Last week of the semester!

I regret that it has been so long since I last posted anything! I couldn’t access the site for a while, and I finally got around to contacting the web host this morning and solved the problem, but it required that I change the “theme” for the site. I don’t know if I like it better–what do you all think? I still need to finish the logo that I am working on, maybe once I do that I can finally settle on an aesthetic for the site that I like better.

So, I’ve been reading and writing a lot since my last post a few weeks ago. We are finishing the semester with Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments. I have always wanted to read Nietzsche, as the accounts I have heard of him have been so varied, inciting deep admiration or revulsion depending on to whom I am talking. Hopefully toward the end of the week I will get a chance to write more on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. I still have to write one last paper, and maybe in the brainstorming for that I can put some thoughts up here.

Last week, my big paper on Plato’s Republic was due.  I decided to write about the role of the family in the education of the soul as described by Socrates. In the Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors are searching for the meaning of justice, and Socrates seeks for an answer by describing at length a most just city as an analogy for the most just soul. If one can find what justice is in the city, one could find justice in the individual, or so he says.

One of the most important features of the city is the class of “guardians”—men and women set apart from early childhood and educated to be the military and ruling class. In order to best educate them and nurture their loyalty to the city, Socrates does not allow for the guardians to have their own private belongings or houses…or spouses or families. Their sexual intercourse is carefully controlled and scheduled, and when babies are born they are immediately swept away from the mothers. Children are assigned mothers and fathers, but they cannot be their biological mothers and fathers and they do not live as private families, but are “shared in common” and carefully reared. I am very interested in why Socrates must do away with the biological family in order to achieve his goal of virtuous “philosophic” natures that would best defend and rule the city.

Socrates mainly justifies this arrangement by arguing that the best guardians of the city must be united in love of the city and that private families inherently bring with them private pleasures and pains that make individuals feel separate, more intimate loyalties. By doing away with the family, he wants to unite the guardians in feeling a more dispersed devotion to the city and citizens as a whole.

I argued in my paper that this is only part of the reason why Socrates suppresses the biological family. Another part has to due with the kind of people that he wants to populate this special class. Socrates selects only a particular kind of “nature” that he thinks is exhibited at birth in some people: a spirited, passionate nature that is tempered by a philosophic love of learning. These “great natures” are few and far between, but they are the only ones proper for the role of guardian. From childhood they are very carefully watched and educated to ensure that they develop the right dispositions, virtues, loyalties, and skills. Those who don’t demonstrate these are removed. The best of those that remain must be reproduced, and the resulting infants must be reared in the same way.

A little excerpt from my essay examines the inherent danger of these great natures:

“Having now gathered together the purest of these natures and having secured their procreative isolation, Socrates is faced with a dangerous problem. For, while praising these as great natures, he also emphasizes throughout the dialogue the extent to which these natures can become corrupted and violent. In Book VI of the dialogue, Socrates has just described the nature and soul of the philosopher king (the one best disposed to rule the city), and notes how rarely such a person is born (491b). He goes on to say that the virtues, like courage and moderation, that make this soul so noble, can also “destroy” the soul, and that external goods, like “beauty, wealth, strength of body, relatives who are powerful in a city” would corrupt it (491c). 

Adeimantus asks for him to elucidate this further, and Socrates responds with an image of a seed planted in a environment unable to provide the nutrients and climate it needs; “the more vigorous it is, the more it is deficient in its own properties” when it does not receive sufficient conditions for its growth (491d). After Adeimantus assents to this, Socrates underscores that as with plants, so too with souls: the best become the worst through an improper education (491e). He continues,

‘Well, then, I suppose that if the nature we set down for the philosopher chances on a suitable course of learning, it will necessarily grow and come to every kind of virtue; but if it isn’t sown, planted, and nourished in what’s suitable, it will come to all the opposite, unless one of the gods chances to assist it (492a).’

Thus, the philosophers, whom he upholds as the best of men, could just have easily become the worst of villains if but for the chance circumstances of their upbringing.”

For some reason, that particular excerpt from the Republic was very poignant for me. It gives one empathy for villains, who by the accidents of experience and insufficient aspects of their upbringing, were led by fate to be warped and twisted. And yet, it’s more disturbing to think that the great men and women of history could have just as easily been bad if their circumstances were different. It reinforces my already acute consciousness of the critical importance of raising kids well. I am not sure that I entirely agree with Socrates but I at least find the idea quite striking.

Getting back to the point I was making about the family of the guardians, though, I think that Socrates sees too much chance and too many risks in the regular course of human procreation and child-rearing. The kind of natures that he wants to raise up to be guardians are delicate in the sense that they are so easily corruptible, and so he wants to control their genetics, environment, and education as much as possible.

Well, that reflects some of thoughts that have been occupying me in the last few weeks!

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