[This essay by Graham Henderson minutes one of the presentations made as part of 2013 Lagamas’ seminar on ‘Constructed with Intention‘]

Blason | Rebecca Taber
Blason | Rebecca Taber

I have been running poetry organisations (Poet in the City then, The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation now) for 15 years now, initiatives which promote poetry to new audiences by means of events, commissions, poetry in the built environment and education. To my surprise I have increasingly come to regard these non-for-profit vehicles as a civil society or social capital building project, a community which is value-driven and which is supported by hundreds of volunteers. I have also become convinced that the strength of this community lies in its enquiring nature, in its hunt for deeper patterns of meaning. So when I came across a mention of the 20th Century Czech philosopher Jan Patočka and his concept of ‘care for the soul’ and the requirement to put ‘soul in the city’, it struck a chord.

After a brief introduction to Patočka and his philosophical project; I shall then talk briefly about Socrates and his polis, Athens, which provided Patocka with his starting point. This paper then explores Patocka’s central idea of ‘care for the soul’ and his attempts to create a post-modern vision for the polis. Finally, I will share what I think should be some key features of the poetic polis.

Introduction to Patočka

Care for the soul lies at the heart of Patocka’s thought. From Edmund Husserl he drew the idea that rationality was the underlying principle of European civilisation. Not the rationality of the Enlightenment, but the radical self-questioning rationality of Socrates and the Greek city state. That, in turn, drew Patočka to Martin Heidegger, insofar as he put the nature of human beings at the heart of his enquiry, and also because of the way he emphasised the importance of understanding humanity as situated in history. However, arguably Patočka went beyond both these great influencers by arguing that care for the soul consisted of care for the polis, for social beings in a community.

Patočka’s thought was not conducted in an abstract place, but in a Czechoslovakia ravaged by successive Fascist and Communist occupations, during which periods he was not allowed to teach at the university. And, famously, by becoming the most famous signatory of the Charter 77 human rights declaration, Patočka suffered the same fate as his hero Socrates, collapsing and dying after 17 hours of non-stop interrogation by the secret police, at the age of 69. It is largely to Patočka that we owe Vaclav Havel’s famous call for ‘Living in Truth’ and the need for both civility and civil society which informed his dissident thought. However, Patočka goes beyond dissidence to explore the basis for individual, social and political action in a post-modern polis.

Jan Patočka (1971) Photo: Jindřich Přibík
Jan Patočka (1971)
Photo Jindřich Přibík

Socrate in action and the ancient Athenian polis

The Greeks were famously the first European culture to ask not ‘what is the traditional way of doing these things’ but instead to ask ‘what is the optimum way of doing these things’? It is no accident that they gave us the conceptual tools which we still use to analyse our political solutions: democracy, oligarchy, meritocracy, plutocracy, aristocracy and the rest. In the Athenian polis this resulted in an original, temperamental and ultimately disastrous experiment in people power (Demos – Kratia).

Socrates was not a democrat, at least not in the ideological sense. He was a free-thinker, a contrarian, someone who thrived in a city which prized new ideas. He criticized democracy for its mob mentality, and oligarchy for its lack of accountability. His position was more subtle and important than either side in this ideological divide, which pitched Athens and its allies into a long series of wars with Sparta and its client states. The Socratic approach was a combination of constant questioning (and self-questioning), public participation in the polis, and private virtue.


It was the democrat populists who eventually engineered the trial of Socrates and his enforced suicide by drinking Hemlock. He was condemned by his own city as a person who did not honour the gods and who corrupted the minds of youth with questions, and as a Laconophile to boot, a lover of all things Spartan. In a city without official religious creed or ideology his real crime was surely that of continuing to think and speak freely, and at a time of political and military crisis when orthodoxy and unquestioning loyalty to the city, right or wrong, were at a premium.


It is sometimes easy to forget that Socrates, as well as talking endlessly, devoted his energies towards making the polis work. He was a fully engaged citizen. Those who did not participate usefully in Athenian life were labelled idiotai – or laymen – the root of our word idiots. The inhabitant of the polis is not a passive consumer – he is fiercely industrious. He is required to work for the good of the community. This combination of self-reliance and loyalty to the collective, this sense of civic duty, lay at the heart of the Greek miracle, and is what separated civilisation from barbarism for the Greeks.

