by Christopher Nelson
At an earlier session I spoke about Socrates as a model for imitating heroes, because he shows us how to use the lives of extraordinary people to help us make and remake a life worth living for ourselves. Now I’d like to speak about Socrates as a model for teachers to emulate.
Teachers have chosen a difficult profession, full of internal contradictions. The desire of the teacher to pass on knowledge and wisdom often conflicts with the need of the student to develop convictions for himself or herself. The world expects teachers to be able, somehow, to pour knowledge into the heads of students efficiently and verifiably, but this conflicts, as every good teacher knows, with the ultimate aim of teaching, namely, to inspire students to want to learn for themselves. Teachers are supposed to be models for students to imitate, yet students do not need to imitate model teachers, but model learners. And there are many other such internal contradictions inherent in the teaching profession.
Where I come from, Socrates is something of a local hero, and I have grown to see him as a model for any number of human virtues that I find admirable and extraordinary. In particular, I regard him as a model teacher. He waded right into the contradictions and worked out a path that I believe resolves most of them, and makes him a model-hero for all teachers.
To show you what I mean, I want to begin by discussing Plato’s Meno. This dialogue, probably more than any other of Plato’s writings, demonstrates both the difficulties and the potentialities of teaching and learning. So let me start by reminding you about the course of events in the dialogue.
Ignorance in the Meno
It begins with the character Meno, a general from outside of Athens, abruptly demanding, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue can be taught? Or if not teachable, is it acquired by practice, or if neither, whether men possess it by nature or in some other way?”
Meno goes to the heart of questions we all share: How can we be better men and women? How can we teach the young to be good? What is the right path toward virtue? How do we acquire human excellence?
Socrates appreciates what is at stake in Meno’s question. He tackles it head-on with a response that would confound anyone hoping to hear the truth from a teacher. Socrates says: “How can I say how virtue is acquired when I don’t even know what it is?” Moreover, Socrates says he’s never met anyone who does know. He entreats Meno to help him understand what virtue is. Socrates has turned the question back on Meno, as any good teacher should—but he has also declared his own ignorance about the matter.
Meno makes the attempt, responding confidently in the manner of his prior teachers, repeating their opinions as his own. Yet, under Socrates’s questioning, Meno finds himself disowning the opinions he began with. After two false starts, Meno becomes uncomfortable and tries to divert the conversation away from the question of virtue: he accuses Socrates of being like a torpedo-fish that stings and numbs everyone it touches.
Meno has stopped seeking an answer because he is more concerned with his reputation as a fine speech-maker than he is with the truth. He now wants to shut down the search, so he tries to flummox Socrates with a classic rhetorical device known as the learner’s paradox: If we know the answer to any question, we don’t need to search for it; but if we don’t already know what we are looking for, how will we ever recognize it when we see it?
￼Socrates, however, takes this rhetorical challenge seriously, because he takes learning seriously. He suggests that learning is a kind of recollection that requires an exercise of responsibility on the part of the learner; learning does not occur when a teacher tries to put knowledge into a student. Instead, it is an act of recovery of something already known to the learner but forgotten or not well understood.
Meno does not understand. So Socrates resolves to show him by questioning Meno’s slave about a problem in geometry. He draws a straight line on the ground, and then makes a square that stands on that line. He asks the boy to draw a line that defines the side of a square that is double the area of the first square. The boy says with confidence that the new line would be double the first line—an answer which he soon repudiates when he comes to see he is wrong under Socrates’s further questioning. The boy tries again with the same result. Socrates asks him to start over, just as he did with Meno. The slave, unlike his master, Meno, now says: “Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.”
Socrates turns to Meno and asks whether the boy is not now in a better position than he was before. Before, he thought he knew and answered confidently, though he was wrong. Now, he neither knows nor fancies that he knows and is better off for knowing his ignorance. Meno agrees that the boy is better off now that he wishes to remedy his ignorance. We come to see that the boy would not have been open to learning something new if he had not first been reduced to perplexity. With help, the boy then goes on to solve the problem of the double square and satisfies both himself and Socrates that he has found the solution.
