My Canon

Reflections on Formative Influence

by Robbie McClintock

A work in progress. Started Spring 2011 as a series of lectures at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Plato: The Republic and other Dialogs

My first year working on an MA in history had ended poorly. A successful Masters essay was key to going on to the Ph.D. My draft received the comment, "utterly inappropriate as history," with the suggestion to try again, perhaps, after I had decided I was really interested in historical writing.

If I had merely slapped a draft together, trying to blow the requirement off, this result would not have upset me. But I had worked hard on the draft and believed I was saying something worthwhile. Other aspects of my first year at Columbia had also troubled me. Meeting milestones seemed much more imporant than discussing ideas. With no particular grounds for doing so, I had expected a more autonomous and engaged intellectual community than I encountered—New York City both invigorates and distracts the University in a way I had not anticipated. Aggravated but unrepentant at the rejection of my draft, I quickly resolved to pursue an alternative path to the higher learning. To set it in motion, I would enlist the support of Professor Cremin, who seemed in his colloquium receptive to my work.

In preparing my Masters draft, I had closely read Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger on academic freedom. Metzger's chapter on the "German Influence," especially its long section on Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit, had enthused me with the conviction that German universities must certainly be true centers of higher learning. In 1973, I would spend a year at one, a very enjoyable year, but one that disabused me definitively of the beliefs imbibed through my reading of Metzger. But in April 1962, I was bewitched and hence my hurried scheme of recovery: I should pick myself up and pursue a German doctorate. It was late, however, to make arrangements—get things moving, I thought. I rushed to explain to Cremin the debacle with my essay. I did not really accept that my draft was as bad as Professor X had made it out to be. I had tried to write, both as an academic and a critical intellectual, but that combination seemed to prove unacceptable. Instead of giving in, I would find a way to get my doctorate in Germany, where I thought academic arrangements would be more hospitable to a young person seeking to become both a competent scholar and an effective critic. Would he, Cremin, be willing to write a recommendation supporting my transfer abroad? "Come back next week after I've read the draft," he replied, "and we'll discuss it."

A week later, after the ritual wait in the anteroom, Mrs. Zolot again instructed me to go speak to the professor. On entering, Professor Cremin greeted me (it would be five years and a dissertation defense before he became Larry). He had read my manuscript. He could understand that Professor X in history, a Joe Friday historian—"just the facts, m'am"—would not like it at all. And Professor X had probably fought in World War II and would certainly have a different view about the rationale for armed conflict than I expressed. But my draft was promising as an effort in the history of educational thought. I should consider whether my scheme of going to study at a German university might rest on unfounded assumptions. With a smile, he asked whether it had occurred to me that the Berlin of 1962 was a bit different from the one enthusing me, that of Hegel and Schleiermacher.

Rather than transfer to Germany, he suggested a less drastic transfer into the History and Education program at Teachers College. I would be working on a Columbia PhD, as I had been in history; the whole university would be open to me; and I would have much more latitude to pursue my interests wherever they led. It would be a more prudent course. I would have to swallow a little pride and complete my MA by submitting a proper essay to the history department, but he was sure I could easily work that in during the next year or two. If I got my application in quickly, he would see that it was acted on, even though it would be a couple months past the deadline. My course work in history would transfer and I could start in the fall with my plans in tact. The hop across 120th street to the Teachers College program would fit my interests in the history of education much better, he assured me. He closed the conversation recommending that next year I be sure to take the courses offered by Martin Dworkin.

To Plato—Through a Modern Socrates

Dworkin entered, a moment after the bell, barrel-chested and solid, short-thick arms, as if once a weight-lifter, a wide face with slightly flattened features, a broad-high forehead, black hair, once thick, combed to the back with a tinge of gray, heavy eyebrows over mildly protruding eyes shielded by thick bifocals. Except for the glasses and the business suit, slightly disheveled, he could be Socrates reborn. He hefted a stuffed briefcase onto the desk, put some papers and books down in front of him, and settled himself into his chair. Fifteen or so students faced him, awaiting with curiosity.

