In Praise of Perplexity

Our world praises certainty. We must be confident even when we are unconfident. We call this self-confidence. For, the truism goes, if we don’t believe in ourselves, who will? That we shouldn’t believe in ourselves occurs to no one, though we spend so much of our time telling each other how others are completely wrong.

What we mean is that we should be self-confident. People that think like us should believe in themselves. Other people, however, should have a bit more humility. They are arrogant, or are narcissists, or fools.

If someone is full of facts and figures but are self-evidently wrong by our standards, they’re simply liars. After all, anyone who is self-confident but wrong must be deliberately trying to deceive the sheep they’re leading. They’re wolves wearing sheep’s clothing.

Thus, being confidently wrong is equated with lying, but being uncertain is equated with a lack of self-confidence and ego and there is no other way. You can be a confident liar, but never confidently uncertain.

Socrates, however, provides the third way: the paradox of self-confidence as uncertainty and uncertainty as a crucial step along the way of knowing.

Much of what we think we know, we do not. Socrates would call this “opinion”, or the ungrounded belief that things are the way that we believe they are. We may may be correct in saying that Chicago is south of Milwaukee, having never seen a map, and having learned this in school or in conversations with our peers. But we don’t know this, as a fact, if we haven’t traveled the road ourselves. This is what Socrates would call “true opinion”, an accident of having knowledge in accordance with reality — but not knowledge of reality, directly.

In the Meno, Socrates explores this precise question in a discussion about whether virtue can be taught. His discussion partner, Meno, wants to know if virtue can be taught. Socrates, however, is uncertain just what virtue is. Only in know what virtue is, as it is, can we really know if it can be taught. If we don’t know what a sunflower is, for example, we cannot have much of a discussion of how to grow it. Questions of soil, sunlight, and watering practices are irrelevant, since a sunflower might very well be a plasma explosion on the surface of the sun and, thus, questions of organic growth are simply nonsense.

Thus, Socrates begins reasoning with others from a state of perplexity. Meno, who was trained in traditional educational methods, begins in a state of certainty and assumes the very thing that he seeks because he is not sufficiently troubled by the issue. As a result, Socrates seeks to show Meno the way through his attempts to “teach” a slave boy how to calculate twice the area of a square.

Socrates, then, must begin the process of discovery by guiding Meno into a state of perplexity; any conversation that begins with one or another person assuming they know what they know cannot be a discussion. Instead, they must have an argument or a debate. Both are zero-sum games that result in a winner and a loser. Today, this means that both people conclude that they are the winner and that the other is the loser.

This is essentially what the Internet exists for to do: to convince people that they are the winners and the others are the losers.

Socrates attempts to show Meno this problem through his conversation with the slave boy. The slave boy begins with certainty. He is confident that he knows how to calculate the area of a square. But as a result of Socrates’ persistant questions, the slave boy comes to the conclusion that he does’t know how. “By Zeus!” he exclaims. “I do not know!”

“I do not know” is the beginning of knowledge, a state that we are generally unwilling to accept. This perplexity — or aphoria — enables us to actually know something and to actually have conversations with another person, for we become aware that we do not know.

Positioned within a realm of uncertainty, we can begin to seek certainty. We leave a false reality and enter a hazy realm of possibility. For the first time, we become aware of ourselves and our limitations and realize that we do not know what we once thought we knew.

Perplexity is typically associated with fear. It can be associated with cruelty, when a master of knowledge so turns his students around that they can’t believe in themselves — or much of anything. However, it doesn’t need to be. My children, when they are perplexed, become excited. They ask wild questions. They explore strange pathways. They’re enthused to discover a hidden world, full of meaning.

The fear of God is may be the beginning of wisdom, but the beginning of the fear of God is our proper alignment within our strange and veiled world — when we discover that we are not omniscient beings ourselves. Only then does the world open up to us together as it is.

Socrates does not leave the slave boy in the state of perplexity, but this perplexity is the starting point of knowing. We can only be free to choose when we know what is real. In a state of un-knowing, we lack freedom. Place a people in a darkened room and they cannot rightly choose. They can simply bumble around, breaking glasses and knocking down books, and once in a while find a useful tool. If they do not realize they are in the dark, they will never be given the free choice to select from the items in the room. Only when they realize that the room is dark, and they need light, can they begin to make rational choices — and only when the light goes on can they actually be free to choose.

