Essay / Philosophy

Education and the Problem of Our Times

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

What is love? What is true education? One of the great masters of both, Socrates, gave us a lesson in the dialogue Symposium that is powerful. Socrates ends his discussion of Love on a high note. He says of Diotima’s speech,

This . . . was what Diotima told me. I was persuaded. And once persuaded, I try to persuade other too that human nature can find no better workmate for acquiring this than Love. That’s why I say that every man must honor Love, why I honor the rites of Love myself and practice them with special diligence, and why I commend them to others. (212b)

For only the second time in the Symposium, people applaud. This is a bad sign. Socrates has made a speech. Instead of being in dialogue with them, they clap for the good show. Forgetting the men and returning to the place where men dwell has caused this problem. It trivializes his own speech. The men cannot hope to live in the place he has described. Instead of giving them a vision and bringing them “back down to earth,” Socrates has made a fine speech.

All is not lost at first. Aristophanes starts to question Socrates. Aristophanes wants to defend his own speech. Suddenly there is a loud, even frightening noise. Conversation becomes impossible. Alcibiades bursts into the room “very drunk and very loud.” (212d) In the Meno, Plato demonstrates that a good philosophy would produce good men. The entrance of Alcibiades into the Symposium is the toughest challenge to that view. Alcibiades was a student of Socrates. He was handsome and brilliant. He was also the worst Athenian of his day. He had the greatest gifts of any of Socrates’ students. Yet he betrayed the city to her enemies. Amongst his other crimes, he defiled the gods of the city. Alcibiades dishonored the herms. The herms were statues of Hermes placed at street corners. They were all over Athens. They frequently had large erections and were symbols of fertility. Alcibiades was infamous for mutilating these statues around the time of this dialogue. Alcibiades’ drunken entrance would have reminded any Athenian of his nighttime orgies and blasphemies.

Alcibiades will betray Athens again and again. However, he is so verbally skilled and so handsome that he is forgiven repeatedly. He is the slick and skillful manipulator of public opinion. Nothing sticks. This student of Socrates was a very bad man. Alcibiades was raised by the great Athenian statesman Pericles. In the Meno, Socrates pointed that these great men were unable to raise their sons well. They could not teach them virtue. (Meno 94) Somehow the statesmen escape the blame for the corruption of their sons. Socrates will be killed for it. It is safer for the city to blame philosophers. Statesmen rule the city. To acknowledge their failure would be to admit difficulties at the very center of politics. Philosophers by their very nature are usually found at the margin of positions of power. Their impact on the city is not as easy to tame.

Alcibiades gives the last speech of the dialogue. It is a necessary corrective to Socrates, but in a negative sense. Alcibiades gives a bad speech that has a good effect. Sometimes in discussion in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, we will get deeply involved in the text. God will begin to reveal some deep truths of His Word to us. A kind of holy hush will fill the room. Suddenly, through the open windows, we will hear a group of student speaking loudly and perhaps crudely. The mood is broken. In one way, the students have behaved badly. In the Providence of God, they have also reminded us of the purpose of the gifts of God. They are for the people of God in a broken world. Just as Diotima’s speech taught, but was dangerous in its beauty, so the moment of stillness in class was both good and dangerous. It was good to sense God in a real way. It equips for ministry in a draining world. There is the real danger that we might wish to stay there after God has finished with the moment.

Plenty of students and professors become drunk on philosophy and never leave school. Alcibiades will remind Socrates of his job. It is no accident that when he leaves the party, he immediately returns to the marketplace of Athens and attempts to find good students to become his dialogue partners. He has gained important insight in his mental dialogue with Diotima. His fearful confrontation with Alcibiades has reminded him of the urgency of his work in the city. Agathon is very drunk, but in this drunkenness he speaks the truth about himself. His spiritual blindness is symbolized by his pushing his hair ribbons over his eyes. He sits between Agathon, who admires him, and Socrates. This talented and wicked man has come between the good of the city and Socrates.

