On Essays and Letters

In tightly reasoned and intricate books, especially those of great writers, we find short segments that we do well to spell out as short essays of our own. A thing is never ours unless we state it, articulate it. The great Platonic teaching is that truth is to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. This is the great contemplative act that takes place before all action. It is sufficient in itself to justify our existence among the things that are. Our knowledge pertains to what is.

book cover imageIn the famous Book Five of the Republic, Socrates goes through the three waves, the last of which finally brings him to ask whether the “city in speech” that he is building is possible or not in reality. After proposing its logical necessity, Socrates discusses the knowledge of the philosopher-king that would be necessary for the best city to come to be.

What does the philosopher specifically know? The intellectual guardians in book two, of whom the philosopher-king is now the representative, are specialists in the good of the whole. They exist that all other things might exist and flourish in their separateness and uniqueness, yet within the same world. The whole is more than its parts. Without the whole and someone to know it, the parts would not be the parts.

The last section of book five, then, is concerned with what the philosopher knows, not with the lifetime education that prepares him for it. This latter is spelled out in books six and seven. In joining the politician and the philosopher in one person, Socrates takes the boldest of steps, one which Aristotle will again retrace. Socrates is well aware that the greatest good is counterpoint to the greatest evil. He will say in book six: “The best ordered souls turn out exceptionally bad if they get a bad schooling. Great crimes and pure evil come only from vigorous natures perverted by upbringing; a weak nature never does anything great, good or evil.” The greatest evils usually come from men who, if they chose, could do the greatest good.

Not everyone can tell the difference between the fool and the philosopher. Indeed, philosophers are often taken to be fools. In fact, some philosophers are fools when they mistake the true object of their discipline. The irony of our existence is that how we choose to live will pretty much decide what it is we want to see. Seeing only what we want to see allows us to live as we want. It is the living as we want, not as we ought, that most often decides whether we see what is.

The great and sobering doctrine, then, is that the greatest of evils come, not from the ordinary folks, but from the potentially wise who have deliberately gone wrong. But, asAristotle will say, it is not just a question of “bad schooling.” No doubt we find an intellectual component in evil deeds.

Every actor of evil among us can give a plausible reason for his action. And his reason is “true”; he did act on it. But this given reason is not sufficient to explain the fact of evil among men. The explanation must include a “chosen-ness” aspect if it is to be true to reality. This act was done in preference to another which also could have been known and chosen but was suppressed. This deliberate suppression is the locus of moral evil. It is where the “lack” of the good that should be there enters into the reality of human action and dwells there.

The philosopher, however, is “madly” in love with wisdom. This philosophic eros takes him outside of himself into the world that is. But he is leery of “opinions.” In the Republic, opinions seem to posit corresponding objects, instead of being, what they are, unclear definitions or understandings of what actually exists. Socrates does not want to live on “shadows” or opinions. He thirsts for being.

Socrates likewise looks for those who love learning, love to know. So he tells Glaucon: “If someone is finicky about learning, especially a young man who doesn’t yet know what’s useful or not, we won’t call him fond of learning or a lover of wisdom . . .” Lovers of wisdom, literally philosophers, cannot restrict what is out there to know without betraying the very being of their minds.

But “if (the young man) is not squeamish and willingly swallows all learning with insatiable gusto, then we’ll justly call him a lover of learning, right?” Our souls, at their best, display this “insatiable gusto” about all that is, as if we are destined to possess what is not ourselves, which, of course, we are in knowledge. We become what we are not when we know what is.

The men we are looking for are not “lovers of sights and hobbyists and men of action.” Many can be entranced with sounds and sights, but are “incapable of seeing and embracing the nature of the beautiful itself.” Thus, once we know some beautiful thing, it is not enough that we simply know it. Of its very nature it drives on to wonder about the very origin of the beauty in the what is that we see and know.

What does the philosopher know? Surely it is something, not nothing. He knows what is. What does not exist cannot be known. “What in no way is, is totally unknowable.” This is a first principle. Nothing is clearer once we think it out.

So to what does knowledge refer? “Knowledge naturally pertains to what is, to know how it is . . .” Still Socrates, like Augustine later, cannot get around the recurring question of the existence of many beautiful things. They imply what is beautiful in itself, an origin of what does not explain itself, of what seemingly should not exist but does exist.

“The ones who embrace each thing itself that is ought to be called philosophers, lovers of wisdom. . . .” Moreover, “It is unlawful to be angry at the truth.” We should want to know what is and affirm it. But we sometimes lie to ourselves if we do not want to live the truth of what is, especially the truth in which we exist in the first place. To have a lie in our souls about what is, Socrates said, is something no man should least of all want.

The great questions of the origin of the philosopher’s knowledge and the location of the city in speech abide among us. It seems odd that Socrates is right but still not complete to our experience. In book six, we read: “Philosophic natures always love the learning which reveals something of the essence that always is . . .” Socrates is hard on those who cannot arise to such questions, not to beautiful things but to beauty in itself. Itis good to read Socrates and yet to be unsettled for having done so. We affirm of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. That is, we are left with the great “amen.”

Our encounter with what is, is ultimately to affirm it in our own souls and speak it to those we love. “Knowing naturally pertains to what is.” We finally notice, in affirming other things, that we too are, though we did not make ourselves to be. This “noticing” what is, is what the philosopher does.

The philosopher is the man whose being is rocked by an eros that knows the many beautiful things that are. Yet, in knowing them, he is aware that he remains unsettled because he did not cause their beauty. He only encountered it in the pathways of his world. And on encountering it, he wondered about it, knowing that he did not place it there.  

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.

Father Schall returns to Plato’s Republic for a discussion of the connection of knowledge, philosophy, and action—and a train of thought that points beyond ourselves. We did not cause the beauty and the very existence of what is. . . .