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Christopher B. Nelson

Christopher B. Nelson

I am pleased to join you in your conference focusing on the development of judgment in our young people today. I have been giving some special thought lately to the question of how one might develop a capacity for sound judgment and a desire to build good character through the exercise of the imagination—that is through the careful use of image-making.

In my capacity as president of St. John’s College (Annapolis) I open the school year with a Convocation Address, a welcoming address to new students and their families, and a welcome back to upper-classmen, faculty and staff. In speaking about the College I try to open with an image that will capture the attention of the audience and the theme that I wish to address. That image is often contained in a story. I then seek to develop that image with reference to one of the great works of literary art that we all read at the College, and to apply a lesson learned from that work to the life of the student at the College.

My interest is always to make the case for liberal education, an education in the art of freedom, developed through the study of works of great literary and imaginative merit, so that our students might come to see how they can free themselves from the received opinions of others, conventions of the day, prejudices that have bypassed the examination of their reason, and the chains of their own ignorance. They require this liberation in order to make a life that belongs to them, freely chosen, once they have developed the capacity to distinguish between means and ends, the good and the bad, the prudent and the careless, the courageous and the foolhardy, and to judge well what kind of person they wish to be because they have reflected on the question and considered their options with care.

I rather suspect I am preaching to the choir when it comes to making the case for the good of a liberal education. So, instead of doing that I thought I might share four examples of such exercises in image-making or story telling in order to make the case for the importance of cultivating the imagination especially, not just the powers of the intellect. I do this now because there seems to be a strong movement in our educational public policy away from the cultivation of the imagination in favor of more rote learning—learning to pass the test or meet the teacher where the teacher is, rather than having the teacher make the space and provide the occasion for the student to find herself or himself.

Example #1:

I once read a marvelous little address by John Gardner entitled: Personal Renewal, which opened with a story about barnacles. I know that sometimes weeks go by without your hearing about barnacles, so you may not remember all that you have learned about them. The article quoted by Gardner had an unforgettable opening line:

The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it’s going to live. Once it decides, it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.

It’s not a bad image, really. Who would have thought a barnacle could exercise such judgment? Yet, it has solved a lot of life’s problems, like where it’s going to sleep and with whom, how it’s going to get its food, whether it should go to class, or when it should visit its relatives. Happiness for the barnacle is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family stuck to some other rock. Consider the problems it solves for society—no runaway children, no bungee jumping, no one getting lost on some expedition or exploration.

But the barnacle builds its own prison and serves as its own jail keeper. We each know a few barnacles—people who have simply arrested the course of their lives, who have given up the power to change things—people who are stuck where they were years ago, who have lost the will and the imagination it takes to seek happiness for themselves.

What would it take for you to develop the imagination to free yourself from this state of arrest? It first requires that you come to know enough about your condition that you can see clearly the state you are in. This may take a little shaking up or worse. You must be made to see how much more is possible, how grand and wonderful a life can be. Surely you must be willing to change for any effort at education to succeed. The doors to our institutions of learning should clearly state the primary rule of admission: No barnacles allowed unless willing to be scraped! And what is at stake in not undergoing the scraping? Your Happiness!

How will you be persuaded that this is so? Only by taking a chance and opening yourself to the possibility! You may need to be dragged to such a place by a friend or a teacher. You may be moved by something you see that is beautiful, causing you to want more. Have you lost all desire? What will it take to awaken the desire, because little can be learned without that?

I will stop here as you can see where this is going. Our barnacle needs an education in the arts of freedom: a liberal education. And that education is not easy to come by for the person who is unaware of what it means to be free. It requires good content, beautiful objects of study, the cultivation of good habits of mind and heart, and companions with whom to study and from whom to learn when the will is sapped or the path to understanding is rocky. It takes time. And along the way, it will need to bear some fruit and provide the pleasure that learning new things always provides.

Example #2 is a personal story:

Some 25 years ago, before I took on the presidency at St. John’s, I was having a conversation with my second son about his plans for college.

