EDUCATION FOR DEMOCRACY
Podcast #4: REASON AND THE ART OF LIFE (5,952 words]
“The function of reason is to promote the art of life” (Alfred North Whitehead)1
These days reason is out of fashion in the public life of the United States. The most dramatic proof of that claim can be found in the rhetoric that emanates from Washington, DC, whether in the form of daily tweets from the White House, the sophistry that comes from Congress, or the manufactured consent that dominates the mainstream media. But the source of the problem lies deeper than that. Although there are important exceptions, on the whole our colleges and universities, our public and private education systems, the research that dominates the scientific establishment, and the state and local governments that should be using reason to promote the art of life have lost faith in the kind of rationality Whitehead had in mind. Mere opinion, power, authority, partisan advocacy, and putative special interests of all sorts ignore truth and reality. Today we are told: “truth isn’t truth” (Rudy Giuliani).2
1 Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Millis, MA: Agora Publications), 2014.
2 CNN, August 19, 2018.
In 2014, I began a series called “Education for Democracy” in which I identified some of the forces that continue to erode democracy throughout our global community and especially in the United States. This is the fourth podcast in that series. During the past four years, the forces that are hostile to reason have become stronger, and the threat to democracy is greater. In this podcast I will focus on the problem of public discourse and offer some examples of where we seem to have gone wrong and what might be done to address that problem. One of the important ways to improve education is to put the arts and the humanities at the center of education rather than relegating them to the periphery. I endorse and applaud the natural sciences for their role in helping understand the nature of reality, but because of the methods they must follow the natural sciences are incapable of dealing with the most important topics related to understanding and implementing democracy and promoting the art of life.
The problem with using the rational methods of natural science to understand and justify the fundamental concepts and principles of ethics, aesthetics, politics, and religion is that neither the language of science nor the way in which its principles and claims are justified can be applied in a meaningful way to ideas such as goodness, beauty, justice, and holiness. In the 20th century some influential philosophers proposed eliminating those topics from rational inquiry. According to them, whatever cannot be measured, verified by sense experience, and formulated in precise symbols (preferably mathematics) was dismissed as falling outside the realm of rationality. Claims and judgments that do not meet their prescribed standards merely express our emotions and feelings, but they have nothing to do
with understanding and controlling reality. Other so-called scientific thinkers have attempted to measure, verify, and formulate the fundamental principles from the arts, from ethics, from politics, and from religion by linking them to various kinds of observable behavior or to functions in the brain, however, those efforts fail to provide rational analysis and justification of the ideas that matter most in promoting the art of life.
In the earlier parts of this series, I have tried to show that through works of art we can probe the values that are essential to the art of life. I called works of art “laboratories of the soul,” and I distinguished them from the laboratories where the so-called scientific method rules. What do I mean by “soul”? Following Plato, I mean that aspect of our being “that is improved by justice and damaged by injustice.”3 The broader understanding of reason that I favor, one that promotes the art of life, is at home in works of art, especially the arts that work with serious ideas that are essential for democracy.
Rather than dismissing or marginalizing the arts and humanities, I think it is better to embrace them as essential to the function of reason; but that means we must expand the way we think about rationality. In addition to the symbols from logic and mathematics, we need to include symbolic forms from music, poetry, painting, sculpture, film, dance, theater, and architecture. The concept of “experience” has to include more than just sense experience. The passions, feelings, intuitions, emotions, and aspirations that shape our decisions and actions must be
3 Plato, Crito, trans. Benjamin Jowett, revised by Albert A. Anderson (Millis, MA: Agora Publications, Inc.), 2005, p. 48.
included in the realm of experience and counted as possible justification for the most important claims about what constitutes knowledge and reality. This means our understanding of truth needs to go beyond mere correspondence to facts and incorporate the full range of our mental life. The arts play a major role in understanding what already exists, but they also create reality—especially in the realm of the soul. Both of those functions are important, but it is crucial to recognize the difference between knowing the truth about what is and exploring what is possible and what should be.