Let’s change how we do things. Let’s come together in a state of perplexity, comfortable with uncertainty and probability.Lets be confident that the room is dark and actually have a conversation about that darkness. Perhaps, then, we might discover that someone has access to a dim light that might lead the way to another light and another light and another — and, perhaps, to enough light that we gain access to the world as it is.

Let’s praise perplexity. Let’s reason together rather than argue apart.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

News without Action is Dead: And Most News is Dead

How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning paper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides some insight into some problem you are required to solve? … most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to anything meaningful. This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the “information-action ratio”… [we receive far more information than we act on and most of the information is irrelevant to us.]

A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its content.

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

We should consider this in the context of the modern internet and social-media infrastructure. When I think about the news that I react to and get me worked up, I realize that very little of it has an impact on my life. The pandemic, true, impacts my behavior — but little more than how I shop, or that I wear masks, or how we run school. But that’s old news. The news did not cause me to get my COVID shot. The news simply created anticipation. My action was caused by getting an email that allowed me to sign up for the shot.

Postman notes that news about weather causes us alter our behavior, as in the Texas freeze. If you’re in Texas, news about when the power will come on will cause you to alter your choices. But all the conversations about wind farms, natural gas, nuclear power, privatization of the grid, and so forth? Does that cause any real action or have any impact on our behavior? You might argue that it might affect voting, but it really doesn’t — because that happens only every two to four years and doesn’t really express the broad range of opinions we hold.

Perhaps that’s why we have the internet mobs — we want information to produce action. But like the telegraph, the Tweet or Facebook post demands that its content be burned. It expects to be forgotten — the action as insignificant to our lives as the useless information that caused the action.

So we fulfill our need to believe that our actions have meaning through telling ourselves the lie that our actions are actions. But they’re not: they’re digital ghosts, as incapable of touching the world as the news that animates these spirits.

Starbucks Stoppers & Decision Fatigue

Yesterday, in a state of need for something that could warm the cockles of my heart, I grabbed a cup of coffee from Starbucks for me and my wife. Today, in a state of need for something that could make my dead-tired heart beat, I pre-ordered a cup, stumbled in to the store, and grabbed it off the coffee-shelf.

Presumably, the cup I took was my own.

The difference between the drive-through and the walk-in, other than the effort involved, is that Starbucks employees ask the drive-in customers whether they want a stopper and the walk-in customers get a stopper.

I assume this policy is due to Starbuck’s commitment to reduce waste, the same kind of commitment that led them to do away with straws (mostly). Why hand out stoppers to people who don’t need or want them?

Persevering the environment and reducing waste are admirable goals, so this is not a critique of Starbucks. But in the fatigue-addled state I was in, I was struck by why some people might resist such changes. — or other small or large changes, good or bad.

We’re experiencing change-fatigue in the most rapidly changing culture in history, in a COVID era that’s produced even more rapid change, though justified. (Masks! Social distancing! The end of the handshake! The very air you breathe is an evil miasma!)

We’re exhausted.

We’re only equipped to make so many decisions in a day and decisions that impact the automatic portions of our mind add to stress and general weariness. Thus, we’re only capable of dealing with so much change on an annual basis.

We’re also disinclined to like change that we did not initiate ourselves, especially when the change impacts our daily routines in small, obvious ways.

As a society — and industries — we frequently fail to think about the negative impact that positive changes can bring and how even good changes, when piled upon other changes, can produce misery and exhaustion. We tend to assume that all good changes are good, ignoring negative externalities.

Perhaps we should count the cost.

We’re an exhausted society and an exhausted people.

I don’t mean that our culture has exhausted its inheritance and is nearing its end; if it is, this is because we are exhausted by change. I do mean that we need, as a culture, to find ways of helping each other with change; to find and embrace things that do not change, or change in the way of the tortoise. I mean that we need to marry love of our (and our neighbor’s) virtue, productivity, safety, and the like with love of our (and our neighbors’) hearts and souls and strength.

