The Compass Rose: Explorations in Thought

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Review of Travis Smith’s “Superhero Ethics”

Templeton Press, 168pp. Paperback $14.94 US

By John Geddert

Travis Smith received his PhD from Harvard University and is associate professor of political science at Concordia University, Montreal. He is principally interested in the intersection of politics, religion, and science, and has published examinations of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. He has also been collecting comic books since he first bought Uncanny X-Men #207 in 1986. Smith’s writing has appeared in “The Weekly Standard” and “Convivium Magazine.”

            Our society is not one comprised entirely of heroes. It is unlikely many of us would openly or brazenly use such a word to describe ourselves, let alone actually possess anything nearing the wildly fantastic abilities that warrant one the status of comic-book stardom. Many of us probably wouldn’t even truly desire to have such status and powers, even if they were remotely within the realm of possibility.

Yet, as a society, superheroes have enthralled our interest and admiration, both the stories surrounding them and, more importantly, their character. Ever since the debut of Superman in 1938, youth have avidly consumed superhero stories, growing into adults who continued to consume and create increasingly varied, broad, complex, and diverse superhero media. We live in a world where Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, begun in 2008, has grossed over 14 billion dollars. Although the majority of us, outside of some few comic-book fanatics, would not actually wish to see a world filled with Bat-men and Spider-men, or their assorted nemeses, it is clear that these characters have great potential value and resonance.

Despite this, we are likely inclined toward viewing superheroes as the figures of fairly trivial media, existing on the cultural level of what Classical philosophers, such as Plato, would have classified as ‘poetic’ and pandering to the dramatic whims of the people. We are consequently unlikely to hold Hawkeye, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Black Widow, or Thor to the same level as Hamlet, Jane Eyre, Odysseus, Anna Karenina, or Beowulf (although the comparisons between Beowulf and Thor would be ample). In Travis Smith’s recent book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now?, he is not attempting to suggest we hold such characters on an equal level per se, but he is strongly suggesting that they are worthy of serious ethical consideration.

Superhero ethics. A curious and perhaps convoluted idea. To be clear, Travis Smith is not so much interested in discussing the ethics that superheroes themselves follow exactly. He is more precisely interested in viewing superheroes metaphorically, comparing how they symbolically represent different ethical ideas, “so that they are rendered less fantastical and more relevant to the lives of us less heroic, nonsuper beings” (5). It is their extraordinary character and inherent qualities that make these figures truly ‘super’, not their powers, and in their exaggerated nature they provide a simpler imaginative lens through which we can view different approaches to the “quandaries of ordinary life” (8). They offer an accessible poetic metaphor for our modern society. But the question that has always clouded poetic metaphors remains: what metaphor, if any, serves as a model that will bring about the good in our society?

This is the critical question of Smith’s superhero treatise, and it is from this question that he derives the novel format of his book; each chapter shall be a contest between two great superheroes, and in each contest the duo shall compete over who models better an approach to different human questions. The Hulk vs. Wolverine: how to preserve our humanity in face of our beastly natures; Iron Man vs. Green Lantern: how we can use our imagination and will     power to improve the human condition; Batman vs. Spider-Man: our role in protecting our community; Captain America vs. Mister Fantastic: whether the active or contemplative life brings truest fulfillment; Thor vs. Superman: representatives of faith, whether in tradition or in modern progress. These are the stakes of Smith’s curious tournament of ethics. It is a refreshing idea, and hardly what most readers are likely to expect of a Harvard graduate philosopher.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers I will refrain from revealing the victors of Smith’s ethical bouts. However, I will try to reveal Smith’s own goal in pitting these heroes together for ethical comparison. Smith is not attempting to view obliquely the human condition as a whole; rather, he is specifically focused on which hero provides the best model for the here and now, which hero offers the best guidance for modern western society as we currently careen and zig-zag towards and away      from what is best.

I was initially somewhat skeptical of Smith’s presumption that he might accurately and truly determine in this context which ethical issues are most relevant to the here and now. It was sometimes difficult to get a sense of some strong overarching      philosophical theme, which almost seems natural considering the multifarious qualities of the (literally) colourful characters being discussed. However, as broad as the discussion is, Smith does a good job of illustrating some pertinent issues. A frequent topic of consideration is the way in which our modern technological society often “absolve[s] individuals of the need to practice personal and interpersonal responsibility” (72), and the prevalent conviction these days that the universe does not have objective standards of morality, but only subjective, ‘self-determined’ contingencies which themselves can be overcome through willpower. He also recurrently discusses the challenges of modern mass democracy, the proliferation of corrupt power, and the apathy and general lack of direct and responsible involvement of the citizenry. It is critical to point out that Smith is primarily interested in finding the most widely applicable hero model—imitable by the greatest number of people, whose metaphorical example will have the most salubrious effect on our political society—not a model for the ideal human life.

Indeed, in a different time and context, different heroes might prove victorious. Smith is not being a subjectivist in this; he is simply acknowledging the truth that different contexts call for different approaches. His book is meant to be accessible, and focused on our context, as modern North Americans. Superhero Ethics succeeds at mirroring the accessibility of the medium it discusses; though Smith may reference Francis Bacon, or Plato, or the broad issues of modernism, the reader needn’t be a philosopher to follow and appreciate the depth of the conversation. At the same time, the book is never overly watered down, like mere ‘coffee-table philosophy’. Superhero stories are accessible to all, and offer relatable symbols of conflict and approach. Fittingly, Smith’s book should be accessible to any concerned citizen of modern society. If you enjoy either superheroes, ethics, or both, you will enjoy the ruminations of Travis Smith.

St. Thomas in Birmingham Jail: Aquinas’ Natural Law and the Ethics of M.L.K.

By Tyler Lynch

The actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his campaign against segregation had as their wellspring a Judeo-Christian tradition of nonviolence and justice that stretches from the Old Testament through to Christian philosophers of the medieval period. In particular, the natural law philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas that provides a major framework for King’s ethical thought, and his justification of the Civil Rights Movement. This essay examines the thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, in comparison to and contrast with the thought of Thomas Aquinas, with focus on his Treatise on Law. Tracing this lineage is crucially important to understanding King’s views on human rights and justice. Indeed, without considering King’s spiritual heritage it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand the moral framework of the Civil Rights Movement at all.

            Perhaps the most accessible introduction to the ethical convictions of King lie in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, drafted in 1963 while King was confined in the eponymous Alabama jail. Written as a response to a letter published by eight white clergymen      who denounced King’s work as “unwise and untimely,” King delivered, under trying circumstances, a work of exceptional lucidity and moral force (King). The letter is a justification not only of the foundations and principles of the American Civil Rights Movement, but a timeless articulation of the struggle of all oppressed people and a vindication of the “yearning for freedom” (King).

In response to the charge that he and his cohorts showed a “willingness to break laws,” King marshalled the philosophy of classic Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas in rebuttal (King). King concedes that it is an apparent paradox and a “legitimate concern” that the civil rights movement advocates adhering to some laws and breaking others. However, he responds that “there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” With this quotation, King has already formulated his argument in the terms of Thomas Aquinas before Aquinas is even mentioned in the next sentence. Aquinas agrees as to the the inherent just or unjust nature of “laws framed by man” in the Treatise on Law, Q.96, Art.4, c.o.. King proceeds to make another fundamentally Thomistic argument: that it is morally and legally right to obey just laws, while “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Aquinas is again in concordance, arguing that unjust laws are “not binding in conscience” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.4, c.o.). King has extended this logically from the realm of conscience into the practical sphere.

The pressing question, for both Aquinas and King, is how to differentiate between a just law and an unjust one. King proceeds to answer this question “in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas,” although he was already using Thomistic language. Thus it is to a closer examination of those terms that we should turn to next.

            Aquinas distinguishes between four types of law in his Treatise on Law, written in the 13th Century as part of his magnum opusof theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologica. The four types are eternal law, natural law, human law, and divine law. Eternal law is the rational ordering principle of the natural universe, ultimately emanating from God. It is the “Supreme reason” that “implies order” into created things through rational principles (ST I-II, Q.1, Art.1; a.d.3).  The eternal law “must be called eternal” because its source, God, “is not subject to time”, and it is a law because it predictably governs all of existence (ST I-II, Q.1, Art.1, c.o.). Indeed, Aquinas would argue that the universe itself is only rational because it is superintended by the rational principles of the eternal law, which draws all things to their “proper act and end” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, c.o.).

            Natural law is an extension of the eternal law, encompassing those elements of it that govern the actions of free, rational beings. For Aquinas, “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, a.d.1). The rational participation is important because, as Aquinas says,  participation in the eternal law is essentially to law in itself insofar as that participation is rational and intellectual in character (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, a.d.3). Aquinas quotes the New Testament to define natural law as something inherently knowable by all, which all human beings have consciousness of. It is the universal, objective standard by which we know “what is good and what is evil” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, c.o.).

            Human law is rooted in natural law, but extends it to the temporal and the specific. Natural law may be interwoven with the fabric of our being, inclining us to what is good, but it does not specifically dictate proper action in every frame of human action. Thus, human law is necessary to establish the “general rules and measures of all things relating to human conduct” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.3, a.d.2). It concerns the “particular determination of certain matters” and as such, does not have the universal quality of eternal or natural law (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.3, c.o.). Aquinas fully accepts that human law would result in “different and contrary laws” across time and culture to facilitate different modes of being in the world (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.4, c.o.). It is human law that is referred to when Aquinas and King state that laws can be just or unjust.

            Divine law is not directly referenced in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but should not be ignored in a discussion of Thomistic natural law philosophy. Divine law is that which concerns the human soul beyond its rational elements, and is not solely discernible by natural reason. “Man is ordained to an end of eternal happiness,” says Aquinas, “which is inproportionate to his natural faculty” (ST I-II, Q.93, Art.4, c.o.). It is divine law that concerns this end. Where reason falls short, where the “uncertainty of human judgement” confuses, where “man is not competent to judge,” the transcendent Divine law steps in, pulling man to his predestined end of eternal happiness and working to “forbid all evil deeds” and ensure that objective good is rewarded (ST I-II, Q.93, Art.4, c.o.). While there is a clear continuum from eternal law, which orders the universe, to natural law, which governs good and evil out of the eternal law, to human law, which extends natural into specific situations, divine law is in a class of its own. It is not entirely rationally explicable, as it “is given by God […] in a yet higher way” (ST I-II, Q.93, Art.4, c.o.; a.d.2). Its purpose is also not the simple avoidance of evil and the pursuit of good, but salvation and eternal union with God. With this framework in place, it is possible to understand the argument made by Aquinas and King as to what constitutes an unjust law.

            King defines an unjust law using Aquinas’s formulation as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law,” but this is rather vague. It is rather simple for a law to be rooted in natural law, as long as it fits with the central precept of that law: “that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided” (ST I-II, Q.94, Art.2, c.o.). This first precept is very broad, and does not detail which things are good and which are evil. Martin Luther King then makes four arguments in an attempt to show that segregation laws do not bring about good or avoid evil, and are thus not based in natural law, making them unjust on Thomistic terms.

King’s first argument is not especially Thomistic. King’s argument is that “any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King). This claim is never made by Aquinas in the Treatise on Law, and is more ideologically concordant with the theology of Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, quoted by King to show that segregation “distorts the soul and damages the personality” (King). However, this argument is not wholly alien to the language of the Treatise. Aquinas speaks of “the last end of human life” as “bliss or happiness,” and writes that the natural law aids in “preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles” (ST I-II, Q.90, Art.2, c.o.; Q.94, Art.2, c.o.). Segregation law clearly inhibits the pursuit of happiness and has no effect in preserving life or alleviating its difficulties. It is not hard to see on Thomistic terms that through degrading the human condition, segregation law degrades the personality as well, which is Divinely-directed towards happiness. While this argument is not explicitly Thomistic, it is roughly compatible with his philosophy.

King is in more Thomistic territory when he writes that “an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” (King). This is deeply unjust for Aquinas, who rallies a host of quotes in opposition to the attitude. “Whatever law a man makes for another, he should keep himself,” he writes (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.5, a.d.3). Aquinas quotes Jesus in condemnation of those that “bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but with a finger of their own they will not move them,” a phrase all the more pertinent when seen in context of the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery and segregation (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.5, a.d.3). Here King and Aquinas are in direct agreement.

King next argues against illegitimately-made laws, taking his argument from Aquinas. King writes that “a law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law” (King). Aquinas rejects any law not made by and for the people, saying that “the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people” (ST I-II, Q.90, Art.3, c.o.). There is no room for infliction of laws on minorities at all. “Coercive power is vested in the whole people or in some public personage,” Aquinas repeats (ST I-II, Q.90, Art.3, a.d.3).

Finally, King argues that a law can be “just on its face and unjust in its application” (King). King references his charge of “parading without a permit” as an example of a reasonable law being used oppressively. Aquinas is sensitive to the same problem, and is utterly opposed to the interpretation of law contrary to the common good. “If a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be harmful to the common good,” he writes, “it should not be observed” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.6, c.o.). Aquinas cites the example of a city whose gates are barred by law, and the injustice of maintaining that law if it would mean the deaths of citizens outside the walls (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.6, c.o.). Aquinas and King are in essential agreement as to what constitutes an unjust law under natural law philosophy.

            However, the two thinkers differ significantly on the value of civil disobedience, with Aquinas being far less eager to advocate social disturbance. He values order and forbearance to a degree that King would, most likely, find deeply disappointing. While Aquinas concedes that unjust laws must not be followed, he qualifies this by giving possible exception “in order to avoid scandal or disturbance” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.4, c.o.). A man is not bound to obey a law that “inflict unjust hurt on its subjects,” but only provided “he avoid giving scandal or inflicting a more grievous hurt.” Absent in the Treatise on Law is any sense of the need to “arouse the conscience of the community,” something King states is borne from “highest respect for the law” (King).

           King was emphatically opposed to acting out of fear of scandal, something Aquinas takes quite seriously. Aquinas sounds a good deal like the “white moderate” whom King rebuked as the “great stumbling block in [the Negro’s] stride toward freedom.” The white moderate, says King, “is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; [and] prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Whereas it is imprudent to place Aquinas squarely on the side of order rather than justice, social stability is far more dear to Aquinas’s heart than King’s. King would never be resigned to tolerance of an unjust status quo by any means— he believed the erasure of unjust laws “must be demanded by the oppressed” and would occur no other way (King). He saw no other choice for African-Americans but to “openly, lovingly” disobey the segregation laws that oppress them and willingly accept the consequences (King). Aquinas’s concern for social order is not to be found in the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

           This difference comes down, in large part, to Aquinas’s conviction of the inherent divine sanction of power and order—a conviction Martin Luther King seems to lack. Aquinas believed there was something unsettling and potentially anarchical in disobeying laws—even unjust ones  —laid down by authority, because authority is Divinely sanctioned. Aquinas quotes the Letter to the Romans to justify this, stating that “all human power is from God,” and anyone that “resisteth the power. . . resisteth the ordinance of God” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.4, a.d.1, quoting Rm 13:1.2). King, however, is adamant in his Letter that “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.” One wonders whether, for Aquinas, law and order are something closer to goods in themselves.

For all this, the positions of Thomas Aquinas and M.L.K. are not so very disparate. Despite his concern with order and avoidance of scandal, Aquinas never denies that unjust laws are not laws binding in conscience, and in this regard stands fundamentally with King. King himself shows a certain respect for civil order too, stating that he is not an anarchist and does not “advocate evading or defying the law” (King). “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” he wrote. King’s willingness to accept the penalties of breaking unjust laws (in his case, imprisonment for protesting without a permit) elevates him about the mere disturbers of the peace that Aquinas is so fearful of.

The looming presence of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Letter from Birmingham Jail would not have been lost on the eight churchmen to whom King wrote. For the controversial Baptist preacher to utilize the philosophy of the perhaps most eminent theologian and philosopher in Western Christianity to buttress his campaign of civil disobedience was an effective rhetorical technique, and bolsters King’s credibility by basing his arguments in terms the clergymen would understand. Martin Luther King is highly effective in giving credence to his arguments through highly pertinent appeals to authority, from the Biblical in St. Paul, the modern in Paul Tillich, to the secular in Thomas Jefferson. The influence of Thomas Aquinas on M.L.K. is no mere rhetorical device. Indeed, it is difficult to fathom King’s justification of direct action and civil disobedience having the same weight and philosophical rigour, were it not for his deep and abiding understanding of the natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas. We find the Treatise on Law has gained an unexpected legacy. Despite being no progressivist himself, Aquinas lay down in the Treatise on Law an enduring and robust defense of justice that would become one of the moral cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. “Treatise on Law.” Sophia Project. Accessed 17 Nov, 2018

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” University of Pennsylvania. Accessed 17 Nov, 2018

“Statement and Response: King in Birmingham.” Trinity International University. Accessed 16 Nov, 2018

A Conversation Between Hannah Gadsby and Aristotle: On Art and Judgment in “Nanette” and “Poetics”

By Abbie LeBlanc

With a run-time of one hour and ten-minutes, Netflix bills Nanette as one of its original comedy series. Commentators have dubbed it anything but “comedy;” instead, their classifications range from “anti-comedy” to “stand-up tragedy.”[1] In addition to being a provocative and innovative piece of media, Hannah Gadsby’s performance addresses many of the fundamental questions about art that Aristotle discusses in his Poetics. Like Aristotle, Gadsby is deeply concerned with the power art possesses to bring coherence to our lives. However, for Aristotle, the coherence provided by narrative art serves as the basis for philosophical inquiry, as contradictions and misrepresentations within a piece become an invitation for reflection. Gadsby, on the other hand, perceives a serious danger in allowing certain narratives to shape our perspectives, as omission and fabrications in art can become tools to exclude and marginalise others. The development of judgement is crucial to both Aristotle and Gadsby’s account of art; however, for Aristotle, this is a judgement tied to philosophy, while Gadsby calls for a judgment rooted in empathy to mediate our stories.

