In their co-written book What is Philosophy? (1991) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari dedicate a chapter to ‘conceptual personae’ as living embodiments or illustrations of philosophers’ key ideas. Both authors draw similarities between the fictitious characters of novels and the concepts running through philosophical works. The most famous character in the history of Philosophy must be Socrates although the Athenian gadfly appears like nothing more than the mouth-piece of an invisible Plato, both eerily removed from the realm of reality as the silent author gives voice to a purely philosophical Socrates. But would the real flesh and bones Socrates have agreed with the dangerous ideas put into his mouth by the Plato of The Republic and The Laws? The historical Socrates seems to have been used as a mask by a disciple gradually taking more and more his distance from his early master but still resolved to pursue his own intellectual journey under the guise of a Socratic thinker. Didn’t the great philosopher, self-confessed enemy of art and literature, create, against his will, the most enduring philosophical persona of all times?
By contrast, the first master of modern Philosophy owes his posterity to his radically new method of writing and his way of portraying himself as the philosophical hero of his meditations. His Discourse on the Method (1637) turns its back on dry scholasticism and paves the way to the introspective literary genre of the eighteenth-century. Descartes is the Cogito and despite his personal motto, ‘larvatus prodeo’, recommending to proceed cautiously behind a mask, the Rationalist of Amsterdam, does not need any dramatis personae. Instead, he gives us free access to his most inner thoughts and patiently persuades us of the primacy of reason over our senses. Yet, the rigorous thinker is the first to confide to his young correspondent, Princess Elizabeth, that although his speculations give him the greatest pleasure, they are never conducted for more than a few hours a day ‘as it would be very harmful to occupy one’s intellect frequently in meditating … since this would impede it from devoting itself to the functions of the imagination and the senses.’ Reading such a candid confession, one can only regret that the real Socrates is forever inaccessible to us, beyond the stereotyped persona represented in Plato’s Dialogues.