Private virtue

Of central importance to Socrates was the fact that participation in the polis was also a personal ethical project. By knowing ourselves we can not only care for our own souls, but find a source and a basis for social action. Do not send to find who is responsible, but seek to take responsibility yourself. Perhaps one story says it best. When he was young man, Xenophon was accosted by Socrates in the street. The latter asked him where he could obtain certain domestic goods. He then added ‘And what about a brave and virtuous man’. Democracy was undoubtedly about freedom of thought, but it was also about private virtue and courage. Private virtue, a commitment to truth and to the collective, was necessary for the public good, even if it cost you your life. By his death, Socrates demonstrated that the real guarantor of justice and civic freedom is public virtue, even a willingness to sacrifice yourself, if necessary.


The role of poetry and art in the Greek polis

Aristophanes, in his play, The Frogs, has one of his characters say: ‘Poetry makes people better in their societies’. More generally, the arts were used to provide an education in democracy. Sophocles, in another play, has the hero Ajax say that ‘Ignorant men do not know what they have in their hands until they have flung it away’. The city of Socrates was saturated in both public art and poetry. Life size or larger figurative statuary, often brightly coloured and ornamented, appeared all over the city streets and public spaces of Athens, like a cross between Anthony Gormley’s standing men and the lavish multi-coloured exoticism of Hindu gods. And the statues were of perfect, beautiful, young people, a cult of youth to rival or exceed that of the 1960’s. Ideal human beings were an embodiment of Athenian democratic ambitions. Sculptures in bronze, marble and wood filled the temples, lined the colonnades, the narrow streets and the law courts. Only a fraction of them have survived so we run the risk of underestimating just how much of a packed and ever-expanding site specific art gallery the city must have been, its public spaces crammed with bright and silent stone citizenry, gaudily coloured and with eyes that seemed to follow you as you passed by. And the city was also covered in text: civic decisions, exhortations, rules, dedications, poems, curses and graffiti. Everything important in Athens was recorded and posted on a wall, and the most important were carved in stone, signifying their social, religious, political or commercial relevance. It was a city built on words, celebrating words in public at every turn. Ancient Greeks invested in their public art in a way that we may find it hard to credit. Little surprise perhaps to note that the father of Socrates was a stone mason, and his mother a midwife.

Patočka’s purpose

Patočka’s purpose in revisiting the Greek polis and the Socratic injunction to care for the soul was to find a ground for an active mode of living in the post-modern polis. He knew that any such reinvention of the Socratic approach must be founded in the world of experience (hence Husserl) and be related to real human beings and how they function (or have functioned) in history (hence Heidegger). This history has rendered us rightly suspicious of any ideology which puts the theory of what human being are (or should be) ahead of the messy reality. Socratic self-questioning arguably rejects any positive or objective ground for human knowledge. Patočka accepts problematicity and the approximate and contingent nature of human truths. It is in the constant exploration of problematicity that the search for truth finds its purest expression. Patočka is a post-modern philosopher in denying any simple meanings or grand narrative explanations. But he sees human life as absolutely meaningful, in a non-relativistic way, by viewing humans as situated in communities and historical contexts. It is in our relationship to others and to society as a whole that we can locate our source of human meaning.

Living the Truth

Thus, to Patočka, philosophy is the pursuit of truth and freedom, two ideas that are only meaningful when knowledge is actively questioned. The philosopher should shake things up and challenge all claims to systematic knowledge. Truth and freedom are not abstracts, but a way of living, a mode of being which is situational, but also explicitly ethical. An authentic life is lived in relation to what he called the ‘hardness of reality’. Care for the soul involves resistance against all the degenerative tendencies of life and the world (entropy). It is precisely in this battle that the freedom and possibility of humankind resides. Living in truth, in problematicity, may make us free, but it also imposes on us a colossal burden of responsibility, and may deliver us into pain and insecurity. It does not solve problems so much as present and clarify them. But human beings do have the potential – in certain circumstances – to make a difference, to make of the world a place of truth, beauty and justice.

Avoiding metaphysics

Can we really use terms like ‘the soul’ and ‘living in truth’ without being metaphysical? Patočka believes we can. He defines the soul in the Greek sense as meaning that which characterises human understanding, an analytical capability which creates the possibility of truth. The soul is what helps us to decide, to take our fate in our own hands. We choose the ethical path not because it is eternal or mandated but because our motion towards it represents a heightening of our being. The world is ambivalent and complex and only renders to us a series of perspectives, all of which are tenuous. Caring for the soul occurs via movement, revealing possibilities and laying the basis for choices and actions. Freedom comes from standing at a distance and achieving a fresh perspective (disassociation). Far from referring to ideal models, the Socratic approach is based on the historical experience of human beings in all its messiness and its yearning after meanings.