While Nanette takes a form that would have been unfamiliar to Aristotle, Gadsby adheres to Aristotle’s fundamental precept that art should be a coherent representation of life. Nanette is about a single and complete action, as Aristotle claims all comic, epic, and tragic poetry must be (1450b33). The necessity of coherence in narrative art appears to be a self-evident assertion. If one were to encounter a series of statements that were in a random, illogical order, one would be hard pressed to call it a story. By nature, most stand-up comedy would not meet this requirement of having a beginning, middle, and end, as they are collections of wandering anecdotes, maybe connected by a humorous segue.[2] Gadsby’s performance differs because all of her stories center upon reframing events to give greater agency to the storyteller. The action of the show is “a broken woman who has rebuilt herself” taking control of her story.[3] This broad definition of a single action is permissible, as both the Iliad and the Odyssey combined detail the events of a single action (1462b9–11). Just like Homer’s epics, removing any single anecdote from Nanette would “disturb and dislocate” the unity of the single and complete action that is the whole, as each of Gadsby’s stories has its own call-back built into the script (1451a34). Aristotle notes that life, on its own, does not possess this kind of unity (1451a19). Humans take pleasure in representations because representations allow us to “understand and work out what each item is” (1448b16). Moreover, by representing life through coherent narratives, one can use particular situations as a means to grapple with universal truths (1451b6).[4] These narratives, thus, provide the basis for all understanding and all philosophical inquiry, according to Aristotle.

Gadsby, on the other hand, is not concerned with truth: she is concerned with the political consequences of narratives. Take, for example, her rapid-fire opening where she describes jokes from earlier in her career: “lots of cool jokes about homophobia—really solved that problem.”[5] One such joke, based on a real-life experience, was about Gadsby being misgendered. A man, supposing Gadsby to be flirting with his girlfriend, threatens to assault her. However, when it is revealed that Gadsby is in fact a woman, the man apologises, claiming he mistook her for “a fucking faggot.”[6] The audience laughs as Gadsby mocks the man’s ignorance. However, around seventeen minutes in, Gadsby stops these jokes, explaining that her early comedy was built on self-deprecation. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins?” she asks. “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore.”[7] Gadsby then proceeds, with a seamless segue, into a series of jokes about gender-norms, artfully shifting the audience’s focus from jokes about her identity to jokes about the societal binaries that dictate her identity to be “gender not-normal” in the first place.[8] Gadsby recognizes, as Aristotle does, that the stories we tell become the narratives we use to make sense of the world, of life, and of our own identities.

Fifty minutes later, Gadsby returns to her anecdote about being misgendered. She informs the audience that while it was, “a very funny story,” this was only because she edited the real-life event; she created a false representation of it. Upon revealing this omission, Gadsby now tells the actual ending of the story. The young man comes back, realizing his mistake, and assaults Gadsby because she is “a lady faggot.”[9] The audience does not laugh—Gadsby does not let them. “That is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate,” Gadsby says.[10] This act of violence is a direct result of the stories told to these children, and how they learned to make sense of the world through them. Gadsby condemns our modern storytelling for allowing harmful and destructive narratives to proliferate.

Aristotle is aware of this dangerous power possessed by poetry; however, he does not seek to regulate it. Almost to the contrary, he directs poets to look to Homer in order to learn “the right way to tell falsehoods” (1460a19). The way poets should tell falsehoods, he writes, is through the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Poets want to make it clear that B follows from A; thus, when they insert B the reader will assume A is present—but this is false. This deception is necessary because a storyteller cannot simply lie and compromise their authority; they must trick readers and spectators into misapplying their own reason.[11] Aristotle then turns to the “bath scene,” in Book XIX of the Odyssey, as an example of a falsehood well-told.[12] In this scene, Penelope calls for an old servant to bathe an unfamiliar newcomer. This servant—Odysseus’ nurse from his childhood—recognizes the stranger to be Odysseus. Attempting to preserve his ruse, Odysseus tells the nurse that he merely looks like the missing king. However, when the nurse sees a distinctive scar, she realizes the truth. The fallacy of affirming the consequent in this case would seem to be the nurse’s assumption that B—the presence of the scar—means A is true—that the stranger who looks like Odysseus really is Odysseus. Yet, what would normally be a fallacy reveals the truth. Notably, when the nurse sees the scar, the narrative is briefly interrupted with a recollection of how Odysseus got the wound. The memory goes all the way back to Odysseus’ maternal grandfather giving the newborn Odysseus his name, which means “son of Pain.” [13] It then details the much later visit Odysseus paid to his grandfather where he was injured during a boar hunt. The anecdote reveals more about Odysseus’s character—the man of lies, disguises, and pain—than it does about how to tell falsehoods.[14] Instead, Aristotle has directed his readers’ attention to a passage in which a story reveals the truth in the face of a falsehood.

This peculiar tangent can be reconciled with the rest of Poetics when one considers the importance of judgement in relation to poetry for Aristotle. Specifically, he advocates for scrutinizing contradictions in poetical works, “in the same way as arguments rebutting a philosophical position” (1461b16–17). Furthermore, to determine if something is good or bad in poetry, one must look “not only at the actual deed or words, but also the identity of the person saying or doing the thing, the person to whom [they] said or did it, plus the occasion, the means and the motive” (1461a6–8). In directing his reader’s attention to this puzzling section of the Odyssey, Aristotle is calling for both his writing and Homer’s to be understood in light of their context and their contradictions. Essentially, he is providing a guide for how to approach all textual art, from Homer to the Socratic dialogues, and possibly even the Poetics itself. By following this guidance, readers will develop their capacity for judgement. Aristotle seems to imply that by developing this capacity for philosophical judgement in relation to poetry readers will be able to approach the truth, despite—and perhaps necessarily through—the falsehoods told by poets.

It is on this subject of judgement that Nanette challenges Poetics. Gadsby sees quite clearly the falsehoods mimetic artists have told—artists of the likes Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Pablo Picasso. However, in casting her judgement on these artists, Gadsby is not as optimistic as Aristotle. The falsehoods told by these individuals and those like them ultimately serve to exclude people like herself from having a place in the world. Gadsby says, “art history taught me there’s only ever been two types of women: a virgin or a whore.”[15] Within this binary, Gadsby finds no place for herself and her “masculine, off-centre, lesbian situation.”[16] Likewise, Gadsby is critical of the mythology built around figures like Picasso. Particularly, within Picasso’s image as a “passionate, virile, tormented genius, man, ball sack,” there is no room for his misogyny and its consequences.[17] This representation of Picasso allows for people to eschew the fact he slept with an underage girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and allow for Picasso’s claim she was in her prime, just as he was in his, to go unquestioned. As Gadsby later shouts, “a 17-year-old girl is just never, ever, ever in her prime. Ever!”[18] Gadsby renders judgement on these falsehoods, on these stories, on these representations of life, and her conclusion is political: we cannot allow for these representations to dominate. This appears to be why she claims Nanette will be her last comedy set, as she will not contribute to this exclusionary and abusive institution of storytellers.

However, Gadsby’s words need to be reconciled with the occasion of her speech: she is articulating her judgement of comedy through comedy—or something like it. As she tells the audience, particularly any men who may feel persecuted by her performance, “this is theatre, fellas.”[19] This is a representation of the real and debilitating damage that has been done to Gadsby in her life. Yet, despite the fact that this damage has been in part caused by the stories we tell, Gadsby actions reinforce the importance of storytelling in the process of healing from trauma. Gadsby uses art to highlight the limits of art; yet, when scrutinizing this contradiction, the importance of art to Gadsby’s understanding of human nature is evident. Indeed, Gadsby claims that stories are something we share, that connect us, that cure us. For this reason, she sought to tell her story properly to “people with minds of their own”—people who are capable of making their own judgements.[20] Her last words on stage are not a joke—instead, they are a retelling of Vincent Van Gogh’s story. Early in the show, she explains that, contrary to what some amateur art aficionados might think, Van Gogh’s mental illness did not spur him to make beautiful art. Van Gogh actually took medication to deal with his mental illness, paid for by an older brother, which had the side effect of causing him to experience the colour yellow very intensely. When Gadsby first tells this story, she suggests that “perhaps we have the sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated!”[21] Now, as she ends her show, she reframes this story again, asking the audience, “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent Van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a connection to the world.”[22] Gadsby suggests that through the particular stories we tell, we can begin to empathize universally. Both Gadsby and Aristotle understand stories to be the fundamental building blocks upon which we build our understandings of reality. Through these stories human beings create coherence, and through judging these stories human beings can learn. However, it is on this question of judging our stories that Gadsby and Aristotle begin to differ. Aristotle suggests that, through their falsehoods, stories may be able to teach individuals the proper, philosophical judgement. From particular lies, universal truths can be articulated. By contrast, Gadsby suggests that we need to develop a kind of political judgement to mediate our stories. Her performance is hopeful in suggesting that this judgement can still be cultivated through storytelling; however, it requires a shift. Rather than using our stories and judgements to seek truth, we need to seek empathy. The understanding of art embodied by Aristotle and Gadsby is not the same; they are potentially diametrically opposed. However, despite this conflict, Gadsby and Aristotle are participating in the same conversation about the nature of art, and what it means in relation to human life.

[1]. Cassie da Costa, “The Funny, Furious Anti-Comedy of Hannah Gadsby,” New Yorker, 02 May 2018,; Andrew Kahn, “Stand-Up Tragedy,” Slate, 11 July 2018,

[2]. See John Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City (Netflix, 2018); Tig Notaro, Happy To Be Here, (Netflix, 2018).

[3]. Gadsby, Nanette, 01:05:08–14.

[4]. John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle (New York, NY: Colombia University Press, 1960), 290. This universal quality in narrative art leads Aristotle to claim “poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history” (1451b5). Randall argues that, “Herodotus in verse would still be merely ‘history,’ not poetry; it would remain an account of particular facts, while poetry is of the nature rather of universals, of what such a man would probably or necessarily say or do. Poetry is just the kind of thing Thucydides puts into the speeches of his characters: Thucydides is clearly from Aristotle’s point of view a true poet.”

[5]. Gadsby, Nanette, 00:09:45–51.

[6]. Gadsby, 00:010:10–11:22.

[7]. Gadsby, 00:17:40–18:17.

[8]. Gadsby, 00:19:11–18.

[9]. Gadsby, 00:58:55–59:58

[10]. Gadsby, 00:59:59–01:00:10.

[11]. Dorothy Sayers, “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” English 1, no. 1 (1936): 31.

[12]. See Homer, Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1996), XIX.384–544

[13]. Homer, Odyssey, XIX.464.

[14]. Silvia Carli, “The Love Affair Between Philosophy and Poetry: Aristotle’s Poetics and Narrative Identity,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy (2015):153 n.4. This revelation is in line with Carli’s suggestion that the Poetics is unique in Aristotelean thought as it allows for the narrative construction of identities, offering an avenue to answer the question, “who is it?” Working from other texts in Aristotle’s corpus it is possible to answer questions about what a person is, such as if they are morally virtuous as per Nicomachean Ethics; however, Poetics is unique in this exposition of who a person is.

[15]. Gadsby, Nanette, 00:46:31–47:05.

[16]. Gadsby, 00:47:36–48:00.

[17]. Gadsby, 00:51:32–42.

[18]. Gadsby, 01:04:40–47.

[19]. Gadsby, 01:05:41–57.

[20]. Gadsby, 01:07:14­–18.

[21]. Gadsby, 00:33:20–35:08.

[22]. Gadsby, 01:07:40–57.

“Golden Rule” versus “Gilded Rule”: The Hobbesian Distortion in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

By Ashley Riley

At a first glance, Thomas Hobbes’ use of the inverted “Golden Rule” provides a compelling argument for the operation of society, primarily in the sense that it encourages everyone to be a considerate citizen. Treating others the way that they want to be treated, or avoiding the opposite, indeed feels like a fundamental principle, as Hobbes describes it to be in Chapter XIV of his Leviathan. In theory, the demand for policing and government intervention should be unnecessary if everyone simply did right by each other. Regardless whether humans are as innately politically inclined as Aristotle famously describes, or selfishly animalistic as Hobbes argues, this would seem to be a satisfactory rule of thumb to abide.

However, this claim may not speak to our humanity beyond a superficial level. If human beings are truly the despondent creatures that Hobbes claims we are, meaning that we are unable to live happily and peacefully without the intervention of a Leviathan, then this simple framework would prove to be insufficient. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment demonstrates this to be the case. Although Crime and Punishment illustrates the consequences for when this law is broken from a Hobbesian perspective, it simultaneously makes the case that abiding by this law ultimately leads to the downfall of society as a whole.

Before studying in greater detail the effect of this law in the novel, it is necessary to first dissect this rule in its original biblical context, and how it is used within Hobbes’ Leviathan more vividly. What we understand today as the “Golden Rule” first appears in Matthew 7:12, when Jesus states, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This encapsulates the idea that one must use the self as a guide to living ethically among one’s peers, and within a society as a whole. Notably, Hobbes includes the total inverse of this law within his Leviathan. At first glance, this appears to be the very same rule; however, there is a striking difference in its effect. Although both versions are general rules, they require reflection upon one’s particular self, which ultimately will provide a guide for how one will treat another. In order to understand this rule, one has to think about oneself, and one’s particularity in relation to others. This is where the two philosophies diverge: whereas the original rule is positive, in the sense that human action tends to matter more than inaction, Hobbes’ distortion is far less morally demanding. What matters most in the original perspective are the things that you do, whereas Hobbes suggests that the Leviathan instead should be responsible for action, and therefore that there is peace in passivity (e.g. as in do not kill, do not steal, etc). This is the crux of Hobbes’ pessimistic attitude towards mankind.

Although Hobbes’ first fundamental law of nature is “to seek peace and follow it” (99), this is not the same as Jesus’ intent in his sermon on the mount. Hobbes follows this law with another proclamation, claiming “[we must do] by all means what we can do to defend ourselves” (99). This seems contradictory, even within Hobbes’ own reasoning; if humans truly are as animalistic as he describes us to be, then peace can easily be sacrificed for the sake of self preservation (98). Even he seems to realize this contradiction, arguing:

From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law:

that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself… This is the law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them. And that law of all men, What you do not want done to you, do not do to another. (99)

By distorting this biblical law and defining it as a rule of nature, it appears as though Hobbes himself is trying to be Christlike. His Leviathan is not only what he believes to be an “honest” analysis of man, but he also provides us with a way to react to these flaws. Instead of trying to fight our true nature, we can embrace it; thus, Hobbes’ Leviathan acts as a “new Bible,” beginning with a distorted “Golden Rule,” or a first rule of living. If he is correct, then it seems as though mankind has a more stable path to follow; but if he is wrong, which Crime and Punishment  proves to be the case, then there are severe consequences to following his advice. Both texts illustrate the dystopia that would result in humanity’s acceptance of this philosophy, placing the tragic consequences at the forefront for us to observe.

As already stated, Crime and Punishment argues against Hobbes’ “Golden Rule” to an inverted degree. While Crime and Punishment  also offers a story of a main character attempting to challenge an unjust society, Raskolnikov simultaneously encompasses and defies Hobbes’ philosophies. Similar to Hobbes’ account of man, Raskolnikov validates the philosopher’s beliefs by arguing that “living souls demand life . . . are suspicious . . . [and] are reactionary!” (306-7). However, Raskolnikov additionally claims, “you can’t leap over nature by logic alone,” and this directly fights against Hobbes’ argument (307). While the philosopher claims that it is “reason” and the desire for “peace” that reconcile our dark nature (9; 97), Raskolnikov unravels this with his complex nature. He also defies Hobbes’ fundamental law of nature by committing his gruesome crimes. He unjustly does on to others what he would not want done upon himself, so he is deserving of the punishment bestowed upon him when the authorities intervene. Raskolnikov also defies Hobbes’ caricature of man with his constant acts of kindness and charity (282-91), and therefore in this sense, occasionally exhibits the tendencies of the original “Golden Rule.” All at once, Raskolnikov is the embodiment, and rejection of Hobbes’ principles.