Dad, [he said to me], I’m willing to talk with you about my college choices, but I’m not going to go to that school where my brother is (St. John’s College), and I don’t want a liberal education, whatever that is.

This son happened to have an interest in automobiles, his uncle happened to be an automobile mechanic, and we happened to have an old junker in the driveway, a 1960s something Volkswagen bug. Almost nothing worked in the car; it wouldn’t go, and my wife and her brother were working to get the car to perform its principle purpose: going. My brother-in-law saw an opportunity to engage my uninterested son when he discovered that the washers to the windshield wipers weren’t working and asked my son to give him a hand.

“What would you do to fix this?” he asked.

“I’d get the manual out and see what it says”, my son responded.

“But there is no manual. What then?”

“Then I’d ask the guy at the repair shop.”

“But he’s not here, and we can’t get the car there. Do you think we can figure it out for ourselves?

“But I don’t know anything”, my son answered.

“Ah, that’s the thing. Let’s see if that’s true.”

Uncle Ken then opened the hood and asked my son to see if he could find the fluid lines to the wipers and discover how the washers worked in the first place. Could he figure out where the wiper fluid tank was, and could he tell whether there was any fluid in the tank? My son found the tank and it was full. He tested the line as best he could to determine that it wasn’t clogged. But there was another line leading to somewhere else.

“Can you see where the other line goes beneath the hood? Can you track that back to its origin?”

Long story short: after an hour of looking, testing, failing, trying again, failing again, and thinking out loud (“I wonder if this might work”), my son got fired up and excited. In the end, he discovered that the hose to the washer was hooked up to the pressure valve of the spare tire, and lo and behold, the spare tire was flat. He thought that somehow the hoses had gotten mixed up but still could not find another valve to attach the hose to.

“Do you think the spare tire supplied the pressure to power the wiper?” my son asked.

“Well, let’s see.”

With that, my son pumped up the spare tire. Back in the driver’s seat, he moved the controls on the dashboard, and both the wipers and the washers worked. I’ll never forget the glow on my son’s face when he announced “I got it! The wipers are working!”

“You have now had an experience in liberal education,” I suggested to ears that were still deaf to the idea—ears that would be open to it a few years later. (This son did eventually find his way to St. John’s College in Santa Fe in our Masters program.)

I doubt that Volkswagens are built these days to provide such simple opportunities for basic learning by seeing and doing, but every challenge in life provides us with learning opportunities that can be just as liberating, without recourse to manuals, without seasoned experts, if we open ourselves to the possibility and apply ourselves to the search for an answer.

Why do I call this experience liberating? Because the learner (my son) had to make do without the manual or the expert. Liberated from the direction and expertise of others, he was reduced to rely on himself with only a little encouragement from his tutor uncle. He was led to find for himself the answer to the problem by a series of questions alone. The turning point was his willingness to continue the search for an answer only after acknowledging: “But I don’t know anything.”

Understanding his ignorance was necessary for learning to begin because he had to be open to the possibility that he had something to learn, and that he was willing, even eager, to find the answer. He was open to an experience of truly “wondering” how he might find an answer. This wonder did not come from any knowledge that he had but from a desire to know, born not in understanding but in ignorance. This was a kind of “knowing ignorance”, an intelligent perplexity that came from embracing his ignorance and then discarding false notions and failed experiments as he went on. Our innocence or ignorance of the world about us may be the one certainty in life, and recognition of this is the pathway to learning.

Another thing happened to our blossoming mechanic. He turned from boredom with a problem that was put to him, to perplexity over the difficulty of solving it with meager tools, to excited engagement because he wanted to discover the answer. He wanted to know the answer for its own sake, not just to fix the wipers. He wanted to “get it”!

Yet one more lesson! My son had begun to discover the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated apparatuses, and they helped him understand a little better how the car was assembled, even how it was conceived to operate in the first place. (Today, he is applying for his residency in osteopathic medicine, still working on body mechanics.)

