Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Plato and I Have Our Feet in a Brook

Sometimes I get sad about the current university's lack of interest in correcting our culture's gross ignorance of basic facts.  OK, I admit it: it's a lot of the time.  When significant numbers of graduate students state on an entrance test that English colonists first came to North America in music's Classical Period (1750-1800), I think we have a problem.  Thomas Jefferson must have been on the ship from England, pen in hand, ready to start a revolution right after landing.

But we should not wonder at the students' lack of knowledge considering the approach of many of the professors in the humanities.  "Critical thinking," multiculturalism, and political agendas all have positive interest in keeping the traditional facts of western liberal education out of students' heads.  They can't always even keep the facts about their own terms straight.  I've talked with professors, for instance, who think that "multiculturalism" and "melting pot" refer to the same political ideal, when they in fact represent opposite responses to the presence of people of various heritages.  In the middle of the twentieth century, politicians talked about the melting pot in America, in which all these various cultural influences get thrown together, each contributing a little to the mix, but losing their separateness in the process, just as the separate colors would disappear in a melting pot of crayons.  The result was to be that all would simply become mainstream Americans.  Multiculturalism represents a rejection of that policy in favor of everyone preserving his own culture while recognizing, respecting, and celebrating the other distinct cultures in his neighborhood.  But knowing and rehearsing this lesson of American history works against current agendas, so the terms themselves have been thrown into their own melting pot and lost their distinctiveness.

I've also heard many professors talk about using the Socratic method; but virtually every time the method is described, it boils down to using questions in class in order to try to get the students to make the statements the professor wants voiced.  That classroom method is fine, but it's not the Socratic method.  Socrates asked questions in order to take apart what his interlocutors say and to try to convince others that the most important knowledge we could acquire is the knowledge of our utter ignorance.  In the ideal university in my head, every professor has read Plato and knows what Socrates' goal was and has learned the lesson he was trying to teach.  In the actual university of 2011, outside the philosophy department, hearing the phrase "Socratic method" is almost a guarantee that the professor has never read Plato.

I started Plato's Phaedrus yesterday and after a year joyfully stepped again into Plato's world of entertaining philosophy.  The dialog format provides an inviting atmosphere and a helpful rhythm between intense arguments and the simple niceties of conversation.  The settings are always charming (in this one, Socrates and Phaedrus sit with their feet in a brook while talking about a fellow philosopher's ideas), and Socrates is always funny, challenging, annoying, brilliant, puzzling, humble, and ironic by turn.

When I read a Plato dialog, I always take notes the same way.  I note the characters speaking, the setting, the main topic, the successive definitions or answers to the main question, conclusions (which, considering Socrates' main lesson, aren't always there), interesting quotations, and unquestioned assumptions.  In this one, sitting under the tree by the brook, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss eros love.  Because Socrates always challenges unscrutinized definitions, most of Plato's dialogs follow a zigzag path of successive attempts to find the right ideas and the right words for them.  In Phaedrus, the two begin by agreeing that eros is a selfish passion that causes madness and does no good for the beloved.  But then Socrates remembers (or pretends to remember?) that eros is Eros, a god, and as such cannot be evil.  At that point he takes a very interesting sidetrack to discuss madness, the human soul, and reincarnation.

That's where I am right now, so I don't know if they'll reach any conclusions, but the path is fascinating.  I was deeply moved by the first arguments and their descriptions of the impassioned lover who cares for his beloved only for the sensuous pleasure he can get.  The beloved, Socrates says, must be kept ignorant and slavishly devoted in order for the lover to get what he wants, and of course one day the whole passion will suddenly end, and the beloved will be hung out to dry.  Sadly this mad, selfish lover sounds very familiar!  As Socrates explains that eros gets jealous, insists on its own way, and eventually ends, I couldn't help thinking of Paul's famous description of Christian agape love in I Corinthians.  (Sometimes I think Paul surely must have read his Plato.  Between Paul and a professor claiming to use the Socratic method, my money's on Paul.)  Obviously I see Paul's response to the problems of eros as far superior to Socrates' claim that Eros, being good, must necessarily cause a good kind of madness.  "God is love" is the answer to our problems, not "Love is a god."

By the way, since universities apparently aren't teaching it, I thought I'd point out that feudalism is not a twentieth-century western political structure.

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