Socrates has shown us that understanding our own ignorance is necessary for learning to take place—especially our ignorance of everyday common things we think we know well. When we look at the familiar and suddenly realize that we do not understand it, when we ask what this familiar thing really is, then we are ready to learn and well along the path to better understanding. In that state we bring a sense of wonder to our search. This wonder comes not from something understood, but from our desire to understand. This is love of learning, and it is born not from understanding, but from ignorance.
Socrates has also shown us the power of discovering what something is NOT, and has helped us see that knowing what something is NOT is much more than knowing nothing; it is a kind of “knowing ignorance,” an “intelligent perplexity” that comes from trying out and discarding false opinions.
We now look at Meno and see that HE is a slave—a slave to his pride, a slave to the opinions of others, unwilling to examine what he clearly does not understand. Meno’s problem is not that he is ignorant but that he has no desire to be free from the shackles of his prideful ignorance.
We look at the slave and see that he is free—free from the false notions he’s been carrying around with him, free from a barrier to learning. This freedom, strangely, comes not from the certainty of knowledge but from the recognition of his ignorance.
My sense of the dialogue is that the way to virtue requires us to recognize our greatest weakness, namely, our own ignorance—something we can only acknowledge with humility. This ignorance is common to all who are less than divine; it is something we share with one another in our common humanity. This path to understanding through ignorance is available to all of us. Few of us are likely to attain great heights of knowledge, but all of us can learn to share the great peaks of desire. It may be that this desire, the love of learning, more than the attainment of understanding, is what binds us to one another.
Freedom in Education
Now, what has the solution to the problem of the double square have to do with our project in education? Just this: the boy who was freed to solve the problem in geometry is the same boy who is now ready to be challenged to seek answers to the persistent questions of human existence. It is surely natural for us humans to want to know more about ourselves and our world, but it is also the case that something big is at stake in our search.
What are the questions that loom largest in human life? How about these:
What am I going to do with my life?
How shall I live my life in a way that will make me whole and happy?
These questions require that you ask the prior questions:
What does it mean to be human?
What kind of world do I live in?
What choices are open to me so that I may take ownership of the life that is mine and mine alone?
￼We are complex creatures—political, social, and solitary beings at different times or in different aspects. We think, weigh evidence and judge. We reflect on the world around us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes simply because we are in awe of Being itself—of the grandeur, the beauty and the mystery of the universe, which prompts us to ask, Why is there something rather than nothing? and Why this particular something?
We have physical bodies, we are made of atoms arranged in molecules, and we have a genetic inheritance. But we also have minds, hearts and souls. We love and are moved. We choose to act, but we often refrain from acting. Why? We require skills to make a living and provide for loved ones. We are members of civic, social, and religious communities and are citizens of some country. What are our duties and responsibilities toward these communities and others? How well do we understand our powers and our limitations? How well do we understand the interconnectedness of things and our relationships with our fellow beings so that we may make our lives richer for ourselves and for others as well?
An education in the arts of freedom like the one demonstrated to us in the Meno lies in the art of asking such questions. These questions surely cannot all be answered over just a few years of high school or college study, but a little help at the start will provide students with the habit of reflection and the confidence to pursue the questions that will make life meaningful—so long as they remain alive to learning.
This is especially where Socrates shows us what it means to be a teacher. It means to demonstrate to students by example what it means to be alive to learning. That means revealing one’s own wonder and ignorance. It means being willing to search out and strive for solutions together with and in front of students, so that they can see how a self-actuated learner acts, and so they can imitate that action. This is what Socrates does with Meno, who in the end is not able to respond to Socrates’s willingness to join with him in the search for the nature of virtue.
Now I would like to turn in a different direction: toward the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. And I do this because in that allegorical tale we discover new complexities to the question: What is education really? What is the best education? What would that tell us about the nature of teaching?
