Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Lesson from 7th Period

One of the three courses that I am teaching this year is a senior-level "Introduction to Philosophy." We began the semester by reading a short essay by philosopher/theologian/mystic Simone Weil entitled "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God." This was followed by several days discussing the concept of Justice, using Book I of Plato's Republic (the dialogue between Thrasymachus and Socrates) as our point of departure. This last week, we spent four days reading and discussing Plato's Euthyphro in class.

Reading the Euthyphro has spurred me to read several other Platonic dialogues. The one I'm currently reading, the Phaedo, provides a fascinating treatment on the nature of the soul and the afterlife.

In a week marked with rancorous debate concerning President Obama's address to students and the furor surrounding his speech on healthcare, two points raised in the Phaedo seem worthy of mention.

In the heat of the debate surrounding the nature of the soul, a serious blow is believed to have been dealt to Socrates' position. Those who witnessed the exchange where Cebes appears to demolish Socrates' argument are left with "an unpleasant feeling at hearing" what was said. Socrates, however, did not take to the streets (he was, at this point, in prison) nor did he launch a smear campaign against his opponent. Listen, then, to how own observer describes Socrates' response:

Often...as I have admired Socrates, I never admired him more than at that moment. That he should be able to answer was nothing, but what astonished me was, first, the gentle and pleasant and approving manner in which he regarded the words of the young men, and then his quick sense of the wound which had been inflicted by the argument, and his ready application of the healing art. He might be compared to a general rallying his defeated and broken army, urging them to follow him and return to the field of argument.
Socrates does not lambast his questioners, nor does he shrilly decry them for questioning his argument. He regards them with patient kindness and, fully aware of the seriousness of their counter-argument, he re-enters the discussion.

Compare this with the manner in which discussions are being held today. It seems rather commonplace to employ label-and-dismiss tactics against opponents. Senator Kennedy has been labeled an "abortionist" who should have been denied a Catholic funeral; President Bush has been called a "traitor" and should face war crimes. No effort, it seems, is made to re-engage in civil discourse, no attempt is made to "return to the field of argument" as disagreeing parties seek together the truth of the matter.

Second, I was captivated by the following lines of the dialogue:

Let us take care that we avoid a danger...The danger of becoming misologists...which is one of the very worst things that can happen to us. For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world.

And a little later on:

For the partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his assertion.
I can only imagine that Socrates would have nodded his head knowingly, then, in response to this week's outburst by Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) who shouted out "You Lie!" in the midst of the President's speech.

I'm not interested in debating healthcare reform or its subtleties and nuances. Indeed, it matters little to me whether Wilson is a Republican or Democrat. What I am interested in is that this elected official appears to have neither the courtesy nor restraint that should be expected of those who are engaged in crafting and forming policies that will affect an entire country. In our classrooms we try to teach our students to listen carefully and disagree respectfully after analyzing and thinking-through an opponent's position. If we were to follow Mr. Wilson, however, there'd be little need for any such painstaking work: students could simply write "Shakespeare's Wrong!" or "Pope Leo XIII Lies!" or "Lincoln is Dumb!" on their papers and expect to have an audience.

Not enough people read this blog for me to worry that my insinuating that Representative Wilson is a misologist will cause a stink. To be fair, I think both sides of partisan politics are misologists who are interested only in scoring points with their constituencies rather than trying to work together to help people.

Plato wanted to kick the poets out of the Republic, for he feared that their verses would provide poor models for the people to imitate. What then would Plato do today, when it is our leadership who is setting such poor examples for the people to follow?


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