For now, I’ll take the stopper. My kids like to topple my lattes.

All Things, Old and New

On this day, of all days, I struggle to find that depth I once knew — the deeper parts (“deep unto deep”) that dragged me in until I, nearly drowning, water in my lungs, eyes lolling upwards, I caught a grasp of the thing itself and took a breath in and, coughing, taste a brief bit of air — just enough to sustain my life when dragged under again. Have I drowned in the spirit of the age? Am I now floating, limbs dangling limply, accepting this world?

I repeat that refrain each year — each year after year, it becomes harder to remember what the breath is, or how to find it? Age brings with it a comfort with drowning, until one misses the point where he accepts water as ether and forgets the purpose of his lungs. 

Rather than finding that depth, a weakly shudder, forget to open my eyes — indeed, I forget that I have eyes, and accept shadows as substance. Even now, as I write, I think, “This is not the thing; nor is it touching on the thing. It does not satisfy, but nor does not contemplating that thing. I am pleased to miss that breath, nor am I displeased. Perhaps my skin has grown around my chains and I no longer have a means of at least rattling them and reminding myself that the song of the chains is closer to true sounds then not.”

Passion is for the young: it is not wisdom. Nor is a lack of passion. Nor does passion bring one to wisdom; nor does not not. Some tide pushes us up and out and draws us back and in, and who knows where that tide may be. Doldrums were well-named and yet, not; dolor, pain, splitting. Yet the doldrums do not split and do not cause pain except in a secondary sense — the calm causes us to forget what we are divided from — that is, motion forward. 

Increasingly, my thoughts are more and more divided from the world-that-is and the world-that-Is, though I miss this in the hurry and bustle of life. (I wrote ‘hurry and burry’, but ‘burry’ refers to having burrs or prickles or pain — and one needs the right kind of prickles.) 

I write of inwardness, not outwardness. I would not trade the outwardness for gold; nor am I dissatisfied with life. I am dissatisfied with my lack of dissatisfaction with my own inwardness.

A birthday – and a facsimile of inwardness.

As I reflect on the state of the world at this time and the rattle of keyboards on digital pages, I see that we have moved beyond the Word. The Word was spoken and lived, but that was not enough. We wrote the Word, pen on page. But that was not enough — even that was too substantial, for it was physical and an imitation of the true existence. So we created the printing press and then the typewriter, distancing ourselves  even further from the Physical Word. But that did not create enough distance — so we created the computer and the keyboard to make words and the Word even more substantial. And so we have arrived at the pinnacle of our attempts to distance ourself from truth — for we can have the word without any actual need to connect it with physical existence. And so — we have the post-truth world.

It was too much to have the Word-made-flesh, so we made it pen, then paper, then zeros and ones — so that we can shut it off and it can be no more, and we can rest smugly in our own superiority, for we have killed without killing and can claim no moral culpability.

I have a voice, but it’s the voice for the wrong Age — and would be a good voice for no age.

We have a plague, and it is not COVID-19: it is a plague in our souls and, like COVID, most of us are asymptomatic and claiming complete health. Rather than masking our tongues and mouths, we breath out on everyone — and are surprised and blame others when they die.

I cannot even begin to connect my external actions with my internal motions. I am in the dissertation phase; I write one paper, and I am decreed and entitled to all the privileges that represents. Yet — inwardly, I have not even begun an elementary education in the ways of the world.

My enthusiasm for the degree makes no sense in reflection, for in reflection, there is nothing in the mirror. Like a creature of darkness, light reveals that there is nothing there.

In the past years, I have moved beyond despair — that is a cause for rejoicing — and despair, because despair compels change and contentedness — the long, good rest.

I fear that I have nothing to say to anyone, for I speak only my own language; like the Greeks who called the northern tribes barbarians (“bar-bar-bar”, they sounded to the Greeks) I open my mouth — and: “Bar-bar-bar”.