This case is the barest expression of what we ought to wish to see in our students and in your children. And it may be as good an example as any of the utilitarian or practical argument for a liberal education—the kind of education employers want to see in their new recruits: employees who have an independence of mind and openness to engage in problem-solving and solution-finding with others across traditional disciplines; young men and women who can make their way in a world of innovation and change; individuals who are liberated from boundaries rather than defined by them.

But what is the imaginative leap in this story? What is its relationship to what you might hope for in your students? Simply this: the free mechanic is a subset of the free human being. We now ask ourselves not what it takes to be a free mechanic but what it takes to be a free human being.

We are political, social, and solitary beings, all at the same time. We think, weigh evidence, and judge. We reflect upon the world about us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes just simply in awe of the majesty of existence, the grandeur, beauty, and mystery of the universe. We have bodies, minds, hearts and souls. We love, act, and are moved. What moves us and why? We have skills we use to make a living and provide for loved ones. We are members of civic, social and religious communities and citizens of a great country. What are our duties and responsibilities toward these and others? How well do we understand our powers and limitations? How well do we comprehend the interconnectedness of things and our relationships with fellow beings that will make our lives richer—and richer for others too?

Before we ask our students to fix upon a specialty for study or a vocation to pursue, why not first ask them to spend a little time getting to know themselves and the world about them?

But how should we proceed to help them satisfy this need for self-reflection? There are surely many answers to this question. We at St. John’s College have constructed a program of study that is designed to help our students cultivate the arts of reason and understanding and disciplines in analysis, argument and interpretation. We seek to nurture the kind of freedom I spoke about in my story of the barnacle. And we pursue this freedom together with our students through thoughtful conversation about great works of literary and imaginative art, shaped by a commitment to radical inquiry. We nourish the capacity to wonder, which stimulates such questions. Our approach is guided by a love of wisdom that transcends the acquisition of information and even of knowledge narrowly conceived.

We want our students to be well-versed in the textual tradition of reason that illuminates the chief features of modern life, including democracy, technology and science. We want our students to have basic literacy in three kinds of texts: verbal, mathematical and musical. We expect them to develop skill in logical, coherent and correct expression. And we want them to engage in a direct study of the natural world. Though often guided by texts, our students will develop skills of observation, dissection, measurement, and experimentation. In asking this of them, we reject at a deep level the popular distinction between the humanities and the sciences. We want our students to be able to weigh and judge the claims of science, rather than simply deferring to them as authoritative, or rejecting them as alien.

We want them to develop the intellectual virtues of courage in inquiry, caution in forming opinions, candor about their ignorance, open attentiveness to the words of their colleagues, industry in preparation, and meticulousness in verbal translation and mathematical demonstration. We want them to be prepared to face any occasion for new learning that comes their way. We also want our students to develop a life-long commitment to pondering the question of how to live well. And finally, we want them to have the experience of living in a community of learning. We expect that the moral virtues we require of them in their life on campus—consideration for their colleagues and decent and respectful dealings with others—will prove transferable to their lives as citizens of this or any country, transferable to their places of work and worship, to their lives as friends and neighbors and members of a community.

But beneath everything I have said about what we intend by this program of instruction is our shared conviction that learning is an activity fired by the desire to know, a desire to make one’s education one’s own. One of authors read by all of our students is Michel de Montaigne, who put it this way in his essay “On the Education of Children”:

Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later . . . The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterwards they make of them honey, which is all theirs; it is no longer thyme or marjoram. Even so with the pieces borrowed from others; he will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment. His education, work, and study aim only at forming this.

If we are meant to be the bees that plunder flowers to make something that we can call our own, we had better be able to find the flowers that make this possible. At St. John’s, the flowers are not hard to recognize; they are the great works of literary, artistic, and musical imagination. Among them are mathematical, scientific, political, religious, poetic, and philosophical books that have survived the test of time because they are timeless. They form the foundation for the thoughts and discoveries that follow; they are often deeply beautiful; they speak to the great human questions that help us understand both the world about us and the world within us.

If we consider our learning materials as food for digestion, we surely want a banquet set before us, the opportunity to taste each morsel before deciding to accept or reject it, and the time to digest what we have taken in. To make it our own requires an environment in which our teachers exercise restraint in pressing their authority, like the mechanic in our story.

