A Quote. Of Liberal Education.

St. John’s College knows, along with many others:

In a half-dozen classrooms they gather then,—here to follow the love-song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander among men and nations,—and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queer world. Nothing new, no time-saving devices,—simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is today laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.

—Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Wings of Atalanta” (1903)


A Passage. A Dialogue. Of Injustice. Of Tyranny.

Socrates: Therefore I was telling the truth when I said that it’s possible for a human being to do what seems good to him in a city without having great power and without doing what he wants.

Polus: Yeah, right, Socrates, as if you wouldn’t accept free rein to do what seemed good to you in the city rather than not, and wouldn’t be envious when you saw someone putting to death anyone that seemed good to him or seizing his property or locking him up.

Socrates: Justly, you mean, or unjustly?

Polus: Whichever way he might do it! Isn’t he someone to envy either way?

Socrates: Watch what you say, Polus.

Polus: Why’s that?

Socrates: Because one shouldn’t envy those who are unenviable or miserable, but pity them.

Polus: What? Is that the condition the people I’m talking about [i.e., tyrants, autocrats] seem to you to be in?

Socrates: How could it be any other way?

Polus: Then whoever puts to death anyone as it seems good to him, and puts him to death justly, seems to you to be miserable and pathetic?

Socrates: Not to me, but not enviable either.

Polus: Weren’t you claiming just now that he is miserable?

Socrates: The one who puts someone to death unjustly is, my comrade, and pathetic on top of it; the one who does so justly is not be envied.

Polus: I’d suppose it’s the one who’s put to death unjustly who’s pathetic and miserable.

Socrates: Less so than the one who puts him to death, Polus, and less so than someone who’s justly put to death.

Polus: How can that be, Socrates?

Socrates: In this way, that the greatest of evils is committing injustice.

Polus: That’s the greatest? Isn’t suffering injustice a greater one?

Socrates: That least of all.

Polus: So you’d rather suffer injustice than commit it?

Socrates: I wouldn’t want to do either one, but if it were necessary either to commit injustice or suffer it, I’d choose to suffer it rather than commit it.

—Plato, Gorgias 468E-469C
Translated by Joe Sachs

A Quote. Of Ignorance. Of Self-Knowing. Of Wisdom.

. . . ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.

I have appeared at any rate, in this little particular thing, to be wiser than this [other person] because what I do not know I do not suppose to know.

—Plato (Socrates), Apology 21d

Hasty Thoughts. Two Tenuously Related Passages. Of Equality. Of Despotism.

Despotism, which is of a very timorous nature, is never more secure of continuance than when it can keep men asunder; and all is influence is commonly exerted for that purpose. No vice of the human heart is so acceptable to it as egotism: a despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to assist him in governing the State; it is enough that they do not aspire to govern it themselves. He stigmatizes as turbulent and unruly spirits those who would combine their exertions to promote the prosperity of the community, and, perverting the natural meaning of words, he applauds as good citizens those who have no sympathy for any but themselves. Thus the vices which despotism engenders are precisely those which equality fosters. These two things mutually and perniciously complete and assist each other. Equality places men side by side, unconnected by any common tie; despotism raises barriers to keep them asunder; the former predisposes them not to consider their fellow-creatures, the latter makes general indifference a sort of public virtue.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America II.2.IV

Equality, an essential element of the democratic society, does the work on individuals that a despot would try to do by many schemes.

Plato suggested that a democracy was the closest form of government to tyranny and that it needed only a few small developments in the State to become one. He deemed an excess of “freedom” to be the cause of a democracy devolving into a tyranny, though the evidence Plato cites describes what might more accurately be termed, by ourselves and by Tocqueville, an excess of “equality”:

The father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom [read: equality], and metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either. . . . And these are not the only evils, I said—there are several lesser ones: In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young. . . . The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other. . . . [A]nd I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at anybody who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty. . . . And above all, I said, and as the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.

—Plato, Republic VIII

Here, although Plato and Tocqueville might agree about the closeness of democracy and tyranny, we see a key difference in their explanations for the connection between these two. Plato sees the devolution into tyranny as dependent upon the people’s over-reaction against authority while they are drunk with the freedoms of excessive equality, whereas Tocqueville sees how equality does the actual work that a tyrant would have to do in order to take power. Put another way, Plato sees despotism arising out of the people’s passion and ignorance, whereas Tocqueville knows that pride and reasonable egotism are to be blamed for giving despotism such an easy foothold.

A Passage. Of Representation. Of Esoterica.

From O’Flaherty’s introduction to the Socratic Memorabilia of Hamann:*

[W]ithin a short time after [the death of Socrates,] this physically repellent Greek was almost universally acknowledged to have possessed the most beautiful soul of all his countrymen. As if to underscore this discrepancy between appearance and reality, Socrates was inclined to cast his teachings in a homely or grotesque form—a form which contrasted strongly with their ultimate meaning. If an appeal to Alcibiades’  testimony [in the Symposium] may again be made, the sayings of Socrates were like the satyr images which might be bought in the statuary shops of Athens, for, although outwardly grotesque, inwardly the satyrs were filled with likenesses of the gods. . . . The advent of a Socrates did not, however, shake the belief of his compatriots that spiritual beauty was of necessity accompanied by physical beauty. They continued to believe, as Hamann says, that beauty and strength of body and mind were “symbols of divine qualities and footprints of divine presence.” Yet the fact of Socrates’ existence and teaching remained as the massive unresolvable flaw in the idea, and no Greek could escape the disturbing paradox which he represented.

When Plato set about to write his account of the life and work of Socrates, he remained true in practice to the Greek ideal of the harmony between internal and external beauty, between reality and appearance, and presented the spiritual beauty of Socrates in a form famous for its consummate artistry. Thus, we are confronted with the paradox that a disciple who would only do honor to his master has in effect endorsed a theory of which his master was a living contradiction. . . .

What if there were a literary form, however, which more closely corresponded to the true nature of Socrates, but which ran counter to the conventional Greek notion of beauty? Such a form need not be the opposite of beautiful, that is, ugly, but its beauty should be of such a nature that it would appear imperfect, fragmentary, even obscure, pointing to that which is necessary for its understanding and completion. Such a form would thus witness to the truth that any reality which is significant for the human spirit always transcends its representations. Its very obscurity would be the emblem of our limited understanding of the deeper realities of life. It would transcend or beckon beyond itself, and would not, like the more rationalistic classical art, with its striving for perfection, balance, and clarity, imply that the subject had been exhausted and that it constituted an appearance which perfectly represented the reality for which it stood. Its beauty would be hidden to a great extent, and would therefore be invisible to the superficial eye, but would nevertheless be real and organically related to its visible aspects, and hence accessible to those who would take the trouble to discover it.

* Hamann, J. G., & O’Flaherty, J. C. (1967). Introduction. Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: a translation and commentary (pp. 10-13). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

A Critique. An Exhortation. Of Derivative Self.

For a man who believes himself to be something, nothing is more shameful than to allow himself to be honored not for his own worth but for his ancestors’ reputation.

—Socrates (Plato, Menexenus)

With “Black History Month” and my students in mind.

A Musing. Of Research. Of the Old and the New.

Often I joke to myself (and sometimes aloud) that the “research” we study has all been said by Plato and Aristotle already. I am tickled whenever I find researchers who are willing to agree that, yes, most of our new conclusions are all very old. I just wish they would go one step further to say that our research does not contribute much new to our understanding of humans and human essence; “research” is all about convincing ourselves again of the things we had been made to forget.