By becoming a self-proclaimed deliverer of “justice,” Raskolnikov takes on arguably the most Hobbesian role within the text. Believing that his actions were not only “preordained” (82), but more provocatively, his “duty (310), Raskolnikov imposes the role of the Leviathan upon himself for the sake of maintaining justice within his own society. In Part Three of the novel, he defends this moral reasoning to his friend, Razumikhin; in greater detail, he claims:

Everyone is divided into two categories, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary people should live a life of obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law, because, you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary people have the right to carry out all manner of crimes and to break the law as they please, all because they are extraordinary. (310; emphasis added)

Regarding himself as a member of this extraordinary fraction of society, Raskolnikov reveals his Napoleonic complex, delivering what he believes is “true justice” within his own community (81). He implicitly argues that “I didn’t murder a person . . . I murdered a principle!” (329), which highlights a poignant flaw within Hobbes’ Leviathan and his distorted rule: although Raskolnikov looks inwards at his own particularity and compares it to Alyona Ivanovna’s, he is mistaken in deciding that they are not equals. Eventually, he understands this miscalculation, and that in actuality, he is equally as sinister because of his actions. In reflection towards the end of the novel, the narrator claims:

He had managed to go through with the murder thanks to his frivolous and craven character, which, moreover, had been irritated by hardship and failure. In reply to the question of what exactly had prompted him to turn himself in, he answered frankly: heartfelt remorse. There was something almost rude about it all. (641; emphasis added)

Although he eliminates those he considers unworthy within the society, he realizes by the end of the novel that he is just as terrible as those he condemns, especially in light of his unjust murder of Alyona’s innocent sister, Lizaveta (98).

Even though the novel presents a dark argument against the innately good nature of humanity, Crime and Punishment  is redeemed by having two other Christlike figures: Sonya and Dunya. Both strong women in struggling circumstances, they drive the ethical standards of the novel upward in two ways: the first being their devotion to morality, and the second being their self-sacrifice for those who they care most about. Sonya particularly plays a critical role, due both to her impact and due to the moral philosophies within the novel. Her significance is even highlighted by Raskolnikov’s mother, Pulkheria Alexandrovna, who says of her, “I have this premonition, Dunya. You won’t believe me, but the moment she came in it occurred to me that this is the crux of it all” (288). Therefore, her power within this novel cannot be denied. Sonya’s devotion to goodness and nobility provide Raskolnikov with a lens to observe how he was flawed in his reasoning, and even offers him potential redemption. When Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya about the details of his crime, denouncing Alyona Ivanovna as nothing more than a “louse . . . a useless, foul, noxious louse,” Sonya retorts by saying “[she was] a human being! Not a louse!” (500 emphasis added). It is Sonya who prompts Raskolnikov to consider whether he indeed had the “right to murder” (504), and this is when Raskolnikov’s transformation, or “conversion,” begins to develop. Her significance peaks when she argues, “accept suffering and through suffering redeem yourself—this is what you must do” (505). This is the very crux of the novel’s moral message. The Christian argument that suffering is more noble than causing harm to others, and is also redemptive to those who have done wrong, reconciles the tragic circumstances that this Hobbesian society enforces upon its characters. Sonya reveals to Raskolnikov that being extraordinary does not equate to being free from accountability, and that every person should take moral responsibility for themselves, and for each other. Therefore, this is the purest application of Jesus’ original Golden Rule; instead of living in a world where there is a “war of every man against every man” (Hobbes 95), people must overcome this dark part of human nature, and question if it really exists in the capacity which Hobbes describes.

While Hobbes nobly condones the idea that people should treat each other with mutual respect for the very sake of peace, his greater argument offers a distorted version of man. The subject of his entire text argues that human beings are not capable of living in peace among each other without sacrificing their own freedom, but this does not prove to be successful in Crime and Punishment . If we are to study these laws with the same suspicion of mankind’s capacity as Hobbes possesses, then this appears to be a fragile system, indefensible against those who decide to challenge it. Although the Leviathan exists to carry out punishment to those who violate these laws, it only takes one person to disobey for the whole system to be at risk, as Raskolnikov illustrates in Crime and Punishment . Regardless of the use of Hobbes’ principle however, both texts arrive at the same conclusion: that human beings are far more complex than Hobbes’ theory and “solution” to society’s problem implies. While Hobbes’ own Leviathan suggests that superficial selfishness is enough to satisfy the needs and desires of mankind, it produces in Crime and Punishment  the Raskolnikov/Napoleon effect, which is dangerous because it encourages extremist efforts, which are justified by a distorted guise that it is for the benefit of society. Where Hobbes’ distorted law of nature prompts inaction, the original “Golden Rule” demands moral action, encouraging each person to think about their particulars in relation with their fellow man. What matters are the things that you do, not simply that you did not kill, or did not steal. This is the unifying key that the societies of both texts ultimately lack. Only in the Christlike figures do we see this reconciliation, and so this is the tragedy that the Leviathan and Crime and Punishment  both ultimately share. Although the characters of Dostoevsky’s novel operate within terribly flawed societies, they are still successful in abiding by noble moral philosophies. They provide an argument for the innate goodness of mankind that Hobbes blatantly disregards from being true, and this is where the philosopher is most deeply flawed in his analysis of human nature and politics. 

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. 1866. Translated and edited by Oliver Ready, Penguin Classics, 2014.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Parts I and II. 1651. Edited by A.P Martinich, and Brian Battiste, Broadview, 2005.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”: An Analysis of Lear’s Journey Toward Self-Knowledge in William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

By Alexandra Cunningham

            The questions of William Shakespeare’s King Lear may, at times, be greater than the answers. In King Lear the question of identity lies at the heart of the play. The titular character’s journey toward self-knowledge forms the text’s overarching goal. Through Lear’s character, Shakespeare examines the extent to which self-knowledge is possible. Lear’s loss of dignity and consequent descent into temporary madness arises from his confused and conflicted idea of the self. Shakespeare emphasizes the notion that suffering and vulnerability are the enabling forces behind an understanding of the self. Through Lear’s quest, Shakespeare raises a seemingly simple but absolutely necessary question: who are we as humans? Through an exploration of this question, Shakespeare conveys the universality of Lear’s journey to self-knowledge.

            Shakespeare does not introduce Lear as a man undergoing a loss of identity, but rather as a man confused with his notion of self. Regan’s commentary on her father in the first scene suggests this idea: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (Shakespeare 1.1.284-285). Lear has two notable statuses that he believes define his identity: his role as a king and as a father. His existential confusion is initially portrayed by Shakespeare as stemming from a misunderstanding of his responsibilities. Lear’s desire to abandon his role as king is evidenced in his first lines:

We have divided

In three our kingdom, and ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths while we

Unburdened crawl toward death.

(Shakespeare 1.1.32-36)

He plans to bestow his kingdom to his daughters, and to lose the responsibility demanded by his kingship in his old age. However, Lear does not think this through fully. Although he does not want the responsibilities of a king, he still thinks he will be regarded as kingly and maintain his status. Yet if Lear is not king, then he is necessarily a subject.

Lear not only grants his daughters his responsibilities as a ruler, but also as a parent. He longs to be nurtured by them, and live out his remaining years in “rest,” dependent on his daughters’ “kind nursery” (Shakespeare 1.1.117-118). Lear thus inverts his role as parent to become child and his role as king to become subject. However, Lear is also hesitant to give up his kingship and fatherhood completely; he wishes to maintain the sense of authority these roles provide. Lear therefore attempts to occupy various conflicting roles, and begins the play not with a loss of identity, but rather with a conflicting and contradictory view of the self.

The first step in Shakespeare’s process of self-knowledge is Lear’s reassessment of what it is that defines him. The love-contest Lear holds at the beginning of the play represents, perhaps on an unconscious level, his need for “some reassurance of identity”.[1]  Lear wants to be told he is loved, “the deepest and most certain evidence that [he is] wanted and needed” (Jorgensen 95). So, even in the beginning, Lear is unknowingly asking those around him who they think he is.

            The confusion Lear experiences leads to his suffering. His lack of self-recognition is what enables his initial downfall. After bestowing his kingdom on his daughters Regan and Goneril, Lear finds himself suffering the same rejection he presented to Cordelia. His daughters refuse to meet any of his needs. The needs Lear is conveying are not those of a basic sort, but rather those which enable him to have some concept of selfhood. Shakespeare emphasizes a difference between human needs and basic animal needs through Lear’s speech to his daughters:

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need—

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.

You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,

As full of grief as age, wretched in both.

(Shakespeare 2.4.258-266)

In begging his daughters not to see his needs through reason, Lear is appealing to the idea that this human sense of need is beyond practical understanding. Regan and Goneril are not able to see his true needs as necessary constituents of his sense of identity. This could signify that identity is something strictly personal, and that understanding what makes us who we are is something only accessible to ourselves. If, perhaps, Regan and Goneril are not able to recognize that, then they may be “the most vicious characters Shakespeare ever drew. At the heart of their evil beats a will to strip others of dignity” (Driscoll 140).

When need is understood only to be that which is necessary to a human’s survival on a basic level, man can be reduced to beast. In treating someone as requiring only the most rudimentary needs of survival, we are perhaps not recognizing them as fully human. The implication here is that humanity requires more than mere survival. Lear comments on Regan’s gorgeous clothes, which do not serve to keep her warm, but rather provide some sort of social elegance and dignity. Lear is able to “learn about unaccommodated man—his unwarranted pride and his frailty—through inquiring into man’s necessities” (Jorgensen 118). Lear’s “true need” is something different from basic necessity. He requires dignity, love, and respect; his struggle is that of a man who wants “to retain the self, the stature, and the dignities he has achieved” (Bennett 154). The dignity Lear longs for is necessary to his understanding of selfhood: “it is the consequence and evidence of the essential social nature and unique consciousness of the human animal” (Driscoll 140). Thus, it is this denial of human dignity that leads Lear on his quest for self-discovery.

           Lear now sees himself and the world without the reassuring notions of power, respect, and dignity he had previously possessed. Without these comforts, Lear can begin to understand his selfhood. After his initial anger at his daughters’ rejection subsides, Lear is faced with the realization that he is the cause of his own suffering: “O most small fault, / How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! . . . Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in, / And thy dear judgment out!” (Shakespeare 1.4.221-227). Lear is only able to see that his actions were wrong when he begins his pursuit of self-discovery. The suffering caused by this realization may be even more agonizing than the rejection Lear faced from his daughters. Although Lear had initially displayed an un-examined view of his responsibility, he is now forced to grasp the full extent of his situation. He must confront the harsh reality that he is the one at fault, that it is he who brought his situation about. It is thus this realization that leads Lear into his bout of madness: “O fool, I shall go mad” (Shakespeare 2.4.279). Shakespeare presents Lear’s madness as a necessary component of his pursuit of self-knowledge.

            Suffering is portrayed as having a crucial role in achieving self-discovery, serving as both the cause of self-knowledge and the price of self-knowledge. Lear’s suffering is essential to his own redemption: “there is nothing more noble and beautiful in literature than Shakespeare’s exposition on the effect of suffering in reviving the greatness and eliciting the sweetness of Lear’s nature” (Bradley 24). It seems as though Lear’s upset was essential to his pursuit of self-knowledge. Although Lear could have been content relying on Cordelia’s “kind nursery,” the suggestion by Shakespeare is that he would not have attained self-knowledge. Living in comfort and in normalcy are not sufficient for us to understand who we are. Shakespeare is proposing that only through hardship are we able to come to self-knowledge. Lear is able to achieve some degree of enlightenment through his suffering, and he recovers what is most important to him: Cordelia. He is able to recognize that love is one of his true needs. Although it is clear from the love-contest that Lear has always been concerned with familial love, he is only able to understand, on a deeper level, the true nature of love when he is put through so much suffering. Dignity, as has already been established, is a uniquely human conception. The lack of dignity is vulnerability. It is only in these moments of human vulnerability that we can start to find answers to a seemingly basic but imperative question: who am I?

            Lear’s important question occurs early on in the play: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Shakespeare 1.4.189). While this question is personal for Lear, it is also pertinent to our understanding of the human condition. A question so necessary to human life cannot be understood on the minute scale of one character. It appears as though Lear’s question pertains to humanity more broadly. Josephine Waters Bennett conveys the grandiosity behind Lear’s insight:

The storm within Lear’s mind goes beyond good and evil, beyond the narrow world of preceptoral morality, to the imponderable realities of cause and effect, of man’s ignorance, his weakness, his blindness, and his blundering and suffering through life to      his release from ‘the rack of this tough world.’ (153)

As humans, we are all inherently searching for the answer—potentially non-existent—to this question of identity. Lear’s struggle is thus universal to all of us, and, if we take his question to be essential to our nature, his quest is on behalf of all of humanity. Lear is not only asking who Lear is, but is asking who we are, as humans—what is our nature?

            By the end of the play and his life, Lear has become partially enlightened but has not been able to fully answer his question. This may be because there is no easy answer to the question of identity within the confines of one play. To simplify and complete his transformation would force the play to lose some of its complexity. The question of identity is one that is “powerfully raised and examined,” and the play would lose some of its meaning if “Lear had finally left the stage as a fully rational and enlightened man” (Jorgensen 115). Although Lear achieves some sort of self-transformation by the end of the play, he is not able to reach wholeness.

Lear does, however, learn to identify what is most important to him. In the beginning, Lear grappled with what exactly it is that he needs, perhaps unknowingly asking what exactly it is that makes him Lear. He now discovers that love is what is necessary for him, particularly the love of Cordelia. Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that love is something essential to us as humans; the form this love takes on for Lear is embodied in his daughter. The change from King Lear’s opening scene to the titular character’s final lines is remarkable, too. Initially, Lear had demanded attention from all, and the public love-contest spoke to his ego. Now, his dying words call attention to Cordelia, someone other than himself: “Look on her! Look, her lips. / Look there, look there” (Shakespeare 5.3.283-284). He recognizes Cordelia as something more valuable than himself, and her love and existence as something necessary. Lear has thus expanded remarkably on the depth of his self-knowledge. Through his suffering, Lear is able to learn about his notion of self and of love.

            Shakespeare’s King Lear concerns, above all, Lear’s journey to self-discovery. Shakespeare emphasizes the frail nature of identity, and develops the possibility for self-knowledge through Lear’s progression in the play. Lear’s confused identity enables his rejection and loss of dignity by his daughters. This loss of what it is he believes makes him Lear drives him to madness. Shakespeare suggests, however, that through suffering and vulnerability, self-knowledge may be attainable. Although Lear does not undergo a complete transformation, his partial enlightenment occurs because of his suffering. His understanding of such notions of love and selfhood are enhanced through an acceptance of vulnerability and responsibility. King Lear allows Shakespeare to explore a necessary and universal question on the small-scale of one man: who are we? Shakespeare seems to suggest that the extent to which we can understand this crucial question may be limited.

Works Cited

Bradley, A C. “King Lear.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear: A Collection of                       Critical Essays, edited by Janet Adelman, Prentice-Hall, 1978, pp. 22–33.

Driscoll, James P. Identity in Shakespearean Drama. Bucknell UP, 1983.

Jorgensen, Paul A. Lear’s Self-Discovery. University of California Press, 1967.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Jay L. Halio, Cambridge UP, 1992.

Waters Bennett, Josephine. “The Storm Within: the Madness of Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, 1962, pp. 137–155. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2866783.

Rhetoric and Reading: Plato’s Socrates on the Viability of Written Instruction

By Jon Taylor

In the Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamos recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, writing is said to be capable only of conveying opinion and not truth.[1] Those who learn from written letters rather than being instructed “become hearers of much without teaching [and] will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they’ve become wise in their own opinion instead of wise.”[2] The difference between the cultivation of opinion and knowledge therefore appears to be in the method of instruction. The irony of such an argument’s appearance in a written dialogue is obvious, as the contemporary wisdom of Great Books programs as expressed by Leo Strauss declares that the great texts are in fact the best instructors available to students.[3] The Phaedrus argues that though writing’s ability to properly instruct and educate is limited, the literary form of the dialogue is not only immune to these criticisms, but is a method of instruction able to ameliorate one’s ability to come to know what is through dialogue and engagement with the other.