Once again, the use of image-making in the metaphor of the honey-making bees helps us think more easily about how one’s judgment is formed.

Example #3:

Plato’s dialogue the Republic is often taught as simply a book of political science, but I think it is so much more. [And I will say more about that soon.] If there is a principal question at the root of the many that are explored in the Republic, it may be “What good is justice? Should we choose to live the just life or the unjust, and why?” Indeed, the dialogue opens with a spirited argument for the good of injustice but closes with a myth that reminds the readers of the thousand years of punishment that awaits the man who chooses a life of injustice over one devoted to justice. The dialogue is Plato’s longest, and engages more participants than is usual. The two principal interlocutors, however, are the young Glaucon and Adeimantus, brothers to Plato himself, who does not appear as a character in the drama.

These two young people are eager students; they pursue conversation to get to the bottom of things they can hardly fathom. Glaucon just won’t let up; he questions everything at each turn. Socrates quickly sees that he must take Glaucon seriously because Glaucon has both passion and ambition. He can see the good in Glaucon’s soul, in his desire for understanding, but he can also see the dangers to both Glaucon and the State if a mind as fertile as Glaucon’s is not turned to the good and is instead allowed to play with false icons. Glaucon needs to be persuaded that it is better to do right than wrong, and he needs to own the argument himself; it must be a case that he will not forget, filled with images, arguments and stories that will not fail to keep him straight. Socrates has his work cut out for him, and he puts together as beautiful a set of images and arguments as we can find in all of literature.

Of course, to ask the question “What good is justice?” provokes the next: “What then is justice?” To help answer the question, Socrates and his two young helpers set about to found a city in speech which is designed to help us see what justice might look like on a large scale, in order that we might better understand what justice would look like in the human soul. It turns out that this city is not populated by people that Glaucon can either recognize or respect. He calls it a city of pigs, one that satisfies the appetite of the stomach, but not of the chest or the head. There is no place in this city to practice leisure, enjoy the finer arts, or move beyond a life of consumption to a life more noble. They reorganize the city at least twice more, but each of these cities seems to fail another of Glaucon’s tests that they be realizable in our political world.

So, Socrates seeks to answer this demand with one of his more memorable statements, in the dead center of the book: “Unless the philosophers rule as kings, [he says] . . . there will be no rest from ills for the cities, . . . nor I think for humankind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun.” We can only suppose that if the earlier versions of the city were unrealistic, this latter suggestion—that the best king must also be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom—would be still further beyond the bounds of imagination for Socrates’ interlocutors. To their credit, Glaucon and Adeimantus push him on to justify his claim. Socrates agrees, and goes on to give an account of the life of the philosopher and the education appropriate to him.

In the middle of this explanation, Socrates gives us three memorable images we can carry with us: a likeness, a picture, and a drama. First, he compares the Good, which is the object of the philosopher’s search, to the Sun which is the source of life, of all that is, but also the illuminator of all the appearances in the world. Socrates cannot seem to say what the Good is, but he can give us a sense of what it is like.

Second, he proposes a geometric model, a “divided line”, a line divided into four parts, to give us a picture of what the ascent to the Good might require of us mortals still in this world below, a sense of the kind of intellectual activity we must engage in, the kind of journey we must take to get closer to that object beyond us. In the study of mathematics, along the third line of ascent to the highest understanding, we come to understand that the pictures we draw of squares and triangles, lines and proportions, are just images or representations of the true objects of geometry, which are only accessible by thought. Through the image of the divided line, we come to appreciate the need to access a world of intelligible objects in order to better understand what lies behind, and gives order to, their appearances in the visible world.

Third, in the cave analogy, Socrates gives us a drama to describe the great difficulty and pain we can expect in making the ascent from the world of images to the one source of all we can see and know. He asks us to imagine that we are all prisoners in a cave, chained so that all we can see are the shadows cast upon a wall in front of us. We cannot, on our own, turn around and see that these shadows are not real at all, but mere reflections of objects carried by people behind us who are passing in front of a fire which is the source of the light that casts the shadows. He describes first the pain, then the disbelief, and finally the wonder experienced by a prisoner who is released from his bonds and forced to turn around and look into the light of the fire and see what the image makers have known all along.

