So I’m supposed to give a talk on the idea of the university or something along those line soon. I’m trying to get the facts in order. Here’s the first batch of several. Keep in mind this is a very rough, quick, and random draft:

1.There really is a massive contradiction between what we learn through SCIENCE and what we learn through the HUMANITIES. What we learn through SCIENCE seems more rigorous and more true, grounded as it is in an objective method. What we learn from the HUMANITIES seems to correspond better to our personal experiences. Poets (or even Taylor Swift) know more about love or just having sex than do the evolutionary biologists or the sexologists.

2. No person really believes what the scientists teach is completely true. Well, some people say they believe that, but nobody (except, maybe, the very rare [in our country] real Buddhist) really lives as if personal reality is nothing but an illusion to be gotten over. Socrates, it’s true, said that philosophy is learning how to die, which seems to mean using science to come to terms with one’s own ephemeral insignificance. Learning how to die, so the philosopher says, is using your mind to get over yourself. But Socrates never seems to have talked with anyone who actually lived that way.

3. Certainly Plato presented Socrates’ life as one of dramatic personal significance. Socrates, everyone knows, was courageous enough to die rather than surrender or even diss his singularly significant way of life. The fact that his death was a huge deal makes him real important, even for us.

4. Everyone knows that physics can account for everything but the nerdy, lonely, vain, envious, and somewhat self-forgetful physicist. There may be, for all I know, a perfect correspondence between the physicist’s mind and the cosmos. But the physicist, everyone also knows, is more than a mind, more than a big head. Even Sheldon on the funny TV show THE BIG BANG THEORY is an exaggeration, just as the other more pathetic and less self-sufficient characters are fairly realistic. Physicists want girlfriends, love their moms, and have friends for regular guy reasons too. The philosopher Leo Strauss said that the world—meaning cosmos or nature—is the home of the human mind, but even real guy philosophers (and in the classical world there was no difference between philosophers and scientists) are more than minds.

5. Sometimes nerdy scientists today put their hope in transhumanism—in biotechnological progress that will allow them to exist without bodily limitations and icky bodily desires and functions. Transhumanists, a study might show, are typically guys with really bad bodies who are full of unrequited love. They are so about the coming revenge of the nerds that they forget that even scientists and philosophers have to be animated by erotic longings that could only exist in beings with bodies, minds, and other stuff too—in persons.

6.So sometimes studying Plato’s REPUBLIC more misleads than enlightens students today. They can walk away with the impression that the philosopher-kings described there are actually real people. But Plato intends the philosopher-king to be two steps removed from reality—a poetic construction that corresponds to no real person. The dialogue is narrated by the real guy Socrates, who tells us what he had said and done the day before. So we can’t help but assume that Socrates cleaned up and otherwise perfected what he said and did for our benefit. The character Socrates is abstracted (dramatically speaking, by Socrates himself) from the person or real guy Socrates.

7. And the philosopher-king is abstracted from the character of Socrates. The character Socrates locates himself in the cave—meaning the ordinary, political world of images people mistake for reality. He is distinguished by knowing the cave is a cave, and he spends his life trying to talk his way out of it. But he stuck with using words or images.

8. The philosopher-king exists totally outside of that world of images in the pure light of the sun, directly staring at unmediated truth. He’s not really a philosopher; he’s a wise man; he knows not only being or what is but what gives being its beingness. His knowledge is free from presuppositions. He doesn’t have that erotic experience of incompleteness that motivates all lovers, including lovers of the truth. So he doesn’t need anyone else, and he has no desire to return to the world of ordinary people, even to rule them. To say the least, he doesn’t need a girl friend or probably any other kind of friend. The philosopher-king, the wholly rational wise man, is not a real man or a person.

9. The unrealistic opposite of the philosopher-king the poet Socrates (or the poet Plato) invents is the cave. The cave stands for “the city” or political community. The people there are readily and completely manipulable; they sit, chained, staring straight ahead at images manufactured by poets as the only world they can know. They, quite unrealistically, can’t even see or apparently talk with one another about the images. So the wise philosopher-king is perfectly free—as reluctant ruler—to mould the cave dwellers any way he thinks best.

10. The cave dwellers aren’t real people either; they aren’t as mysterious and elusive as even the ordinary persons we know and love. Reading THE REPUBLIC, you get only a very incomplete idea of what a real woman is like, and that’s not just because, as the feminist says, the woman’s voice is not heard in the conversation.

11. To show how tyrannical any country that aimed at achieving perfect justice—even at the expense of family, friendship, and the self-consciousness of persons born to love other persons and die as particular persons—would be, Socrates turned the rulers into gods and most people into animals to be controlled. That image of the philosopher-king’s perfect freedom as philosopher and as king is the tyrant’s dream of perfect freedom from who he is by nature.

12. That’s the dream that Tocqueville complains scientists have in the modern world. But brutalizing most people (in theory) with their materialism, they aim to raise themselves up to gods. They proudly think of themselves as detached through rational comprehension and control from the people they claim to completely describe with their impersonal science. Scientists, by thinking only in terms of their own minds and the bodies of others, miss personal reality altogether. They think too highly of themselves and too little of everyone else. At least the Christian aristocrats of old had some sense that the people they exploited were persons with souls.

13. Unlike Socrates or Plato, modern scientists tend to confuse impersonal abstractions—which can explain a lot—with the whole of reality, including human or personal reality. No one can deny that neo-Darwinians or neuroscientists can explain a lot, but there finally have little to say about who we are persons—or not as merely minds or bodies or orbiting gods or wholly determined animals. It’s not even true, as some excessively literal students of Plato today seem to think, that we’re either detached philosopher-scientists or deluded citizens.

14. Still, everyone knows that science is real. The most telling piece of evidence is its success in producing power, in not only understanding but transforming nature. The technology of the scientists is a much more effective agent of liberation than the propaganda of the humanists. Measurable technological success in changing nature according to our personal purposes provides the real standard by which we can expose humanistic propaganda posing as science—such as Marxism or “History.”

15. Most students these days choose technical majors or ways of life that can make them powerful or productive. They assume that the being who employs the scientific knowledge isn’t really explained by that knowledge. Impersonal science is at the service of free persons. It’s not, for example, for learning how to die in some Socratic way—about how to learn how to live serenely beyond hope and fear as an insignificant speck in an impersonal cosmos. It’s about sustaining the existence of particular persons as long as possible in comfort and security. The promise is that, through science, we will eventually learn how not to die. Already many of us—in, for example, our quickly progressing knowledge of risk factors—are learning how to stay around a long longer than the ordinary persons of the past.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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