The humanities differ from the arts because they function on a higher level of abstraction. For example, the painter Picasso created a work of art called Guernica, but the public had a hard time understanding it. Art criticism and art history help us explore what painters like Picasso created, and to do that they stand back from the work and try to interpret it and explain it in a natural language such as English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Natural languages employ symbols that are more abstract than the symbolic forms used by painters and other artists. Art history and art criticism are part of the humanities, intimately connected with the arts but engaging them on a different level of abstraction. Philosophy of art, which is also part of the humanities, is even more abstract. It seeks to examine the relationships and the differences among the various arts. What are the similarities between and among painting, music, poetry, film, and the other arts? How do they differ from each other?
Unless we keep these three levels of abstraction in mind, it is easy to get confused not only about how the arts and humanities differ from the natural
sciences but also how they differ from each other. In spite of those differences, I think that the arts, the sciences, and the humanities are all essential aspects of reason and that all of those fields of activity can function together to promote the art of life, and they are all indispensible when we consider what is important in educating people to participate in a democratic form of government. Because the world keeps changing, that kind of education is not limited to young people. The art of life is important to all of us, no matter how many decades have passed since the day of our birth. Educating the citizens of a democracy is an ongoing process, no less important for people who are seventy-something, eighty-something or ninety- something than for anyone else. Not only do world events bring surprising new realities, but the development of technology and the evolution of both bodies and minds also require us to reconsider what we think we know.
For example, many people think they know the clear difference between human beings and the other species on our planet. For several centuries Europeans and Americans have drawn a sharp line between higher and lower forms of life, especially when it comes to their relative moral value. How often have you heard that the other species exist for the benefit of human beings and that we have been given dominion over the natural world? But since Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859, that way of thinking has become less convincing. Once we consider ourselves to be part of nature rather than separate from nature, that changes everything. Naomi Klein recently wrote a book with that title; one of her central themes deals with that topic and the difference it makes as we remember that we share a common environment with the other species, not only other animals but
plants as well, and that we are not morally superior to other species. A good example of works of art that serve as “laboratories of the soul,” is the recent film directed by Avi Lewis that is based on Klein’s book; it is also called This Changes Everything. I think of the Avi Lewis film as a sequel to an earlier film, directed by Franny Armstrong, called The Age of Stupid. Armstrong’s film, which has Peter Postlethwaite in the leading role, also explores the topic of climate change and what human beings are contributing to that process. Of course, if “truth isn’t truth,” we do not have to worry about climate change; all we have to do is deny it and persuade people that it is fake news. That seems to be the current political strategy that is reshaping and even eliminating the laws, regulations, and international agreements that were put in place to curb climate change.
Film is an art form that is especially valuable as we explore ways to educate people to participate in democracy. Climate change is possibly the most urgent topic that currently needs to be examined more fully, but there are many other issues that deserve our attention as citizens and as voters. Every year we get a new batch of films that deepen our exploration of vital issues that have a direct bearing on the art of life in both its public and its private aspects. In earlier parts of this series I have already discussed the need to incorporate serious works of art into education for democracy and to go beyond art that merely amuses or entertains. Film, theater, poetry, music, and all of the other arts can and should be part of our common education, but in recent years funding for the arts and the humanities has been cut for political reasons. Federal budgets for The National Endowment for the Arts and The National Endowment for Humanities have been decimated, and the work of
those agencies has been construed as partisan, dismissed as irrelevant, and attributed to the special interests of feminists, homosexuals, racial, ethic, and religious minorities, and so on. Totalitarian governments always attempt to censor and limit the roles of the arts and the humanities because an enlightened public is their greatest enemy.