This is what his behavior will do in actuality. The real value of Socrates to the city of Athens will be forgotten compared to the degenerate behavior of this young man. When Alcibiades discovers he is near Socrates, he becomes enraged. This rage may have been meant to be amusing, but in his drunkenness it is actually frightening. Socrates seeks protection from Agathon. Alcibiades crowns both Agathon and Socrates. He also takes over leadership of the group and orders everyone to drink. The old community, formed by Phaedrus at the start of the dialogue, is destroyed. Socrates says that he is in love with Alcibiades. Alcibiades accepts this praise as his due. He accuses Socrates of being a jealous lover. Of course, he confuses Socrates’ love for his soul with erotic love of the body. Erixymachus proposes a new round of speeches. Alcibiades agrees, but revelry will prevent any speech but his own. The dialogue threatens to begin again. This actually happens in Republic II after a fruitless discussion. Great things come of this restart. Nothing comes of this new city. Why not? Alcibiades has come as a tyrant and believes he is a god. He insists of “naming” anyone who speaks, describing their character. He hands out the crowns of victory like the god Dionysus in Frogs. He demands wine. Alcibiades bullies Socrates. He ends the old discussion and begins a new one with not consultation of others.

What is to be done with Alcibiades? The tyrant will be followed by no other speeches. There can be no other speeches after Alcibiades. He has castrated the city. There can be no fruitfulness after Alcibiades. Socrates begs him to “speak the truth,” but Alcibiades can only see himself. His physical eroticism overwhelms everyone at the party and attracts even more drunk revelers. Alcibiades speaks in praise of Socrates. He begins by describing him as a satyr. A satyr was a goat-man with a great sexual appetite. They were frequently portrayed with erections. Plato is reminding the reader of the mutilation of the Hermes. Socrates would have gotten the message. Alcibiades is going to try to castrate Socrates in speech. The tyrant is now at war with the old philosopher. One of them will be silenced at the end of the dialogue. He claims that there is a magical erotic power in the words of Socrates. They disturb the young man for they, “upset me so deeply that my very own soul started protesting that my life- my life! – was no better than the most miserable slaves.” He continues, “Socrates is the only man in the world who has made me feel shame.” (216) In this, of course, he speaks truth. Philosophy and the truth have moved Alcibiades and briefly turned him from his narcissism. He even catches a glimpse of the Forms. (217)

Alcibiades does not want to pursue wisdom or the Good. Alcibiades thinks that if he can possess Socrates, that he will possess the Forms. The educational system of the city has trained him to look for the erotic from his teachers. He does as he has been trained to do. Socrates will not cooperate. Alcibiades complains that once when he tried to get Socrates to bed him, Socrates refused again and again. Despite this, Alcibiades cannot leave Socrates alone. Socrates has all the virtues most Athenians lack. Alcibiades sees that Socrates is brave in battle. Socrates even saves his life. Still, what Alcibiades wants is sex. Alcibiades could have Socrates’ pure love, but not his body. Alcibiades says he has bitten by philosophy like a snake, but he cannot love ideas. He only knows how to love bodies. (218b) Like every tyrant, Alcibiades attributes his own motives to every man. He believes Socrates is trying to control him or make fun of him. The best of potential students has been destroyed by the Athenian educational system.

Alcibiades has condemned himself and the culture of the city that raised him with his own words. Alcibiades came to the party loudly but disappears from the dialogue with no mention of the fact. He is just gone. He has been neutralized by Socrates. Agathon, the good of the city, chooses to be with Socrates on the basis of Alcibiades speech. Without knowing it, Alcibiades has shown Agathon and the company a better path of love. When Agathon moves next to Socrates, Alcibiades is allowed one complaint and then he is gone. Alcibiades vanishes, but Socrates’ work goes forward.

Sometimes I fear that our American educational system has not learned this lesson. Just as in Athens most of the young are educated by our poets. Our poets perform on television, radio, and in the music. They worship Eros as a great god. My students come to college full of passion. Dimly, they perceive that they need something. Often, they want to attend to the texts. They simply cannot. These students are unable to follow an argument. Amusement has made difficult study almost impossible for them. It is hard for them to imagine questions to which there are not immediate answers. After all, can’t we just google it? We have amused them to death and they come to college drunk on years of television, degenerate music, and worthless movies.

