Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why Plato Is Right

The most common conflict in Plato's dialogues is between Socrates and a given sophist, whom, of course, is utterly decimated in the verbal tangle. Sophist as a word has moved from negative to positive in the intervening 23 centuries, as the English word sophisticated attests. But for Socrates the sophist represents all that's evil in the world; the sophist has no standards, no beliefs.

One thing I like about Socrates is that he claims a moral purpose for philosophy (and, by extension, for education itself). Our modern conception of the philosopher is of a man who loves puzzles and is stuck in his own head; our culture finds little value in philosophy (as, apparently, did Plato's). So it's refreshing to see the teleological impetus for Plato's work:
No one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from life, nobody but the lover of learning. It is for this reason . . . that those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions, master them and do not surrender themselves to them. (Phaedo 82B-C)
So education was meant to purify us, to allow us to ascend to a higher moral and spiritual plane. It doesn't always do that today, but it didn't always in Plato's day, either. That's what the conflict between Socrates and the Sophists is all about: They take something holy and make it venal. Plato's attacks on them are akin to Christ's clearing of the Temple.

So what is the modern equivalent of the sophist? First, Plato's definition:
Doesn't the kind of wage-earning that actually earns money, though it claims to deal with people for the sake of virtue, deserve to be called by a different name? . . . I think we've found the sophist. I think that's the name that would be suitable for him . . . It's the hunting of rich, prominent young men. (Sophist 223 A-B)
I see two basic options for our modern-day sophist:

(a) The relativism movement, including the language-destabilizing poststructuralists. This group, after all, continues the work that Heraclitus began, except that moral relativists take his views on the physical world and apply them to the spiritual world. (Plato was not a moral relativist, which is why he can hold Socrates up as better than the people he debates.) Add to this the leftist sanctimony adopted by the Academy elite and the impressive salaries they command, and it's easy to imagine Socrates as a penniless adjunct crushed beneath the wheels of the system. (I smell a film version!) It's not so true anymore, but twenty and maybe even ten years ago, Theory (always capitalized, just like God) had a stranglehold on the Academy, effectively replacing the hegemony it railed against. That sounds like the sophists in Plato's early dialogues, asking for questions but refusing to answer them.

(b) The education-as-big-business trend, wonderfully documented in this article by John H. Summers. I see this attitude in my own students (although, mercifully, less than I expected to), and while I can put some of the blame on the high-school guidance counselors who instruct all but the lowest achievers to go to college, thus upping the number of BAs issued, I also know that my professional existence depends on that huge influx of (possibly undeserving) students, many of whom, perhaps, deserve lower grades than I assign. And so I am culpable in the system I've designated modern sophistry.

I've got plenty of problems with Plato--and you can read about a few of them here--but I'm beginning to appreciate his absolutism and his elitism. Or at least I think a dose of them might cure some of the Academy's problems. His absolutism is arguably mitigated by his insistence on using dialogue to discover those absolutes, but it's there, whereas the academic relativists lack both absolutism and dialogism. His elitism, on the other hand, so disturbing in books like The Republic, could go a long way to solving the crisis of the university, provided we balance the scales with good old-fashioned American egalitarianism.

See, the problem is that we've convinced ourselves that people are created not only equal in the eyes of God but equal in abilities. But that's not true. Some people are smarter than other people, and if we extend the idea of intelligence to include skills (as does Plato, you'll notice), everybody is smarter than everybody. And while I'm not too keen on forcing people into particular roles, I do like the idea of naming all vocations, from mechanic to research scientist, as noble. Some people belong in college; some people don't; some people might a decade from now. Let's stop making a bachelor of arts a requirement for being a barista; let's treat people as they are: We're all human beings, but it doesn't mean we're all capable of the same thing.

Oh my God. I think I'm a conservative.

3 comments:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I've got plenty of problems with Plato--and you can read about a few of them here--but I'm beginning to appreciate his absolutism and his elitism.
Oh my God. I think I'm a conservative.

Now you know the true power of the Dark Side...

And while I'm not too keen on forcing people into particular roles, I do like the idea of naming all vocations, from mechanic to research scientist, as noble. Some people belong in college; some people don't; some people might a decade from now. Let's stop making a bachelor of arts a requirement for being a barista; let's treat people as they are: We're all human beings, but it doesn't mean we're all capable of the same thing.

This, I think, is Plato's best contribution to the problem of inequality, namely making all occupations vital (I won't say noble, because that indicates a separateness that rather defeats the project) to the life of the community. I think Paul picks up its form, if not its content, when he makes his catalog of the "spiritual gifts" in Corinthians and Colossians. (Or was it Ephesians? I get Paul's letters mixed up.) There are in fact things that I can do that my friends cannot do, and vice versa, but because of the common community that claims us, we still stand as friends in the classical sense.

If nothing else, a good solid shot of Platonic absolutism and duty-ethics is great to start college freshmen thinking about the fact that they've naturalized consumerism, thinking it simply "human nature" or "the way people have always been." On that point I agree with Allan Bloom--Republic is one of those books that's just great for teaching. Once one has digested it, some tempering from Augustine and Thomas fill out the glaring gaps, but for the uninitiated, Plato's quiet charm paired with his earth-shattering conclusions are quite a bit of fun for all willing not to take themselves too seriously.

Michial said...

Yes, Paul's writings on the body and the limbs make sense in this context as well. But is there room in 21st-century America for a toe? Everyone is told from birth that they're the head. No one wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus, as my father always says.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I think there is, so long as people are willing to start thinking in terms other than ranking scales. But when everyone involved with everything from schools to corporations to congregations gets ranked from highest to lowest, a toe is inherently worse than an index finger, not appreciated for balance-keeping but denigrated because it's "lower" on the body.