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For Socrates, the best city will “track down the nature of what is fine and graceful, so that the young, dwelling as it were in a healthy place, will be benefited by everything. And from that place something of the fine works will strike their vision or their hearing, like a breeze bringing health from good places.”
This month, freshmen at Wyoming Catholic College have been undergoing an experience in Humanities 102 that should be formative in their lives: reading and discussing Plato’s Republic. Unlike them, I did not study the dialogue until I was in graduate school at the University of Dallas, but it was impossible, once I had read it, not to see that it was one of the seminal works of the Western tradition. A friend once pointed out that this book changes you as you read it. I’m almost convinced that, if you paid close attention, you could feel Socrates’ arguments rearranging the neurons in your brain and getting out the stale ones.
The Republic is sometimes taken as an early blueprint for the modern totalitarian state. Not so. The point is a philosophic “defamiliarization” of things that we take for granted in order to made them questionable and therefore thinkable. If we imagined what it would be like to live after a worldwide collapse of technological civilization (the premise of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven), it might defamiliarize conveniences we take for granted, such as being able to flip a switch and fill a room with light. In the Republic, Socrates blithely plows through conventional assumptions and makes his interlocutors reexamine everything they take as normal about political life. He defamiliarizes the family, the city, and the shared religion of the Greeks, and as he imagines a new, rational city (his way to discern what justice is, the key question of the dialogue), education is central to his discussion.
For Athenians of the fifth century BC, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer had the status that the Bible used to have in America. In devising a theoretical “city in speech,” Socrates questions the traditional education of the young. Homer is full of bad examples, he says—gods who lie or hold murderous grudges or commit adultery. In the new city, poets will be forced to present the gods more suitably, and the same goes for appeals to emotion. Socrates criticizes Homer for showing Achilleus’ displays of grief over Patroklos. Similarly, frightening depictions of the underworld will need to be censored, because they might increase the fear of death and induce cowardice. Socrates thoroughly purges even the most respected stories. There will be no imitation of bad characters, and music will only be allowed in certain modes that do not encourage licentiousness. Gymnastic will strengthen those who might otherwise be timid or soft, and mousikē (not instrumental music, but choral song and chanted poetry) will tame those who are too spirited.
It’s obviously possible to fault Socrates for being too strict a censor (what would he say about Abraham being ready to sacrifice Isaac, for instance?)—but, again, he’s defamiliarizing the cultural offerings that we take for granted (not that we are likely to do that with Disney anymore). Allan Bloom, the translator of the edition of the Republic that our students use, aroused great controversy several decades ago with his book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) because he took seriously the arguments that Socrates makes to Glaucon: “rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the innermost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them.” Bloom questioned the effects of rock music and contrasted it to being “reared on rhythm and harmony.” The person instructed by the Muses will most of all have a sense of form—that is, of proportion, clarity, and integrity, which St. Thomas Aquinas understood as the aspects of beauty. Such a person will have “the sharpest sense for what’s been left out.” It’s as though he were used to eating his grandmother’s wonderful carrot cake, and someone served up an inferior store-bought version. He will instantly know “what isn’t a fine product of craft.” Similarly, someone brought up on rhythm and harmony will know “what isn’t a fine product of nature.”
Why are so many people enslaved by bad ideas and ideologies? We might start with the absence of mousikē. Experiencing beauty of form is crucial to the experience of students at Wyoming Catholic College, not only in the mousikē of the classroom (memorizing Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” for example) but also in the splendid scenes of in the Mountain West. The goal of education, according to Socrates, is ultimately philosophic wisdom—but the experience of beauty accompanies and prepares for the noblest life of the mind. Thinking of his own best students, Socrates says that “when reasonable speech comes, the man who’s reared in this way would take most delight in it, recognizing it on account of its being akin.” We are used to the idea that beauty and truth are both “transcendentals,” but it helps to see this spiritual kinship defamiliarized.
For Socrates, the best city will “track down the nature of what is fine and graceful, so that the young, dwelling as it were in a healthy place, will be benefited by everything. And from that place something of the fine works will strike their vision or their hearing, like a breeze bringing health from good places.” Here at Wyoming Catholic College, in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, “A breeze bringing health from good places” describes us pretty well.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College.
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