What I value seems invaluable to this Age — I attempted to type unvaluable, but my device autocorrects it. Isn’t this like our cultures and friend groups? The moment we try to speak *truly*, we are autocorrected: “You should not say that”, “You cannot say that” to “You will say this” — until we no longer have our own content and type away, not even noticing that the words we wrote are no longer the words we write.

And so we lose even knowledge of ourselves.

Politics: a fool’s game that only a fool would play. Yet aren’t we all fools?

I would, normally, journey to the city, rather than spend the day at home. But sickness leads to health; and isn’t it better to be with family then alone? Perhaps — yet everything has its season. How do I traverse that particular contradiction? 

Few joys like being sung happy birthday by your children in the morning; few joys like being in community; few joys like knowing that your are valued. Yet few needs like the sorrow of being alone; few needs like discovering your insignificance; fews needs like tragedy and loss. One cannot be both a monk and a husband, a priest and a father. In this, the Catholic Church understands a mystery — for contemplation and action, silence and noise, inwardness and outwardness — cannot live in the same home. And yet — they must for us to be whole, and all of existence longs for that completion of action and thought.

I once knew someone who had a cheap dollar-store plaque on her desk that went something like this: “Resistance from others is affirmation that you’re doing the right thing.” Well, no. And yet we believe it and add, with no irony, a second statement: “Affirmation from those that think like us is affirmation that we’re doing the right thing.” — and that is not any closer to the truth, for neither affirmation nor challenge has any bearing on whether we are in the truth.

And so 41: it passes. I type in my garage, transition back into fatherhood, look at the whispering trees and dreary sky and today shakes with the complexity of life. For this year was no different from any other year — we play at its newness, its uniqueness, its challenges. “My God!”  We pray to ourselves. “A year like no other and, lo, if anyone had just listened to me and my side things would be different.” And yet it would not be — for we are just travelers on life’s way and though the road may be rocky here, it will be rocky again; though it may be grass and water for a moment, soon it will be sand; we pass from landscape to landscape and forget that life is loss, life is gain, life is living and dying and pain and joy and though these things rise and fall in intensity — they are ever present. History has given us these challenges before — of plague and injustice and justice and health and will again, until history is no more. 

We live with our current philosophies, gained by the landscape around us — like the Bedouins or Native Americans or Europeans or Modern Americans — forgetting that the landscape and the world around us gives us our philosophies more than thought because we live in a physical world and pretend, unwisely, that our thoughts are our own. 

The Greeks were the Greeks because their geography split them, made travel hard, isolated them in their own minds; the Romans, because their geography allowed them travel and put them at war with those around them; the Mongols because of their plains; the Chinese because of their isolating mountains. In these times, we praise freedom — or argue for systematic injustice — or attack the police — or attack those hurt by the police — or claim to be victims — or claim others are victims — or fight the system — or accept the system — because of the geography around us. 

We look at those people we have chosen to live with, those people who live on our little islands with us and share our thoughts and also believe that the river Nile is a god because it brings us annual life. A decade from now, our geography will have changed and all those who are “wise” — those sophists! — will now have new ideas, but missed that they have changed because they are secret pantheists, unwittingly worshipping the ground that bore them. — even those on the left, even those on the right. 

Only those few that lift their eyes to the sun and do not worship it (not the Son, but the sun as an allegory for truth and meaning and what is real) will find that they may resist the influence of geography; only those will any real connection with the past, with ideas that struggle against all ideas of this Age and the Ages to Come may discover that they have pushed beyond the contingent into something real. And they run the risk of leaving the path and drowning in falsehood, worshipping the wrong thing, falling before idols they do not recognize. But those in the pantheistic present — they will always worship idols. 

Better to die in the wilderness, in search of what is and risk grave error, then to guarantee it, living in this world and these ideas, and the memes and empty babbling of this and all Ages of heathens.

My friends that read this and reach this point in this little essay on thought: I pray that you leave the path in this coming year, as I pray the same for myself.

—A birthday comes and goes, and marks the beginning of the end of a beginning.