So Aesthetics and education began—"An examination of the relation of art and education with attention to theories of the creative act, aesthetic experience, and criteria and methods of criticism." Dworkin introduced the reading list, encapsulating, one by one, the intellectual importance of the six books on it—The Republic by Plato, Politics VII & VIII by Aristotle, The House of Intellect by Jacques Barzun, Education through Art by Herbert Read, Art by Clive Bell, and Art as Experience by John Dewey. We were entering into an argument, raging since the beginning of Western history, about the place of art in public life and the standards by which people should regulate their attention to it. He invited us into this discussion in which the readings, everything that had been thought and said pertaining to them, and whatever associations occurred to his assertive intellect, defined the scope of relevance and the standards of expectation for the course. Free to speak, we said little, and Dworkin carried the conversation through fifteen weeks, a mind raging over issues and ideas. Students either liked it and listened, or hated it and tuned out.

To me, then, and still now, with a few reservations added on, Dworkin was the life of the mind incarnate, engaging questions that were unanswered, existentially compelling, and unbounded. Over thirty years later, on his death in 1996, I tried to express what he had meant to myself and others, sparing no difficulties in recognizing his extraordinary worth. [ GoTo ] In 1962-63, Dworkin was something different, the grail in the presence of which academic Percivals, youths like myself, were to prove their worth. It was difficult, for it was so easy to turn away. One could not learn from Dworkin. That was his power. His discourse, highly assertive, leaped from one thing to another, and was not instructive; there was no intelligible teaching. It amounted instead to a powerful challenge, with diverse suggestions, a bewildering scatter-shot, about how one might address the challenge. Dworkin pushed you forward, toddling yet determined, Thus, he introduced me to Plato, not with a prepossessing interpretation of the texts, but by imparting a felt need to interpret them myself, a personal step in creating my own version of a living mind.

I did the work required for Dworkin's courses—after Aesthetics and Education a second, Education, Ideology, and Mass Communication followed in the spring. It was an interesting exploration of possible educational consequences arising through ideological thinking and mass communication. In it, Ortega's Revolt of the Masses had the position of lead reading, occupied by Plato in the course on Aesthetics and Education. It was the first time I had encountered Ortega within the formal curriculum (and perhaps the last), but in that role Ortega's book did not impress me greatly. Although I was already wondering how I might write on Ortega for a dissertation, it seemed to me that what might be said in classes constrained what should be said, about Ortega and most everything else. To me, Dworkin's importance as a teacher was far greater outside of class than in it.

Part of the problem arose because Dworkin's assertiveness, combined with the way he set his courses up, aggravated the tendency in many students to argue with their readings. Dworkin plunged us into Plato's critique of poetry and art. Good sophisticates, one of us would proclaim that Plato was wrong, and not only wrong, but bad—people shouldn't say such things about art! Others would nod agreement, and the other side of the judgment would fall to Dworkin, who would not so much defend Plato as put the accusation in a larger context. Consider this; think about that; recall how so-and-so dealt with such-and-such. Dworkin's strong net of intellectual associations entangled me and I listened to him enthralled in trying to internalize the web of ideas he cast out. I felt quietly allied to Dworkin, not my peers in class. Somehow on my crooked path through college, I had come to the realization that dead writers did not care a hoot whether I agreed or disagreed with them. I could still get mad in the margins, but less when a writer had the temerity to say something with which I disagreed than when he seemed to say something that was manifestly dumb, willful, or manipulative. Vehemently demonstrating whether one agreed or disagreed while reading seemed to me to be a waste of time.

Martin S. Dworkin, "Disagreement: The Situation of Reason," The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Aug., 1952), pp. 117-119.

Dworkin would on occasion refer to an essay he had written some years earlier, "Disagreement: The Situation of Reason." In it, he addressed the age old struggle between faith and reason, showing how men of faith recoil against the prodigal range of disagreements generated by a reason that has forsworn the boundaries of belief. Theology rejected the primacy of reason because reason generated a chaotic array of positions and counter positions. In reply, Dworkin celebrated the multiplicity of positions, the Heraclitean humanism, the inexhaustible human soul, so expansive that it can never be encompassed. For Dworkin, the expansiveness, the inexhaustibility of the soul, arose through the humane effort to present disagreements to "the ever-present gallery of those who must choose," a profoundly Platonic image with which he closed his essay. On what basis should the members of this gallery make their choices, that seemed to be an important question.

In his essay and in presenting Plato to his class, Dworkin called attention to the contrast with respect to disagreement between Books I & II of The Republic. In Book 1, Plato presented disagreement, especially between Socrates and Thrasymachus, as a test of wills. Socrates thwarted Thrasymachus, who dropped out of the dialog, in his heart still disagreeing but unable to impose his will on the plane of rational assent. Development of his position passed to Adeimantus and Glaucon, who advanced it, not in order to prevail in a contest of will, but to engender fuller understanding of it and the alternatives to it. I think this difference between resolving disagreement by the assertion of will or by reasoned discourse is essential in reading Plato and in thinking about education.

