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Jacques-Louis-David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates-1787-611x320The Oracle of Delphi foretold countless fortunes, futures, prophecies, and mysteries over many centuries and is the same ancient fount of wisdom who declared Socrates to be the wisest man in the world. A great sign above the entrance to the Temple at Delphi exhorts all who enter her sacred halls to “know thyself,” for without such knowledge, the Oracle’s prophecies remain enigmatic and undecipherable.

Devoted teachers have faithfully transmitted the Great Western Tradition to countless souls over many generations. For the better part of three millennia, cultivated men knew that true and accurate knowledge of self is necessary for every authentically educated soul. To “know thyself” remains one of the twin ends of the complete man, the other being the attainment of deep and precise knowledge of reality. These two ends allow us to attain rhetorical skills needed to describe reality as it is, not as we wish it to be. The accurate conveyance of reality is a duty to justice and is owed to the other through the proper use of speech.

Modern education has “evolved” into a chimeric form that would be unrecognizable to the great teachers of ages past. The twin goals of knowing self and reality remain perennial and foundational in education, although these noble objectives have suffered tortuously because ill-suited methods are now employed for their attainment.

C.S. Lewis astutely observes in The Abolition of Man that “for wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.” The social planners and “educational experts” who design American public education have arrogated to themselves the authority to redefine both the human person and the nature of reality. The human person has been stripped of moral and divine agency, reduced to a producer/consumer whose carbon footprint, test scores, and employment potential comprise his most important characteristics. Reality itself has been reduced to categories measurable by empirical science. Owing to these two dramatic paradigmatic shifts and exacerbated by a revolt against the objective moral order, the methods for attaining self-knowledge and accurate perception of reality have been radically altered.

How we now understand human nature and reality casts into doubt what we can know. There has been a universal shift away from the traditional sources of understanding—from the objective standard to the subjective self. Chesterton’s sane espousal of tradition, of the “democracy of the dead,” has been replaced by the monarchy of self, which has dissolved into the “dictatorship of relativism” where pathological considerations greedily consume both reason and character. The psychologists and teachers now ask their patients and students to turn to the mirror, to think for themselves and to believe in themselves, in order to understand reality and to obtain self-knowledge. We are no longer educating and healing human souls, we are using techniques to fabricate human “cogs” whose role model is the mirror-gazing Narcissus.

The mirror gazing in modern education is concealed under the camouflage of “critical thinking skills” or “higher order thinking skills.” They sound harmless to the ear untuned to modern pedagogy because they remind us of the age-old method of the dialectic that leads to a cultivated logic and therefore a well-trained mind. Unfortunately, under the Enlightenment mantra “man is the measure of all things,” critical thinking is merely a pretense for promoting self-reference. Students are emptied of the traditional virtues taught by their parents and filled with state-mandated values promoted by agents of change. Looking to themselves means abandoning traditional sources of wisdom under pressure to conform to consensus and “group-think.”

To benefit from an authentic education, an excellent student must be humble. In contemplating his own image, however, the student is asked to cultivate pride instead of humility, and this pride prevents an authentic understanding of self and reality. A similar inversion is applicable to “thinking for ourselves” when we ought to think correctly and “believing in ourselves” when we ought to believe in the truth.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates points out that when death approaches, “that is the hour when men are gifted with prophetic power.” Death brings clarity of mind partly because it draws the curtain on our propensity for self-deceit, to mistake the temporary for the permanent and created things for the Creator.

Socrates goes on to explain to his friends before he is put to death that “hitherto the familiar oracle within me has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a slip or error about anything.” Socrates here makes reference to the conscience, or the “prophecy at his elbow,” that witness of veracity also known as the objective standard of truth, goodness, and beauty. Socrates identifies what we have abandoned when we look into the mirror rather than look to our Creator for the truth about ourselves.

As Socrates continues with deathbed clarity of mind, he mentions that on this day he spoke for the first time when his own words were in alignment with the oracle of truth and it did not oppose him. It is the duty of the educated citizen, in forming his conscience and in acquiring self-knowledge, to wrestle against his lower inclinations and to conform his habits of speech and mind to the objective standard. In contrast, our teachers today encourage us to “conquer nature,” to force objective reality into conformity with our preferences.