But that is not all. This cave has an entrance open to the light of the sun across the whole width of the cave. Socrates now asks us to imagine that the newly-released prisoner is dragged up the steep, rocky, upward path and into the light of the sun. At first, he’d be blinded and see less well than before, but then he would get accustomed to the light and see all the other things the world has to show him—the waters and the land and the starry heavens above—until he could make out the sun itself and see what it is like. This man would be happy at his freedom from the shadows below, and would pity those still in the cave. His education would have literally been an education in the art of turning around, the art of seeing better, in a truer light, what is already really there, of seeing what ought to be seen.

Gone are the shadows! Defeated are the false prophets! We come to learn that every image, every opinion expressed by the image makers and spin doctors around us, should be an occasion for us to pull ourselves, and others with us, out of our caves and into the light of the sun. We recognize that this sun is there for everyone in the cave to access. The entrance to the cave is open to all who are below.

After exploring these images, Socrates then constructs the education of the philosopher, and explores the kinds of governments that arise when the rulers are no longer philosophers. He closes with a grand overarching myth that attempts to incorporate the whole, reminding us that we have a lot at stake in the choices we make in living our lives. Just as we are meant to see the city-building exercise that occurs in the first nine books of the Republic as an image of the education of the individual soul, so we see the closing myth as an image of the choices available to that soul. We see that it is literally a matter of life or death (or at least a matter of great reward or unimaginable punishment) how we choose to live our lives, and how wise we would be to turn ourselves now to the question of justice so that we might learn to live a life that practices it. The well-regulated soul, one that is turned to the Good, that is whole, well-integrated and balanced, is also, we imagine, the soul best fit to rule our city.

The dialogue probably gives us the best account we have of what learning ought to be. The book thus gives students an opportunity to examine the education they are then engaged in, allows them to ask what it would be like to construct a curriculum fit for a philosopher king, and invites them to compare it to the one they are undertaking at present.

The Republic is a beautiful book, filled with the richest of images that help us remember that the difficult search for truth is worth all the effort. It gives us poetic, pictorial, musical, mathematical, and dramatic images, myths and analogies, to aid us in our search for an understanding of our world and our place in it, images we cannot possibly forget, images that will be available to us forever.

Like all of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic engages the readers and asks them to become participants in the dialogue that Socrates is having with his friends. It asks us to question the answers given by Glaucon and others, to try them out and formulate better ones. It also helps to lead us up out of our own personal caves, encouraging us, and showing us how to find our way to a life that is better than we have experienced heretofore.

The Republic allows us to see how integrated the whole of learning is in relation to the singular soul. It helps explain the importance of the study of mathematics, that it is not just a tool required for the moneymakers or specialists in the sciences, engineering, or the trades, but is an indispensable aid to philosophy itself, an aid to self-understanding.

More than anything, however, I think it must be in our participation with others in discussing the Republic that we become aware of the republic that is shaping itself around us, the republic of friends around the table who are searching together for answers to the deepest of questions: how we ought to be living our lives. We, like Glaucon and Adeimantus, find ourselves being initiated into the one republic that Socrates and his friends have succeeded in realizing. At St. John’s, we call this republic our community of learning.

In the world, we often speak of the ties that “bind” us to a human community as healthy things, often beautiful and reaffirming ties. It is easy to forget the dark side of this image which is that we can be “tied” and “bound” to a community as to a cave that we fear to escape. We can become yoked to a larger political body by a common interest, a piece of territory, a tribal custom, a shared enemy, or a popular idea—foundations that we may cease to question. And questioning these foundations of community can become taboo as the chains tighten about us. We are fortunate, then, that the larger community most of us belong to, the United States of America, is founded on a paradox: the ties that bind us as Americans are rooted in human freedom, and the more we exercise the freedom to question our institutions the stronger are our ties to the founding principal. That freedom, protected by our laws, provides us with a very comfortable and open cave in which to live our lives and shape our institutions.

