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  Road Signs

Tuning, Turning and Teaching

By Christopher A. Dustin

Christopher A. DustinThe following is an excerpt from Professor Dustin’s “Teacher of the Year” address.

In his essay on “Walking,” Thoreau declares his wish to “speak a word for Nature.” I wish, in the same spirit, to speak a word for lecturing. Thoreau begins by reflecting on the origin of the verb “to saunter.” His derivation is artful, but his interest in sources of meaning is serious. At first glance, there is nothing artful about the origins of the word “lecture.” It derives from lectus, which is the past participle of legere, to read. But there is an artfulness to this after all, since “lecture” is also related to “legend” (from legenda, things to be read). Lectures are akin to marvelous stories; once upon a time, at least, they shared a common source.

What this suggests (to me) is a way of thinking about lectures, not simply as things that are read, or as sources of information, but as readings of marvelous stories. A marvelous story that I often teach is Plato’s Republic. Here is a passage:

And in truth justice is, it seems, something of this sort. However, it isn’t concerned with someone’s doing his own externally, but with what is inside him. ... One who is just regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale–high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts–in all of these, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it. … (443-d-c)1

Justice, we are told, is about the regulation of the soul. It is not imposed from without (it does not merely govern external action). It issues from within. To be truly “just and fine” our actions cannot simply conform to the rules. They must flow from, and reflect the inner form of, a well-ordered soul. Such actions are not isolated productions. A way of life is just when it preserves an inner harmony, where the three parts of the soul—reason, emotion, and desire―are properly related. To be a complete human being―to be whole―is to be attuned to oneself. We may pride ourselves on our ability to do, or even to be, “many things.” The danger is that, in being many things, one is no longer one.

What Plato has to say could make an important contribution to our ongoing conversations about civility. Civility pertains, originally, to citizenship.2 In the Republic, Plato draws an analogy between the parts of a city and the parts of a soul. There is a “constitution” within each of us, the proper maintenance of which is fundamental to the maintenance of relations among us. We are, in some sense, citizens of our own souls. Prior to engaging in our various “contracts,” we have this business to attend to. There is a politics of the self on which politics in the broader sense depends. Justice is civility within the soul (as opposed to incivility, or civil war).

It’s true, I think. But what does it mean? That it is a perplexing idea is signaled by Plato himself, in this passage. One who is just “puts himself in order … and harmonizes the three parts of himself.” He “binds together those parts and any others there may be in between …” What might those other parts be? If their number (and nature) remains indefinite, how are we to define the proper relations among them? How are we to picture justice in the soul? Plato does not just leave us to wonder. By leading us to wonder, he gives these questions a sense of direction. The soul is like a musical instrument, he suggests. Justice is like the performance of a musical work. But then, the question is: who is playing, if the well-tuned person is the just person? How can we see ourselves as both instrument and performer? Maybe if we pictured ourselves as singers. But even the most gifted singer is not automatically at one with his or her instrument. To become a “fine” singer takes practice, and it takes teaching. Perhaps this is what Plato was getting at. Justice is self-regulation, but we do not simply put ourselves in order. The tuner is the teacher.

Plato talks about education elsewhere in the Republic, in connection with the so-called allegory of the cave. The elements of this story are familiar to most of us. The cave-dwellers are bound so that they can see only shadows on the wall in front of them. Only when they are freed are they confronted with the realities of which the shadows are mere images. Initially they are at a loss, and unable to make sense of what lies before their eyes. Slowly and with great difficulty, they make the painful ascent to the light of day. They are dazzled by the brilliance of the sun, until their eyes adjust, and they can see things for what they are. Meanwhile, there is something that we ourselves have come to see:

Education is not what some people declare it to be, namely putting knowledge into souls that lack it. … [The] instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around … without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good … [E]ducation is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can … be made to do it. (518b-d)

Teaching is a craft. It is not an inputting or a downloading but a conversion―a “turning around,” or re-orienting. But it must also be a dis-orienting, since:

Anyone [must] remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light. (518a)

The same applies to the soul. But then, education is not a turning away from perception, desire and emotion and toward the purely rational. It is the whole soul that must be turned around. The reorientation―and the dis-orientation―must be experienced in all of its parts.