Instead of referring to ourselves as the source, we ought to look to the great men and women of ages past who have discovered and articulated the enduring facts about our real human ends. There is a great wealth of works and artifacts left to posterity that reveal our true natures grounded in the cultivation of virtue. Isaac Newton would advise us to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Such is the absurdity of our day that the teachers and psychologists would have us stand on our own diminutive shoulders.

Finally, at the end of the Apology, Socrates asks his friends to help guide his sons. He asks, “O friends, punish and trouble my sons as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything more than about virtue, or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing.”

Socrates’ excellent wish for his sons violently contradicts modern sensibilities. It is now “criminal” to prepare our children for the “good life” by teaching them the truth that man was made for virtue. The ground of virtue is attained by way of the steep, narrow, and difficult path beset with thorns and brambles. Only the hard road leads to the good life. There is no easy way, despite the incessant claims of “experts” to the contrary.

What a shock it would be for our children if we were to heed Socrates’ parenting advice. Ought we not to teach our children to love and cultivate virtue and to seek wisdom as the surest way to know themselves and reality? Sadly, we are mandated to abuse our children by lying to them, telling them they are something special when they are not, to think for themselves when they ought to think correctly, to believe in themselves when they ought to believe in truth, and to look into the mirror when they ought to look to Christ and his saints. This is real abuse and it does real damage to human souls.

Blessed John Paul II reminds us that “God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Our habits of mind and soul ought to correspond with our deepest human desires to know and love truth, goodness and beauty by way of knowing God; and this truth ought to be reflected in the education we provide for our children.

Minerva’s owl flies at dusk, and dusk, like death, ought to bring clarity of mind. Dusk has arrived for the Great Western Tradition. As we strive to know ourselves and objective reality, let us turn away from the mirror and turn our gaze towards the source of truth, Christ our Savior. Let us follow wise Socrates and his good counsel on how to raise our children and reprove them if they do not seek virtue first.

Books related to the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared at Crisis Magazine and is republished here with permission. 

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Published: Jan 29, 2014
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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6 replies to this post
  1. I really like this piece. I have one comment, and one question.

    Comment: You write:
    “The mirror gazing in modern education is concealed under the camouflage of “critical thinking skills” or “higher order thinking skills.” They sound harmless to the ear untuned to modern pedagogy because they remind us of the age-old method of the dialectic that leads to a cultivated logic and therefore a well-trained mind. Unfortunately, under the Enlightenment mantra “man is the measure of all things,” critical thinking is merely a pretense for promoting self-reference.”

    This reminds me of a discussion I had with some friends and a stranger four years ago. My friends and I were deliberating about whether or not it was just for the Catholic Church to prohibit women priests. Because my friends were not religious themselves (and at the time, I was not a Catholic, but rather a sojourner in the wilderness), I decided it would be pointless to share any theological reflections with them, since theology was meaningless in their minds (to radical atheists, theology is just mumbo-jumbo that exists to serve as an excuse for the preservation of a power structure). Instead, I went about making the classical liberal argument that people have the freedom of association. Gay clubs, I noted, routinely do not let more than a handful of women in on a given night, because their clientel, being homosexual, wants to go to a club where there are plenty of attractive men and not have to compete for them with attractive women. This was perfectly acceptable to everyone – why then, I asked, is it not acceptable that for reasons understood by Catholics, women are not allowd to be Priests? Can’t we have different associations in society, serving different purposes, with different rules?

    At this point, the stranger piped up. She said that she can’t agree as “a professor of Critical Theory.” I awaited further argument, but recieved none. At the time, I did not really know what “critical theory” was in the parlance of the modern left; I was instead familiar only with the common sense meaning of “critical thought”, which I applaud. I tried to inquire what this woman was getting at, but she just kept repeating that she can’t agree with me because she’s a professor of Critical Theory. It was only later that I realized that according to Gender and Queer theory, your entire political orientation and value system are dictated by your gender identity, just as in Marxist theory, your entire political orientation and value system are dictated by economic class. Ergo – the whole idea of “having a discussion” or “dialogue” in the Socratic sense of people presenting real arguments and trying to get to know and understand the things being discussed was absurd on the face of it. If someone is gay, they will be anti-Christian, and if someone is a “Critical Theory professor” – they will be anti-Catholic. Almost as if to say “if someone is white, they will hate blacks” and vice-versa. It was a very sobering encounter.