Theseus by Plato

A note on the text

Theseus, as named for one of the protagonists of the dialogue, is a newly-discovered dialogue of Plato, in which Socrates encounters two new founders of “schools” in ancient Athens and converses with them on the nature of learning and education. Within it, Plato returns to themes of the nature of virtue and knowledge, as in his Meno and the Republic; in Theseus, Socrates appears to be critiquing two characters’ views. One of them, Piaget, appears to possess what might be described in modern times as a “constructivist” view of education. The other, Dewey, appears to have adopted what might now be called a “behavioralist” view of education. Like most Socratic dialogues, the subtleties of each position are not explored in-depth, but the dialogue provides Socrates an opportunity to explore, though question and answer, his perspective on the topic of education. Plato likely discarded with work as being a bit heavy-handed. It was, likely, written in a pre-doctoral phase of his career. The text was discovered and translated by the author of this site.


Socrates leaves the Agora to examine the establishment of two new schools in Athens. Theseus stands in front of the two new schools; his namesake founded Athens according to Athenian lore and he has known Socrates since his youth.

THESEUS: What’s new, Socrates, that you have left the Agora, to attend to matters outside of the city?

SOCRATES: I have heard tell of new schools being set up on the hill and that the temples to their gods were so remarkable that I had to see it for myself. I imagine that some of these new teachers may create a school as wise and lasting Athens itself.

THESEUS: Yes. Piaget’s temple to Bacchus is quite impressive. One might say that it is as disordered as Dewey’s is ordered.

SOCRATES: You may have heard, Theseus, that the oracle had once deemed me the wisest of men. I have lived my life seeking to either prove or disprove this thought for, though I cannot find any man wiser than myself, I cannot find anyone who can claim to be wise. I thought that, if any were wise, it would be those people who claim to teach.

THESEUS: I wish to participate in this conversation with you, Socrates, as I have a great interest in understanding what a thing teaching is, and how it is done, and how knowledge is acquired.

Piaget approaches Socrates and Theseus, having overhead the conversation. He is dressed in colorful, though mismatching clothing and seems to have the aspect of a man who cares little for conventional thinking.

PIAGET: Well, Socrates, I cannot claim to have heard such a message from the Oracle, but as they say “each to his own eyes”. I have seen no man full of wisdom, either and — I mean it with no respect — inclusive of you as well.

SOCRATES: By the dog, Piaget, you do speak honestly. I wish you would teach me to speak so forthrightly since I often tremble lest my attempts to speak about virtue lead other men astray.

PIAGET: Can there be anything but honesty? Nor do I acknowledge that any man can teach.

SOCRATES: A strange school you have, Gagne, in which teachers do not teach and students do not learn and in which honesty is a thing that can be spoken but not known.

PIAGET: Socrates, I have heard tell that you were a wily one, always twisting words for your own benefit. I never once said that students do not learn. I simply said that teachers do not teach. Do you see the clouds above? Is there any imagery you detect?

SOCRATES: Poor old Aristophanes once wrote a play that claimed that I lived in the clouds. Even so, I prefer to look above the clouds rather than at the clouds. Let me see what I see — ah. I see the shape of a shield.

PIAGET: Ah, but to me, that is a plate; and who are you to argue with me? In this way, Socrates, I cannot call myself a teacher though I can say that my school as students. I may direct their eyes, but they construct the meaning.

Piaget turned as if to go.

SOCRATES: Piaget! To be leaving so soon, as if the conversation had been resolved and we had each run the marathon and arrived in Athens, breathless, with news of a great victory!

PIAGET: This shows how little you know; we cannot run the same marathon, nor can we conclude that there is a great victory, for what may be a victory for you may be a defeat for you.

SOCRATES: But let us please our friend Aristophanes and return to the clouds. Will you not speak with me?


SOCRATES: You say that, like the cloud, learning may take different forms for one person and different forms for another.

PIAGET: Not just different forms, Socrates, but different objects and we cannot know those objects, nor whether we speak of the same thing. Thus I, like you, agree that we cannot properly be said to teach one another.

SOCRATES: Piaget, you must be making fun of me, to claim that we agree in any respect on the education of ones’ soul.

PIAGET: And how would that be, Socrates?

SOCRATES: You attribute to me too little and too much. I would claim to know little, but I know that there is a difference between opinion and knowledge and that knowledge can be possessed by the hearer, though I do not claim that I can give it to them. Ah, here is Meno — Meno, do you recall the slave-boy we questioned, not long ago?

