Victor Nuovo: Enjoyment of knowledge leads to justice
Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Higher education is all about the ascent of the mind to the realm of ideas. Plato’s theory or hypothesis about ideas is an attempt to explain two very important questions: How is knowledge possible and what is the source of all value? Knowing things and valuing them are basic to life. To illustrate I will tell a story, a true one.
One day, pausing on a local sidewalk during my daily walk, I looked down and saw an ant, carrying or dragging the corpse of another insect several times larger than itself. It was a very small ant, no more than an eighth of an inch long carrying a dead winged body a third of an inch long and of considerable bulk. Every so often she would stop, release her burden and proceed on a slightly different path than before, if indeed, it could be called a path, for she would often zigzag. Then she would return, take hold of her quarry, and carry on with it overall in the same general direction, swerving this way and that. She repeated this many times.
Had I time enough I would have liked to follow her to her destination, for it was clear that this ant was acting purposively, doing work, heading somewhere, dutifully bringing food to her nest or city. She was doing good. It also seemed clear that the ant’s frequent stops were not to rest, but to survey the territory ahead and plot her course, for although the pavement was flat enough for me, for her it must have been rough terrain.
I also noticed that the ant did not always handle her burden in the same way. Sometimes she half-carried it, sometimes she dragged it along, and she would take hold of it in different places, and all this seemed to me as adapting her method to suit the path she had chosen as the best for this stage of her journey. All this seemed to me evidence that ants are intelligent beings, that they acquire knowledge, make judgments, and act according to values, for example in choosing the smoother path and the best way to move their quarry along it.
Therefore they must have thoughts, or something very much like them, of smooth and rough, easy or difficult, and something like an idea of the good, for they are acting according to a final purpose. So, it seemed that ants like us make an ascent of the mind from immediate perception to thoughtful assessment, perhaps having in their minds, such as they may be, ideas of smooth or straight, rough or crooked, along with a capacity to apply them, and of direction, for they follow a course, and a purpose, to get the food home, and maybe also a discriminating sense of what is good food and what isn’t. These are worker ants, all of them female. How they acquire such knowledge I do not know, but I have since read that ants communicate to each other and that such activity may be instructional.
Higher education begins with thinking abstractly, beyond the immediacy of the senses, having ideas of large and small, greater or less, recognizing in thought that a tangible object immediately present to us may be one sort of thing or another when compared with others things like it. Socrates says to hold up three fingers, the second, third and fourth. They are all fingers, although of different lengths: largest, smallest, and one in between, which is both large and small relative to its neighbor. And we can apply measures to these, and sizes, and numbers to distinguish one from the other. And once we have numbers we can add and subtract them, and do other calculations, which require other sorts of number than the familiar counting ones.
These are all thoughts, the mind having ascended from its immediate sensible surroundings to the domain of intelligence. Arithmetic and geometry lead the mind upwards, for the properties and relations of numbers and geometric planes and solid figures have an aspect of eternity, of what is eternally real and unchanging in itself. And from there, we go on to astronomy and harmonics, which are best studied mathematically, but also, with respect to the latter, aesthetically, for the values of beauty or nobility and good enter in to the judgment of sound considered abstractly.
These studies are preparative for the highest ascent to the purely rational investigation of things themselves through a logical process that Socrates calls dialectic. It is a means by which the intellect apprehends pure ideas, things themselves, the archetypes or true models of things and values, and the idea of the good upon which all else depends, for insofar as anything is beneficial, serves a purpose that causes the well being of living things, it is an expression or manifestation of the Good itself.
Dialectic is a process of pure thought, of self-clarifying judgment and definition. It internalizes the process of question and answer and discriminating judgment that Socrates engaged in the public places of Athens. Thinking of this higher sort is the mind’s dialogue with itself, self-critical and self-purifying, unrelenting until it reaches its goal of truth and reality. Empiricists would deny that this is possible. One must build knowledge upon careful observation and trial or experiment, and all definitions that follow from this are tentative. Ants are empiricists.
Although I’m inclined to side with the ants, I think it would be a serious error to dismiss the method of dialectic, of pure thought ascending to reality. Ants are skilled transporters of goods, masters of a special practical knowledge, which so far as I know is not accompanied by a theory of how things are. But Plato supposed that, for us, theory and practice must be joined.
Recall that the best sort of good is something that is both useful and desirable for its own sake. Knowledge is like this. Take natural numbers, 1, 2, 3 … They are of great utility for accounting. Yet, as we examine them, they seem to have their own nature. We classify them as odd or even, prime or composite. And by pure thought, trial, and experiment we discover that every composite number is the product of primes, and that if this were not so integers would not be rational. Primes are divisible into only the prime itself and one, and further that there is no limit in the number of prime numbers (see Euclid, Book, vii, proposition 31, and Book viii, proposition 20).
Knowledge of such things may be of no practical use, but it is wonderful. And beyond numbers there are things and values, and it is by careful and rigorous thought that we discover what they are. This is the goal of higher education, and if Plato is right, it has everything to do with politics, because the enjoyment of such knowledge makes the individual soul indifferent to honors and wealth, and all the more fit to do justice. This is something that ants may know by instinct, but we humans must learn it in school.