In the “Phaedo,” the dialogue of Socrates’ last day, a question arises about Socrates’ burial after he is to drink the fatal hemlock. His friend, Crito, is fussing about what he will do with the body. Socrates does not think it makes much difference. No matter what they do with it, wherever it is deposited, the real Socrates will be elsewhere, immortal. He will continue the conversational life he lived in Athens. Death destroyed the body, not the soul.
In this light, Socrates corrects the language of Crito. Calling a dead body specifically “Socrates” is inaccurate, demonstrated by the quote “To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul.”
If we do not call things by a name that indicates what the thing really is, we not only misuse words, but also damage our souls. Why is this? We search for a reality that is not simply of our own construction or imagination. The things we name really exist. Because we are able to identify objects around us, we construct our lives around them. We need to distinguish, to know.
As we come to the end of a semester, it is worth pondering such an observation. Putting aside grades and external signs of accomplishment (or lack thereof), we still ask ourselves whether we have in fact learned anything, and particularly, anything that is true. It’s possible, even perhaps likely, we haven’t reflected on this aspect so far.
Furthermore, we need to test the propositions that we think we know. If we find ourselves merely floating along on the surface of things and never really wondering about anything, we need to have a spark of discontent. We sometimes think that nothing much matters, especially thinking itself.
Take an example from “Charlie Brown.” Linus is sitting in an easy chair in the front room thinking, ostensibly. His sister, Lucy, definitely a young lady who stirs things up, begins to yell at him on account of a recently received report card.
“You think being average is enough, don’t you?” Lucy asks. Linus gets up to escape this barrage of criticism. Lucy follows right behind him. “Well, it isn’t,” she informs him.
Linus is next seen sitting despondently at the kitchen table. Lucy continues: “What shape would the world be in today if everyone settled for being average?” At this moment, Linus lights up. He turns on her to ask logically: “What shape is the world in today?” Lucy gets the point. That is a pretty amusing and universal question. We might do well to ask it of ourselves.
In the “Phaedras,” Socrates remarked that “to be unaware of the difference between a dream-image and the reality of what is just and unjust, good and bad, must truly be grounds for reproach even if the crowd praises it with one voice.” Simply to be unaware of what we ought to be aware of reveals our souls both to ourselves and to others, if we would but see them. We are, after all, admonished to know ourselves.
No doubt, something can be said for being average. The excellent and the average are related. Most men are average. Most learn gradually, as St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P. put it. On the other hand, Plato has a point. The crowd of average people, and even those said to be intelligent, can praise things with one voice.
We look back on a semester. We suddenly realize we do not have that many semesters left. We have already pre-registered for next semester. Our immediate future is settled.
Sometimes I ask myself, “What does a university look like from the inside?” We hear talk of things like the core curriculum — mandatory courses that are designed to give everyone a common store of ideas and intellectual experiences. Yet, if we look at the myriad of course offerings, we are overwhelmed by diversity. There is simply no way we can take more than a few of the courses offered. “Is there an order in learning?” we wonder.
We recall the admonition of Socrates. Inaccurate language, especially deliberately obscure words, fuzzy words, not only confuse our conversation but hurt our very souls. We suspect that words are often deliberately used to confuse us. We have heard of the sophists. We wonder about those who take fees for their services.
How do we express ourselves? A semester’s end should be the time when we are awake. Are we?
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a faculty member of the government department. Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternate as the writers of As This Jesuit Sees It … , which appears every other Friday.