We should take advantage of that freedom and that cave to find those places of communal learning that are grounded in a very similar paradox, which is this: we find our truest sense of community in an image of human freedom that finds us somehow “together” seeking to escape the confines of the individual caves that imprison each of us. For lovers of wisdom, the young Glaucons among us, the desire to see things as they are, to strive toward the source of our being and come in to the light of the sun, is too beautiful an activity to resist—and too wonderful not to share with others. We ought to make this search for truth, this struggle to climb out of our caves, our chief community endeavor.

Example #4:

Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue can be taught? Or if not teachable, is it acquired by practice, or if neither, whether men possess it by nature or in some other way?

Meno’s question is interesting, for it appears to go to the heart of some very big questions all of us share: what does it mean to be human, and how can we be better human beings? Parents would love to know how to raise children who are improvements on themselves; all parents want what is best for their children. Teachers would be happy and honored above all others if they could teach their students human virtue. As for students, the question is a perennial one: What is the right path to virtue? How might I acquire human excellence?

Socrates appreciates what is at stake in Meno’s question. He thus goes straight to the heart of it with a response that would confound any student hoping to receive the almighty truth from a teacher. Socrates in effect says: how can I say how virtue is acquired when I don’t even know what it is? And worse, Socrates then says that he’s never met any other person who knows what virtue is. He entreats Meno to help him understand what Meno thinks it to be.

Meno makes the attempt, responding confidently with what he has heard from other teachers, repeating their opinions as his own. Yet, under Socrates’ questioning, Meno finds himself disowning the opinion he began with. After two false starts, Meno begins to get uncomfortable with Socrates’ examination. When Socrates begs him to start over yet a third time, Meno tries to divert the conversation from the question of virtue to the problem with Socrates. He likens him to a torpedo fish that numbs anyone who touches it.

Meno no longer wishes to find the answer to the question and is more concerned with his reputation as a fine speech maker than he is with the truth. On the other hand, Socrates is not satisfied and he offers to join Meno in the search. He seems to be open to the possibility that the teacher may learn from the student—any student, even Meno. So Meno, what is virtue?

Meno now tries a sting of his own, challenging Socrates with a classic learner’s paradox: either we know something or we don’t. If we know it, we don’t need to search for it. But if we don’t already know what we’re looking for, how will we ever recognize it when we see it?

Socrates will not be deterred by Meno’s attempt to bring the conversation to an abrupt halt. Instead, he takes Meno’s problem seriously and answers in two ways. First, he repeats a myth he has heard which suggests that learning is a kind of recollection, which requires an exercise of responsibility for learning by the one doing the learning; learning does not occur when someone else, a teacher for example, tries to put knowledge into a student. Instead, it is an act of recovery, in some way, of something already known to us.

When Meno demonstrates that he doesn’t get it, Socrates resolves upon a way to show Meno what he means, asking Meno to observe carefully as he examines one of Meno’s slave boys about a problem in geometry which is new to him—a problem which can be demonstrated by a drawing in the earth. Socrates draws a straight line and then makes a square upon that line. He then asks the boy to draw a line that defines the side of a square that is double the size of the other square. The boy speaks confidently that the line would be double the first liner—an answer which he repudiates a few moments later when he comes to understand under Socrates’ questioning that his answer is wrong. The boy tries again with the same result. Socrates asks him to start over, just as he did with Meno a little earlier. He asks the boy to produce another answer, and the slave boy says: “Indeed, Socrates, I do not know”. Socrates turns to Meno, and by extension to us, and says: “Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection?” He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the [answer]: but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.

Meno: True.

Socrates: Is he not better off knowing his ignorance?

Meno: I think that he is.

Socrates: If we have made him doubt, and given him the “torpedo’s shock,” have we done him any harm?

Meno: I think not.

Socrates: We have certainly, it would seem, assisted him in some degree to the discovery of the truth; and now he will wish to remedy his ignorance, but then he would have been ready to tell all the world again and again [the answer he gave at first?].