Here is another example of something you might think you know: “Truth is truth.” However, the 107th mayor of New York City, who now claims to speak for the President of the United States, recently said on CNN: “truth isn’t truth.” What could he possibly mean? Perhaps he is only saying that truth is a complicated idea that needs more explanation. When pressed by the interviewer, Rudy Giuliani’s subsequent elaboration showed that is not what he meant. He meant that truth is “in the eye of the beholder.” In other words, there is no such thing as truth. Based on what we have seen since he became a candidate and especially once he was elected, the current president of the United States seems to agree with that claim. Even more shocking to many people is that a large number of Republicans holding public office also agree with that view. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is not limited to members of a single political party. It is not hard to find Democrats who share the view that what matters is not the truth but persuading people to put them in power rather than their opponents. The widespread nature of this doctrine leads a lot of people to conclude that reason is not that important and that “the art of life” is primarily a matter of getting power (and all the goodies that go with it) and holding onto it as long as possible.
The best-known proponent of that position in the field of politics is Niccolò Machiavelli, and his name has been turned into an ugly adjective: Machiavellian. I will leave it to historians and political philosophers to assess the accuracy of that way of thinking about Machiavelli. For the central thesis of this talk, I have selected a fictional character that I think is especially relevant to my thesis. Plato, an ancient Greek writer who lived in Athens from 427 to 347 BCE, wrote a dialogue with the title Gorgias. Although a historical person named Gorgias did exist, Plato’s dialogue by that name is not a historical essay but a form of poetry called “Socratic dialogue.” Plato’s character Gorgias is fictional, as are several other characters, including Polus, Callicles, and Socrates. There was also a historical person named Socrates, but Plato’s Socrates is a fictional character. If Plato’s dialogue is considered to be a form of dramatic poetry, that means we need to interpret it, analyze it, and evaluate it, just as we would do with a dramatic work by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibsen, or Beckett. If we are seeking the truth concerning ideas and issues presented in such works, we cannot simply take the words uttered by those characters at face value. The literal meaning of what those characters say will not suffice; the author of such a text has created a complex work of art that often has multiple levels of meaning, and the interaction among the characters as well as the relationship among the different layers of meaning all add to the challenge of understanding and evaluating it. Such authors could have simply written essays and told us what they think about a given subject, but instead they created characters and invented poetic language designed to probe deeper than any set of literal statements can reach. In addition, dramatic works add music, rhythm, color, shape, tone, and texture along with other
elements that have little or no place in a factual account or a logical treatise. When such works are performed, we also have the contributions of the actors, the director, and a variety of other creative artists who enrich what is presented to the audience. If we are dealing with a work originally written in another language, we must also take into account the role and function of the translators. In the case of Plato’s Gorgias, all of those factors come into play.
I have chosen a dialogue by Plato as my second example of a “laboratory of the soul” because it incorporates more than one level of abstraction. It is a work of art, a kind of poetry: Socratic dialogue. Plato’s character Gorgias is fictional, though probably based on an actual person named Gorgias. Plato’s dialogues include both the elements of dramatic poetry and philosophical analysis, bringing together two different levels of abstraction. The branch of philosophy that is most relevant to this dialogue is called “philosophical ethics.” What is philosophical ethics? Consider this definition:
Philosophical ethics is the rational analysis and justification of fundamental moral concepts, principles, decisions, and actions.
This definition implies a distinction between ethics and morality. Ethics is the rational analysis of moral ideas such as “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” and “just and unjust.” Because Gorgias is a work of poetry, it is important not to take what the characters say literally but to interpret it, analyze those ideas, and evaluate their truth. In this way we can see both the arts and the humanities function in a single work. I do not have time to play the entire dialogue—it takes more than three
hours—so the most I can do now is share some excerpts. I will introduce a small portion of the form and the content of that work of art in order to demonstrate a “laboratory of the soul” that combines the arts and the humanities. Here is the opening scene from that dialogue:
Callicles: Socrates, it’s smart to be late for a fight, but not for a feast.
Socrates: Are we late for a feast?
Callicles: Yes, a delightful feast. Gorgias just made a splendid presentation.