Avoiding relativism

Care for the soul involves ‘thinking questioningly’ but this does not prevent us from reaching solid solutions or day to day ethical answers. It merely recognises the contingency of these solutions and answers and exposes them to occasional re-examination. Far from being relativist or nihilist, it is a bold attempt to ‘stand solidly in the temper of time’ and to find a consistency in our humanity, grounded in experience.

Activity and movement

In Patočka’s view then, truth is related to activity and movement, to joining in, participating, and testing ourselves in the real world. The enemy of truth is not ignorance, but passivity. Our task is not to search for total solutions or happy endings but to initiate meaning in the world through our own actions. In other words our challenge is to become more fully human by moving perpetually towards the idea of truth and meaning. This also sounds like a good challenge for an artist.

Poetry and the post modern polis

Poetry, if it is good poetry, is authentic. It gives voice to the inner concerns of human beings, brings new perspectives to their considerations, and provides one of their greatest sources of solace. It is the last refuge of human consciousness and conscience under threat, assuming huge importance for instance, under Communism in Eastern Europe. It is also the first rallying cry for humanity resurgent. Many of the banners in Tahrir Square carried extracts of poetry. Poetry is also, at its best, distilled and disciplined language, pushing the boundaries of human understanding. It is literally food for the soul. The city is the greatest and freest of human polities, enabling diversity, creativity and tolerance. But it is still necessary to put soul in the city, to step up and participate, and to undertake the difficult and dangerous path of living in truth. The poetic polis must surely then be based on language, education and individual activism. That is the challenge presented by Socrates, and the cup from which both he and Patocka drank.

Artists and the post-modern polis

Artists have their own important contribution to make in creating the urban spaces, buildings, court rooms and thoroughfares which reflect the values of the polis. Our shopping malls, motorways and suburbs really do damage the functioning of our societies. Our squares, clubs, gathering places and public fairs really do make a direct contribution to them. Artists have a crucial part to play in creating a purpose-built humanist landscape for the polis.

Key features of the poetic polis

Finally, drawing on the thoughts I have presented, I would like to suggest some key features of the poetic polis:

  • A state based on reason and self-questioning. The Socratic challenge is to get to grips with real problems in the real world. It is earthy, practical, argumentative, and situated in the agora of the city. The poetic polis is one based on truth and an active participation in the search for it, and that requires educating the young and teaching them how to think. Education is an unmitigated good, opening the polis up to improvement and possibility.
  • Secondly, the poetic polis must be based on private virtue and participation. It requires individual activism in social and political life and care for others. It is not based on democracy per se, but on public truth, on law applied equally, and on justice administered fairly, not on arbitrary populist prejudice or whim, whipped up by unscrupulous demagogues. It is about balance and constraint. Freedom is constrained by civic duty, by the responsibility to participate, to stand up and speak against the majority when necessary. The polity must be held to a higher standard by the individual citizen, even if it is at the cost of their own life. And power is constrained by language, by questions, by criticism. The precise formulation of constitutional rules and practice is very important of course. But theoretical freedoms are woefully insufficient. Ultimately the only protection of humanity lies in private virtue informing public action, in living a good life and in enabling others to do so. Socrates understood that the Athenian polis was fragile and self-wrought. My suggestion is that this fragility is the characteristic of any properly inclusive polity, which needs to be nurtured, promoted and protected on an almost daily basis by us, its citizens.
  • Living in history and problematicity. It is not utopian, in that it does not recognise any goal or end point. It involves recognising historical contingency (and learning from it), in embracing problematicity, and living in truth. It means constantly moving towards the good, and in growing, not diminishing, what it means to be human.
  • Last, but not least, it involves expressing these values through public and private art, through language and discussion. Wine, food and talk were of vital importance in the functioning of the Athenian polis, and have an equally important part to play in civil society now, and in the functioning of any poetic polis. The sharing of food and talk is surely a basic building block of any civilised polis, at once a great educator, a testing ground for ideas and a spur to activism. So Lagamas artist residency and the ART of Conversation supper series are great pilot schemes for the poetic polis, in terms of both the words and the art which it stimulates. The poetic and artistic symbols we choose to represent the polis and its values matter a great deal. They give representational form to the building blocks of our identity and community and they are potentially protean, versatile and capable of change.


Socrates and Patočka both tested the limits of their own societies to breaking point. Both encouraged the young to think deeply and critically about the meaning of life, society and politics, and to question everything. Acquiescing with a shrug to the way things are is not just lazy, it is inhuman, and lacking in virtue. Their deaths at the hand of their respective states were perhaps predictable but also, in both cases, self-willed and exemplary. The poetic polis requires nothing less.