The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: On the Most Disordered Soul
James V. Schall, S.J. - 12/03/08
Academy at Athens
No one is willing to tell falsehoods to the most important part of himself about the most important thing, but of all places he is most afraid to have falsehood there. . . . To be false to one’s soul about the things that are, to be ignorant and to have and hold falsehood there, is what everyone would, least of all, accept, for everyone hates a falsehood in that place most of all.
Plato, Republic, II (382a-b)

Reading Plato is ever soul-wrenching and, at the same time, soul-forming. When I come, with a class, to a favorite passage well-marked in my text, I read it again. I shake my head. “Has anyone ever said it better?” I wonder, sometimes out-loud. How is it that something written over two thousand years ago still strikes our souls in a way little else does? Is it because, all claims to the contrary, human nature really has not changed? Some suspect that the only way they can escape the truths found in Plato is to insist that we no longer have the same human nature. We are new men.

I read the passage cited from the end of the Book II of the Republic. The text does not state what is affirmed as a question but as a fact. In the most important part of our souls, no one wants to lie to himself about the most important things of existence. It seems so obvious. Why would we want to be ignorant of what is really important to our very being? We hate a lie in our soul about the things that are.

And yet, we suspect that there are people who do so lie to themselves. We do so ourselves sometimes. The last words of the Lesser Hippias read: “But if you wise men are going to do it (waver), too—that means something terrible for us (ordinary folks), if we can’t stop our wavering even after we’ve put ourselves in your company” (376b). Can “terrible” things come from men said to be “wise?”

What the wise men were “wavering” about was whether or not to approve someone who “voluntarily misses the mark and does what is shameful and unjust.” These same “wise” men, we now call them professors and experts, evidently taught others that sometimes it is right to do wrong. Such a teaching Socrates himself never countenanced. Indeed, his affirmation, in the Apology and in the Crito, that it is never right to do wrong is the basis of our civilization, indeed of any civilization worthy of man.

At the beginning of this same Book II of the Republic, the book that tells us that our polity is a reflection of our soul, Glaucon, Plato’s brother, directs to Socrates a very blunt question: “Tell me, do you think there is a kind of good we welcome, not because we desire what comes from it, but because we welcome it for its own sake—joy, for example, and all the harmless pleasures that have no results beyond the joy of having them?” (357b). Socrates thinks that there is. But on mulling over the profundity of the question, we can see why Socrates had so much esteem for Glaucon. He had the rare quality of intellectual courage to insist on Socrates providing an answer that he understood, an answer that did not lead to despair.

What is remarkable about the inquiry of Glaucon is the example that that he gives of a good that we welcome for its own sake and not because we get something else for it. The first thing Glaucon mentions, besides other harmless pleasures, is “joy.” “Joy” of course, is not exactly a thing that someone just gives to us. Joy is rather in the order of what happens to us when we receive something good, love for example. Joy, as Pieper once said, is not something we go out to achieve. Rather it is the result of our receiving what is good. Both joy and peace are results, not things we pursue as such.

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