The process Plato describes is physical as well as psychological. I am hard at work at my computer when I am distracted by something birdlike that lands outside my window. The window is off to one side and a short distance behind me. If I turn only my head, crane my neck, and peer over my shoulder while the rest of my body remains focused on the screen, the bird will not only be hard to see. What I see will be a distorted image of “that which is.” To see clearly, I would have to abandon my work and turn my whole body toward it. Of course, I might not really see it even then. It would depend on where my mind was focused, not just the reasoning part, but my interests and concerns, my anxieties and preoccupations. To “really see” what lies before our eyes requires an investment of all the parts of the soul. It is not just thought that is brought to bear on reality; the rest of us must be turned around as well.

This reorientation of the self as a whole is a conversion to justice. Becoming just is learning to see. But where is the teacher in all this, if he is not simply the person who drags the prisoner up out of the cave and leaves him to confront a vision of reality to which his soul remains unresponsive because he has not yet learned to see it? The difficulty of locating the teacher in Plato’s story, and clearly defining his role, provides a clue. The cave is a disorienting image, after all. Socrates’ own interlocutors find it “strange.” They are supposed to be looking at an image of people like themselves. That they are finding it strange, rather than seeing only a familiar image, is an indication that their education is under way. It is only by experiencing the strangeness of what we see that we are moved from one way of seeing to another. This does not happen automatically. It, too, is part of the teacher’s craft.

This is not the only place Plato talks about education. Elsewhere, he suggests that teaching might be more like “modeling.” This brings us back to music and storytelling:

Aren’t these the reasons … that education in music and poetry is most important? … [B]ecause anyone who has been properly educated in [these] will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. … (401d-402a)

Here, Plato seems to be saying that art itself can make us “fine and good.” From what is finely crafted, or well-fitted, one acquires a sense of what is fitting. One becomes what one sees. To be properly educated in music and poetry is to imitate the form of something that is complete, from which nothing has been omitted and to which nothing could be added. The just soul is such a thing―beautiful and whole.

But the just soul, as Plato describes it, is not such a thing … not quite. What we were told is that the just person harmonizes the three parts of himself and whatever others there may be in between. There is no telling what those other parts are. Not only could something be added. It seems that something might actually have been omitted from the account we have been given. But then, the truth about justice in the soul, as Plato tells it, is not complete. If there is no telling what lies “in between,” its order cannot be precisely determined.

What is Plato helping us to see? That the just soul is beautiful (I think), and that it may yet be whole. Plato’s account of justice does not disintegrate. He helps us to see the just soul for what it is―as something wonderous. This is what makes the Republic a marvelous story. It is populated by wonders, and it moves us to wonder.

In my reading of Plato, it is the wonders that work to redirect the soul. At the same time, the soul must be directed toward them. Wonder has fallen on hard times these days. It has turned pale on account not of its antiquity but of its new-age ring. For the Greeks, wonder was not just something we bring to the world. It was called for by the world. Wonders were among “the things that are”―the things we learn to see.

Wonder remains something to be learned, and to be taught. It is, in a way, the very essence of thought. If, in Aristotle’s words, “human beings begin … by wondering that things are as they are,” the knowledge they seek does not eclipse the wonders they behold. The incommensurability of the diagonal of a square with the side “seems wonderful to all who have not yet seen the reason, that there is a thing that cannot be measured even by the smallest unit.” But then, having seen the reason, “there is nothing that would surprise a geometer so much as if the diagonal turned out to be commensurable.” 3 Aristotle’s geometer understands something the rest of us don’t. He does not know how to measure the diagonal; he sees its immeasurability more clearly than those who were not moved to think about it. What it means for him to “see the reason” is to see the irrationality that the square’s ratios, its geometrical perfection, must ultimately harbor.