Socrates never wrote and is only known to the contemporary student through Plato’s written dialogues such as the Phaedrus, Aristophanes’ Clouds, and the works of Xenophon.[4]The contemporary student is quite accustomed to learning from texts, and thus Socrates’ criticism appears quite foreign. Nevertheless, the phenomenon identified in the Egyptian myth is one very familiar to the undergraduate student. Socrates condemns writing because the “offspring of that art [written works] stand there as living beings, but if you ask them about something … keep a solemn silence.”[5] No matter how forcefully one might address the text, it will not respond to the specific inquiry of the reader. Unlike a professor who can be asked to slow down, address a particularly challenging concept or section, or simply provide an explanation in more accessible language, written instruction will not waver from its lesson plan. The written text cannot fully anticipate where its instruction will be insufficient for its reader; it is an object rather than an instructor.

Nonetheless, the student of written letters is not fundamentally ignorant of the truth. The student will possess a certain familiarity with the truth expressed through the written word despite their lack of genuine understanding. The myth of Theuth—if it can be understood as expressing the same definitions of knowledge and opinion as articulated by Socrates in other Platonic dialogues—provides a distinction between correct opinion and knowledge which understands opinion as a state between that which is and is not. These students who “recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves” are not expressly ignorant of the truth,[6] but they are unable to give an account of what is beyond the opinion delivered to them through written speech. Such a state is perhaps more dangerous than outright ignorance, as a recognition of one’s familiarity with the truth may often be conflated with a knowledge of truth.

Opinion has the curious character of in-betweenness, being related to both wisdom and ignorance. While knowledge and opinion are similar, and can both lay claim to what is, “opinion is dependent on one thing and knowledge on another, each according to its own power.”[7] As Glaucon and Socrates determine in the Republic, “[k]nowledge is presumably dependent on what is, to know of what is that it is and how it is.”[8] Accordingly, opinion lacks that understanding of the how and why which is present in knowledge. Opinion is not, however, the opposite of knowledge, as to “that which is not, we were compelled to assign ignorance.”[9] Rather, as Diotima puts it in the Symposium, “to opine correctly without being able to give an account is neither to know expertly (for how could expert knowledge be an unaccounted for matter?) nor lack understanding (for how could lack of understanding be that which has hit upon what is?).”[10] Hence a correct opinion is directed toward and reflects the truth, but is not an understanding of truth as such. Any correlation of correct opinion with the truth is—in the Platonic Socrates’ view—little better than coincidence.

Correct opinion, however, is merely a part of—and not the whole of—opinion. According to its nature, opinion does not always reflect the truth: being between knowledge and ignorance, it has a whole spectrum of quasi-falsehoods and near-truths to claim as its own. Diotima’s formulation above presented by Socrates in the Symposium engages only with “correct opinion…somewhere between intelligence and lack of understanding,”[11] and fails to engage with the risks of false opinion which Socrates addresses in greater detail in the Phaedrus. For example, Lysias’ non-lover speech engenders opinion in the reader, but certainly not correct opinion. Socrates’ fears about writing are therefore twofold: writing both engenders dependency upon opinion rather than expertise regarding what is and encourages the proliferation of false opinions. Opinion therefore admits of being an inversion of the Socratic maxim: It does not know, but it also does not know that it does not know.

There is no guarantee, therefore, of a written speech conveying correct opinion to the reader. While the person skilled in rhetoric who ignores good and bad in order to persuade the multitudes to do bad things instead of good ones intentionally misuses the rhetorical art,[12] writing’s potential to have the same effect is not bound by the intentions of its creator. The rhetorical art does not compel anyone who ignores the truth to speak,[13] but a written speech can be compelled to speak by anyone who encounters it regardless of context and regardless of its ability to be properly comprehended. Though a speech may, if understood correctly, say one thing only, once it’s been written, it rolls around everywhere to be read both by those who will understand and by those for whom it is in no way fitting.[14] Unlike one who knows, a written speech “does not know to whom it ought to speak and to whom not.”[15] Without its father’s assistance,[16] a written speech may unwittingly be misinterpreted and taken to endorse the greatest injustice.  

The shortcomings of writing are therefore ultimately derived from an inability to properly practice the rhetorical art. Socrates denies that a text could ever truly be a teacher in the manner which Strauss describes because the teacher must use the rhetorical to match the form of their speeches to the form of the soul of the pupil, and this struggle is absent from the instruction of written letters.[17] Without the true art of rhetoric, she who knows the truth will not be able to persuade by art,[18] and so without the active engagement of the instructor with the pupil, the art of rhetoric cannot be performed correctly.

As stated above, a written text may always be made to speak, but it can never be made to listen or engage. A written text “indicates one thing only, and always the same.”[19] The form of the reader’s soul cannot be determined by a written piece, and as a consequence neither can the form of speech that would be most appropriate to the student. The instruction of the written speech is therefore limited to one form of speech and will at best be unable to persuade the reader, and at worst inadvertently persuade the reader of the opposite of its true intention. Because of this inability to lead the soul,[20] one cannot consider writing to be able to argue with a view to what is correct,[21] as it is fundamentally ill-prepared to engage in the proper art of rhetoric. Socrates suggestion is that even if a student may appear persuaded by instruction derived from written letters, because the true art of rhetoric cannot be practiced as part of the instruction, the student can never be persuaded of the truth. The best the student can hope to achieve is the affirmation of an opinion.

However, Socrates’ criticism of writing appears in a written work. Plato was not only aware of Socrates’ apparent distaste for writing, but reproduced it in his own work, indicating that while Plato’s Socrates may pose the problem, Plato himself may present the solution. Plato’s decision to write dialogues suggests that dialogues are written works that counteract the problems of writing and reconcile the soul of the reader with the kind of speech appropriate to it. The dialogue itself is the form of speech “brother of this one [a discussion between friends embodied in the world] … that is written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence toward those it ought.”[22] The dialogue is able to accomplish such a feat through its use of dramatic setting and characters, the obscurity of Plato within the form of the dialogue, and the representation of varying forms of souls the reader is challenged to interpret, judge, and inhabit.

A dialogue does not simply raise questions and give answers in the form of correct opinion. Often the reader is given no definitive answer at all, as in aporetic dialogues like the Euthyphro or the Theaetetus.Plato intentionally obscures himself in the dialogues so as not to provide one with an easily accessible opinion to attribute to him. Opinions are presented not simply in the words, but also the deeds of the interlocutors, and are meant to be examined and judged as such. One can come to know the truth through engagement with Socrates in the form of a dialogue, but must do so through a sort of imagined argumentation. No one point can be taken as absolute truth without personal examination, and even then, Plato’s Socrates often leaves just enough unsaid that the reader must come to the conclusions herself rather than have it transmitted directly through the written word. The dialogues force the reader to treat the text as if it were alive and capable of being interrogated.

More specifically, the Phaedrus provides a model for engagement with written texts which may address Socrates’ concerns. Throughout the dialogue, the speech of Lysias is examined and re-examined. In the Theaetetus, Socrates appears to resurrect Protagoras for a time in order to more fully defend his position on knowledge.[23] Like the speech of Lysias, the views of Protagoras lack the assistance and defense of their father. In order to help “his [Protagoras’] offspring,”[24] Socrates comes to embody the renowned sophist so that his ideas can be properly interrogated. The same occurs in the Phaedrus, as Socrates attempts to recreate the speech of Lysias for the purpose of further investigation. As Socrates and Phaedrus engage with the text, they reanimate it to the point that it becomes a third partner in their dialogue. Despite Socrates’ critique of writing, he appears to offer a model of engagement with the written word which transforms text into speech. Though the text cannot get its father’s assistance, it becomes the duty of the reader to attempt to offer that help to the text in place of the father.

With the speech of Lysias, then, Socrates inverts the role of the rhetorician, and attempts to understand the form of the speech based on an engagement with the soul of the speaker. Such a process still appears to be a part of the art of rhetoric, but in reverse, as an understanding of the soul of Lysias is necessary for Socrates to then make a speech as Lysias. The same process seems to occur in the activity of properly reading a Platonic dialogue. Jacob Howland says that

the dialogues mimic the complex form and vitality characteristic of actual conversations. To understand the dialogue, then, one must understand the conversation as a whole. This means that one must in some sense enter into the souls of its participants, in order to see how each speech fits the nature of the speaker and responds (or fails to respond) to the speeches, deeds, and dispositions of the other participants.[25]

In inhabiting the souls of the participants, one is better able to understand the deeds, and not simply the words, of the dialogue. In order to do this, however, one must engage in the art of rhetoric, as in order to enter into the souls of the participants as Howland prescribes, one must know the souls of the learner as the rhetorician does. To interpret is to think rhetorically. In attempting to determine why Plato has portrayed these characters in such manners as they are and what that information is supposed to transmit to the reader, the reader has placed themselves in the position of Plato just as Socrates places himself in the position of Lysias or Protagoras.

Obviously, such a practice is not possible with every form of writing. Plato’s Socrates is correct to identify an inability to communicate the truth in many forms of written text. In order to withstand Socrates’ criticisms, Plato’s dialogues must be complex. As is evident by the apparent contradiction of Plato’s Socrates defaming writing in one of Plato’s written dialogues, Plato understands the problem of written instruction and knows how to rectify it. The reader of dialogues can occupy the space of both reader and rhetorician because Plato provides the reader with all the dramatic information necessary to identify the kinds of souls of the participants. Plato’s arguments are always obscured, but the dramatic character of the dialogues invites the reader to consider things both as a fellow interlocutor, but also as a writer. The dialogue of Plato’s work is therefore not only horizontal but vertical. The reader is made privy to the horizontal discussion between the characters, but is also participating in a vertical dialogue with Plato by simultaneously occupying the roles of reader and fellow rhetorician.[26]

The literary form of the dialogue therefore appears to be Plato’s response to Socrates’ criticism of writing. Through the use of dramatic setting and characters, the dialogue is able to better replicate those kinds of discussions in which Socrates would engage in Athens. By appealing to the reader in this way, the written dialogue comes alive, representing and responding to various forms of souls with various forms of speeches. The dialogues do not say the same thing to whoever read them because they are active conversations in which the reader is both a participant and composer. Furthermore, the dialogues do not provide the ends to conversation, but the means to continue them with others. Dialogues do not supply those wise in opinion with correct opinion, nor ingrain false opinion. Rather, they train the reader to discern for themselves and engage with Socrates in their own dialogues. The Phaedrus serves not only to justify the practice of reading the Great Books to its readers, but in a certain sense justifies their study to Socrates himself.


Burger, Ronna. Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Howland, Jacob. “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.” Pheonix 45, no. 3. (1991): 189-214.

Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by James H. Nichols Jr. London: Cornell University Press, 1998.

——. Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 2016.

——. Symposium, Translated by Seth Bernadete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

——, Theaetetus. Translated by M. J. Levett. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990.

Smith, Thomas W. “The Protreptic Character of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics.’” Polity 27, no. 2 (1994): 307–30.

Strauss, Leo. “What is Liberal Education?” Address delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Chicago, June 6, 1959.

————–. Socrates and Aristophanes. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966; 1980.

[1] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. James H. Nichols Jr. (London: Cornell University Press, 1998), 275a.

[2] Plato, 275a-c.

[3] Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?” (address, Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Chicago, June 6, 1959); “For all practical purposes, pupils, of whatever degree of proficiency, have access to the teachers who are not in turn pupils, to the greatest minds, only through the great books. Liberal education will then consist in studying with the proper care the great books which the greatest minds have left behind — a study in which the more experienced pupils assist the less experienced pupils, including the beginners.”

[4] Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966; 1980), 3.

[5] Plato, Phaedrus, 275d.

[6] Plato, 275a.

[7] Plato, Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 477b.

[8] Plato, 478a.

[9] Plato, 478c.

[10] Plato, Symposium, trans. Seth Bernadete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 202a.

[11] Plato, 202a.

[12] Plato, Phaedrus, 260c.

[13] Plato, 260d.

[14] Plato, 275e.

[15] Plato, 275e.

[16] Plato, 275e.

[17] Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?”

[18] Plato, Phaedrus, 260d.

[19] Plato, 275d.

[20] Plato, 261a.

[21] Plato, 261b.

[22] Plato, 276a.

[23] Plato, Theaetetus, trans. M. J. Levett (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990), 165e-168c.

[24] Plato, 165e.

[25] Jacob Howland, “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology,” Phoenix 45, no.3 (1991), 193.

[26] Aristotle is a good example of a thinker works are “written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence toward those it ought” without being dialogues (276a). See Ronna Burger, Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) and Thomas W. Smith, “The Protreptic Character of the Nicomachean Ethics,” Polity 27, no. 2 (1992): 307–30.

 [BZ1]the writer

The Way to Virtue

By Jin Jin

Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience provide distinct answers to one question: what does it take to become virtuous? From their answers, I find that the two authors have fundamentally different views of human nature. Emerson holds that human nature is independent, harmonious, and free. Therefore, one can find the way to virtue by being self-reliant. On the contrary, Thoreau insinuates that human nature is dependent, chaotic, and slavish. Therefore, virtue relies on being in opposition to external authorities and imperfect conditions.


Emerson argues that self-reliance is a necessary condition for one to become virtuous, so “trust thyself” (50), for the way towards virtue is “wholly strange and new,” original, untaken, and unique to every individual (66). Without self-reliance, one cannot find her or his own path towards virtue, and one’s own path is the only path. To follow a path without

Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson

self-reliance is to imitate or to conform, which is not a way to virtue but “a deliverance which does not deliver” (50). Emerson’s argument could invite two potential misinterpretations, which I find worth debating at length and contrasting with Thoreau’s. One misinterpretation is that self-reliance is an apolitical, anti-social, or isolationist way of life. The other misinterpretation creates a dichotomy between principle and practice. It is a false presumption that if virtue is not relative to individual preferences, then there must be a common practice for everyone to become virtuous when the external conditions are equal.

To be self-reliant means to seek for nothing outside oneself (Emerson 47n1). It requires one to live courageously amidst reality, and to work on the “plot of ground” that providence has given to that person (50). Following this definition, I must say that Emerson’s self-reliant man is not apolitical. He does not exclude himself from the society. He does not misconceive his own or human significance, nor does he isolate himself in absolute solitude, for the self-reliant man lives a life in accordance with his nature, in acceptance of his human condition and his time (50). Thus, a self-reliant person does not measure his significance according to external references; his virtue does not depend on how much he struggles against the external environment that is always imperfect. Such a person is great, for he keeps the “independence of solitude” while living a life “in the midst of the crowd” in harmony (55). By recognizing human capacity and greatness of such harmony, Emerson implies that it is facile to determine whether a man is self-reliant just by looking at external references, such as what he does as a job, how much money he makes, or whether he is persecuted unjustly (cf. Thoreau 135; 151; and 149).

In contrast, Thoreau finds it hard to harmonize the way to virtue with a life in the society, for “there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men” (140). In the absence of that harmony, Thoreau demands “at once a better government” and a better vision shared by the masses (133, emphasis in original). If those are not attainable, then one should choose to live an isolated and apolitical life (146). In Emerson’s terms, those demands do not demonstrate self-reliance, but reliance and “a poor external way of speaking” (67).

Henry David Thoreau

Emerson acknowledges that the society is the natural environment for human beings, which is always imperfect and not always in our control. One cannot live without the society because “no man can violate his nature” (58). When social changes take place, “for every thing that is given, something is taken” (77). Social progress is a moving image, if not human delusion, that does not alter the form of society (79). Thus, one is not being self-reliant by holding on to the wishful thinking that men are capable of perfecting everything in their society, or that people would become virtuous after external conditions are made perfect. If self-reliance is indeed necessary for virtue, then those wishful imaginations, even in good will, cannot lead to virtue.

Regarding the second misinterpretation—the dichotomy between perennial principles and ever-changing practices—I find that virtue is not relative in Emerson’s terms, but the path towards virtue ought to be unique and original for every person in accordance with one’s own condition. In the central paragraph of Self-Reliance, Emerson says that “when good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way” (66). Emerson describes, with caution, that the above statement is the “nearest approach” to put his “thought” in words, given that “the highest truth” “probably cannot be said” (66). It occurs to me that Emerson’s caution is grounded in the classical understanding that virtuous people are apt to choose the mean and avoid the excesses, yet the action towards the mean needs to be taken in relation to each person’s own condition (Aristotle 1107a1). In other words, virtue consists both in theoretical understanding and practical judgement, so it seems to be relative if we only consider what each individual does in order to become virtuous. This classical understanding of virtue helps explain Emerson’s claim that the way to virtue “shall exclude example and experience,” for it is a way “from man, not to man” (66).

Emerson “On Character”

Furthermore, self-reliance makes it possible for one to fulfill the meaning, the work, or the telos of life (50). I interpret the meaning of “work” in this context as the telos, because Emerson says that “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”, and advises us to “accept the place the divine providence has found” for us (50). Those words indicate a providential purpose of human life, which is happiness that comes when one is dedicated to and excels at fulfilling their telos—this is the perennial principle. Overall, Emerson’s Self-Reliance reflects the classical understanding that principles and practices are complementary. Virtue enables human beings to achieve happiness, and happiness is the “highest good” of human life (Aristotle 1094a20). Virtue is not relative, but the way to virtue is relative to one’s own condition.

