Having dabbled in Allan Bloom’s unique view of the university, the ‘Prophets of Education’ series now turns back in time to one of antiquity’s greatest educational theorists, Plato. This seems additionally appropriate in light of the fact that there was perhaps no bigger fan of Plato’s than Bloom. In fact, Bloom translated his very own version of Plato’s Republic, and viewed the Greek master with much the same reverence as did his mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss. Rather than dismiss his radical and authoritarian views as those of an antiquated reactionary, both Strauss and Bloom took Plato at face value. They did not subscribe to every aspect of his ideal political state, as outlined in The Republic, since this included extensive censorship and a suspicious approval of serfdom, but they did view his depiction of the human intellect as a largely accurate one.
Plato’s theory of education is really a logical consequence of his ideas about the mind. In turn, these ideas are themselves derived from a broader metaphysical outlook – one that distinguishes between the world of true knowledge and that of fallible and arbitrary opinion. Put (very) briefly, Plato saw the world of knowledge to consist in eternal and immutable forms. These forms are universals, meaning general categories rather than particular things. It is by partaking in their respective forms that particular things acquire their properties. So for instance, we can conceive of a chair, or even of ‘chair-ness’ as a class, without having to point to an example of one. How can we recognise a universal without instancing a particular? According to Plato, because there is a world of ‘forms’ that exists beyond immediate reality. Without this realm, there would be no way of recognising the nature of individual things, for we require knowledge of categories before determining their constituents.
What all this abstract theorising eventually leads to is Plato’s famous ‘Form of the Good’. This is the ultimate end of all knowledge, and that for which all other knowledge aspires. Knowledge of the good quantifies the value of all other knowledge – much like the Higgs Boson is said to lend mass to all other matter. Without knowledge of the good, man’s accumulated wisdom is worthless, for it has no direction. Plato is known for working by allegory, and the place of the good in human affairs is illustrated through his ‘simile of the sun’. The eye requires light in order to see things, and this is provided by the sun. Likewise the intellect requires the form of the good in order to illuminate the meaning of its knowledge. Just as the sun gives visibility to the objects of sight, so the form of the good gives intelligibility to the objects of thought.
The Republic‘s most memorable passage concerns man’s ascension from ignorance to knowledge, and the allegory by which Plato describes this momentous struggle is his most famous. There are men sitting in a cave, and facing a wall. They are chained to their positions, so unable to turn around or see anything except that which is in front of them. From the outside comes some light, enough to cast shadows of the shapes outside onto the wall at which the men stare. Having been facing this wall their whole lives, Plato asks, is it not likely that the men will mistake the shadows for their objects, and the wall for reality? Grasping knowledge consists in breaking the chains that bind us to observing the shadows, and leaving the cave so as to see the form of real things outside. Once habituated to this bright new exterior, one might even learn to look at the sun – or, apprehend the form of the good.
Such far-fetched analogies may seem to bear little relation to educational theory, but what is crucial to Plato’s thought is the manner in which knowledge and the good, and ultimately knowledge of the good, play a central and non-negotiable role in man’s life. In short, the good is objective, and man’s goal is to reach it. It is an intellectual peak that is to be climbed in a systematic manner. For such reasons was Plato resurrected and his ideas restructured with additional force during the whirlwind of cultural relativism that swept through universities in the sixties.
If ever there is a need to plant a steadying anchor in a chopping sea of confusion, Plato’s view of nature and of man’s objective constitution is often the first port of call. And that is why he is more relevant today than at almost any time before. The forces of secularisation, compounded by globalisation, have liberated the world, but also confused it. Few are willing to say that we have any knowledge, let alone that if obtained it would take an objective form. In such conditions, many have more recently invoked Plato as a guard against everything from nihilism to decadent music. There is a reason for this. It seems as if Plato’s picture of man has never so closely resembled the human condition. Could the simile of the cave be any more pertinent a metaphor for the modern world? Could the vulgar delusions bred by television and celebrity culture be any more aptly represented? It is always worth taking a frank look into the web of one’s own illusions and asking whether there may not be something more valuable to pursue, especially in a world whose conviction in the relative worth of things has made it little happier.