Socrates: My friend Chaerephon here is to blame, Callicles. He kept us loitering in the Agora.4
Chaerephon: Never mind, Socrates. I’m the cause of the problem, so I’ll fix it. Gorgias is a friend of mine, and I’ll have him repeat the presentation.
Callicles: What’s the matter, Chaerephon? Does Socrates want to hear Gorgias?
Chaerephon: Yes, Callicles, that’s why we came.
Callicles: Well, then, let’s go to my house. Gorgias is staying with me, and he’ll
perform for you there.
Socrates: Good, Callicles; but will he answer our questions? I want to hear him tell about what he teaches and about the nature of his art. He can save the presentation for another time.
Callicles: There’s nothing like asking him, Socrates. Actually, that’s part of his presentation. He was just saying that anyone in my house may ask him any question and he’ll answer.
Socrates: I’m glad to hear that. Will you ask him, Chaerephon? Chaerephon: What should I ask him?
Socrates: Ask him who he is.
Chaerephon: What do you mean?
Socrates: I mean the kind of question that he would answer by saying that he is a cobbler, if he were a maker of shoes. Do you understand?
Chaerephon: I understand, and I’ll ask him.5
4 The Agora was the physical, commercial, and social center of ancient Athens. Socrates spent much of his time there, engaging in conversation with anyone.
5 Plato, Gorgias, trans. Benjamin Jowett; revised by Albert A. Anderson (Millis, MA: Agora Publications), 1994, pp. 446-447.
Assuming this is a work of poetry, we need to look closely at both the way it is written and the ideas it examines. This not an essay; it is a dramatic performance. Some commentators claim that Plato began his career by writing poetry but abandoned poetry in favor of philosophy after he began talking with Socrates in the Agora. I disagree. Although as a young man Plato probably began by creating poetic forms such as tragedy and comedy, instead of abandoning poetry I think he switched to another form of poetry called “Socratic dialogue” so that he could more easily and more naturally incorporate philosophical analysis into that way of writing. Plato’s character Socrates was no doubt inspired by the historical Socrates, but Plato’s dialogues offer more than one perspective on Socrates. The character Socrates in Plato’s Republic is quite different from the character Socrates in Plato’s Parmenides, and in an important dialogue named Sophist, even though Socrates appears briefly, the central character is called “Stranger.” He is a native of Elea, the home of two famous philosophers—Parmenides and Zeno. That connection has a strong influence on the content and meaning of the overall dialogue. As we continue to examine the Gorgias, it is important to consider not only what Socrates has to say but also to pay careful attention to the ideas presented and defended by the other characters. In all of Plato’s writings I think what the character Socrates questions and refutes is more important than any doctrine or theory the characters might happen to present and defend in any particular Platonic dialogue.
In the Gorgias one of the major topics concerns the nature of rhetoric, which includes both oral and written language. The historical Gorgias is usually identified as a Sophist, along with Protagoras, Thrasymachus, Hippias, and several others who
travelled throughout the Geek city-states and taught young men how to speak and write so they could gain positions of power and influence. This was especially important in Plato’s Athens, the birthplace of democracy, because persuading others through rhetoric was essential to getting laws passed in the legislature, persuading judges in the courts, and selling goods and services in the marketplace. Not much has changed. Today, if you want to excel in politics, law, and business, rhetoric continues to play a central role. When Socrates presses Gorgias to explain what he teaches, Gorgias says that he teaches rhetoric. Socrates tries to get him to be more precise.
Socrates: You say that you’re a rhetorician and a teacher of rhetoricians. What’s the business of rhetoric? Is the business of weaving making garments?
Socrates: Is the business of music the composition of melodies?
Socrates: Gorgias, I do admire the brevity of your answers!
Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, I think I’m good at that.
Socrates: I’m glad to hear it. Now answer in the same way about rhetoric. What’s the business of rhetoric?
Socrates: What sort of discourse, Gorgias? The kind that would tell sick
people what treatment would make them well.
Socrates: Then rhetoric doesn’t deal with all kinds of discourse? Gorgias: Certainly not.