On the contrary, Thoreau is trapped in the false dichotomy of absolute principles and human practices. I say this because Thoreau’s theory of virtue relies on the society to be imperfect, and one’s way to virtue depends not on oneself but on the degree of external imperfectness (145-146). Thoreau asserts that “government is at best but an expedient” that, in most cases, fails to fix society’s supposed distortions, as “the government itself” is vulnerable to human vices, abuses, and perversions (131). In other words, cure is tainted by what it is designed to cure in the first place. Thoreau’s disobedience is not self-reliant; it denies the possibility of self-reliance. For instance, virtue is, “absolutely speaking,” a dependent variable, “the more money, the less virtue.” Thoreau asserts that it is because virtue is not required to earn money, but money, as an expedient, removes the “moral ground” from a man and makes virtue unnecessary (151). Such an understanding of virtue depends on external conditions.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, away from corrupting society

Cleverness in rhetoric notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Thoreau is happy. As Thoreau divines that virtue cannot sustain itself and is vulnerable in front of material or external conditions, his conception is a chaotic one that loses sight of human telos and lands on dual-excesses of pride and abasement. Following Thoreau’s conception, virtue becomes groundless when a person’s life is expedient or when there is an abundance of “means” for him. The more affluently a person lives, the less willingness he has towards the good (151-152). The presupposed dichotomy between virtue and wealth in Thoreau’s argument implies that he denies the significance of human choice within the realm of human nature. This argument reflects two extremes that are equally problematic. On one hand, “the best thing” that a rich man can do is to realize the “schemes” he had when he was poor (151). Thoreau underestimates human capacity by insinuating that external and material conditions impose hard limits to human choices and ways to virtue. On the other hand, Thoreau’s own choice to escape and be isolated from the society (146; 156), as well as to declare that the “true place for a just man” under an unjust government is but “a prison” (149), betray that he overestimates human significance by claiming that he, and those who live by his teaching, can live a life that (in Emerson’s view, at any rate) violates human nature (cf. Emerson 58). Altogether, Thoreau’s words reflect one who is overly proud of living ‘above’ human nature and abased by human reliance on external conditions at the same time.

Interestingly, Thoreau is fascinated by the thought of self-reliance. He vehemently criticizes “the American” for its “lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance” (141-142). However, this criticism is directed to a collective identity, as if it can be self-reliant like a person. Contrary to Emerson’s “trust thyself” (50), and the call for us to learn self-reliance from the greatest thinkers who “spoke not what men, but what they thought” (49), Thoreau talks about self-reliance in a way that does not sound like his own thought, but a pre-established concept. In other words, Thoreau accuses his contemporary countrymen for lacking self-reliance without being self-reliant.

One can hardly speak of disobedience without targeting an external object that one disobeys. In Ginga Eiyū Densetsu, a Japanese space opera, there is a small band of democratic militants fighting for their independence and defending their last stronghold against Kaiser Reinhard von Lohengramm, the monarch who rules the rest of the cosmos. They chose a battle cry for their cause: ‘To hell, Kaiser!’ An eccentric pilot among them mumbled with disappointment that “we do not have much independence after all, for we cannot even say our cause without using the word Kaiser.” Being self-reliant and independent can be seen as incompatible with disobedience and grievances, for the idea of disobedience itself is dependent upon something other than self.

In addition, a self-reliant reader values the “sentiment” of texts more than “any thought they may contain” (Emerson 49). Sentiment is individual, for it is inseparable from human nature and the awareness of human individuality, before rationality and conformity take over (51). With that being said, I find that the sentiment in Civil Disobedience drifts further from self-reliance than its thought does. Everywhere I look in Thoreau’s text, I see calculations. There are calculations of force (133-134), of votes (140), and of dollars (154-155; 161-162). But most strikingly, there is this ‘miscalculation’ of thought that could be remedied if Thoreau had been faithful to his claim of self-reliance. In Thoreau’s quotation of Confucius:

Confucius said: “If a State is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame” (Thoreau 153).

My knowledge tells me that it is a misquotation, and the sentiment it conveys is un-Confucian. In my view, it betrays Thoreau’s attempt to support his argument that virtue depends on external circumstances, especially on state power and political institutions. Nothing can be further from Confucius’s thought on this:

Riches and honors are what men desire. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If it cannot be avoided in the proper way, they should not be avoided. If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfill the requirements of that name? (Confucius, The Analects: Li Ren, No. 5).

Ironically, Confucius’ words can be taken as a direct criticism of Thoreau’s dually-excessive view of human nature and his overemphasis of external conditions. Confucius recognizes that worldly and material desires are natural to human beings; a great man can have desires while being virtuous and true to himself. The harmony between worldly and virtuous life reflects the self-reliant way to virtue based on human nature, which is what we find throughout Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

In conclusion, a self-reliant person is independent amidst the crowd. He lives naturally as a social being and he has the capacity to become virtuous through practice. This is an orderly view of human nature. On the contrary, chaotic views cannot define human significance without external reference. Human nature so conceived is in need of external order or nurturing, and by which it can be described as slavish. Such a view demonstrates dual-excesses of pride and servitude, which is everything but self-reliant. As for the way to virtue, Emerson teaches us to “take the way from man, not to man” (66); Thoreau’s way is precisely the latter.

Works Cited


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, second edition. Translated by Terence Irwin. Hackett, 1999.


Confucius. The Analects: Li Ren. Translated by James Legge. Chinese Text Project,


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The American Scholar, Self-Reliance, Compensation, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. American Book Company, 1893, pp. 49-81,


Tanaka, Yoshiki. Ginga Eiyū Densetsu. Tokuma Shoten, 1987.


Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Riverside Edition, Vol. X. Houghton Mifflin, 1893, pp. 131-70,

On the Virtues of Realpolitik Over Just War Theory

By Timothy Jaeger

This essay discusses how when states adhere to realpolitik, it usually breeds peace and happiness, while when they adhere to ideas similar to the Just War Theory, the result is usually pain and suffering. Realpolitik, which prioritizes self-interest and practicality, narrows the focus of the state to anything that can better the position of said state, thus increasing the standards of living and general well-being of the people. In opposition to realpolitik is the Just War Theory, which tend to blur the lines between what is morally just and what is pragmatic, leading to policies that only serve to worsen the nation and the people. It is preferable to balance both self-interest and morality, but at the end of the day, self-interest, and thus realpolitik, can ensure a state’s survival.

In a world of competing interests, where a loyal ally today can be a mortal enemy tomorrow, it is of the utmost necessity to ensure that a strong state leads its citizens through the struggles of everyday life. Only through the strength of the state can a people be secure in their everyday lives. Without it, there will be no one to protect the people from their fellow man. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes spoke of this in his famed work Leviathan by saying that, “Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (Hobbes 185). His “war…of every man against every man” is what mankind would find itself in if the power of the state did not sustain civilization. Without a leader capable of effective leadership, then the whole of man would descend in chaos, death, and suffering. With that knowledge, we can see the true necessity of the state, but what of the capabilities of its ruler? How should he rule? How should he use the power that his position bestows upon him? Knowing that if he falters and proves himself weak, his people will revolt and overthrow the government, catapulting man back into a war of man against man, a ruler must exert his authority in a merciless yet calculated manner as to not provoke the anger of his advisors or especially his constituents.

The brilliant father of Realpolitik, Niccoló Machiavelli, made a famous proclamation in his work, The Prince, that, “it is far better to be feared than to be loved if you cannot have both” (Machiavelli 54). Power is maintained through the use of fear. Only very rarely is that ubiquitous rule ever broken. The brief reign of Julius Caesar is the only one that comes to mind. Machiavelli further describes the apparent virtue of fear as opposed to love by stating that “love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men…break when it is to their advantage to do so” (Machiavelli 54) as compared to fear which, “is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (Machiavelli 54). A leader cannot be bothered to deal with morality and love as politics is a loveless profession. Every time a leader caters to pleas of supposed morality, it ends up with the ruin of the leader and thus the state simply because of the inherent fact that promises, especially if they’re based on the principle of love, are absolutely meaningless and, as Machiavelli proclaimed, can be broken at any time that is to their advantage. In this instance, a leader should avoid making promises based on morality, because it only serves to undermine the authority of the leader and empower his enemies, and instead “he must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state” (Machiavelli 51). He need not fear vice because if it is in the name of the safety and security of the state then the citizens will come to thank him later.

When dealing with matters relating to the affairs of foreign governments, the same policy that is used on the home front is to be utilized in the same fashion. As in the case of safeguarding the state, the self-interest of the nation is of the utmost priority. In this same fashion, a leader must not concern himself with morality in dealing with his enemies. A state in the context of international affairs cannot deal with issues of morality that do not directly affect the security and prosperity of the state, especially since multiple actors are involved, all armed with the same goals and agendas. Logically speaking, it is the safe assumption of a state that every other state, if given the opportunity, would erase you from the map. Looking at the world from any other perspective would be both dangerously naïve and foolish since, according to John J. Mearsheimer, looking “from the perspective of any one great power, all other great powers are potential enemies” (Mearsheimer 32). In an anarchic world, as Mearsheimer describes it, it is to the great benefit of the state to act selfishly and be fearful of other states and their intentions. Nevertheless, alliances between two or more states should not be deterred, but in fact be greatly encouraged if it is in the interest of the state to do so but should never be seen as a permanent ordeal. As for any dealings within the realm of international affairs, a sobering dose of realism should precede any and all decisions made, especially with regards with humanitarian issues as, “most states are rarely willing to expend blood and treasure to protect foreign populations from gross abuses, including genocide” (Mearsheimer 47). It would be illogical for a country to involve itself in the affairs of foreign nations if it did not seek to benefit from it somehow, either in physical loot or in international praise.

Within the Just War Theory, Jean Elshtain proclaims “that war may be resorted to in order to preserve or achieve peace” (Elshtain 57) but that alone cannot be the sole motive. The resulting peace must prove itself as a useful advantage to the state, otherwise what would be the point of achieving it? If not, then perhaps the violence is not worth the time and effort of the state for a state’s ambitions and subsequent actions reflect the underlying will to power and domination over all other states. Now, as according to Thomas Hobbes, peace is the ultimate goal of a society since it is in the interests of no one to be dragged back into the state of nature, and so any measure must be taken to be able to adequately support that peace when it comes under attack. Some of the time, that means, war is indeed necessary if that fragile peace that man has constructed is under assault by the forces of evil. However, that does not mean defensive wars are always waged. To assume so would be a sheer ignorance of history. In the past, it was in a state’s nature to expand and a major goal of states was to establish a form of government that was favorable to expansion. As Machiavelli states in his Discourses on Livy, “there is need to think of the more honorable part and to order it so that if indeed necessity brings it to expand, it can conserve what it has seized” (Machiavelli 23). The key word said throughout that passage is necessity. Necessity forces the hand of many great civilizations into decisions they normally would never commit, expansion being a possibility. However, if a state has an opportunity to expand to become an empire, should it? It would most obviously be in its self-interest not only to acquire more areas of influence but also to acquire the means to sustain it. And the ability to wage war in order to hold on to what a state has acquired is such a means. Now what Just War Theorists would possibly say is the following: imperialism such as this would create a system of never ending wars over territory and plunge man back to the state of nature, and this is a valid point. When it is said that states act in their own self-interest, war is not the only solution. Much of the time, peace and mercy is to a state’s advantage, especially in the modern, interconnected world, as it improves their image and reputation abroad which subsequently opens a state to new opportunities as cooperation improves. However, prudence must always be observed when dealing with foreign states. Cooperation may be to one’s benefit in the short-term but it is not within the nature of states to maintain cooperation when it is no longer in their interest.

As with relations with the outside world as well as within a state’s borders, political decisions cannot be excessively plagued, if at all, with issues of morality. This is the foundation to the political philosophy of realpolitik. There is, however as is briefly mentioned earlier, an alternative look at international affairs called the Just War Theory that bases its ideas on moral judgements and righteousness. An early proponent of this theory was the Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas who proposed three prerequisites for a declaration of war. They were: that war is declared by “the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged”, it is declared for “a just cause”, and “the belligerents should have a rightful intention” (Aquinas). While the justifications Aquinas sets before us appear rather straight-forward and rational, their is considerable vagueness regarding exactly what constitutes just causes and rightful intentions. It is with this vagueness that exposes the cracks in his methodology and prompts malevolent interpretations, the most heinous recent example being Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs. It has all of the necessary and “just” requirements to be a “just war” in the definition of Aquinas: Duterte surely had the necessary authority, as his being President should explain. He has a just cause in the fact that he has the notion, with the utmost rigor, that drugs are an evil scourge on his country, and equates all who possess them on the same level Aquinas would think of the most egregious sinner, and thus need to be removed. In addition to the just cause, he has a most just cause: the eradication of a perceived evil in his country that threatens to tear it apart. He does not seek the destruction of his society. Instead he seeks peace in a Philippines that is free of drugs. Yet under his campaign, “More than 12,000 suspected drug users and dealers, mostly from poor families in urban centers across the country, are estimated to have died in the ‘drug war,’ including an estimated 4,000 during operations led by the police and the remainder by ‘unidentified gunmen.’” (Human Rights Watch) Most would consider that abhorrent and repulsive but in the eyes of Aquinas’ requirements for a just war, it touches on every major point. An encouragement of vigilante justice and arbitrary rule of law only seek to destroy the foundations of functioning society because once something like murder is justified in the name of the common good, then theoretically anything can.

Obviously, in this fallen world of ours, we feel a moral need to do good and promote justice wherever the reaches of our nation provide us. However, it is not always practical to achieve or even stride for what most would consider just or moral if the basic needs of the state are not met. If I was in the shoes of a leader, I would do my best to promote and inspire hope and justice but knowing full well that there will be times where I would have to compromise in order to keep the state and society afloat. That does not mean we cannot promote what we would want to be a reality, but we must stay vigilant to what is happening in the world around us because while we may dream of a better world, it does not mean that there aren’t forces out there that exist only to crush it.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica., 2010.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Just War Theory. New York University Press, 2004.

Hobbes, Thomas, and C.B Macpherson. Leviathan. Penguin Group, 1985.

Machiavelli, Niccolo, and Harvey Claflin. Mansfield. Discourses on Livy. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Penguin Classics, 2003.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

“Philippines: Duterte’s ‘Drug War’ Claims 12,000+ Lives.” Human Rights Watch, 18 Jan. 2018,

Understanding in Education

By Thomas Kazakoff

Individuals who attend university are faced with a multitude of varied challenges once they leave the comforts of academia. The function of any university is purportedly to provide persons with the skills to confront these obstacles, and overcome them, resulting in financial success. This rudimentary understanding of universities is promoted in public education, which underestimates the greater potential of a university experience. Rather than merely equipping outgoing students with practical job skills that lead to individual happiness, universities have the potential to serve as a communal beacon for understanding and collective knowledge. This discrepancy in the function of higher education institutions underlines a challenge in understanding the differences between three central forms of education: civic, liberal and political. A civic education instills the virtues of the state into potential citizens, allowing them to become good citizens. A liberal education aims for a holistic understanding of individuals, articulating what it means to be a good human being. A political education enables those with a liberal education to extend their understanding to others, developing a greater body of knowledge with the goal of fostering a prosperous community of motivated individuals with whom to grow and discuss. This expanded notion of universities is often not achieved, and it is threatened by a multitude of factors both internal and external.

Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, recounts his experience in the changing landscape of universities throughout the nineteen sixties as a teacher at Cornell, identifying a central failing in the accommodating trends of universities. Michael Oakeshott observes a failing of universities with respect to the form of political education. Oakeshott explains that the general empirical, positivist rendition of political education presented in universities forgoes a nuanced understanding of political action. This misaligns political education to strictly practical ends, obscuring the larger communal “truth” oriented goals. Kenneth Minogue notes similar concerns in his work, The Concept of a University, expressing doubt about the function of the modern university. He suggests that universities have strayed from the path of “truth”, failing to put the “theory into practice.” This is similar to Bloom’s worries, but differs in content, while reviewing the evolution of the social and practical functions of universities. The three authors demonstrate a passion for all three forms of education, emphasizing the cohesion needed to fulfill the potential of a comprehensive education. This education is functionally administered through discussions and questioning, by and from students as well as educators. The experience of questioning is the modus operandi of fostering education and is primarily useful for political education. A thorough understanding of how best to provide students with engaging questions furthers our understanding of political education, and how it maximizes civic and liberal education to their fullest potential.

