives of the individual in favor of that of the powerful. This structure was supported by attributing God-like qualities to the ruler, be it the divine right of kings or its ecclesial variant in infallibility. In such a system, the lines of accountability and responsibility were clear. Each subject is responsible to the leader or leaders of the state or the church. Judgment, in such cases, lay in the hands of the powerful.
Yet, even as we have come to realize that each and every one of us is a mere mortal, we remain responsible to the word, to reality. How does reality judge us and what does it mean to live responsibly? Although we crave certainty, if we are honest with ourselves we realize that our whole life is really essentially “experimental.” As Adrian van Kaam says, we are formed by trial and error. To live well is not to live timidly, to avoid decisions for fear of making mistakes. And it is not to live arrogantly, closing off any aspect of reality that contradicts our choices and actions. it is to live and to act always in reference to the truth of our own personal abilities and limits and to the reality of the world around us. it is to live, to a certain degree, provisionally, what the spiritual tradition calls humbly. It is to be responsible for ourselves, as our self has been given to us, and to others in their givenness. When we fail to do this, deliberately or through our own limits and weakness, life and reality will judge us. Our actions have consequences. If we face the world humbly and openly, those results of our failures will confront us, will judge us. That judgment, however, can be seen as a way of greater learning about the truth of who we are and of what the world is. It can be a source of reformation and transformation and enable us to turn more authentically toward living out the truth of who we are and whom we are called to be for the world.
One way of understanding how we are to live and be responsible toward self and world is the call we have and are “to care.” It is to care for ourselves and for all around us. In this sense we can realize that we shall be judged by how we have cared or not, by how much we have taken care of the life given to us and of the world and those in it whom we encounter. The industrialized world, which has lived for a very long time without being mindful of caring for the earth, now finds itself in a moment of judgment. Yet, even as the reality of our suffering planet judges us, we, in large part, arrogantly insist on carelessly doing what we want, of seeking our own gain instead of caring for. We all do this in so many ways. Often as our bodies ache, or our minds or spirits weaken, we keep pushing in order to accomplish our own project or agenda instead of caring for the body, mind, and spirit that has been given us.
It is often said that insanity consists in repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result. In this sense, what is called “insanity,” an insanity we all share, consists of refusing to recognize the judgment of reality upon us. We insist on our way, even when it is clear that our way is mistaken or harmful. Judgment is not something that occurs only after death. Because we are inherently connected to all that is, because we are truly one with each other and not separate and autonomous, the world will show us, unless we live entirely enclosed and in denial, whether or not our speech and our action have been caring. When life, the world, reality tell us that it has not, then we must learn from our error and try again in a new way. This is living responsibly, which is really living responsively. The call to love is not complicated, even though it is not easy to live out. It is from moment to moment to attempt in our own limited way but with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength to care, and when we fail to repent and try again.
A crucial feature, then, of Socratic parrrhêsia is that the risk of death, the risk that (he had said) prevented him from playing a political role is also at the very heart of his own enterprise: one should remain at one’s appointed task “and risk danger, taking nothing into account, neither death nor anything else, aside from what is shameful.” Foucault, who defines parrhêsia as “the courage of truth . . . the courage of speaking truly,” describes Socrates as a soldier who remains always at his post, defending himself and his fellow citizens.
The importance of parrhêsia, then, is the first central feature of Socrates’ mission. But parrhêsia has a specific purpose, and that purpose constitutes the mission’s second feature. That purpose, Foucault claims, is to attend to his fellow citizens like a father or an older brother in order to show them that what is important is not money or reputation but the care of themselves—not a concern for the world but for wisdom, truth, and for their own soul. Socrates’ purpose is to make people care for themselves. And Foucault defines such care as the use of one’s reason in order to find out who one is and how one can be best.
Alexander Nehamas, The Art of Living, pp. 165-6