Socrates: Yet rhetoric does enable people to speak?
Socrates: And to understand what they’re talking about? Gorgias: To be sure.
Socrates: Doesn’t the art of medicine enable people to understand and talk about the sick?
Socrates: Then medicine also deals with discourse.
Socrates: With discourse concerning diseases?
Socrates: Doesn’t gymnastics also deal with discourse concerning the good or bad condition of the body?
Gorgias: Very true.
Socrates: Gorgias, the same is true of all the other arts; all of them deal with
discourse concerning their subject matter.
Gorgias: That is evident.
Socrates: Then if you call rhetoric the art that deals with discourse, and if all of the other arts deal with discourse, why don’t you call all of them arts of rhetoric?
Gorgias: Because, Socrates, knowledge of the other arts deals only with some kind of external activity involving the hands; but there is no such activity involving the hands in rhetoric. It operates and produces its effect in the medium of discourse. Therefore, it is correct to say that rhetoric deals with discourse.
Socrates: I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, but I intend to find out. Please answer this question: Would you say that arts do exist?
Socrates: In some of the arts a lot is done but little or nothing is said. In painting, sculpture, and many other arts the work takes place in silence. Would you say that these are arts with which rhetoric has no concern?
Gorgias: You understand my meaning perfectly, Socrates.
Socrates: There are other arts that work only with words and involve little or no action, for example, arithmetic, calculation, geometry, and playing checkers. In some of these, words are nearly identical with the things, but in most of them, words predominate over things. Their effectiveness and power come from words. Do you mean that rhetoric is this kind of art?
Socrates: I don't think that you really mean to call these arts rhetoric, but the precise expression you used was that rhetoric is an art which produces its effect through the medium of discourse. An adversary who wished to be critical might say: “So, Gorgias, you call arithmetic rhetoric. I don't think that you would call arithmetic rhetoric any more than you would call geometry rhetoric.
In an era when so much of our discourse is designed to amuse and entertain, it is easy for people to become impatient with what seems to be nitpicking. If all we want is executive summaries and sound bites, Plato’s kind of writing is hard to appreciate. However, as the dialogue progresses that very issue becomes a central part of the topic. What is the purpose of rhetoric, especially in a democracy? Is the purpose of discourse to amuse and entertain, or is it to seek the truth? If truth is not the primary goal of public discourse, then democracy itself seems to be impossible to achieve. But what, exactly, is truth? Gorgias, as it turns out, would probably agree with Rudy Giuliani: truth isn’t truth. Why does he say that? The purpose of rhetoric is to persuade, not to present truth and reality. In contrast to arithmetic, which not only persuades but also seeks the truth about numbers and their relationships to each other, the kind of rhetoric Gorgias teaches only seeks to persuade. (Ibid, pp. 449-451).
Listen again to Socrates and Gorgias:
Socrates: What kind of persuasion does rhetoric produce and about what? Is that a fair way to put the question?
Gorgias: I think it is.
Socrates: Then, if you approve the question, Gorgias, what’s the answer?
Gorgias: Socrates, rhetoric is the art of persuasion in courts and other assemblies, as I was just saying. And it’s about the just and the unjust.
Socrates: That was my hunch, Gorgias. Now don’t be surprised if later on I repeat what seems to be a simple question. As I said, I’m asking you not for your sake but for the sake of logical argument. I’m trying to avoid the habit of anticipating and speculating about the meaning of each other’s words. I want you to be able to proceed in your own way.
Gorgias: I think that you are quite right, Socrates.
Socrates: Then let me ask this question. Is there such a thing as learning? Gorgias: Yes.
Socrates: And there is also such a thing as believing?
Socrates: Are learning and believing the same thing?
Gorgias: In my judgment, Socrates, they are not the same.
Socrates: Your judgment is correct, Gorgias, which you can demonstrate this way. If a person were to ask you whether there is false belief as well as true belief, I think you would reply that there is.
