Doing Well: He Was Never Contented With Too Little (Summer in the Republic 61)

Doing Well: He Was Never Contented With Too Little (Summer in the Republic 61) August 8, 2018

I stood in front of his stone in the English church and read words carved there, as immortal as his crew could make them:

Abounding in all those qualities that constitute a Christian and a gentleman

He fulfilled the various obligations of a son and a brother less as a duty, than as a labor of love

Kind, affectionate, and generous friendship with him was more than a name, it was a tie that he hallowed, a band he never broke.

Possessing the abilities of a seaman in conjunction with the distinguishing characteristics of an officer, he was equally an honor to his country and an ornament to his profession.

This is a man who lived in a community and filled his role. Americans in the last fifty years have so overemphasized marriage and family that we have forgotten friendship and consigned filling one’s role to the memory hole. To be a friend as a labor of love might be recalled, but doing one’s duty lovingly in the place God, nature, and history places us is foreign to us.

Imagine being a man who was not “pals” with his crew, but was their captain. He did his duty and did it honorably. You do not have to imagine it, because here is one and his service, his excellence brought forth honor when he died. This Captain did not settle for victory, though being part of the British navy in this period meant he undoubtedly had his share of victories.

If some fantasty notion of “perfect” can be the enemy of the good, being content with mediocrity, when the good is possible is the foe of philosophy. Nobody can love wisdom who is content to do less that his duty toward wisdom. In Republic (start of Book II), Plato has Socrates about to give up, satisfied with a hollow victor over tyranny. A courageous young man keeps hope alive for something deeper, better, more real:

But on the contrary, the end turned out to be the beginning. With his usual energy, Glaucon objected to “I’hrasymachus’s withdrawal from the contest. He went on to ask: Socrates, do you really want to convince us that justice is preferable to injustice, or will you be content if we only seem to be persuaded?

Socrates admires the courage that Glaucon shows in this passage. He is not the equal of Socrates or Thrasymachus in training or knowledge. He is a student, but one who does his duty with passion. Glaucon is not the equal of Socrates, his friend, or part of his family. Glaucon is the student of Socrates and Plato presents him (often, though not always!) as an ideal student. What does the ideal student do?

Glaucon’s role, at least for this phase of his life, is to learn with energy, sincerity, and courage. A tutor and mentor also learns, but in a way that creates space for the student to drive the conversation forward. The tutor keeps the direction of the conversation pointed (as best he or she can) to the good, truth, beauty. The excellent tutor never loses hope, as Socrates has here, never gives up on learning. Yet in the end, the student drives the discussion. Education needs Glaucon, a student who “fulfilles the various obligations” of his role.

Education cannot be a business, not fundamentally, because it is based on people and the duty of people to seek the good. We have always understood the difference in the military. The Captain did not fight for money or fame. Gold and glory might come, but the Captain was doing his duty. He was no mercenary, but a gentleman. Too much of higher education has become mercenary: the sacred obligation reduced to coin.

Because each student is different, there is no way for a tutor to determine outcomes or be sure just what will be discussed. This is why any religious or secular school that “knows” what the outcome must be is false to education. We are not here to help students answer quiz questions about books or have piles of facts, but to become (God help me!) flourishing human souls.

This is not incompatible with the tutor holding opinions, even holding to an orthodoxy about the truth. We have thought long and hard to see, to develop the best provisional ideas we can. We hold most of them lightly, though a few are, if God wills, the result of an experience of the Divine so deep we cannot doubt it. We have seen the true light and so we know. Yet this is not an experience we can create and so we do not teach it, but from it.

These are truths that I wish I had learned earlier in my life. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. I live them now with my college students, best I can.

Rest in peace Captain Jervoise. We will see you in the morning.


*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37. Part 38. Part 39. Part 40. Part 41. Part 42. Part 43. Part 44. Part 45. Part 45.5. Part 46. Part 47. Part 48. Part 49. Part 50. Part 51. Part 52. Part 52.5. Part 53. Part 54. Part 55. Part 56. Part 57. Part 58. Part 59. Part 60. Part 61.


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