The Republic of Learning
First, a little background on the Republic: if there is a principal question at the root of the many that are explored in this dialogue, it may be “What good is justice? Should we choose to live the just life or the unjust, and why?” Indeed, the dialogue opens with a spirited argument for the good of injustice, that might makes right, and even that one is better off committing all manner of crimes so long as one appears to be good or at least is not caught. Socrates is challenged by the two principal interlocutors, young brothers of Plato himself, to make the strongest case he can for the good of doing justice, for doing good. He knows that these young men are of noble birth and have fertile minds and ambitious souls. So, a lot is at stake: both the health of these two souls and the health of the larger political community.
Of course, the question “What good is justice?” invokes the prior one: “What then IS justice?” To help answer the question, Socrates and his two young helpers set about founding a city in speech that is designed to help us see what justice might look like on a large scale, in order that we might better understand what justice would look like in the human soul. But each of the cities they attempt to construct has defects. They fail to satisfy the real needs of their citizens, or they seem to be incapable of being realized in practice—incapable of being brought into being.
At this point, Socrates makes one of his more memorable claims, and it comes at the dead center of the book: “Unless the philosophers rule as kings, [he says] . . . there will be no rest from ills for the cities, . . . nor I think for humankind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun.” Socrates is pushed to justify his claim, and he proceeds to give an account of the education appropriate to such a philosopher king, a king who is a lover of wisdom.
In the middle of this explanation, Socrates gives us three memorable images we can carry with us: a likeness, a geometric model, and a drama.
￼First, he compares the Good, which is the object of the philosopher’s search, to the Sun which is the source of life, of all that is, but also the illuminator of all the appearances in the world. Socrates cannot seem to say what the Good is, but he can give us a sense of what it is like. It is like the sun insofar as it both illuminates what we can see and know, and it is also like the sun insofar as it brings those very objects into being and is the source of their nourishment. This image is useful but it is also insufficient, I think, because it is pretty static and hard to reach, difficult to understand.
So next, Socrates has us consider a geometric model, intended to help us understand a hierarchy of being along a scale that divides the appearances of things in the Earthly world from a higher reality in a world that can be known by the intellect. He gives us the image of a “divided line,” a line divided into four parts, so that we have a picture of what the ascent to the Good might require of us mortals still in this world below, a sense of the kind of intellectual activity we must engage in, the kind of journey we must take, to move from the realm of the sensible to the intelligible, to go from the world we can see and touch to the one we can only grasp with the intellect.
In the study of mathematics, represented in the third segment of the divided line, we come to understand that the pictures we draw of circles and triangles are just images or representations of the true objects of geometry, which are only accessible by the imagination. Through the image of the divided line, we come to appreciate the need to access a world of intelligible objects in order to better understand what lies behind, and gives order to, the appearances of the visible world. This image too is not quite sufficient because it fails to describe the experience of the learner who begins the difficult ascent to a higher level of understanding.
To help us better understand the difficulty and the pain we can expect to experience in making the ascent from the world of images to the one source of all we can see and know, Socrates then gives us a drama, the one we know as the Allegory of the Cave. A drama is particularly helpful image since it unfolds in time and is populated with people we can recognize.
Socrates asks us to imagine that we are all prisoners in a cave, chained so that all we can see are the shadows cast upon a wall in front of us. We cannot, on our own, turn around and see that these shadows are not real at all, but are mere reflections of objects carried by people behind us who are passing in front of a fire which is the source of the light that casts the shadows. He describes first the pain, then the disbelief, and finally the wonder experienced by a prisoner who is released from his bonds and forced to turn around, look into the light of the fire and see what the image makers have known all along.
But that is not all. This cave has an entrance open to the light of the sun across the whole width of the cave. Socrates now asks us to imagine that the newly released prisoner is dragged up the steep, rocky path and into the light of the sun. At first, he’d be blinded and see less well than before, but then he would get accustomed to the light and see all the other things the world has to show him—the waters and the land and the starry heavens above—until he could make out the sun itself and see what it is like. That man would be happy at his freedom from the shadows below, and would pity those still in the cave. His education would have been literally an education in the art of turning around, seeing better what is already really there, and then of making the arduous journey into the light of Truth.