If young people are to be led “to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason,” Plato writes, they must learn to “praise fine things.” Plato’s text is such a thing. It is finely made. If I teach my students to admire it, it is in the original sense of “admire” (from the Latin admirari, to wonder at). What this means is not simply to accept it on authority. Plato himself has shown us what it really means. The just soul is a fine and beautiful thing; but such things are not simply worshipped in their completeness or rational perfection. Like the diagonal of the square, it is the mystery they harbor that makes them worthy of awe.

Teachers are makers too. But the teacher does not “make” the soul turn around any more than a wine-maker makes the grapes turn into wine. On some level, it must do this by itself, and it needs time. Part of the moral of Plato’s story is that, fundamentally, justice is minding one’s own business. To do that, one needs to be less busy. One needs time to oneself. Plato is not pitting individuals against communities, however. If “civil” is not strictly synonymous with “social,” selfhood is not the same as selfishness. Maintaining one’s inner life is a condition for having a life at all, be it individual or communal. You cannot turn souls into citizens without attending to the city in the soul. Inwardness, too, in Kierkegaard’s words, “must be worked for.” 4 Society and solitude are not antithetical. The latter is a vital source of individuality and of community. Otherwise we end up with what Kierkegaard calls talkativeness instead of true communication. “Only someone who knows how to remain silent can really talk” he writes; silence “is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life,” but “the introspection of silence” is also a necessary condition of all genuine social intercourse. 5 The same is true of teaching. Of course we want our students to talk in class. But if this talk is not to dissolve into talkativeness, what we do must nourish the inner life.

This is contemplative work, but it is not detached from the world. One is educated to philosophy, Plato suggests, by nature as well as art. Some time ago, I was given a copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Botanical Letters. The letters were written to a friend of Rousseau’s who wanted to engage her young daughter in the study of plants. I can think of no book that I would sooner place beside Plato’s Republic. For the pedagogical goal, as Rousseau puts it, is to help his pupil to learn, not just to identify and name, but “how really to see what she is looking at.” 6 To learn to see is to learn to wonder, about inflorescences and ramifications, the differences between the pod of a pea and the siliqua of a crucifer, or the swollen appearance of two of the leaflets of the calyx and the relative shortness of two of the stamens in a wallflower―to marvel at the fact that each of the flowers of a daisy, while one in appearance, is really composed of hundreds of flowers, each with its own corolla, pistil, and stamens, that each is as complete and perfect in its way as a lily, that each part is really a true flower.7

One cannot be struck by such things until one can really see them; but then, one cannot really see them without being moved to wonder and observe more closely. What is the point of this patient observation? Plato would not have been surprised by Rousseau’s answer:

You must not, dear friend, give botany an importance which it does not have; it is a study of pure curiosity, one that has no real utility except what a thinking, sensitive human being can draw from observing nature and the marvels of the universe.8

We are tempted to picture an educated person who, with adequate training, applies her intelligence and skill to the study of nature. Then we ask: what is to be gained from the application of this knowledge? But then we have missed its real import. What issues (or is “drawn”) from this study is a morally, aesthetically and intellectually sensitive human being. These are the makings of a just soul. Plato talks about “consorting” with the Ideas. Our students might benefit from a little more of that, just as they might benefit from consorting with plants. Rousseau is right. Spending time with flowers can make you civil.

Christopher A. Dustin is associate professor and chair of the philosophy department at Holy Cross.

1Quotations from Plato’s Republic are taken from the Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997).
2 From the Latin, civilis.
3Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983a15-20.
4 Concluding Unscientific Postscript, pg. 243.
5Kierkegaard, The Present Age (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 69-71.
6Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Botany: A Study of Pure Curiosity (London: Michael Joseph, 1979), pg. 28. 7Botany, pg. 88
8Botany, pg. 106


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