To this day, students too often confuse assertion with reflection, reacting in a Thrasymachean way. For Dworkin, disagreement was the situation of reason, its locus, not its substance. In terms of the Platonic psychology, disagreement expresses the emotive spirit, it arises from the Thymos as an immediate reaction, intuiting friend and foe. It is what the Guardians, at the lower rungs of their training, became adept at, rising spiritedly in defense of what the city held dear and ready to strike out against words that threatened it. Our system of higher education continues to nurture youthful members of the elite, modern-day Guardians, in this emotive simulacrum of reason. Students rise up, chest heaving, to cry out against Plato's apparent plan of education, not noticing that their reactions exemplify and exercise the very pedagogy that they decry. We construct courses to span too much coverage, trying to do too much in too little time, and within those confines, likes and dislikes, backed, not by thought, but by the willful assertion of some ready reasons, passes for thinking for oneself.

In education, the important question is not, Do I agree? The important one is, Do I understand? The phrase goes, tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner, "to understand all is to forgive all," and many fear that doing so will lead to a wussy nihilism, Whatever. But the choosing by those in "the ever-present gallery of those who must choose" does not consist in merely opting for or against one side in a disagreement or the other. Rather each must choose how he will deal with the matter himself. To understand all, comprehending all sides of a disagreement allows us to see beyond it, to choose none of the given alternatives, but to work out our own reasons for choosing a position that becomes all one's own. Understanding others is the foundation for my reasoning out my own convictions. To understand all is to think anew. Tout comprendre, c'est penser neuf.

These reflections are pertinent, for in the course of "higher" education, students are quick to disagree, especially on reading Plato, on reading his Republic with its critique of art and his scheme of education. In Dworkin's course, I became a bit impatient, not with text, but with wrangling about who disagrees about this or that part of the text. Do I understand the text? It is important to try, even within in the confines of a course, but it is hard to accomplish because understanding requires careful, thorough reading, with comparison of this part with that part across a large text, dense with images and ideas. Hence, I did the work but do not recall it at all. I read the assigned reading, but I really read it outside the confines of the course in which it was assigned, spending the better part of the year immersed in work by and about Plato.

I remember listening intently to Dworkin as he would spout out suggestions and observations—"Of course you must have read so and so and will recall his point that. . . ." One or two of us would follow him out the building, soaking up his references, and then as we became more familiar, we would follow on a slow trek to the subway, and then occasionally onto the subway itself down to Penn Station, and then finally up the creaky five flights to his walk-up on 31st street, as we suspected, packed with books. Dworkin was a storehouse, not of knowledge, but of further inquiry.

Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, II: In Search of the Divine Centre (Gilbert Highet, trans., New York: Oxford University Press, 1943) and A. E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work (6th ed., London: Methuen & Co., 1949). I am inclined to try to understand Plato as an educational theorist, more than a political theorist, and find the dramatic, interpersonal setting of his dialogs more significant than speculations about their political setting, such as the fact that exchanges in The Republic took place in the Piraeus, the commercial, democratic locus in Athenian life, noted by Leo Strauss in The City and Man (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), a commentary that was not yet published at the time of my first study of Plato. And W. K. C. Guthrie's volume dealing with Plato's early and middle dislogues would not appear until 1975.

Hence, during the whole year, I studied Plato with care, and the pre-Socratics as a propaedeutic. I think in reaction to Dworkin, I was disposed to come at my reading of Plato with certain questions in mind, which I found helpful in seeking to understand the dialogs, particularly The Republic. I attended to how Plato set a dialog, populating it with a group of characters, locating it at a time and place, and indicating how the report of that came to him as author, and through him to the reader. The commentaries in the second volume of Werner Jaeger's Paideia: the Ideal of Greek Culture and in A. E. Taylor's Plato: The Man and His Work were particularly helpful in anchoring my reading. In trying to understand The Republic, I asked first, as a way of deciding what I understood the dialog to be about, Whose problem was the problem Plato wrote about?