    My question: I am curious, given your thoughts on Plato’s Apology – what do you think of Xenophon’s Apology and the account of Socrates’ trial given there?

  2. Mr. Rieth, Thank you for your comment- It is very interesting to observe what passes for dialogue amongst the intelligentsia. My friend told me that in a dialogue “the knowledge of what is true includes the knowledge of what is not true.” Ideology seems to deal in what is “apparently” true and ideologues don’t concern themselves with what it true, only what they happen to think about a particular thing. ‘

    Between Aristophanes, Xenophon and Plato, when it comes to Socrates, I give primacy of place to Plato- Concerning the Apology, it is interesting to note the differences, but Xenophon’s account was second hand at best, he had to rely on the account of Hermogenes. It does seem clear that Hermogenes was there, but the accounts do differ. Concerning the above essay, I gave no consideration to Xenophon, for the noble ends of an authentic education remain perennial and how much was actually Socrates and how much was Plato is less important than the truths they convey. What are your thoughts on Xenophon’s account of the trial?

  3. Well, it seems to me that Xenophon has Socrates explicitly decide to die, with his Daimon doing nothing to stop him (it usually tempered his speech in a prudent way). This makes Xenophon’s account the more controvercial (though you might be right that it is historically inaccurate). This is so because it means Socrates decided to die, and not that he was put to death. He could have, if he wanted to, rescued himself as he had done on many previous occasions with prudent speech. Instead he chose to die because old age meant the whithering away of his mind (perhaps even soul) inside a dying body. This makes the Apology (of Xenophon) about the question of noble suicide rather than about the tension between loving the City, but loving the god more (as in Plato). Since suicide in the classical sense, chiefly as practiced by the Romans, is now so impossible for us to consider a virtue in our Christian tradition, I wondered always at what that did to the virtue of Socrates? Could we not blame him for being rash and throwing his life away? In treating him almost like a martyr, are we not Christianizing him, when in fact the Christian martyrs are unique?

  4. Excellent thoughts Mr. Rieth. Hmmm, those are dreadfully serious questions hagiography? or history? noble suicide? or execution? Christ could have chosen not to die, of course there is hardly reason to compare- We would like Socrates to be a “proto-Christ” but we all agree that wishful thinking amounts to very little- yet the jury is still out.

    Who knows which of the two might have whitewashed reality? Aristophanes’ account might cause one to sway in favor of Xenophon, but lack of presence and assuming Plato’s ethical body of work, one might be inclined to give him the nod. “I choose C!” It is something we can never know for certain, unless one is a post-modern Freudian ideologue, in which case all answers lie within the mind of the beholder, but we here at The Imaginative Conservative can delight in the mystery and at least savor the ideals grounded in the virtues that lead to the “good life.” that the good pagans convey(it wasn’t the suicide that was the virtue, but the fortitude to die for one’s principles in the noble death, wasn’t it?)

    Might not the Christian martyrs be the sanctified version of the pagan noble deaths?

  5. This statement seems reactionary: “Dusk has arrived for the Great Western Tradition.”

    Here is an alternative: “In this time of great need, Providence will supply today the tools and opportunities needed to further God’s plan of salvation. We need only be humble and confident in God to discover what we are called to do to further this plan. The dawn is near. Hope and love must dominate our thinking, not despair or fear.”

  6. John, I always appreciate your insightful comments and I thank you for this one as well. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that you are indeed correct, and to say the least I admire your faith!

    I am speaking here of the Great Western Tradition, or Western Civilization, not Christendom- perhaps I exaggerate the danger to Western Culture- but it does look very bleak to me, concerning the state of education and culture- The war waged by our government, universities, the media and psychologists (excluding you of course) on tradition, fatherhood, the family and women, I believe we are heading into a deep dark age and it is the father and teacher in me that laments for my students and children that they will live in a very difficult time. As far as Salvation History goes, I am as joyful, hopeful and grateful as one can be that the good Lord has called me out of darkness and at such an amazing time. So if the dire picture I paint about the culture is even remotely accurate, this will be a time for the blood of martyrs to water the seeds of salvation in the Lord’s vineyard that will bear much fruit for the Body of Christ.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great alternative! I will bear it in my memory and hope that you are right.

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