A little learning did not help me, but when forced in graduate school to think hard, my life changed. If the result of our education is only to gain power to do bad, then we have failed to be truly educated. Instead, learning should make character better.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn. It was all there in the Bible, but it was reading Plato in my mid-twenties that got through to me. I had not heard the words before and so heard old truths in new ways that forever changed me.
Socrates begins Republic by traveling to the Piraeus, the port city of Athens. This is steep walk downhill and Socrates journeys with the young Glaucon (whose name means “Bright Eyes”). He gets to the port city and honors the gods, but then is heading back up to his home.
He is going back to the place where he helped create philosophy. He was going to the city of the Acropolis and of beauty. He was fleeing a city of strangers dedicated to money making. Isn’t that splendid for an intellectual?
It was not. He needed to journey back down to the port city, not just because there were people there who needed his help, but because he needed help as well. In Book I of Republic, he crushes a bad man, but does using the sophistry of his opponent. He wants to win, not persuade.
That is a great danger. Intellectual victory that is not based on truth and our best effort to find truth is corrupting even if our conclusions are correct!
So far this lesson for Socrates is not so controversial. Most of us claim to follow the argument where it leads. However, Plato makes a deeper point at the end of Book IV (445c). Socrates has helped his students gain a great height in argument. They do not just see, but feel that justice is better than injustice. Yet Socrates calls them to a further heights to see the forms of evil.This was imprudent at best and wicked at worst.
These young men are making progress, but Socrates distracts them from the Good by refusing to quit when finished. He does not just wish to persuade, to use reason, but to demolish evil. This sounds good until one remembers that toying with bad ideas for no reason is distracting. The yong men in Book V will miss the point and go off on tangents that will take a great deal of time to resolve. It is not obvious that most of them (besides Glaucon) make it.
Once Socrates introduces the forms of evil government, they must pursue the discussion. One cannot retreat from an idea, because that is a failure of intellectual courage. Socrates has no reason, however, to introduce bad ideas that are foreign to the young men. We must answer the questions we have, not the questions that others force on us.
Socrates has made a mistake and it is one that will take him a great deal of time to correct.
Seeing this made me wish, as a student and a teacher, to be true to real questions, but not to use heights gained in reason to pose abstract questions that nobody was having or needed to have. Instead, my focus must remain on what is good, true, and beautiful spending time on other things only when absolutely necessary.
Follow the Logos where He leads. Never confuse this with the idle intellectual curiousity of one more interested in playing mental games, or seeking completion of all possibilities. Follow reason to truth, not to curiousity about the very forms of evil.
God help and forgive me. May I always move downward to help myself and others take the greater, or upward, path.