Socrates, of course, was executed under the restored democracy for corrupting the youth and he was reputed to have taken a position of principled resistance to orders under the 30 Tyrants. Glaucon and Adeimantus, and Plato as well, were closely connected to the Tyranny through their uncle, Critias, leader of the 30. they were known to have been brave in the military, but were rather conspicuous by their absence in the Tyranny given their dispositions to enter political life and their significant point of entry for then doing so. Cephalus was a wealthy arms manufacturer, a Metic who, along with his sons, as a non-citizen nevertheless gave prominent service to Athens, especially its democratic currents. Of his sons, little is known of Euthydemus; Polemarchus was put to death by the 30 Tyrants; and Lysias barefly escaped that fate and went on to be a prominent speech writer. Niceratus, the son of a prominent but unsuccessful Athenian general, was also put to death by the 30 Tyrants, an condemnation that Xenophon found particularly venal. Thrasymachus was a sophist from Chalcedon and Cleitophon, who weakly assisted Thrasymachus in the exchange with Socrates, was an Athenian citizen, probably noted leaning from a middle-of-the-road position as expedience suggested. Charmantides, an Athenian citizen about whom little is known, was present, but inactive in the dialog.

In one sense, asking whose problem was the problem Plato wrote about amounts to asking who he conceived his audience to be, the readership he wanted for The Republic. But in another sense, perhaps a more important one, it is a way of asking what, at its core, was The Republic itself about. Plato indicated the internal audience to the dialog clearly, but the characters were a bit peculiar if he meant them to be emblematic of a significant position in Athenian or Greek political thought. Plato set The Republic probably a little before 420 BC, early in the Peloponnesian War, and probably wrote it circa 380 BC, looking back on the Athenian collapse and political turmoil of the 30 Tyrants and the democratic restoration. The characters seem to span a broad range of the ideological spectrum, as well as statuses via-à-vis consistuted power, including wealthy Metics, foreign sophists, and Athenian citizens who leaned towards both the democratic and oligarchic persuasions. Several were executed, seemingly less for overt acts and more for their convictions. It would not seem far-fetched to see them, Thrasymachus excepted, as a group that in Plato's time might have been recognized as men of principle who acted, sometimes at considerable cost, upon their convictions, some leaning to the democratic persuasion others to the oligarchic.

In the earlier critique of poetry and music, Plato warned about its potential to subvert the city of words by miseducating the Guardians, but in Book X the tension between philosophy and poetry is a contest for the soul of the person with at most incidental reference to the city of words.

At any rate, I engaged The Republic with the assumption that it addressed the person concerned to act on principle in the vicissitudes of life. I cannot say that I came to this sense of the problematic of the work through the interpretation of its dramatic audience, but it seems to me consistent with that interpretation. It also seemed to me to be prima facie the problematic that Plato developed in Books I and II, which concerns what principle for acting justly should control a person's conduct of life. There is no mention of a just city or state until the middle of Book II when Socrates introduces it as an expedient facilitating the search for peronal justice (368d-369b). In Books VIII, IX, and X, the relation between personal character and political character remains deeply intertwined, but as the work moves towards its close, the concern for the sort of life a person will lead returns more and more exclusively to the center of attention. The great concluding myth has no hint of a foundation myth for a just city, but tells instead how each person becomes responsible for choosing to live his or her life, and to suffer or enjoy the consequences.

Virtue owns no master: as a man honours or dishonours her, so shall he have more of her or less. The blame is his who chooses; Heaven is blameless. (617e, Cornford, trans.)

These significant clues notwithstanding, Plato's central five books have appeared to many smart interpreters to call for the implementation of an authoritarian, neo-Spartan educational and political environment that few would take to be a desirable collectivity within which to live. Consequently, Plato's theory of truth, his Allegory of the Cave, his idea of the philosopher-king, beautifully presented and deeply meaningful to many, have seemed embedded in a highly objectionable context.

A great deal of Plato's creative influence in the history of political thought has taken hold as subsequent thinkers tried to spell out a theory of the state that would be more palatable in practice. Generating alternative theories of the just state, the just society, just institutions has been, I think, the dominant historical response to The Republic, a response that has been highly creative over that past fifty years with the work of John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and others. I want to make a case, however, for taking Plato's theory of justice as a starting point, not as a critique of all those subsequent alternatives, or as a denigration of their value. Unless readers deal directly with the off-putting parts of a work like The Republic, ideas of value may be left incompletely developed.