Imparting knowledge to students should not be understood as merely providing a checklist of facts to be regurgitated. Rather, one needs to guide intelligent discussion and foster thought provoking insights. This furthers the ultimate goal of building a thriving political community. The process of answering and then providing questions for students to consider is the linchpin in developing this political community as it allows students to develop their own insights. However, the difficulty lies in assessing what students are struggling to understand because their own questioning may not articulate these issues. Free-form discussion provides the best format to assist students in their development, as its naturalistic, conversational tone allows for comfortable reflection. Additionally, it provides the possibility for fun, something students often complain is lacking after trying to engage in a poor lecture. Discussions engage students in every discipline better than any other method except the most excellent of lectures, and it is especially potent for a political education. Asking questions empowers students with a sense of agency and exploration, while an educator’s questions allow for a natural understanding of concepts. This mirrors classical philosophical discourse, while also grounding discussion in personal interaction which is inherent to all forms of politics. Mastering discussion and questioning allows an educator to maximize liberal education. Universities provide an ample environment in which to develop political education; however, if the university is lacking in quality, it will not be able to achieve this. Allan Bloom notes that while modern universities attempt to provide an education to students through a combination of lecture and communal activities, they fail to achieve their goal: “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines… This democracy is really an anarchy… In short there is no vision… The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him, that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.”[1] Bloom explains that universities originated in the classical Greek tradition of the Academy but have since become divorced from their foundations. The university is modeled after Socratic teachings in an effort to actualize the philosophic experience with a community of motivated individuals. However, the university does not succeed in this goal, and it risks losing its essence as a result: “The philosophic life is not the university. Until the nineteenth century most philosophers had nothing to do with universities, and perhaps the greatest abhorred them. One cannot imagine Socrates as a professor… But Socrates is of the essence of the university.”[2] Bloom recounts his understanding of the modern university to call attention to this problem and its larger implication for students entering higher education.

Bloom articulates his perspective on universities by first explaining how the American culture emphasizes individuality to the point of corrupting civic identity. This idea is explained with reference to Alexis de Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America, which explicates and predicts the effects of democracy on American civic education. Bloom explains that the civic education of America promotes the importance of each individual who regards him or herself as equal to all others. This results in a value system in which everyone’s value is relative in worth only to that individual, making the pursuit of an absolute “truth” difficult to comprehend. Bloom identifies the rampant “celebritism” of individuals who can articulate their worth to others: “Though the values, the horizons, the tables of good and evil that originate in the self cannot be said to be true or false, cannot be derived from the common feeling of mankind or justified by the universal standards of reason, they are not equal, contrary to what vulgar teachers of value theory believe… The individual value of one man becomes the polestar for many others whose own experience provides them with no guidance.”[3] Democracy in America, for Bloom, reinforces mediocrity of both students and educators, as each individual’s value system is considered important, thus resulting in an environment of un-challenging tolerance. This is threatening to the goals of a political education, as the occasional discomfort or “hard talk” serves only to advance the collective understanding of the community. Furthermore, this results in further stratification of individuals rather than bringing them together in a communal atmosphere, ironically contradicting the professed noble intentions of equality: “Simply, the university is not distinctive. Equality for us seems to culminate in the unwillingness and incapacity to make claims of superiority, particularly in the domains in which such claims have always been made… What we see happening in general happened here [in Universities] too; the insistent demand for greater community ended in greater isolation.”[4] Bloom provides an intelligent examination of the structure of the modern university, and how best to avoid furthering the downtrend he laments. Oakeshott, in comparison, discusses the impact of empirical evaluation on political education propagated by mainstream educational systems. Political education, when framed within an empirical perspective, loses its essence and is undervalued.

Political education must encompass more than a reductionist or entirely theoretical account of learning. Oakeshott avoids mischaracterizing politics as merely abstract knowledge or education, instead defining politics from a holistic understanding: “We should not, therefore, seek a definition of politics in order to deduce from it the character of political knowledge and education, but rather observe the kind of knowledge of education which is inherent in any understanding of political activity, and use this observation of improving our understanding of politics.”[5] This comprehensive approach identifies the fallacy of assuming that political activity always precedes political ideology, when in fact, the opposite can be true. Political ideology is derived from the understanding of concepts that must be discussed and investigated at length to gain a complete comprehension. Empirically deriving political ideology exclusively from empirical observation negates this cumulative understanding, and misconstrues political activity as being purely ideologically motivated. Analyzing political activity is not without merit or worth; it should be avoided when it is practiced exclusively, as opposed to doing so in conjunction with ideological analysis. Understanding the nature of political activity engages the student in sympathy, a necessary process for those who aspire to effectively demonstrate their political thinking. Oakeshott is concerned about devaluing political activity through empirical investigation, advocating for a balance between qualitative and quantitative investigation. The relationship between political ideology and political activity should be understood holistically, and in education should be communicated as such. Oakeshott elucidates the importance of this relationship, highlighting the necessity of considering viewpoints outside of one’s traditional political thinking: “The fruits of political education will appear in the manner in which we think and speak about politics and perhaps in the manner in which we conduct our political activity… The more profound our understanding of political activity, the less we shall be at the mercy of plausible but mistaken analogy… the more thoroughly we understand our own political tradition, the more readily its whole resources are available to us.”[6] Oakeshott’s essay warns of the danger of limiting one’s understanding of political thought through any one framework, challenging political education to utilize multiple methods.

Minogue develops his understanding of the university by demonstrating the inherent differences between general education, society, and the rise of the notion of the practical worth of a university education. Universities are limited by the societal understanding of their practical worth; university is viewed as merely a stage of life that will prepare the student for the rest of his career. Minogue maintains that this perspective corrupts the quality of universities by shifting their priorities from the understanding of knowledge to societal concerns: “For all views that the university does or ought to serve ‘society,’ that it ought to be the instrument of something external to the academic world, are devices for denying academic independence, and for imposing alien values upon it.” This emphasis on the practical value of a university misconstrues the purpose of academic learning, lessening both the quality of the students engaging in education and the educators fostering it. The educator becomes focused on the quantity of research output, rather than quality, and limits their understanding of knowledge by modeling their lectures on efficiency. The student, therefore, is not given a proper opportunity to engage in the communal understanding of the material because the format of his/her path is limited by the societal goals set for the university. Minogue explains that the student enters the university knowing virtually nothing, necessitating the need for excellent questioning, and excellent answers: “The undergraduate is a Socrates, whose wisdom consists in the fact that he knows nothing. He is therefore a questioner; nor does he stop at a first question, but as an exposition proceeds he must be a continual questioner… even the most corrupt undergraduate… cannot help, by the tasks which his presence involves, going some small way to maintaining academic vitality.”[7] Minogue identifies this problem not to condemn the worth of practical experience, but to highlight its discordance with academic investigation.

He elucidates this through the use of an extended metaphor involving a society contained in a single house. The “House” has many “Rooms” dedicated to the production of food, religious worship, and academia. The “Academic Room” collects objects to retain knowledge from the past, reviews literature, and hosts teaching sessions for the young and interested. This initial group of students are descended from the wise members of the “House” who see the worth in an independent “Room” dedicated to knowledge. Eventually the people who regularly inhabit all of the others “Rooms” of the “House” begin to expect their children to attend the “Academic Room”, in order to attain the associations of intelligence and worth given to those who attend the “Academic Room”. Furthermore, they expect the “Room” that adjudicates polices that govern the whole “House” to begin drafting policy on the “Academic Room”, ensuring it will facilitate these larger societal goals. Minogue’s metaphor demonstrates that the goals of a civic education, when put into practice, change the nature of the liberal education to fit its description, justified through an already corrupt political education possessed by the citizens of the “House” through their understanding of their individual political thinking: “…the Academic Room in the House has become crowded with a new collection of people who do not quite understand what the point of the room is. They are half impressed by what they have found, but a little baffled also… They believe the Room is out of date and in need of a shakeup. If they get their way, they will have made the Academic Room indistinguishable from the rest of the house.”[8] Minogue recognizes the importance of the university as a distinct institution, capable of achieving its goals when unhindered by the interests of the larger societal body. Furthermore, Minogue recognizes that the university must avoid ideological mandates, or risk committing the same errors as the rest of the “House”. The independent liberal education provided in academia is distinct in its pursuit of “truth” and thus must be left unbothered by larger societal concerns.  The university can only hope to guide society through its understanding of knowledge.

It is clear that a delicate balance must be maintained between a civic, liberal and political education. Bloom articulates his understanding of the university to reinforce the importance of challenging students who enter the communal discussion, ensuring a truly diverse political community, and ultimately, superior citizens. Oakeshott notes that a comprehensive understanding of politics in academia results in the best understanding of political thought, as opposed to a strictly empirical or theological perspective. Minogue’s writings demonstrate an understanding of both these works, supporting the need for an independent education system to ensure the best liberal education through the articulation of the best political education. A good civic education naturally follows the proper implementation of liberal and political educations, as citizens are guided by the knowledge of the community of unconstrained academics. The improvement of society is necessarily tied to the development of an understanding of its own nature. Universities must continue to maintain their independent pursuit of knowledge, or face assimilation into the important, but ultimately misaligned, realm of civic education.

[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 337.

[2] Ibid, 272.

[3] Ibid, 200-201.

[4] Ibid. 337-338.

[5] Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in politics and other essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 42.

[6] Ibid, 66.

[7] Kenneth Minogue, The Concept of a University (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1973

[8] Ibid, 102.

“On Liberal Education” by Brock McLeod

Editor’s note: Brock McLeod graduated with a degree in Liberal Studies from VIU (formerly Malaspina University-College) and went on to became a passionate advocate for the kind of learning that we foster here, in which students engage in small seminar discussions, animated by great ideas and guided by beautiful and deep works of literature, philosophy, politics, art and science from the distant past to the present.

Brock McLeod surrounded by the books he loved to read and share.

Brock took this passion for reading great books, learning deeply, and discussing ideas with others back to his community. He began discussion groups in his home town, connected with civic leaders, and enhanced his community through the friendly but serious pursuit of great ideas. He and his wife, Heather, opened and ran an extremely successful organic farm near Duncan, BC. Even while he underwent treatments for cancer, he was active in the life of books, ideas, and conversation. He attended conferences when he could, and sat in on occasional Liberal Studies lectures at VIU. Sadly, Brock passed away in 2017.

The Brock McLeod Liberal Studies Award was established in his honour by Heather in accordance with Brock’s wishes. Proceeds from the fund will be used to generate scholarships for Liberal Studies students who, like Brock, can perceive and articulate the connection between deeper learning and better citizenship in a liberal democracy. Tax deductible donations to the fund are still being accepted by VIU (Note: in the “Designation” field of the online form, click “other” then type or paste “The Brock McLeod Liberal Studies Award” into the new field that opens up). The Department would like to give our thanks to Heather McLeod for establishing the fund, and to all those who have contributed and who continue to contribute. It will ensure Brock’s passion for liberal education continues into the future.

In addition to everything else he did, Brock was preparing chapters for a book about the connection between liberal education and liberal democracy. In the following essay, intended to be the second chapter of the book, Brock eloquently argues for the enduring importance of liberal education anchored in the great books. He sincerely hoped more of h

is fellow citizens would learn to love as much as he did this unique kind of education.

Permission to republish this chapter was graciously granted by Heather McLeod.


“On Liberal Education”

By Brock McLeod

“It’s a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.” – Plato’s Republic (515a).

Neo: “Why do my eyes hurt?” Morpheus: “You’ve never used them before.” – The Matrix

In the 1999 blockbuster hit, The Matrix, humans are kept enslaved by machines that have artificial intelligence. The machines trick humans into believing they are free, when, in reality, they are prisoners whose minds have been hooked up to a virtual reality program to simulate freedom in a modern world. The machines enslave the humans in order to use their bodies as sources of energy. Morpheus, Neo’s liberator, holds up a battery to bring home the point. Later, Neo is referred to as “coppertop,” after the Duracell battery moniker.

The grand political message of The Matrix is that we, today, are enslaved. Corporations and their owners need us to work for them, or provide energy, in order for them to reap profits. Neo, for example, works for a “respectable software company” and when he shows up late, he is lectured by his boss about the needs of the corporation and his role in its success: “This company is one of the top software companies in the world because every single employee understands that they are part of a whole.” In order to keep us serving this system, we are led to believe that the laws and morals of our society are for our own good. They keep us free. In reality, according to The Matrix, they are the fetters of our minds, keeping us in service to someone else’s benefit. CIA agents, and other law enforcement, help to ensure that anyone who starts to work against the system is neutralized.

This idea, that we are serving the interests of the rich and powerful, is not a new one, however. It was expressed most forcefully, perhaps, in 1848 by Marx and Engels, in their Communist Manifesto. It is not a coincidence, I believe, that Marxist and Matrix look so similar. To Marx and Engels, the world had forever been divided into antagonistic classes, the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed. These groups go by different names throughout history according to Marx and Engels, such as “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf,” and finally, in Marx and Engels’ day, “Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” Throughout history, according to Marx and Engels, the rules were set in favour of the rulers, essentially using the people to generate wealth and leisure for themselves.

In order to justify this, they tricked the people. As Marx and Engels put it, exploitation was “veiled by

religious and political illusions.” Religion, in particular, helped dampen people’s desire for change, as it made them accept their suffering, leading Marx to state that religion is “the opium of


the people,” or, more popularly, the opiate of the masses. The name “Morpheus,” from The Matrix, one might note, is the name of the ancient Greek god of dreams. The word ‘morphine’ is derived from the word Morpheus. Morphine is an opiate. The computer-generated “dream world,” as Morpheus describes it, or Matrix, then, is the new opiate of the masses. Are the Wachowski’s suggesting that we now use video games to escape from our reality? Virtual reality, via Minecraft or Call of Duty, as the new opiate of the masses?

In any case, the idea of rulers exploiting the ruled by defining right and wrong in their interests is a recurring one. In fact, it goes back much further than Marx and Engels. In ancient Athens, around 380 BCE, Plato made a similar argument. When discussing, for example, the popular concept of “justice” in his day, “that of doing good to friends and harm to enemies,” Plato points out that the people who promoted that false definition were the rulers and the rich in society. So Plato, too, one could argue, is warning us that the Matrix has us.

Plato, however, used a different image. He said people are like prisoners in a cave with respect to knowing the truth about things, with “their legs and necks in bonds.” Instead of seeing real things in the daylight above the earth, people are only exposed to false images of things, shadows on a wall from a fire burning behind them. When exposed to the world above the cave, their eyes would hurt from the sudden exposure of the sun (truth), because, like Neo, they had never really used their eyes.

Plato’s call to action is also different from that of Marx and the Wachowski brothers. While Marx and Engels called for people to “support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” since they had nothing to lose but their chains, Plato was less revolutionary, in a sense. Even though he, too, envisioned a new social and political order, it was education, or philosophy, that Plato saw as the mechanism for people to lose their chains. That is, if the notions of right and wrong in society are compromised by the self-serving views of the rich and powerful, the goal should be to come to that realization and then seek for the real truth of the matter. What really is “justice,” if it is not what society would have us believe? For Plato, freeing people from the cave of ignorance is the revolution. That these freed people might one day replace the existing rulers was a nice dream, but not his main end.

I also think, to an extent, Plato was less cynical than Marx and the Wachowski’s. For while Plato recognized that some of the notions in society might be self-serving justifications for the powerful, he also recognized that false notions may be serving no one at all, neither rich nor poor, neither ruler nor ruled. That is, they may simply be the products of ignorance or prejudice, or the result of authors or screenwriters needing to make things sound dramatic, accidentally leading to false beliefs based on artistic images. In any case, these false notions get in the way both of people living good lives and of society being well-governed. For Plato, then, it was important that people thought for themselves about these things and came to their own conclusions. He was a champion of education, of helping people shed false notions and get at the truth.

Ultimately, this led to one of his most famous claims – one for which he has been variously ridiculed or condemned, as well as celebrated: “Unless,” I said, “the philosophers rule as kings, or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize… there is no rest from ills for the cities… nor I think for human kind…”. Now, this probably sounds as fanciful, and undemocratic, in our own day as it did in Plato’s, for the reputation of philosophers has not improved much; but I think it helps to understand what he means by “philosophers.” For to Plato, a philosopher was someone who could think clearly and was wise and prudent. So if we substitute these words in place of “philosopher” throughout his quote, and modernize others, we get: “Unless,” I said, “citizens who are wise and prudent, and who can think clearly, rule as prime ministers, or those now called prime ministers and cabinet ministers genuinely and adequately seek wisdom, think clearly and act prudently, there is no rest from ills for nations… nor I think for human kind…”.

Now, I hope this lays to rest the idea that what Plato proposed is fanciful. What Plato proposed is actually much more like common sense. Do we not want to be ruled by people who are smart, knowledgeable, and have shown themselves to be prudent and honourable in their conduct throughout their lives? Or would we rather be ruled by those who are foolish, imprudent and ignorant? Now, of course, there is, perhaps, one other complication that I have glossed over. For I have couched Plato’s quote in democratic terms. But it is not clear that, for Plato, the people should be the one’s to choose their leaders. In fact, he was convinced that the people themselves would never choose the wisest to rule them. This was, in part, why he thought it would take a fluke of history for philosophers to ever rule. It would be more of an accident that a philosopher would come to power than that the people would specifically choose one.

