Why read Plato (and maybe Aristotle)

I posted yesterday on some misconceptions about Plato and Aristotle. Here’s a brief explanation of why I think they matter.

As a student of the Liberal Arts I find myself having to justify my college choices a lot. If not to others, at least I have to justify them to myself. What am I even doing?

There’s a lot of rhetoric surrounding Classical/Liberal Arts education, some of it good, some of it bad. I’m actually unpersuaded by it more often than not. Your college education will not teach you how to think. If you can’t think by the time you’re in college, I don’t actually know how much hope there is for you. And honestly, I’ve seen Liberal Arts graduates who are every bit as much parrots as their counterparts in other fields. The Liberal Arts cannot defend you from being a sycophant or a sluggard. Really. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they probably just want your money.

Yet here I am, about to graduate with a “useless” degree. We can set aside the fact that I plan to study theology after this and so engineering or nursing or something else practical wouldn’t have helped me anyway. There’s still the question of what I have gained.

One thing I’ve gained is Plato. I wish I could claim a thorough understanding of his work, but reading a few dialogues could not possibly make me an expert. And yet I feel like I know the guy.

One of the awesome things about Plato’s dialogues is the way they draw you in. You are listening and responding to a conversation. This comes with its own challenges, of course, but it’s a rewarding experience. You must pay very close attention in order to follow the argument. Some things are unspoken. Some things may even be unfairly assumed. You have to wrestle with the text to find out.

Plato pushes his readers to think things through on a level they probably very rarely reach. Little did I know when I began reading Gorgias that what seemed to begin as a mockery of Rhetoric would actually become a story with a sense of great moral urgency (no, don’t read it looking for drama; you’ll be disappointed. But if you read and engage with it, you may find it has more to hold your interest than you would have thought). Phaedo nearly made me cry. The pursuit of Beauty and Truth is so real for Plato’s Socrates, so important, so vital, it should put us Christians, who claim to love the Truth, to shame.

Plato is a mental workout, but he offers a lot more than this. His chosen topics are perennially relevant and he explores them in a way that few others do. One can, it seems, come alongside Socrates in the pursuit of truth, and while the dialogues are not the final word in understanding, they are an excellent place to begin.

I don’t have as much to say in favor of Aristotle. He’s not as familiar to me nor do most of his writings strike me with the same sense of urgency. But I can say for the Nicomachean Ethics at least that his pursuit of goodness does not seem far from Plato. Here, too, it is possible to glimpse something beyond us and our concerns, a beauty that we long for, that we seem to be made for, which drives us to seek after it. What that thing is, though, Aristotle is not going to tell you.

As a mental exercise, Aristotle has a lot to offer. It’s a different kind of work than reading Plato, but it is definitely work. He demands a close attention to detail and careful thought in order to hear what he is saying.

Maybe these thinkers are too difficult to be worth the struggle. Maybe there are better uses of your mental efforts, but I doubt it. These two can teach you to think thoroughly and carefully, to pursue Truth tirelessly, and maybe even wake up your sense of wonder. If we threw Aquinas in there I think we might actually have an excellent mental training regimen. If you are able to read, dissect, and intelligibly discuss Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, your brain ought to be well equipped to handle any intellectual pursuit with relative ease. Now it is possible that reading somebody like John Calvin will equip you with more practical and easily accessible information for your daily life (yes, I just called John Calvin “practical”), and students should definitely seek out such reading, but Aristotle and Plato, more than most others, can serve as an excellent introduction into the Great Conversation on what it means to be human.