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.

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Ever heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates? Morons.

This post is to inform you that if you think you know what Plato and Aristotle are about, you’re probably wrong. Unless, of course, you’ve studied them, in which case you should probably teach me. Hopefully I can follow this up with a short explanation of why studying them is fruitful. The caveat here is that I have read several of Plato’s dialogues once each and only portions of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Metaphysics, and Nicomachean Ethics. So I am drawing from a general sense of things and not an expert knowledge.

So let’s see what the general impression of both of these fine gentlemen is (or at least what I had been taught about them)

Plato:

  • Forms and Ideals (He has an ideal chair of which all other chairs are an imitation)
  • The Cave (we only perceive shadows of reality)
  • Goes from the general to the particular (relates to the Forms)
  • Our senses cannot be trusted
  • BUT his redeeming quality is that he’s monotheistic

Aristotle:

  • Particular to general (Opposed to Plato. These guys are at war)
  • The virtuous thing is the mean (so being extreme is always bad)
  • Trusts his senses/observes (once again: opposed to Plato!)
  • His idea of God is ???

Okay, I’m sure I left some things out, but I think that is the major stuff.

Much of this is at least semi-truthful, but still these general understandings are not perhaps representative of either thinker.

To begin with Plato, I think we must begin by trying to understand what he’s trying to do. Our ideas of Philosophy probably get in the way here. We want to be able to quickly and easily summarize a philosopher’s ideas about the Entire World and Everything That Is and How the World Really Works. Plato does seem to have a fairly comprehensive “world view” that he works out in his dialogues, but we must remember that, more than anything, he is an ethical philosopher. He writes about the good life, and what is justice and topics of this nature. True, he also writes about Knowledge (a lot actually), which seems more esoteric, but one must understand how his ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are all tied up together (which is actually one of the things that makes him of particular interest to the Christian reader. But we’ll get to that later).

Thus, if you read Plato talking about the Forms and think about an Ideal Chair, you’re missing the point. The Forms most of all are things like Truth, Justice, Equality, essentially all the things we seem to have innate understanding/recollection of. I’m not sure if there are other Forms for him or not, but if there are these take a backseat to the much bigger issues.

So, when we look at the Cave and at his apparent distrust of the senses, we need to know what we’re looking at. Plato believed in the immortality of the soul. And it seemed to him that all the truly good things we experience are most of all related to the soul more than to the body (knowledge, truth, and beauty all seem to relate primarily to our souls. And I think we can agree with this). As such, it’s fairly irrelevant to him what exactly we believe about our senses in general, but we can pretty safely say that they lie to us when it comes to what’s really good for us. Bodily pleasure tells your senses that it is your ultimate good, but, hopefully, your soul knows better, that there’s more to life than that. This is the way our senses lie to us, at least primarily, and I think it would be hard to argue with that. That actually seems to jive pretty well with Christian belief. The things that are most Real are not necessarily the things most present to our senses.

When we get to Aristotle, we start comparing the two. Here we get into the general to particular vs. particular to general. Now, I guess this is true more or less, but I’m not sure it’s always put in the right framework. It does not follow from this that Aristotle is a much better scientist than Plato (although I guess you could suggest that he tried, which Plato did not bother with). Actually, both of them make bad scientists because of what they have in common. Both do philosophy based on general human understanding and the way that people speak about things. This can be a very enlightening approach, but it is not well adapted to science, because science depends on precision, and neither uses language which is precise in that way. (This is not to say that their language choices aren’t careful and deliberate, but both generalize and move from idea to idea in a way that lacks scientific preciseness. Aristotle codified much of this generalization in such a way that probably actually stultified scientific development for some time to come. You cannot do good science based primarily on language)

Further, the particular to general or vice versa argument is not an argument about the senses. It has much more to do with the Problem of Universals and whether you can locate something like Justice or Beauty or whatever you like outside of the particulars it appears in or not. This is a fascinating discussion and incredibly difficult to resolve and so should be treated with respect and care, at least in my opinion.

And very quickly, when Aristotle writes about the “mean,” he is not writing about doing a calculation of what the exact middle response to any situation would be. It’s much more like observing what is fitting and appropriate to a given situation. And he acknowledges that something can be a mean and an extreme at the same time depending on what we are considering it to be a mean in regard to. Hopefully I can write more on this later, but the general idea here is that it’s nothing so silly as calculating how not to be extreme.

That’s all I have for now, but hopefully I can find more time to dig into this further, because I think we should do these brilliant minds the justice of understanding them properly.

Moral Philosophy: Learning to Speak

The following is a bit obscure and pretentious, but it contains seeds of important ideas. Insofar as it was entirely fueled by Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey, I dedicate it Charles Hartman. It is mainly because it may be of interest to him that I post it. I was seeking to explain the significance of the Moral Philosophy course which is the core of the New College curriculum, and I got sucked into a much bigger discussion I think.