For Plato, and this is again where he sounds undemocratic, thought that the mass of people could never be wise: “Then it’s impossible,” I said, “that a multitude be philosophic.” 494a. If the voters are neither wise, nor prudent, nor can think clearly, what hope is there that they will not be fooled by populists and other candidates who are good at campaigning, leaving the wise and prudent candidate unrequited? Now, for many, this is where the story ends on Plato. They think he is totalitarian (see Karl Popper), or an enemy of democracy. But I think this is misreading Plato. For Plato’s Republic is aspirational. He recognizes that, in his day, it would be impossible to conceive of the people as wise and choosing a ruler well, but we shouldn’t necessarily take it that he thought it would be this way for all time. It might be a good time to note, too, that the democracy of his day voted to put his teacher, philosopher Socrates, to death for raising pesky questions and calling into question the society’s religious beliefs. What faith could we expect Plato to have in his fellows if they voted to murder the wisest man he knew?

So, I think we need to cut Plato some slack. For despite stating that it was near impossible for a philosopher to come to rule society, he still wrote a book which is arguably a manual in bringing about a revolution in education that could, one day, result in enough educated people to make wise decisions about rulers. That is, he hoped that one day, more people would receive a good education, or at least recognize those who did. And, as we know, educational levels in society have risen exponentially since Plato’s day, thanks in part, probably large part, to him and other authors throughout the ages making the case for the value of education. In Canada, for example, around half the working age population now has a university degree or college diploma. Granted, most of those graduating from these programs would not be considered “philosophers” by Plato’s standard, nor any other, but the extent to which people are enchained by false notions of justice, crime, health, economics, history, science and other areas of knowledge has surely been reduced, decimated even. Though this is not to say there isn’t still a lot of work to do, which leads us to our next idea for democratic reform.

What connection does all this talk about The Matrix, The Communist Manifesto and Plato’s Republic have to do with democratic reform? They are all valuable reminders about the connection between the ideas we have in our heads and our ability to lead a happy and free life, both because of their impact on our personal lives as well as on our political lives. That is, if the goal of a democracy is, in part, to leave us free to pursue happy lives, but both our ability to make good choices for ourselves and our ability to make good choices for our society, government, or democracy, is negatively impacted by false ideas of the good, or truth, then it is important that education plays a significant role in society. Sound education is no less important to get right as a society than what kind of voting system we have.

Different types of education, or their absence, lead to different kinds of citizens and different kinds of decisions about how our democracy should operate. If, as a society, we are supporting education for the people, shouldn’t we be concerned about making that education good? Shouldn’t we be concerned with whether the type of education we are supporting is conducive to the continued support and improvement of our society and democratic institutions, or whether it ignores or undermines them? I think we are losing sight of this notion and it is important that we reform things to get back to a more holistic view of education, one that recognizes its importance for democracy.

For instance, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that higher education should not just be about getting good jobs. But in our individualistic and commercial age, most post-secondary students choose their educational path based almost entirely on whether it will help them get a “good” job, and society is increasingly funding degrees based on the same thinking. What has happened to the idea that going to university should help free one from the illusions of the Matrix, or help one escape from the darkness and bondage of Plato’s Cave?

Even if a job is all a particular student wishes to get out of his or her education, however, there are advantages to society from an educated electorate. Society functions better and people are able to make better decisions about how to live their lives if they have ideas in their heads that are consistent with the truth, when their minds are free from false ideas. Take a student of criminology, for instance, who ends up working as a police officer or in the correctional system. They will be able to make better decisions about how to address crime in society, ideally taking measures to help prevent it, but, if not, then figuring out how better to catch criminals and then, perhaps, help them get back to a healthy relationship with society after incarceration. Other degrees have similar effects in other areas of society, from health to history to economics to science. In educating our society, we are not simply helping ensure people get good jobs or helping increase our GDP through innovation, though those are certainly worthy outcomes. We are also creating a more well-run society. A more human, or humane, society.

The Communist Manifesto, The Matrix and Plato’s Republic also help us see the world as a place that is not neutral with respect to ideas. Marx, Engels and the Wachowski’s, in fact, argue that the world is against us. Bad ideas are intentionally cultivated in our minds in order to help those in power maintain their positions or wealth. Plato, on the other hand, also shows us that bad ideas can simply be the byproducts of our culture. We like watching dramatic movies, but these inadvertently produce false images of reality in our minds, as does watching the nightly news. Our brains are wired to think that something is more true if we see it more often. People are often shocked how little crime we actually have in our society when you show them the statistics because it is so different than the picture we get in our minds from watching the nightly news, Criminal Minds and CSI. And, of course, unless you are really cynical, the reason there is so much crime on the news or in T.V. series is not because someone wants to intentionally mislead us about the statistics, but because we find it interesting and entertaining to watch shows about crime.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t ideas out there and people promoting them that are favourable to certain people’s interests. Certain businesses, and some think tanks they fund, are likely to argue that free trade, in general, and free trade agreements, in particular, are good for our society. While, at the same time, unions and other businesses, and the think tanks they fund, are likely to argue against free trade or, at least, particular free trade agreements. What is the truth? And how do we determine where it lies? Without the tools to think for ourselves, and think well, society is at the mercy of those who wish to put ideas in our heads, regardless of the truth, regardless of whether it is good for society.

Another important lesson from The Matrix, The Republic and the Manifesto is that education has to be an active force in society in order to prevail. Neo and Morpheus, for example, have to return to the Matrix in order to free the minds of the others, while Plato’s philosophers need to descend to the Cave in order to unshackle those who remain there. People, the Wachowski’s and Plato are saying, need an intervening force in order to be mentally liberated. Education is that liberating force. If we are not actively struggling, as a society, like Neo, to fight off the ideas that control us, then we are losing to the machines, and the virtual reality they are pulling over our eyes.

People do not wake up of their own accord or, at least, not enough of them. Education is not a natural, self-generating phenomenon. It is an artificial intervention that we make into the minds of others in order to free them of false ideas. Yet, today, we tend to think of it as a personal choice, saying: “If a person feels the return from their investment in a degree is worth it in terms of their future earnings, then they will get an education. If not, then they may as well start their own business or go straight to a job or trade school.” Where is the calculation for democracy?

Let’s sum up. The stories in The Matrix and Plato’s Republic, in particular, help remind us about the link between education, personal liberty and the good society. They remind us that, when discussing education, or educational reform, it is not enough to focus solely on the extent to which an education will help a person get a job. We must also remember that the quality and quantity of educated individuals in society also impacts on our democracy and governance, and our freedom, not to mention one’s personal well-being outside of financial or career considerations. They also help us remember that the ideas that get into our heads are not neutral. Many of the ideas or beliefs we hold are false and are put there either intentionally by self-interested groups in our society or accidentally as a result of a culture that seeks to entertain or amuse us, among other reasons. They also remind us that we need to be actively seeking to replace bad ideas and false notions with good ones and the truth. In the absence of intervention, by society or parents or Churches or others, we generally do not become educated, for we do not self-educate. And, generally speaking, most people throughout adulthood do not systematically analyze the ideas and beliefs they hold, challenge them themselves, read difficult books or take any other steps to further the quality of their thought. Consequently, if we want people or citizens to engage in these types of activities, society needs to intervene.

Today, society is not unaware of this, and generally provides 13 years of free, and mandatory, schooling before people go out into the world. This education is directed at and does a good job of dispelling in people’s minds many of the basic false notions about our world, such as that the sun revolves around the earth. However, it is not enough to emancipate people fully from their false notions, nor does it cultivate habits of the mind that are necessary to remain free and free others. For this, we generally rely on a university education.

Depending on the program of study a person chooses to pursue at university, their false notions will continue to be shed, usually in one narrow subject area, such as geography, economics, history or medicine. In good programs, with good instructors, and especially in the arts, they will also begin to learn the habits of mind of the free person, gaining skills in analyzing whether notions are false or not, rather than relying on others to tell them this information. They may become inspired to become a lifelong learner, continually cleansing the existing ideas in their minds and carefully guarding the new ideas they allow in. But there is one program of study, in particular, which puts an enormous emphasis on these outcomes: liberal education.

By liberal education, I am not speaking of the liberal arts, those degrees in a single subject area, such as history, English, philosophy and others. As I mentioned, these degrees often take students farther than many other degrees in freeing their minds, but still not as far as a liberal education. Rather, I am talking about a degree in which a student engages with the major ideas and works across the spectrum of, typically, Western civilization, from history, English, philosophy and political science to mathematics, art, music and science, among others. Now, sometimes this is called a “general” education, as opposed to a specialized education, but I like to think of liberal education as specializing in something itself. Not in a specific subject, but in a specific outcome. A liberal education specializes in giving a person the knowledge, tools, habits and inspiration to free their minds, keep them free and help them free others. It specializes not only in helping you see the Matrix, but also in giving you the confidence and skills to alter it. It is kung fu for critical thinking. It is martial arts for writing and arguing. It is tai chi for confidence and inspiration. In short, it is the best system humans have ever devised for educating people, or freeing their minds.

I always struggle a bit in explaining liberal education, for it is both similar to other degree programs, particularly the arts, which makes it seem no different from other programs, and substantially unlike them. What may seem like moderate differences to a person looking from the outside are, in fact, quite radical differences. There are two main differences that set liberal education apart from other programs. The first is a wide variety of subject matter rather than one narrow area of study, which I have already mentioned. This I call the content. The second concerns the process, or method. And this is where liberal education really shines.

Delphi By Albert Tournaire

The centre of a liberal education is the student, not the professor. The centre of a liberal education is a small group discussion among students, not a lecture by a professor, though lectures may still be a part. The professor merely acts as a facilitator of the discussion among the students, rather than leading the discussion. This puts the responsibility for the discussion in the students’ laps, which is both empowering and demanding. Students all read the same book or poem or listen to the same musical piece. It is then up to them to discuss and discover what the author or composer is saying. It is up to you to figure out what you think about why Machiavelli suggests rulers should prefer to be feared than loved, or why Hobbes is so adamant about the need for monarchical governments. And it is up to you to try to persuade your peers of your perspective and then modify it in response to the insights of your classmates, and, finally, convince your professor of your perspective in written assignments. These small group discussions in which the students discuss things amongst themselves help motivate students to read very carefully. They give you practice in making the case for your perspective and the confidence that you know what you are talking about, as you have done the thinking yourself, rather than relying on the interpretation of your professor, which you simply try to memorize. This responsibility and freedom is incredibly liberating, exhilarating, and inspiring. The liberal studies seminar is a microcosm of democracy or, rather, democracy as it ought to be.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are some descriptions of people’s experiences in a liberal education program at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia, taken from the alumni website.

“For much of my life I have been a listener. In seminar I found I could hardly stop talking. I wanted to articulate the ideas, intuitions and questions bubbling up inside me. I learned that it was OK to disagree, to propose something I hadn’t thought through fully, not to have the ‘one right answer.’ This experience was so freeing.”

  • Selinde Krayenhoff

“As far as what the program has given me since completion – number one is confidence: confidence in myself; confidence in my ability to communicate in virtually any medium, and to live comfortably and peacefully in a diverse community. I’ve become a much better human being.

  • Jane Larsen

“Whenever I am asked what I studied at post-secondary school, my typical response is to exclaim ‘Liberal Studies!’ with such vigor and passion that people often take a step back. True story. My experiences as a LBST student were deeply profound and life-enriching. As I prepare for my future studies in law, I can say with confidence that my training in the LBST Department at V.I.U. gave me the foundation needed to achieve academic excellence. In my humble opinion, I believe that all citizens should have a Liberal Studies education!”

  • Katie Sutherland

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Liberal Studies program at VIU changed the course of my life. I entered the program filled with doubt about my academic abilities… As I left class that first day, I knew I was hooked… Discussing great ideas with our wonderful cohort kept me coming back week after week. Striving to improve my writing, discussion, and research skills was engaging and challenging. Searching for meaning and coming to understand diverse points of view have been invaluable to me as I have moved forward on my journey.”

  • Sheena Falconer

“I found my experience in the Liberal Studies Program to be liberating. I honed my ability to think critically, to think outside the box and to become more fearless about taking on new ideas. I learned to stand more solidly behind my own inspiration and to take more risks.”

  • Nancy Greene

“…interacting with the great stories and ideas of Western culture has helped me grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially. I cannot overstate the quality of the experience.”

  • Gary Hartford

“If life can be viewed as a long hallway with countless doors leading off to new experiences, I have yet to find one that my Liberal Studies degree hasn’t opened.”

  • Stefan Martin

And, finally, one of my favourites:

“The Liberal Studies program at VIU was life-changing for me. I approached books such as Plato’s Republic or Homer’s Odyssey without mediation from an ‘expert’. I learned that with careful reading and discussion with professors and other students, I could indeed grapple with the very difficult material and understand it for myself. These reading and discussion skills have been invaluable to me, both in my further education and in my professional life. I feel confident that I can read any text, and given enough time and thought can understand the messages within, whether I agree with them or not.

Also, Liberal Studies provided such a safe environment that I was able to really practice my listening and public speaking skills; dialogue with others, especially when we disagree, is essential to understanding and peace. These interpersonal skills have also served me very well in my work and education. I would recommend the Liberal Studies program to anyone, whether they are beginning their schooling or are simply interested in expanding their understanding. I believe that a Liberal Studies education helps to create inquisitive people and better citizens.”

  • Miki Klaver

Need I say more? I should note, too, that these students are regular people, by which I mean they are not all top Ivy League students. These are the experiences of Plato’s multitude, regular people in your community, some of whom were on their way to becoming teachers, others of whom had completed their careers and returned to school in their older age. I mention this to dispel any notion that only the smartest or most philosophic students can benefit from this type of education. This is education suitable for all people, for all citizens. I could go on describing what a liberal education aims at, but I think it would be hard to convey, any better than the personal descriptions above do, what the end of a liberal education is. For these descriptions embody it.

But before we leave our discussion of liberal education, I think it is worthwhile to go back to the other aspect of a liberal education, not its process – the class discussion – but its content. For the content is also uniquely useful to people as citizens of a democracy. As I mentioned previously, the content is not any one subject area, but a diversity of areas. Typically, it consists of the major works, such as books, poems, artworks, scientific and mathematical treatises and other important creations, of human endeavour. If the process of liberal education is class discussion, the content is classical. The classics have somewhat gone out of fashion, particularly as university disciplines increasingly fractured into subdisciplines, making the study of non-specialized areas of knowledge seem even more arcane. But there is good reason not to give up on the ‘classics’.

In order to help make this point, I would like to bring in a quote from G.K. Chesterton, an English essayist, among other things, from the early 1900s. This quote is often paraphrased as “don’t take a fence down unless you know the reason it was put up,” but it is worth going back to the full text:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Chesterton’s paradox is that we must come to understand something’s usefulness before we can consider abandoning it for its uselessness. Chesterton is saying we must know and value the reasons for creating or maintaining laws, institutions and social customs before we can determine whether to get rid of, amend, or preserve them.

We are all, to some degree, Chesterton’s “deformers”. We look around ourselves and see laws, institutions and social customs that seem to be getting in our way rather than helping us along. We may work towards for their removal only to realize after the fact that we have removed a useful check on some harm. We often keep making the same mistakes throughout history. Our temptation is to look at the world and see a bunch of fences getting in the way of our ideal society. Not taking the time to look into the matter, we proceed to lobby for their removal. A few voices protest and we label them backwards-looking and wonder why they stand in the way of progress. But it often turns out when we attempt to move our society ahead, we end up taking it back – back to the problems we had before we put up the fence. That said, when we take the time to understand why the fences were put up, they sometimes do need to come down. If this is the case, then we need a way for citizens to familiarize themselves with the reasons fences were put up and to gauge whether they should remain. This is the content of a liberal education.

For a liberal education can be seen, in part, as a study in why the fences were put up – or torn down. A liberal education consists in thinking about the arguments thoughtful people have made in the past about fences. Throughout history, there have often been great debates about whether to put fences up or tear them down. It’s not always easy for us to grasp the importance of these fences without reading these original conversations. To what degree should we allow freedom of speech in society? What role should religion have in society and what relationship should it have to the state? What is justice? Why should vigilantism or revenge-killing be prohibited? What role does the institution of marriage play in society? What is the good life? How ought I treat others? By reading and discussing these conversations with a small group of people, we not only familiarize ourselves with many of society’s most important fences, but we strengthen our ability to assess and debate the need for other fences, including new ones created in our own day. The content of a liberal education, then, to put it more clearly, is not so much ‘classics,’ as conversations. Conversations, as well as arguments, expressions, and other creations, about what the good life is and what the good society requires.