MENO: I do. By the gods, I did not know that a slave could be taught to double the area of a square.

SOCRATES: Meno, you mock me. If you will recall, I spoke with the boy, but he did not know anything about the hypotenuse of a triangle, or the area of a square, or anything like that. Nor did I teach him, as you well recall. He merely recollected what he already knew. I asked him questions, he answered the questions, and he solved the puzzle for himself. This process of asking questions some might call “elenchus”.

In this respect, Piaget, I agree that one cannot teach. At no point did I put knowledge in him; nor do I make claims to be a teacher. I cannot put sight into the eyes of a blind man; a man can, however, direct another man who is in the darkness into the realm of light, though I do not claim wisdom.

PIAGET: So you agree that you cannot put knowledge in the minds of a student?

SOCRATES: Of course, Piaget. Can you reach into the mind of another person and place a picture of a square that doubles the area of another square there? But I do claim that there is definitive knowledge.

PIAGET: And what might that be?

MENO: If I recall, it is “true opinion tethered by reason”.

SOCRATES: Just so, Meno. I had concerns for your mind, after our conversation, but it is clear that you are just as sharp as you have ever been. Piaget, can a circle be a square?

PIAGET: You are trying to trick me.

SOCRATES: Not so! I wish to test your thought that there is no certain knowledge and that what matters is our own thoughts, not their alignment with any truth. Can a circle be a square?

PIAGET: Fine. I will not fail to be consistent, as some of the people you speak with. A circle may be a square, for it depends on how each person defines circle and square.

SOCRATES: But, suppose, that you understand “circle” to mean “a geometric shape in which all points are equidistant from a center point” and square to mean “a geometric shape with four right angles and four equilateral sides”? Can a person believe both?

PIAGET: This is a foolish discussion.

SOCRATES: I claim that they cannot; this is a logical contradiction. Do you reject my claim?

PIAGET: I reject the claim that any individual’s viewpoint is above anyone else’s.

SOCRATES: But that is not the question, dear Piaget. This is a question of whether a mind should logically hold such a contradiction. To deny the law of non-contradiction would make you consistent, but you would deny the validity of my claim, thereby denying your claim that my experience is just as valid as your own; yet to accept it is to claim that there are universal truths that stand outside of our minds.

Dewey, a behavioralist, appears on the hill, following a nicely organized map to the location. He is neatly dressed in patrician garb and appears to, from his straight back and confident bearing, demonstrate considerable confidence in himself. Piaget sighs at the sight of Dewey but appears to be relieved that his conversation with Socrates has been avoided.

DEWEY: Ah, Piaget, you old fool. And Socrates, you sophist! Piaget, have you made your students more silly with your claim that nothing is true and drawn Socrates into your fold? Socrates, have you formed such alliances by arguing that all are equal in the pursuit of knowledge, rather than acknowledging the elevated place of teachers? Come, Socrates, learn from me and I will teach what you wish. I will make you wise. Be warned, however — I will not be fooled by your silly questions, nor your attempts to teach me.

SOCRATES: Dewey, I can see that you are as friendly as your reputation; Piaget, here, seems eager to spend time in your company! Are you telling me that you possess the wisdom that I seek? I do not seek to teach anyone, for I have no claims to wisdom.

DEWEY: Oh, the classic Socratic irony. Yes, I do possess and would teach it to you, unlike you and this fool Piaget who claim that nothing can be taught.

SOCRATES: Tell me, Dewey. What is truth?

DEWEY: Truth is what is possessed by the teacher, not the student; truth is what can be observed in the world and nothing else.

SOCRATES: You must be making fun of me, Dewey.

DEWEY: Why do you say that?

SOCRATES: Because I cannot see your thoughts and so your words compel me to believe that you have thoughts.

DEWEY: Go ahead, laugh, Socrates. Have yourself a fun time.

SOCRATES: But do you deny the existence of thought, which cannot be observed?

