We’re three weeks into classes and it’s been pretty fascinating so far. Here are the readings, by class:
Meno (in its entirety)
Physics (I.1, II.1-3 and 7-8)
Metaphysics (I.1-3 and II)
How can we learn what we don’t know? Would we even recognize it if we found it? Especially if “it” is a concept as nebulous and indefinite as virtue? More importantly, what is teaching in the first place? Plato’s Meno, one of the Socratic dialogues, tackles all of these questions while simultaneously answering none of them. In fact, the most concrete knowledge you’ll come out of this dialogue with is how to double the area of a square (and maybe not even that). But of course, that’s Socrates’ point. Knowledge is not delivered to us by lecturers, but is instead something we can discern for ourselves through inquiry and discovery. Lucky for us, our souls have already learned everything there is to be learned in the world; it’s simply a matter of whether our mortal forms can recollect that deep well of knowledge. Many of my classmates were dissatisfied with this explanation although I maintain it’s not altogether clear that Socrates wants us to unresrvedly buy his premise; rather, it seems like more of a leaping off point in the discussion. And it’s quite a discussion.
It’s pretty universally agreed that the God of the Old Testament is hardly the nicest guy. What I’ve liked about the class discussion the most is that it approaches the Bible primarily on the level of narrative. We’ve tackled questions like the role of time in the first few chapters of Genesis, how God chooses his emissaries (essentially, a discussion of character), the purpose of the convenant (and the creation), and what signs (divine or otherwise) are. My classmates come from a variety of perspectives, from practicing Christians to hardcore atheists. I think the Bible can be a difficult text to discuss in an academic context, but our conversations have been pretty dynamic and (mostly) respectful.
As you can see, we’re reading Utopia at a pretty slow pace, but I’ve kind of loved reading it that way. We get to dwell on language and tone the way one rarely does in a big survey or history course. And man, is Thomas More the King of Snark. (Not a criticism, at least from me.) Even having read so little, it’s readily apparent that we can’t trust him as a writer or a character (he’s both). This is in part, of course, because he’s saying some rather unpopular things (so much so that he’ll lose his life for it), but one also gets the sense that he’s enjoying himself by making covert jabs at King and Court. At the moment, we’ve mostly looked at the set-up: More outlining his process and reasons for writing the book, his dedication to truth, and the sense that presenting Utopia to the public may not be a good idea, but More considers it to be necessary, even a moral imperative. From there, we’ve read the introduction of Raphael, who is characterized in clear juxtaposition with More, as he feels no social obligation to do anything, but would rather pursue his own learning and truths. They weigh whether it is the duty of the intellectual class to serve the ruling class and, eventually, get into the good part, the discussion of Utopia itself. (Utopia, of course, translated as No-Place.) I’m sure we’ll get into the philsophical implications of the society soon — I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Next week, we’ll be reading Job, more Metaphysics, and will continue Utopia. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the texts and topics above. Or, let me know: what are you studying, formally or informally?