[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]
Hello everyone, and happy new year! I hope 2022 is off to a good start for you. May it bring serendipity and happiness.
I’ve been back in Vancouver since mid-December. I wrapped up my teaching at Outer Coast in Sitka, Alaska, and said goodbye to a wonderful group of students and a beautiful natural setting. Spending the holidays with family was enriching.
Late December saw me at work setting up dedicated pages for the courses I’ll be teaching this January and getting to work on video lectures. We’re getting close to go time so let me encourage you one more time to sign up!
Starting in mid-January I’ll be teaching two courses:
The courses cost $349 CAD, which is about $275 USD, £205, or €245. I have gift cards available and also offer a pay-what-you-can option for those who aren’t able to afford the full course fee.
Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. If you know of someone who might enjoy these courses, please do spread the word!
Vancouver rounded out 2021 with a heavy dollop of snow and has been looking very handsome dressed in white.
My previous monthly newsletter (which is now posted to my blog) unpacked some of my thinking behind the Ten Dangerous Ideas course. In this newsletter, I’ll say something about the course on literature and philosophy. In case you want to read more, I’ve also posted “Know Thyself”-pertinent blog posts on the parallels between Socrates and Oedipus and on the question of what we can learn from literature.
The fulcrum of the course is a pair of arguments in Plato’s Republic. The figure of Socrates first argues for the strict censorship of the stories told in his ideal republic and later argues for the outright banishment of the poets. The word “poetry” is an imperfect translation of a much broader Greek term. What Plato has in his sights are the poetic and storytelling arts generally, and tragedy in particular.
It’s as if Plato were proposing a wholesale ban on Hollywood, Netflix, the publishing industry, and pop music—and that’s just for starters. His proposal would have been as shocking to his audience as that proposal sounds to us today.
Can Plato possibly be serious? A writer as slippery and ironic as Plato can be hard to pin down. But yes, we should take him very seriously. Plato doesn’t mess around, and when he says something counter-intuitive, we stand to learn from him even if we don’t agree.
One reason to take Plato seriously is that he takes the power of storytelling seriously. The stories we tell have a profound impact on how we see the world, Plato argues. We should take care not to let ourselves be influenced by the wrong stories in the wrong way. To argue against Plato that stories are harmless undersells their power. Better to acknowledge the power of stories and grapple with their dangers than dismiss storytelling as trivial.
Think of a story that’s moved you deeply, one you may have turned to at a difficult time in your life. It expresses a moral vision that inspires you or comforts you or makes you feel more attuned to the world. The story may be fictional, but it seems to express something true.
How do you know that it’s true, though? Could you be fooling yourself? What troubles Plato about tragedy is that it seems to present us with moral truths but offers no reliable method for arriving at the truth.
On high school math tests, I was asked to “show my work.” To get full marks, I needed more than just the correct solution to the problem. I also had to show how I got to that correct solution. I had to show not just that it was true but how it was true.
Plato worries that stories don’t “show their work” in this way. This idea of not just getting to the truth but showing how you got to the truth is central to Plato’s account of knowledge. Stories at best give us true beliefs but not knowledge and their methods for doing so are unreliable.
To see a modern analogy to Plato’s concern about tragedy, consider the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was one of the great filmmakers of the 1930s. She used innovative camera work to create a cinematic experience that felt more vivid, more alive, more true than what had come before. Her films Triumph of the Will and Olympia gave a heroic sheen to Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany. The films persuaded audiences both in Germany and beyond of the greatness of the Nazi movement.
Your favourite story probably isn’t Nazi propaganda but Plato’s worry remains. A central theme in Plato’s work is the contrast between philosophy on the one hand and the arts of rhetoric and poetry on the other. Those latter arts use words to arouse our emotions and sweep us away. If you’ve ever described yourself as “lost” in a story, you’ll know what Plato means.
Philosophy, by contrast, remains doggedly, rigorously on the path of truth. Plato’s philosophical hero Socrates exhorts his interlocutors and himself to “show their work,” explaining and examining the reasoning that leads them to this or that conclusion, and not getting carried away by fine words.
Matters aren’t quite so simple, though. Anyone who’s read Plato can attest that part of his appeal is his tremendous rhetorical gift. It’s hard not to be seduced by the blunt, stubborn, wily figure of Socrates, the philosophical prizefighter who unfailingly dunks on his hapless opponents. Could the philosophical ideal of pure rational argumentation, unadorned by rhetoric or narrative, itself be a seductive but false vision?
If so, what is the difference between philosophy and poetry? And how can we rely on either of them as guides to wisdom and truth?
I’ll leave you with that cliffhanger and look forward to discussing further with some of you in this new year!