It is easy to show them that following the logos is a better way, but many are unable to follow. They have been conditioned to worry first about themselves. The have been saturated with sexual images of love. Few have deep and meaningful relationships that are not also sexual. The number one question of college students at Biola University is, “Am I liked?” What is to be done with Alcibiades? Socrates leaves the party alone. This postlude matches the prologue. Socrates begins the dialogue alone. He slowly becomes part of the newly forming community at the symposium. In the end, he slowly withdraws from the dying group. A large group of drunken revelers appear and destroy any chance for further conversation. (223b) Erixymachus and Phaedrus leave. Pausanius disappears from view.

Only the last three speakers before Alcibiades remain to carry on the dialogue. These were the men strong enough to drink at the start of the dialogue. They begin to do so now. Despite all the distractions, they try to continue to talk. Socrates attempts to unify Agathon, the tragedian, and Aristophanes, the comic. However, both of the men eventually fall asleep. The room becomes as still as a tomb. The text says,

But after getting them off to sleep, Socrates got up and left and Aristodemus followed him, as always. He said that Socrates went directly to the Lyceum, washed up, spent the rest of the day just as he always did, and only then, as evening was falling, went home to rest.

Socrates has put the speakers to sleep or driven them away. Why? Socrates has given up on the men at the symposium. They are not merely clueless. These speakers are dangerous. The best thing he can do for the city is to allow them to fritter away their time in parties or put them to sleep. It is bad for the city when its intellectual leaders are in this condition, At the harm of these bad men is minimized. When the rulers are bad, the best the common man can hope is that they destroy themselves and leave the rest alone. Of course, this destructive behavior cannot be contained for long. For example, the poets should be using their power to transform the Athenian imagination. Instead, they are either posture for the status quo or make unreal utopian proclamations. By their very failure to lead Athens in the right direction, the city is beginning a slow decline.

In part, this is Plato’s justification of his master’s teaching. These bad men, especially the brilliant Alcibiades, are not truly the students of Socrates. They may hang around him as an interesting figure, but do not follow his life style. Socrates is a celebrity to them, like the winner of a drama prize. He makes beautiful speeches and so attracts men like Phaedrus. When he tries to pull them from their base and immoral behavior, they pull back from following him. In Symposium, only Aristodemus follows him from the beginning to end. However, it is not sure that even Aristodemus is attracted to wisdom. He may simply be looking for a guru. He loves Socrates, but is incapable of understanding his teaching. Plato has described the death of an academic culture. Each school, each little academic community, begins with promise. The tools of the dialectic are freely available. The great books are cheap and freely available. However, the great books are hard. It is easier to follow a guru than look for the Good. The guru gives quick answers, the dialectic is hard. Books like the Bible are not written with lists of answers to all the questions we think it should answer. Instead, to get value from it, we must learn to ask what it is saying. Then we must question those sayings to see if they are true.

This task is long and hard. As a result education is often replaced by speech making. Students are often delighted to participate. They opine freely on their own. But in the end, such an institution, Plato warns, will be invaded by the stronger erotic souls. They will reduce college to a four year party before being forced to get jobs. Worst still, school will be reduced to a place where bad men learn the techniques that will help them manipulate the many. If such a place will not follow the logos, then the best that can be done is to lull it into inactivity and leave.

I am not without hope, however. Anyone can read a great book. All over America home-schooled students are gathering in discussions with their mothers. These women do not think they know the answers. I have met hundreds of them. In their humility they approach the text and let it teach them. Each is a kitchen table Diotima. There are high schools and colleges that are also taking this approach. They are often not very large, but they are hopeful signs. It does not take many. There are seldom many who follow the logos with love wherever he leads. I have seen students so intent on following the argument, that they forget I am there as teacher. Then I can sit back and know that even Alcibiades can be saved, if he will, by the power of the Word.

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