Moral Philosophy has the ultimate goal of greater knowledge of God: who He is, how He acts, and especially how He is revealed and known to us. It is distinct from theology, then, mainly in the specific means and approach used. Moral Philosophy concerns itself with God in the world, and man’s understanding of Him, hence it is something of a branch or result of theology and not theology proper.

Nor is Moral Philosophy merely concerned with the world, rather it deals chiefly with memory. Man doesn’t give birth to himself, so we must be able to answer the question of how we found ourselves at this specific point in history and where we are going. This is not history as taught in schools, because it really has little to do with dates or with interesting stories, but true history made up of once-for-all events. These landmarks in time tend to be solidified with a transformation of speech. Changes in the world are accompanied by new ideas and expressions of reality (sometimes the speech precedes the event, sometimes it follows, and sometimes the speech and event are indistinguishable).

It is necessary then to explore the words of previous times. Not merely beautiful ones, but the ones which contributed to drawing humanity forward in time (either for good or ill). It is a study not just of what has been thought, but of what sorts of thoughts and ideas change mankind. True progress consists in passing on what has been gained and understood through generations; if ideas are not communicated, they are good for nothing because they will not continue. Thus, it is the continuation of ideas, the expressions and outpourings of man’s words that propel him through history.

The works that must be studied, then, are those which are truly significant. Not those that are significant statistically, that were read by many people per se, but those that either brought about cultural shifts or responded to and institutionalized such shifts. Man only has history in so much as he has a story; everything else is lost in obscurity.
To gain the knowledge of this story, this cumulative succession of knowledge and belief, we must begin our analysis of works of the past by understanding what is being said in those works. It may go without saying, but the discipline must begin with basic, almost grammatical comprehension of its materials. The reader must ask, “What is the author saying?” and just as importantly, “What isn’t the author saying?”

The question of what is being said is naturally entwined with how and why. Where was the author standing in history that he was compelled to write as he did? How did this affect the story of mankind? Why did he choose the medium that he did? Did he believe himself to building on the works of others or breaking from the past? These and many other similar questions are asked for the sake of understanding the work both for its time and for ours. We find the world we inhabit mentally has grown out of a vast sea of various ideas, some good, some bad, all complexly interwoven such that we frequently do not know where one ends and another starts. Without some exploration of this past, how can we know where we have arrived today?

We follow this by comparing what has been said with what ought to be said. What did an author understand about his time and about eternity, and what did he fail to understand? This critique is not for the sake of claiming higher ground for ourselves; hindsight is not 20/20, but as thoughts work themselves throughout history, we are given a greater context for understanding them. All words must be evaluated as to how they reveal Truth. As our understanding of works grows by comparison to the Truth of Scripture, so our understanding of Truth frequently expands as well, as we learn that various nuances, shades, imitations, and facets of Truth have manifested themselves in complex and diverse manners throughout time. This comparison of works and words one to another as well as to divinely revealed Truth is absolutely vital to the discipline. Without such labor and participation, we are no more than parrots, repeating what has been said before.

It is fitting that this conversation of the dead should be accomplished by the conversation of the living. Because Moral Philosophy is the story of mankind, the story must be told. Thinking thoughts does not make us members of this unending conversation—speaking does. Unheard words will not allow us to shape the times. Not to speak our understanding would be as bad as merely interpreting works without comparison and synthesis; it would be fruitless.
So the task or discipline of Moral Philosophy is best carried out in living communities where we learn not only what has been said or what we ought to say, but also how we ought to say what must be said. When learning together, the question must be asked, “What kind of conversation can transform us? How can we become more than we were before?” If we do not become teachers, we become irrelevant and we will be lost to time. If we do not speak to one another, we cannot really move forward in time. Our discoveries will go to the grave with us.

Rhetoric is considered the capstone of a classical education; it is worthy of note that the final product is not merely thinking, but it implies speaking, and affective speaking as well (by this I mean speech which is more than merely rational, which “tugs at the heart strings,” if you will), compiling knowledge effectively to engage and persuade, in fact, to transform others. This step is the step that Moral Philosophy must take if it is to be more than a quaint, erudite intellectual exercise.

We can only reach our future by speaking it into existence.# This does not imply that all speech is effective towards such an end. Much of what we speak is trivial, unimportant, and will not be remembered, but here the study of the words of the past comes to our aid. By examining these words, we begin to learn a little of how to speak with finality and power. Most who pursue this discipline will not write books to be remembered throughout time, perhaps most will not write at all, but as we speak to one another, we begin to make memorials, landmarks, that will perhaps enable another generation to know what must be said and to pull us all forward in time, and give us all a future, and a history.