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Spring 2013

Plato’s Idea of the Teacher

Part Two of Two. Click here for Part One.

Pedro Blas González

Plato’s idea of a teacher does not necessarily mean a schoolteacher. Effective teachers are those who are up to the aforementioned task of facilitation—but the burden falls on the student. There must exist a reasonable measure of commensurability between student and teacher, where both seek to attain the same understanding and knowledge. Genuine learning requires the desire to know.

For Plato, education serves a purpose that complements his ideas on the nature of truth. Education, in the Platonic sense, cannot exist to merely catalogue the objects, those particulars that populate the sensual world of appearance (phainomena). Instead, education seeks to understand the essence of the timeless, universal principles that rule over human existence. The attainment of wisdom, then, should be the ultimate goal of education.

Plato distinguishes between education as pedagogy—the art of teaching—and the desire for learning. As far as education is concerned, truth (alētheia) is unveiled in a three-step process. First, there is the example of the person whose soul boldly faces the sun, and to whom truth addresses itself. This person has no difficulty ascertaining the Good. This individual is a self-motivated seeker of truth. This mode of self-awareness is intuitive. Secondly, there is the person who has their back turned to the “light,” and who, as a consequence, requires education to make them “see.” It is probably correct to assume that this is where Socrates’ analogy of philosophy as a midwife is best exemplified. Thirdly, there is the person who, for as long as they live, will remain a voluntary prisoner in the darkness of the cave. For such a person, education will merely amount to training. This is the rationally blind person who cannot be helped, because no one can furnish his eyes with sight.

Knowledge and virtue are dominant themes in Plato’s work. In the Meno, Socrates and Meno discuss the question whether virtue can be taught. This question is important to Plato’s thought because he argues that knowledge and virtue cannot be separated. Knowledge and intelligence without virtue lead to despotism.

Plato’s theory of forms is forged from Parmenides’ notion of Being, as static, and Heraclitus’ Becoming, as fleeting. In addition, Plato was also influenced by Pythagoras’ mathematics and the latter’s conception of the soul. Parmenides’ influence on Plato offers us a telling clue to Plato’s theory of forms. Parmenides begins his treatise On Nature by relating a story of a seeker of truth who is guided by two mares. The mares represent the irrational appetites of the soul. The path they travel symbolizes reason. The two forking paths, from which the seeker of truth must choose, are: 1) The one, that “it is” (Being), and 2) The other, that “it is not” (Non-Being). It is from this ontological distinction that Parmenides draws his dual notions of alētheia and dóxa.

The intrinsic value of truth, according to Plato, degenerates when viewed solely in terms of utility. Hence, education allows us to live a life that is aligned to the Good. The role of education is to free us from the ignorance of the cave, which is part of the human condition. Learning guides a person with their back turned to the light into the realm of Being. The person who has an intuitive understanding of the Good uses the senses as a starting point. Socrates writes:

And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at first finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.

Plato’s theory of forms underscores his conception of human reality. Truth, in the Platonic view, is objective. The sincere, disinterested seeker of truth is aided in his search by virtue. Of course, this is a life-long process that delivers the seeker of truth to wisdom. This is why Plato believes that the most enlightened person ought to be the ruler of the State. This is paradoxical, however. The person who does not need to be prompted to search for truth is also likely one who takes the sensual world at face value. Plato’s view of human reality is often met with resistance by proponents of ethical relativism, modern sophists by any other name. The latter dispute the notion that the Good even exists to begin with.

The three types of persons make up the grist for the mill of debate about the nature of truth. Plato chooses the philosopher as the ideal ruler because this is a vocation that demands clarity, rigor, discipline, and, above all, intellectual sincerity. In addition, the genuine philosopher must be a stoic, one who learns to master himself. This, in turn, requires the practice of humility.