Unfortunately, however, and ironically, a liberal education itself came to be seen as an unnecessary fence. The requirements of a liberal education were seen as an archaic barrier by educational reformers. With the increasing importance and contribution of science and technology to society, among other changes, a liberal education was viewed as a fence restraining students from getting down to business and getting prepared for jobs, or devoting themselves to the mastery of one specific body of knowledge. Some of this, of course, was warranted. But the pendulum swung too far one way.

Which is why I am arguing that for the sake of democracy, we need to bring liberal education back into better balance with our other educational ends. If, as we discussed previously, education is necessary to combat false notions in order to free us to lead good lives and achieve a just society, it is not responsible to leave decisions about education solely to market forces. Education is a civic, or communal, endeavour, as much or more so than it is a private endeavour. Just because our economy demands a certain type of education from our citizenry, does not mean that it also serves our democracy. So if the pendulum has swung towards education serving economic ends at the expense of democratic ends, we need to actively attempt to re-balance it. But this is difficult.

Liberal education is a hard sell. The benefits to the individual are extraordinary, but it is hard to convince people of this. Partly, this can be blamed on the fact that it is hard to convey the full value of a liberal education in words. It is one of those things that you have to experience to fully appreciate. One of my professors used to say that it is like trying to explain to a virgin what sex feels like. Thankfully, we don’t need to have someone convince us that we should want to have sex, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t explain it. Unfortunately, though, most of us don’t have an innate drive to enroll in a liberal education program. So we have to rely on words. But words can never do it justice. Ultimately, then, what this means is that we should not rely entirely on convincing students that it is good for them, for we will never achieve this fully. Rather, we may have to support liberal education in ways that make it more likely that students will choose it, even if they don’t understand its full benefits. I will discuss some of these ways after discussing the second reason is it will be difficult to re-balance liberal education with other forms.

For not only is it difficult for a student to fully appreciate the value of a liberal education without having received one, but it is also difficult because a good portion of the benefit goes, not to the student, but to society. Let’s imagine the thinking of a prospective student. They may think: “If I take a liberal education, I will be able to lead a much richer, freer, fulfilling life (though they won’t fully appreciate this before they have taken the degree) and I will also be of much greater value to my society. But I don’t get paid to be of value to my society, I get paid to be of value to a company, and what job can I get with this degree? If I had a teaching degree, I could a teaching job. If I had an engineering degree, I could get an engineering job. But what job do I qualify for with a liberal education degree?” As you can see, the traditional calculation many students use to determine their choice of degree does not leave the liberal education degree looking very appealing. But there is a way society can help to address this, which I will discuss further down.

For now, I want to raise the stakes even higher to help drive home the notion that we need to put liberal education back into proper balance in our educational institutions. Liberal education has always been important to the well-being of society and those who received it. But, today, it is even more important. I turn to Joseph Heath and his book Enlightenment 2.0 to help make this point.

In Enlightenment 2.0, Joseph Heath argues that the Enlightenment put too much faith in the individual’s ability to use reason, claiming: “Reason is not natural; it is profoundly unnatural (p.52, emphasis his).” He discusses a plethora of research from the past few decades to make his case, pointing out the many flaws in our brains and how they work. On top of this, he chronicles how the environments in which we use our brains, such as the commercial and political environments, have changed for the worse. Politicians and marketers increasingly try to take advantage of the weaknesses in our reasoning – or avoid it altogether, appealing to emotion or prejudice instead. Grocery stores, for example, have learned to place hard to resist treats near the check-outs, while the proliferation in political news channels and programs has led to political conversations taking place in soundbites on T.V. rather than in debates in legislatures.

This double whammy of imperfect reason and perfected marketing threatens our personal and political lives, according to Heath. We are now living in a world that has been specifically designed to be hostile to reason, or its use, leading Heath to observe: “People in the modern world are simply called upon to exercise far, far greater willpower and foresight than anyone ever had to in the past (p. 180)”.

So what do we do? According to Heath, we need to update the Enlightenment project. We need Enlightenment 2.0. The main idea he presents is that reason is not a stand alone tool. In order to make good use of the power of our brains and reason, we need to support the exercise of reason externally. This sounds odd, but it makes sense when you think about some examples. It also helps to more accurately describe what Heath is getting at. It is not so much reason that is being supported, as Heath would put it, but decision-making.

For example, one of the aids that Heath discusses is putting your alarm clock away from your bed in order to help avoid just hitting the snooze button and falling back asleep. If you place your alarm clock away from the bed, you will have to first get up in order to hit the snooze button. You are much less likely to go back to bed after you are already up than if you could just hit the snooze button lying down. Now, this is not so much a support for reason as it is a support for willpower. But the important thing is, it helps you make the decision that you wanted to make.

Another example Heath uses is the trick we can employ in order to help maintain a healthy weight. In Enlightenment 1.0, we would rely entirely on our willpower to make the decision each time we eat to not take too much food. But in Enlightenment 2.0, we will download that decision-making by first choosing a smaller plate (and getting rid of the large ones from the house). Our brains are happy as long as we fill our plate, so by using a smaller plate, we trick our brain into being satisfied with less food. Again, then, we are supporting our ability to make the decisions that we want.

These tricks and aids we can use to externally support our decision-making are called “kluges”. Heath also uses the term “scaffolding”. There are much larger kluges as well, such as institutions like parliaments and schools.

I mention Heath’s call for a rebooted Enlightenment particularly because of his analysis of a school as a kluge, or scaffolding, for learning. Heath points out: “Because “school” is more than just a curriculum, it is also a social setting (p. 312, emphasis his)”. In the real world, we would never be willing to listen to a friend or acquaintance propound on the theory of comparative advantage, which helps explain the benefits of free trade, or the theory of natural selection, which helps explain evolution, for half an hour or more. We would consider such people boring. Yet in the social setting of school, this is perfectly acceptable according to Heath, though sometimes still boring! In the social setting of a classroom, you have to put your hand up before speaking, which would be considered weird when discussing issues over drinks at the pub or in the bleachers at your kid’s soccer match. And it would be equally weird if your friends or acquaintances gave you a list of books and expected you to read them and then gave you their thoughts on how well you understood it by assigning you a grade afterwards. The social setting of school, according to Heath, is where these things are acceptable, making school a great kluge for learning, as we spend more time reading books, listening to instruction, and studying to make grades than we otherwise would without this institution. In fact, the difference is so stark that for many people, once they are done their formal education, they hardly ever read books again, let alone study the types of books they would have encountered in their university or college programs.

So Heath helps us to see that schools are kluges that help create the conditions for learning. Liberal education, then, can be seen as a kluge that helps create very particular conditions for learning, such as the small, student-led class discussion focused on important conversations about the good life and the good society. This results in very particular outcomes that are as advantageous to society as they are to the individual, including:

  1. significantly increasing people’s ability to read.
  2. significantly increasing people’s ability to write.
  3. creating people who are much more likely to continue reading throughout their lives, including books which are challenging.
  4. significantly increasing people’s listening, discussing and speaking skills.
  5. creating people who are more open to new and unfamiliar ideas, as they are taught to seriously consider ideas which they normally wouldn’t consider at all.
  6. increasing people’s confidence to provide their perspectives on matters, whether through writing letters to editors, books or speaking up at community meetings.
  7. creating people who are more likely to try to understand something before they consider replacing or changing it.
  8. creating people who are ambassadors for the value of education, particularly for liberal education.
  9. creating people who are more likely to recognize that the ideas in their heads may not be good ones and that they have an interest and responsibility to root out the bad ones and carefully guard which new ones they allow in.
  10. creating people who are better able to recognize ideas in their infancy, making them better able to resist bad ideas both in their personal lives and in their communities, much as a master gardener is better equipped to recognize weeds in their garden and deal with them when they are small.
  11. and more.

    Plato’s Symposium

Do we not want a greater number of our citizens, voters, politicians and neighbours at community meetings to have these characteristics? Do these characteristics not seem particularly relevant to the healthy functioning of a democracy, in particular, as opposed to forms of government that don’t require the active participation of their citizens? And if, as I am proposing in this book, we increase the opportunities for citizens to take on a more meaningful role in decision-making in society, wouldn’t we want to have more people with these habits and traits in society?

If so, then we need to figure out ways of increasing the number of liberal education graduates. What kind of kluges can we create in order to increase the likelihood that more people will obtain a liberal education, given the problems I identified above, such as students not seeing a direct connection to a job and not fully understanding its benefits until they experience it?

One way is to reduce the price. Cheaper televisions means that people are able to afford more of them, leading them to put one in the kitchen and another in the bedroom in addition to the one in the living room. But there are a couple of problems with this approach for liberal education. First, it may simply be too expensive to do so. For in order to make liberal education cheaper for students means taxpayers have to pick up more of the tab. To ask society to put even more money into education, particularly education that doesn’t lead directly to jobs, may not be politically feasible, even if it is desirable.

But there may be an even bigger problem on price. People respond to price changes differently depending on the type of product. Economists call it price elasticity. If the price of food goes up in general, people can’t just stop eating in order to reduce their costs. As a result, price increases for food in general don’t have much of an impact on the amount purchased. This is an example of an “inelastic” product, as the amount purchased doesn’t change much in response to price. On the other hand, products that are elastic see larger swings in amounts purchased in response to price changes. For example, when a high American dollar makes it expensive to holiday in the U.S., many Canadians will take vacations in Canada instead, decreasing the amount of trips to Hawaii or Disneyland. Of course, conversely, more Americans vacation in Canada when their dollar is strong, helping our tourism industry. Typically, items are elastic when there are alternatives, or substitutes, for the item which has gone up in price. A Canadian vacation can substitute for an American vacation, but one cannot substitute food with some alternative to food. Within the food category, however, there can be price elasticity on various products, so that when the price of beef rises, people will buy less beef and more chicken instead.

With respect to education, price elasticity is also at play. If education in general gets cheaper, people will buy more of it or, rather, more people will buy education. This is why governments typically want to keep tuition low, in order to encourage more people to get an education. However, within the category of education, price changes may have differing effects, just like with beef and chicken. If you are going to university, but don’t have a strong preference for a program, and would be happy with either anthropology, history or liberal studies, then making liberal studies cheaper would have the effect of increasing enrollment in liberal studies. But if you want to be an engineer, or a teacher or a psychologist, then you will have to take a degree in engineering, education or psychology, respectively. So making liberal education cheaper would have no effect on these students. So while making liberal education cheaper may have an effect on some students, it won’t have an effect on all.

Here are a couple of ways to address these challenges. First, with respect to the students without a strong preference, there are a couple of things universities and society could do. First, a simple nudge would be to make a liberal education the default choice of study for those students who don’t know what to take. Rather than guidance counsellors spending their time trying to find the right program for a person who isn’t sure what they want to study at university, simply make a liberal education the starting place for these students. If they decide to study something else later, their year or two in liberal studies will have given them an excellent foundation for their further studies. This also puts liberal education back in its historic role as the first program that students would take upon entering university before specializing into other areas, such as law. It is an action that is both economical, for if anything it will save administrative costs, as well as relatively easy, as no major changes to the university system are required. You’re simply changing your counselling directives.

In order to strengthen this idea, universities could also give credit for this time in liberal studies towards a subsequent degree. So, for instance, a person who takes liberal studies for two years and then decides to do a four-year history degree could be given one year’s worth of credits towards their history degree, making it a five year education altogether instead of a six-year education. For those unsure about what to take, this would also give them more assurance that they aren’t just “wasting” their time. They will know that this time will count for something (of course, it also counts for a lot else, but the prospective student may not realize this at the outset).

Furthermore, for the undecided students, price elasticity is at play, so making liberal education cheaper is worthwhile here. If taxpayers, through government, are unwilling to take on this added expense, then individuals could play a role by creating scholarships specifically for people pursuing a liberal education. Every scholarship could help convince another person to get a liberal education that otherwise wouldn’t, so it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing initiative. The more people who are convinced of the value of a liberal education and are willing and able to fund a scholarship, the better. I would specifically encourage those who are liberal studies graduates to consider this as an option when considering your charitable giving. Perhaps you could combine efforts with your graduating class to create a scholarship fund in the name of your class. I would also specifically encourage politicians, if they are looking for something to do with that large salary and pension that society gives them, to consider funding liberal education scholarships. What better example to set than to encourage the next generation of active citizens by helping fund an education specifically tailored to the needs of democracy?

Another nudge or kluge that could help increase prospective liberal education students to take the leap comes from an article in the Windsor Star, March 10, 2015, in which University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman is interviewed about the decline of the liberal arts and what to do about it. The article mentions Wildeman’s plan to put the problem to the student body for consideration, which is a nice touch. Before the event even took place, political science student and University of Windsor Students’ Alliance president Ronnie Haidar was already coming up with ideas, suggesting that students of liberal arts programs be given the same opportunities for internships and co-op placements as other programs, such as business and nursing. This is an effective idea, for one of the reasons that people are afraid to commit to liberal studies is their inability to see a link to the job market. By adding the option for co-op placements during their education or institutionalizing links to internships after graduation, people will be more likely to see that liberal education sets people up for good jobs, even if this is not its main purpose or specialty. This connection could be particularly important for wary parents who are funding their children’s education: the business degree looks relatively less pragmatic if the liberal arts degree leads to a similarly engaging, good-paying job in the civil service.

Now, for those who have their minds made up and are pursuing a degree specifically because they need it to get a job, all hope is not lost. However, we move beyond the realm of nudges here and enter policies that will be more contested. I will not discuss the idea of requiring a liberal education, though that is, of course, a policy option. I am more focussed on ideas that are more politically palatable, even if we will soon be bumping up against the boundary of the palatable. One way to affect those who need to get a particular degree in order to qualify for their career, such as an education degree to be a teacher or an engineering degree to be an engineer, is to encourage them to “tack on” a liberal education degree. For wouldn’t it be better to have teachers and lawyers and architects and geneticists who have also studied the moral, political and artistic achievements of our society in addition to the requirements of their particular professions? While it may be unrealistic and, perhaps even undesirable, for every person to have these extra studies, it would certainly help to have more such people.

One way to incentivize this is to make it cheaper or easier for those who are also pursuing a liberal education to access these other degree programs. For example, many of these programs are competitive: how about giving extra admission points for those coming with a liberal education, or even a free pass, assuming grades are acceptable? Or how about making the degree cheaper to those who already have or who are concurrently obtaining a liberal education degree? In order to fund it, you could make the degree more expensive for those not obtaining a liberal education. Consequently, it wouldn’t be government funding the extra liberal education, but those who want to complete their degree quickly, for instance. Of course, if government doesn’t want any part of this then, again, privately funded scholarships could be linked to this double-degree idea. That is, for those considering funding new scholarships, they would be encouraged to fund scholarships for biology or engineering students who are also taking or have taken liberal studies, thereby lowering the costs for those students who would consider such a double-degree route.

Many of these ideas will work well in combination. Imagine a student, Jane, who wants to go to university but is unsure about what program to take. The liberal education default policy leads her to start a liberal studies degree. After her first year, she decides she would also like to get a creative writing degree. She remains in the liberal education program for a second year before starting her creative writing degree, knowing that she will get credit for one year of her creative writing degree anyway, and she takes advantage of the many scholarships for liberal studies students to help fund her second year. Throughout her creative writing degree, she takes advantage of co-op placements for liberal studies students or joint-degree students. These placements help her earn good income to fund her more lengthy degree and she learns that she does not want to make a career of working for the public affairs bureau of government, where she interned in the summer of her fourth year. Upon graduation, however, she is connected with the Art Gallery of Vancouver, who sees value in her creative writing skills and exposure to works of art through her liberal studies degree. Jane is pleased to have an opportunity to work with a creative team of people at the Gallery and has time to pursue her own writing on the side. She goes on to become an award-winning poet and novelist, and doesn’t forget to establish a scholarship for future liberal studies students.

Okay, perhaps I’m getting carried away now, but hopefully you get the picture. While any of these ideas to help encourage liberal studies in society could be implemented alone, and would have value in themselves, a combination of these policies could really make a difference. There are also, no doubt, many other ideas that people could come up with if they put their minds to it. I would encourage those who see value in liberal education to do so.

In conclusion, I would urge us to consider putting back up the fence of a liberal education, even if it is not a solid fence, but simply sections of fence oriented in a way that helps gently channel people towards a degree that is of great benefit to themselves and of equally great benefit to our democracy. On this, let us, as Chesterton advises, go away and think.

“If you discover a life better than ruling for those who are going to rule, it is possible that your well-governed city will come into being. For here alone will the really rich rule, rich not in gold but in those riches required by the happy man, rich in a good and prudent life (p. 199)”.

– Plato’s Republic. trans. Bloom


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