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Raphael's "The School of Athens" [1509-1511]

It is We Who Are Not Yet Sound

What is the worst thing that can happen to you? What is the event or situation that presents the greatest danger of evil and misfortune to an individual regardless of age, sex, or background? 

Midway through the dialogue Phaedo, Socrates presents an answer to these questions that may strike the reader as odd. Having been unjustly convicted of impiety and of corrupting the young men of Athens, Socrates will shortly be compelled to drink hemlock and so be put to death. Before his death, however, he has the opportunity for one final discussion with his followers, and uses this opportunity to argue convincingly for the immortality of the soul. The discussion reaches an uncomfortable climax when two interlocutors, Simmias and Cebes, present counter-arguments that appear to put the immortality of the soul in grave doubt. The effect on Phaedo and the other young men is devastating—not only is their fear for Socrates renewed, but they are driven to doubt “not only what had already been said, but also what was going to be said.” (88c) Having witnessed an argument they had trusted come under serious scrutiny, they begin to doubt not only that particular argument, but arguments in general. 

At this crucial moment in the dialogue when his young followers are in danger of losing all hope, Socrates says that they must avoid the greatest evil that can befall a human: misology, the hatred of the logos, or put another way, the hatred of reasonable discussion. Socrates introduces this concept in the following way:

There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse. Misology and misanthropy arise in the same way. Misanthropy comes when a man without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound and trustworthy; then, a short time afterwards, he finds him to be wicked and unreliable, and then this happens in another case; when one has frequently had that experience, especially with those whom one believed to be one’s closest friends, then, in the end, after many such blows, one comes to hate all men and to believe that no one is sound in any way at all. Have you not seen this happen? (89d-e)

Socrates first approaches misology obliquely by way of comparison to misanthropy, since the latter concept is so much more familiar. We have all seen this kind of misanthropy arise in others, and perhaps if we are honest, we recognize the sentiment in ourselves. Who among us has not felt betrayed by a friend, a family member, a political leader, or a romantic love? Such wounds untended by charity will harden with bitter cynicism and suspicion. Surely then misanthropy is a great evil, one that can keep us from seeing the image and likeness of God in those around us. But we must remember that Socrates began by saying that it is misology, the hatred of the logos, that is the greatest evil that can befall a man. He continues his explication:

The similarity (between misology and misanthropy) lies rather in this: it is as when one who lacks skill in arguments puts his trust in an argument as being true, then shortly afterwards believes it to be false—as sometimes it is and sometimes it is not—and so with another argument and then another. You know how those in particular who spend their time studying contradiction in the end believe themselves to have become very wise and that they alone have understood that there is no soundness or reliability in any object or in any argument… (90b-c)

It is perhaps still unclear to us why misology should be worse than misanthropy, let alone the very worst evil that can befall a man, but let’s take a moment to consider what it is. When I read Socrates’ description of misology, I am immediately reminded of the general state of cultural discourse we find ourselves in today, which is the public training ground for all of our students (whether we like it or not). A climate marked by jargon, slurs, unfounded assertions, polarizing rhetoric, and sweeping condemnations is surely the breeding ground for misology if there ever was one. In addition, all of this vicious noise is made more present in our daily lives via social media. Things look bleak indeed. Cultural analysis falls easily into one of two errors: concluding that the time that you live in is the very best of all possible times, or on the contrary concluding that it is worst of all possible times. Whatever the virtues or vices of a particular time, neither of those judgments is likely to be true, given the scope of human history. And yet, as a student of history, I can’t help but believe that we find ourselves in a cultural moment that makes misology more likely and more prevalent than any that comes readily to mind. 

If Socrates is right, that puts us—and therefore our students—in danger of the greatest calamity that can befall a human.

Surely all of this is unpleasant, but what is the danger? Why is misology so terrible? Notice that Socrates is not chiefly concerned with unpleasant disagreements, libel, party politics, or the like:

It would be pitiable, Phaedo, when there is a true and reliable argument and one that can be understood, if a man who has dealt with such arguments as appear at one time true, at another time untrue, should not blame himself or his own lack of skill but, because of his distress, in the end gladly shift blame away from himself to the arguments, and spend the rest of his life hating and reviling reasonable discussion and so be deprived of truth and the knowledge of reality. (90d)

If you’re looking closely, you’ll notice that Socrates embeds three major assumptions in this last sentence: that truth is real, that humans can come to know it, and that one key way we come to know it is through reasonable discussion—through participation with the logos.

Those three claims should be at the heart of any good school. Depending on one’s upbringing, these claims can sound obvious or ridiculous, and if they don’t sound very ground-breaking one should still assume your school is full of students who have been raised in a cultural context in which none of these can be safely assumed. To state the case more accurately, if negatively, one can usually presuppose that students have been educated in environments in which these claims have been openly mocked and subverted. 

In all our various disciplines, we should be pursuing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and the way that we model this pursuit and dialogue with our students matters immensely, because our students will either learn from us that these things exist and are worthy of pursuit, or they will believe (perhaps even unconsciously) that there is no way to progress in knowledge of these things, and that everything comes down to a personal and changeable opinion, so it probably isn’t worth their time anyway. Chesterton’s principle that there are no uninteresting subjects but only uninterested people is resonant here. Just as students are learning either to love or to hate people in their class, they are learning either to love the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—to borrow language from another dialogue, “that which is”—or they are learning to hate the logos because it seems unreliable or inconsistent to them. This outcome, according to Socrates, is the greatest misfortune that can befall a man and is to be guarded against at all costs. Instead of shifting the blame to the logos, it would be far better to examine ourselves and find that it is we who miss the mark:

We should not allow into our minds the conviction that argumentation has nothing sound about it; much rather we should believe that it is we who are not yet sound and that we must take courage and be eager to attain soundness, you and the others for the sake of your whole life still to come, and I for the sake of death itself. (Phaedo 91a)

We should consider our own thoughts and actions over the past weeks, months, and years. Is it likely that Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are merely subjective, that there is no lasting reality or meaning in these things? Or is it we who are not yet sound, we who are confused, so easily misled and disappointed? This is actually very good news and should make us hopeful, for if the logos is unsound, we have no chance of growing in virtue and wisdom. But, if, with Socrates, we believe that it is we who are not yet whole and sound, we should take courage in the hope that, through participation in the logos, we may become so at last.