Meno: True.

Socrates persuades Meno that the slave boy simply would not have been ready to inquire and learn the truth without first being reduced to perplexity. The torpedo’s shock not only didn’t hurt, it positively helped; it was the condition for the learning that did occur (and the slave boy did go on, with Socrates’ help, to find the solution to the geometry problem).

Socrates has shown us, the readers (and Meno, if he were listening), that understanding our own ignorance is necessary for learning to take place—especially understanding our ignorance of the everyday common things we thought we knew well. When we can look at the familiar and suddenly realize that we really don’t understand it, when we can look at what we always thought we knew, and ask “what is this thing?” then we are ready to learn and well along the path to better understanding. In that state we are truly torpid, just as the slave boy was, and we bring a sense of “wonder” to our search. This wonder comes not from something we understand, but rather from our desire to understand—what we sometimes call a love of learning, born not in understanding but in ignorance.

Socrates has done something else in his demonstration. He has also shown us the power of discovering what something is NOT, and helped us see that knowing what something is not is much more than knowing nothing; it is a kind of “knowing ignorance,” an “intelligent perplexity” that comes from trying out and discarding false notions.

We now look at Meno and see that he is a slave—a slave to his pride, a slave to the opinions of others, unwilling to examine what he clearly doesn’t understand. Meno’s problem is not that he’s ignorant, but that he has no desire to be free from the shackles of that ignorance.

We look at the slave boy and see that he is free—free from the false notions he’s been carrying around with him, free from barriers to learning. This freedom, strangely, comes not from the certainty of knowledge but from the recognition of his ignorance.

One of the things you will discover as you read the Platonic dialogues is that they demand your engagement. They ask for you to reflect on how you might respond to Socrates. So, let me venture into the conversation of the Meno, a small tentative reflection on the question Socrates puts to the man: “what is virtue?” My thoughts, at least for now, are these: the way to virtue may require that we come to know our great weakness, our own ignorance. This ignorance is common to all who are less than divine; it is something we share with one another in our humanity. If there is a connection between knowledge and right conduct, it is likely to be found in our ignorance and in the humility it inspires, in seeing that every single one of us has a long, long way to go toward understanding, in the endless search for truth. I suspect that human virtue lies somehow coterminous with this strange path toward knowledge, a path through ignorance and therefore available to us all. As we are not likely to attain great heights of knowledge, it is more likely that we can share with each other the great peaks of desire. It may be that the love of learning, more than the attainment of understanding, is what binds us together.


I have given you several images and stories from personal experience and from great works of literary imagination in an attempt to share my sense that what we are doing when we are learning is a deep mystery. Sometimes what cannot be named or spoken of coherently can nonetheless be shown by a picture, told in a parable, or described through a story that gives us a likeness of the object of our search. This seems to be equally true of the development of the intellectual virtues as of the moral virtues. What can be seen in an example, a comparison, a metaphor, will often be far more powerful than a hortatory lecture, a list of rules, or a mere statement of fact.

Do any of us imagine that we will become good simply by hearing someone tell us what it means to be good? But give us an example of an individual, a story of that person’s life, the yearnings and struggles, choices faced and opportunities missed, tests of character and judgments made, successes and failures, joys and sorrows, and we come to feel the shame of the bad and the beauty of the good. We may want to imitate one character and shun another. We may want to shape our lives into the image of another, and that other may be someone we have come to know or may exist only in our imagination. I am not sure that it matters. But I am confident that we need to have our imagination stirred in order to want to take one path and avoid another. Mere instruction will not have the same power. We need to have stories and pictures that inspire the imagination to act upon us. They are as necessary to the development of our character as they are to the formation of our judgment about things. I have a friend who said something a couple of days ago that I thought was quite profound. “It may very well be”, he said, “that the making of images, the metaphors that help us understand similarities and differences among things and people, is the most essential of the liberal arts.”

This essay is the revised text of an address presented to the CiRCE Institute Annual Conference given July 18, 2013. Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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