According to Plato, man’s great conflict remains one between truth (alētheia) and opinion (dóxa). However, this tension cannot be fully understood unless we apprehend the disparity between mind (nous) and the senses (aísthēsis). Socrates explains this fundamental human tension:

Unless he can run the gauntlet of all objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth, never faltering at any step of the arguments—unless he can do all this, you would say that he knows neither the idea of good nor any other good; he apprehends only a shadow, if anything at all, which is given by opinion and not by science;—dreaming and slumbering in this life, before he is well awake here, he arrives at the world below, and has his final quietus.

In this analogy, light is to truth as darkness is to opinion. Hence, in the absence of the forms, we can only know isolated instances of goodness, beauty, and truth, and thus, we mistake base opinions for knowledge. Plato attempts to moderate this epistemological rift in his metaphysics by stressing that dialectic should be taught to young students to help them develop the skill of “asking and answering questions.” Yet this process should not be treated as an intellectual sporting event that radicalizes or relativizes the search for truth, but which instead culminates in certainty, not fashionable skepticism. It is Plato’s hope that dialectic will minimize the temptation and lure of dóxa over truth. Socrates explains:

Dialectic, then, as you will agree, is the coping stone of the sciences, and is set over them; no other science can be placed higher—the nature of knowledge can no further go?

Plato’s analysis of truth in the Republic is ultimately a reflection on human nature. How are the citizens of the ideal State, or any state, to become convinced that their ruler cares about the pursuit of truth? This is what Plato suggests when he writes that all men by nature have a disposition for which they are best suited. It is Plato’s contention that the carpenter, for instance, should not cross the boundaries imposed by his skill, by attempting to do the work of the mason. If the carpenter is well suited to do the work required of a carpenter, then it follows from this that some people have a natural disposition to be carpenters.

In Plato’s ideal State, the ruler must be a seeker of truth. This is a simple case of virtuous role-modeling. Remember, truth-seeking is an active and toilsome life-long pursuit. All members of society must perform their duty, if the State is to maintain practical cohesion. Many of the tensions that inform human nature are best addressed, Plato argues, through an understanding of the interplay between appearance and reality. Plato does not take the problem of appearance and reality for granted. By this I mean that he does not look at this dichotomy of human existence as being merely theoretical. Truth-seeking is a vital, life-long engagement that should culminate in self-knowledge and wisdom. People’s conception of truth determines how they view themselves and society.

Socrates’ inspired guidance adheres to reason and virtue. These two cannot be separated, Plato informs us. Plato accomplishes this by allowing Socrates to appear ignorant, in order for him to advance any given argument. Socrates is willing to be wrong, if only to prove the reality of objective truth. How else would he know that he is in error?

As lovers of truth, philosophers must be especially attentive to error, given that the foundation of their thought depends on their intellectual honesty. While it is often difficult to identify human nature with certainty, it is even more difficult to imagine a world without an objective standard of truth. Plato’s thought displays an inherent flexibility that allows his readers to exercise their rational capability through a series of complex and demanding arguments and counter-arguments. This is only one side of the equation, however. Plato’s thought is also rich with vitally imaginative allegorical understanding. This is why Alfred North Whitehead has referred to all subsequent philosophizing as being a footnote to Plato.

Plato’s conception of man is otherworldly as well as atemporal. The vital process that we call life, he argues convincingly, ought to be seen as a preparation to comprehend the qualitative essences that inform the things that we touch, smell, and quantify. Plato’s notion of transcendence does battle with the objectifying process that we regard as human history. Transcendence elevates our vital existential concerns. This enlightens our ability to live in the here-and-now. Like Saint Augustine after him, in The City of God, Plato conceives of mankind as souls that must live in the temporal world, but who are not of this world.

Human existence, seen as a preparation for death, Socrates reminds us, means that living a virtuous life is the reward of the good life. Living well cannot be separated from our ability to retain autonomous control over the immediacy that is our allotted portion of human reality.  

Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.

Posted: May 12, 2013 in Essays.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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