By Christopher A. Dustin
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
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,
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
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,
2 From the Latin, civilis.
3Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983a15-20.
Unscientific Postscript, pg. 243.
Present Age (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp.
6Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Botany:
A Study of Pure Curiosity (London: Michael Joseph,
1979), pg. 28. 7Botany, pg.