Socrates: But is there false knowledge as well as true knowledge?
Socrates: No, indeed! So, this proves that knowledge is different from belief.
Gorgias: That is true.
Socrates: But both those who have learned as well as those who have believed are persuaded?
Gorgias: That is as you say.
Socrates: Then should we assume two kinds of persuasion, one that is the
source of belief without knowledge and the other the source of knowledge?
Socrates: Which kind of persuasion about justice and injustice does rhetoric create in courts of law and other assemblies? Is it the kind of persuasion that gives belief without knowledge or the kind that gives knowledge?
Gorgias: Clearly, Socrates, it is that which only gives belief.7
Now it seems that the topic under discussion has shifted from what seemed to be only a matter of skill—how to use words in both an oral and a written form— to a question of ethics. Ethics is concerned with justice and injustice, and Socrates has turned the spotlight on that issue. As the dialogue continues, it becomes clear that if Gorgias teaches such a powerful skill, one that can shape the decisions in
7 Ibid, pp. 453-455.
courts of law and legislatures where matters of life and death for individuals and entire communities are decided, then he is also responsible for teaching his students about how to use that skill in a just and good way, not simply to gain power, fame, and riches. Let’s return to the dialogue:
Socrates: Then I’ll tell you, Gorgias, what concerns me about what you’ve said, though perhaps you’re right, and I’ve misunderstood you. You claim that you can teach anyone who becomes your student to be a rhetorician?
Socrates: And you will teach how to convince people on any subject, not by
educating them but by persuading them? Gorgias: Certainly.
Socrates: In fact, you said that the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, even on medical subjects?
Gorgias: Yes, with the public.
Socrates: In other words, with ignorant people. To those who know, the
rhetorician cannot be more persuasive than the physician. Gorgias: True.
Socrates: In order to be more persuasive than the physician, the rhetorician must have greater persuasive power than the person who knows?
Socrates: Without being a physician?
Socrates: Any person who is not a physician is ignorant of what the physician knows?
Socrates: So, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant person is more persuasive with ignorant people than is the person who knows? Doesn’t that follow?
Gorgias: In this case, yes.
Socrates: And rhetoric has the same relation to all the other arts. The rhetorician doesn’t have to know the subject matter of those arts but only how to persuade ignorant people that the rhetorician has more knowledge than those who know.
Gorgias: Yes, Socrates. Doesn’t that make things a lot easier? This way you
only need to learn the art of rhetoric, and you can be as good as professionals who have learned the other arts.
Socrates: Whether the rhetorician is as good as the others remains to be seen, but we’ll pursue that question when it’s appropriate. I’d rather begin by asking whether the rhetorician is as ignorant of what is just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable, and good and bad as of medicine and the other arts. I mean, does the rhetorician know the truth about these ideas or only know how to persuade ignorant people? Or is it necessary for the student to know these things before coming to you to learn the art of rhetoric? If the student is ignorant, you, the teacher of rhetoric, might refuse to teach these things, because that’s not your business. You will, however, help the student pretend to the public to have such knowledge, even though it isn’t true, and pretend to be a good person, even though that isn’t true. Or, will you be unable to teach rhetoric unless the student already knows these things? What do you say about this, Gorgias? Please explain the power of rhetoric as you promised.
Gorgias: Socrates, I suppose that the student who doesn’t happen to know these things will have to learn them from me.
Socrates: That’s right, Gorgias. So, the rhetoricians you train must know what is just and unjust, either by previous learning or by your teaching.