The shadows are gone at last! The false prophets are now defeated! We come to learn that every image, every opinion expressed by the image makers and spin doctors around us, should be an occasion for us to pull ourselves, and others with us, out of our caves and into the light of the sun. We recognize that this sun is there for everyone in the cave to access. The entrance to the cave is open to all who are below, available to all who are unchained, within sight of all who do this turning around, and accessible to all who are dragged up and into the light of the sun.
If that sun is the Good, the source of all that exists below and the source of understanding as well, then that lucky person who has been dragged out of the cave will return to help his fellow creatures do the same. Why? Because he will have come to know himself well enough to recall his former ignorance and captivity, and to have pity on those still chained below, human beings very much like himself—a natural sympathy for the sufferings of other human beings.
Upon his first return into the cave, our lover of wisdom would be as if blind upon reentering the cave. He wouldn’t be able to see what his former fellow prisoners can so plainly see on the wall of the cave. He’d try to tell them of the things he’d seen in the light of the sun but would fail to persuade them that they are ignorant prisoners of darkness. He’d be seen as a threat to their comfort and would be jeered at or worse until he succeeded in freeing another prisoner and helping that person turn around and suffer the journey into the light: another lover of wisdom (read “philosopher”); another leader of men and women (read “king”); a shaper of a society of fellow truth seekers interested in the common good that belongs to them all—a philosopher king.
After exploring these images, Socrates then constructs the education of the philosopher in its various elements and explores the kinds of governments that arise when the rulers are not philosophers. He closes with a grand overarching myth that attempts to incorporate the whole, reminding us that we have a lot at stake in the choices we make in living our lives. Just as we are meant to see the city-building exercise that occurs in the first nine books of the Republic as an image of the education of the individual soul, so we see the closing myth as an image of the choices available to that soul. We see that it is literally a matter of life or death (or at least a matter of great reward or unimaginable suffering) how we choose to live our lives, and how wise we would be to turn ourselves now to the question of justice so that we might learn to live a life that practices it. The well-regulated soul, one that is turned to the Good, that is whole, well-integrated and balanced, is also, we imagine, the soul best fit to rule our city.
The Republic probably gives us the best account we have of what learning ought to be. The book gives us an opportunity to examine the education we have engaged in, allows us to ask what it would be like to construct a curriculum fit for a philosopher king, and invites us to compare that to the one we are living with at present.
It is also a beautiful book, filled with rich images that help us remember that the difficult search for truth is worth all the effort. It gives us poetic, pictorial, musical, mathematical, and dramatic images, as well as metaphors and myths, to aid us in our search to understand our world and our place in it, unforgettable images that will be remain with us forever.
Like all of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic engages its readers and asks them to become participants in the dialogue that Socrates is having with his friends. It asks us to question the answers given by his interlocutors, to try them out and formulate better ones. It also helps to lead us up out of our own personal caves, encouraging us, and showing us how to find our way to a life that is better than the life we have been living.
The Republic allows us to see how integrated the whole of learning is in relation to the individual soul. It helps explain the importance of the study of mathematics—that it is not just a tool required by investors, bankers, and accountants or specialists in the sciences, engineering, and technology, but is an indispensable aid to philosophy itself, an aid to self-understanding.
More than anything, however, I think it must be in our participation with others in discussing the Republic that we become aware of the republic that is shaping itself around us, the republic of friends around the table who are searching together for answers to the deepest of questions: how ought we to be living our lives? We find ourselves being initiated into the one republic that Socrates and his friends have succeeded in realizing. Where I come from, we call this republic the community of learning.
In the world, we often speak of the ties that “bind” us to a human community as healthy things, often beautiful and reaffirming ties. It is easy to forget the dark side of this image—which is that we can be “tied” and “bound” to a community as to a cave that we fear to leave. We can become yoked to a larger political body by a common interest, a piece of territory, a tribal custom, a shared enemy, or a popular notion—foundational ideas that we cease to question. And questioning these foundations of community can become taboo as the chains tighten about us.
