Glen Thurow thinks it important to emphasize that “self-evident truth” isn’t known to all, but is something that all can know. After a discussion with a very capable freshman tonight, I think he’s onto something to which I should pay more attention.
Tonight was the Graduate Mixer, notable for its “free booze.” I skipped out on it completely to talk about Plato with said freshman for 2 or 3 hours. I didn’t even realize it was going on because the discussion about Plato had taken a weird turn. I thought the things I was saying about the Republic were obvious, namely that the criticism of the poets Socrates advances has less to do with him and more to do with his interlocutors. It is the unrelenting desire of Glaucon’s to be a tyrant, and whatever his brother’s desire is (Strauss, The City and Man pg. 99 asserts that Adeimantus is concerned with justice, but doesn’t know what justice is yet) , that ultimately push Socrates into attacking Homer and the gods as currently constituted.
When I mean “obvious,” btw, I mean “it’s impossible to get anything out of the book if the possibility that Socrates doesn’t quite mean what he says is at least contemplated.” I’m not saying that he doesn’t mean everything he says. It’s just that something might be strange about that part, where are all the gods and poets are torn asunder for an imaginary city.
In any case, what motivated the freshman, I think, to argue that Socrates was being literal was a certain sentiment. See if you can trace out what connects these ideas:
- When there are many gods, there are many notions of piety or justice. Therefore, the gods cannot be used as a standard of piety or justice. (This was a misreading of one of the opening arguments of Euthyphro, where Socrates, after pointing out divergences among the gods about these things, pushes another line of reasoning about piety/justice).
- Socrates must mean the criticisms of the gods, because we all know that the older stories about the gods are preposterous and any movement towards rationality would result in the dissolution of those stories.
- Socrates’ having the Truth means that what he holds is truly just and truly pious, as the city and other people have no claim on him.
Dear reader, I need not explain any more.
The deep question is how to get these kids to drop their presuppositions without pushing them into unbelief. The question is crucial because the nature of this sort of belief is wrecking the ability to take books seriously in any way.
Or maybe the question isn’t crucial. Plenty of people are ignorant and life goes on. Stuff gets done, and gets done well, despite ignorance that is far more threatening than this. So what if one can’t read a book well? There are plenty of books I’ve read badly. And if it’s self-evident there’s one God, and that there’s Truth which is more important than immediate political concerns or petty jealousies, and that people being mean to each other is all we have to really fear, well then who am I to say anything? Socrates was put to death because there are mean people, not because there’s a tension between the intellect and getting things done practically which is inherent to all of life. Stupid me! For some reason, I never realized that, when it was on bumper stickers all over the place. You’ve seen them, they pronounce that “Mean People Suck.” All I needed to do was assent to that wisdom.
We need to appeal to piety at UD once more. We need to make it clear that God’s love is only manifest in love for others, and having complete and total respect for their voices and opinions. These books need to be treated as if they were other people speaking to us right now, and as if it would be a disservice to them and all of the past and everyone thoughtful in the present and God Himself if people weren’t striving to read them as best they can.
The freshman is bright and is far better about these issues than I’m letting on. I’m just ranting because one day, this dissertation will be finished, and I wonder if it will have an audience of any sort.