This discussion is far from over, and Plato’s dialogue moves from here to
more and more difficult questions related to politics, ethics, and the basic principles on which they rest. However, for the purpose of this talk I will have to leave it there. Perhaps we can dig deeper on another occasion. My primary goal in this podcast is to show what I mean by “laboratories of the soul” and how they relate to the rational process of promoting the art of life. Works of art, such as Plato’s dialogues, provide opportunities to investigate topics that are essential to the wellbeing of the soul. Plato has not offered a positive account of the nature of rhetoric, but through Socratic questioning he has moved the topic to the relationship between acquiring technical skill and the way in which that skill is put to use in human life. As the nquiry proceeds, it becomes clear that this same issue lies beneath the surface
8 Ibid. pp. 458-460.
of other technical skills as well. In the dialogue the martial arts are offered as an example; in our era, when weapons and military power have become so widespread and so deadly, we cannot help asking about the ethical use of those skills and those tools. What ethical responsibilities accompany the acquisition of a gun? Who is to blame when the gun is misused—only the person who uses the gun? What is the moral responsibility of those people who make it possible for that weapon to wind up in the hands of someone who uses it in the wrong way? We can also extend this same principle to the question of using military power. Nobody doubts that currently the United States is the strongest military power on earth, but questions related to the moral responsibility of the people who decide when, where, and how that power should be used are ethical issues of the sort Plato treats in this dialogue.
Teaching powerful skills, whether of a physical and military kind or of the sort used to persuade people to think and act one way or another, cannot be separated from the ethical ideas of justice and moral responsibility. When Socrates shows that Gorgias, as such a teacher, cannot avoid that responsibility it also becomes clear that we can and should ask similar questions about using police power, military power, and, ultimately, weapons of mass destruction that could destroy the entire human race. This leads to the question of who teaches justice and injustice to the police, to military leaders, to members of Congress, to judges, and to those who make such decisions in the executive branch of our governments. What about the people who teach marketing in business schools? Do they have a responsibility to teach their students about justice and injustice so they do not
market products that are harmful or even deadly? Do their students already come with such knowledge? If not, as Gorgias admits, he is responsible for teaching them about justice and injustice. But this raises an even more difficult question. Is Gorgias able to teach about justice and injustice, right and wrong, or good and bad? Are marketing faculty members in our major business schools able to teach about moral and immoral use of persuasion as they teach the skills needed to sell goods and services, some of which might be harmful or deadly? Are the professors in our law schools prepared to teach ethics? What about the people who teach at West Point, and the other service academies? Are they also teachers of ethics? This list could be expanded, but I think the general point is clear.
I will conclude by returning to the topic of reason and the art of life. Making moral choices seems to require education, but it is not clear who, if anyone, has the knowledge to teach such topics. How can we live a good life if we do not have such knowledge? We seem to be caught in a dilemma: Either the students who are taught powerful skills already have the moral knowledge required to separate right from wrong, good from bad, justice from injustice—and to act on that knowledge—or there must be teachers who can provide such knowledge. Rational analysis and justification of fundamental moral ideas, principles, decisions, and actions is possible only if there are such teachers, but who are they and where can they be found? If there are no such teachers and such rationality cannot be taught, then how is it possible for human beings to think and act morally? The alternative seems to be that this is not a rational process and that truth, goodness, justice, and other such values are in the eye of the beholder. In philosophical terms, we are forced to accept
relativism and conclude that such values are subjective and lack universal meaning and application. I have tried to show that the people who hold power today are not that different from the ones who held power in Plato’s Athens and that we face the same ethical dilemma that emerges in Plato’s Gorgias. Are there any teachers of morality that can guide our democracy? This is especially urgent at a time when the destruction of the human species might be threatened by human activity that is destroying the environment and by a nuclear arms race that seems to be out of control. Can a reasonable person find a way out of this dilemma?
I do not think Plato wrote his dialogues to answer such questions. Nor can I provide such answers. I think Plato was doing something different. By creating a work of art—a laboratory of the soul—he was not telling us what to think but showing us how to think about such topics. The kind of education that is appropriate for democracy requires freedom. If someone else tells us what to think, we cannot be free. We have to learn to think for ourselves, and that is why the open process we find in Plato’s dialogues and other works of art is so important. Democracy is possible only if every citizen is expected to participate in that process and is helped to engage in it freely. Every other alternative leads to some form of totalitarianism.