We are fortunate, then, that the world we are living in today shares a growing conviction that the ties that bind us are rooted in human freedom, and the more we exercise the freedom to question our political and cultural institutions the stronger is our bond to that underlying notion of freedom. We need continually to protect the valuable political structures we have developed in order to safeguard our freedoms, but we also need to continually replace those that fail in that task with new institutions that can better guarantee liberty. Modern, freedom-aspiring states provide us with very comfortable and open caves in which to build our lives and shape our communities.
Socrates the Model-Hero
Now I want to return to my claim from the beginning that Socrates is the ideal model-hero for all teachers. What does everything I’ve had to say about the Meno and the Republic tell us about Socrates as a teacher, and why would we want to set him up as a model for us to imitate?
First, from the Republic we learn that the true purpose of education is to release our inner philosopher-king or -queen from our individual caves of ignorance. That is to say, we teach so that our students can become independent thinkers and rulers, governing themselves and managing their own lives and the lives of those entrusted to them.
Second, from the Meno we learn that releasing the inner philosopher-king or -queen requires of teachers two apparently contradictory things. On the one hand, we must be models for our students of the independently inquiring individual, and this makes them dependent on us. On the other hand, we must make them independent of us.
To my mind, Socrates is the perfect model-hero for teachers trying to model inquiry and independence for their students. He shows us that we need to engage their questions, that we need to respectfully and lovingly interrogate them about their questions until they begin to interrogate themselves by themselves, and that we need to join in with them in pursuing the questions that they raise about their own attempts at providing answers.
The last part—joining in with them—has two different aspects, depending on whether you know the answers or not. If you do know the answer, then you should question them toward the answer rather than telling them the answer—as Socrates does with the slave—treating their mistakes as reasonable guesses, but posing further questions to help them see that their guesses are wrong. If you don’t know the answer, you need to use all your experience at pursuing answers to participate in the search—as Socrates does with Meno—asking questions that will challenge all your own guesses as well as all your students’ guesses.
The last situation seems to be quite difficult for many teachers—scary even. To be seen not to know, by the very people who are looking to you for the answer—how can you claim to be a teacher any longer? But this attitude is based on the false notion that a teacher is one who possesses knowledge and pours it into the minds of sponge-like students through their ears. To be sure, this is the notion prominent in the world today, but it is simply mistaken.
Serious teachers do not just convey information effectively, for this would make both them and their students less fully human than they should be. If it were true, the teacher would be a mere conduit of impersonal information, and the student would be an entirely dependent creature.
￼No, serious teachers strive to do away with the need for a teacher, helping students to become independent, self-teaching learners, who are ultimately able to help others become independent as well. That is to say, serious teachers are always trying to release the philosopher-king or ‑queen in every one of their students. To put it in a nutshell, true teachers spend their entire careers trying to put themselves out of job—one student at a time!
To my mind, there never was a more serious teacher than Socrates. So let us imitate him to the best of our ability, and strive continually to improve our ability. Let us co-opt our students’ questions, show them to be more important than they appeared at first, bring students to the point of knowing ignorance, to a complete impasse in their thinking—that is, to what the Greeks called aporia—and then urge them to leap into the unknown. Let us jump at the opportunity to leap into aporia ourselves, and do so in front of our students, so they can see what it looks like to take a confident plunge into the unknown in the pursuit of illumination.
And finally, let us raise up enough philosopher-kings and -queens to populate a whole world of seekers striving together to escape our individual and collective caves of ignorance. For the desire to see things as they are, to climb toward the source of our being and emerge into the light of the sun, is too beautiful an activity to resist—and too wonderful not to share with others. Let us ourselves imitate Socrates in the pursuit of truth, and let us assist our students and all our fellow human beings in the quest for real education, the struggle to climb out of our caves.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was delivered at the annual CiRCE Conference, Houston, TX, 18 July 2014.