Some how, early on—I do not remember any ah-ha-moment—I internalized an interpretative principle, which has value in extracting formative influence from the work of others. It is a useful heuristic in asking whether one understands a work. It is also a corollary of the idea that other writers really do not care whether one agrees or disagrees with what they have said—they would much prefer that they prove to have been understood.

To understand someone, who may seem different, difficult, strange, even confused or dangerous, a reader needs to impute to a writer, until something seems unquestionably to prove otherwise, both good will and coherence. A writer can at most make it possible for others to understand what he has to say; he cannot guarantee that others will agree or disagree. But the writer's ability even to make himself understood is limited, especially when his readers stand many generations removed from him, and when they read him through the redaction of time and in languages that did not exist when he wrote. Hence, much of the burden of making a text intelligible falls on the reader, not the writer. Should the reader impute malevolence to the writer, or find the text impossibly corrupt or incoherent, the game is up—the writer, dead and finished, can do nothing and the verdict of unintelligibility will be final, at least until some other reader tries in a more generous, patient frame of mind. This is the "sweetness and light" that Matthew Arnold commended, a generosity of mind on the reader's part, an important principle of interpretation.

Perhaps the parts of The Republic that seem to offend a right thinking sensibility are not so much objectionable, but difficult to understand. Assumptions get in the way. We assume that Plato wrote The Republic about political life. We assume that someone writing about politics intends a description of justice in a city to be a plan for prospective implementation. And then, looking at its apparent particulars, we recoil. But Plato included ample suggestion, I think, that Socrates and his auditors founded the city in speech expressly for the purpose of illustrating ideas about the problems persons faced in trying to act on principle in the course of their lives, in particular in trying to be just in their conduct of life. Repeatedly, Plato suggested that implementation of his scheme was not his goal.

And so our dream has come true—I mean the inkling we had that, by some happy chance, we had lighted upon a rudimentary form of justice from the very moment when we set about founding our commonwealth. Our principle that the born shoemaker or carpenter had better stick to his trade turns out to have been an adumbration of justice; and that is why it has helped us. But in reality justice, though evidently analogous to this principle, is not a matter of external behaviour, but of the inward self and of attending to all that is, in the fullest sense, a man's proper concern. The just man does not allow the several elements in his soul to usurp one another's functions; he is indeed one who sets his house in order, by self-mastery and discipline coming to be at peace with himself, and bringing into tune those three parts [appetite, emotion, reason], like the terms in the proportion of a musical scale, the highest and lowest notes and the mean between them, with all the intermediate intervals. Only when he has linked these parts together in well-tempered harmony and has made himself one man instead of many, will he be ready to go about whatever he may have to do, whether it be making money and satisfying bodily wants, or business transactions, or the affairs of state. In all these fields when he speaks of just and honourable conduct, he will mean the behaviour that helps to produce and to preserve this habit of mind; and by wisdom he will mean the knowledge which presides over such conduct. Any action which tends to break down this habit will be for him unjust; and the notions governing it he will call ignorance and folly.(443d-e, Cornford, trans. Cf. 592b, 471a-473b.)

Whose problem was the problem Plato wrote about? He did not write about the problem of the person who sought to receive justice in a well-ordered state, or the problem of the person who wanted to constitute a city in which people received justice. Plato wrote about the problem a person had in seeking to conduct her life justly in whatever state she found herself.

Teaching Plato in Troubled Times

Sometime early March, 1965, I was working at my desk in our apartment on 118th street. I answered the phone, a bit surprised that someone should be calling in the middle of the day. A robust voice asked whether I was Robbie McClintock, and on my saying yes, the voice continued to explain that it belonged to John Walton, chair of the department of education at the Johns Hopkins University. It was a small department in a good university, the voice went on, saying that he had heard that I might be interested in a job, which at Hopkins would be as an assistant professor, tenurable. Would I come down for some interviewing? I stammered back that yes, I had been teaching at a local college to make a little money, but that it had not occurred to me that I was ready for a real job. I was just this spring finishing my course work, and I had plans for my dissertation but had not really even started it. I would be going to Madrid to do research this summer and it would be at least a year and a half, probably two, before I could finish the degree. That's OK the voice said. Isn't next week your spring holiday—come down Tuesday morning and stay through Wednesday. We'd like to hear what you you're doing with your dissertation You'll have a chance to talk with a few of us on the faculty and in the administration. Book the train and call me—here's my number. You can stay at the faculty house. Good to talk with you. . . .