DEWEY: It is clear that you do not wish to learn from me. I will not waste my time on you Socrates, playing games. It would take me many days, training you with my words to gain knowledge in the same way that one swats a dog on the nose to train it to relieve itself outside. I have not the time; nor, do you have the money, as you are as famous for your bare feet as you are your bare head.

Dewey leaves. Piaget slumps off.

THESEUS: What, then, do you believe, Socrates, about education?

SOCRATES: I know very little, but I suspect — with good reason — that, as I once told your friend Glaucon, that education is not like putting sight into the eyes of a blind man. Instead, education is like guiding a man with sight from darkness into the light. The best thing for men, I think, is to have conversations like these, about the nature of the true and the good.

And I do believe there is a true and a good and that we may participate in them through reason. As I said to Glaucon and Meno may recall, I am not concerned as much with the things that are in the state of becoming — that is, the shadowed things around us — as the thing itself. That is, I wish to know what virtue, for example, is apart from the various actions that we call virtuous. That thing in itself is independent of the world as we see it and, should I know that, well, then I would truly know something.

THESEUS: But what benefit, Socrates, does this bring to the city? That is, should you found a school, how would this method help the hearers?

SOCRATES: Theseus, you should know better than to think that I would found a school. Even now, you must be aware Meletus slanders me about this. But I have never accepted money from anyone; nor is money or practicality chief of my concerns.

However, the benefits to the city would be numerous, should elenchus and methods be adopted. First, a learner finds truth for himself. Thus, the knowledge is his own rather something owned by another.

Second, as I have said, my method does not separate teacher from student, for we all must discover truth together. As a result, my school — though I deny having one — would encourage activity and reflection rather than the passivity of Dewey’s school.

Third, though I repeat myself, the ultimate destination of our reasoning is truth. As a result, despite what some might claim, doubt is not the ultimate end of my method; rather, it is confidence that true opinion is tethered by reason.

Lastly, though I again make no claim to a teacher, I must confess that this method would improve the youth of the city that would receive it, for my method would train the youth to always ask questions of the world and seek answers that are alignment with truth. Thus, students of this school would be philosophers or lovers of wisdom. What other thing in the world, my dear Theseus, is there better to love?

THESEUS: Would you found this school Socrates? Could you do so? For it seems to me that the polis could benefit from this. Don’t all who are equal in Athens through birth or the gaining of citizenship, have a claim to the vote? Do they not argue, incessantly, in gatherings about the future of Athens and are they not now, even as we speak, being trained by sophists to deceive and win arguments through deception rather than persuasion?

SOCRATES: I could not, Theseus, nor would I want to. Students must come to the truth. If anyone could teach and place knowledge in another’s mind, they would be a god, capable of making and unmaking at will. At best, we are midwives of the truth, guiding and questioning others as they encounter the thing-in-itself themselves. Until I find someone wiser than myself or die, I will continue to view myself as a midwife for truth, always asking questions and following reason toward truth itself. I will not found a school but will continue to speak with anyone who enters my path, testing and seeing if they have the wisdom that I seek.


Boghossian, P. (2006). Behaviorism, constructivism, and Socratic pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 38(6).

Nola, R. (1998). Constructivism in science and science education: A philosophical critique. In M. R. Matthews (Ed.), Constructivism in Science Education (pp. 31–59).

Plato. (2002). Five dialogues (2nd ed.; G. M. A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.

Plato. (2000). The republic (G. R. F. Ferrari, Ed.; T. Griffith, Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Beliefs like Helium Balloons

In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates makes a distinction between knowledge and true opinion. The distinction, he says, is that true opinion is accidental — whereas knowledge is opinion tethered by reason.

What’s the difference, you ask? And why does it matter? And how many different shades of color are there in a night rainbow?

I have no answer for the last question; however, I can offer my knowledge of the first two.

Consider two people:

  1. A consummate guesser, skilled at rolling the dice, who guesses the correct number on the first try and who acts utterly confident in his opinion.
  2. A typical digital denizen who he has digitalized his mind and offloaded much of the burden of remembering information to the internet. When we ask questions like, “How many different shades of color are there in a night rainbow?” He’s able to immediately access that information with a quick Google search. Ah ha! He’s found the answer and says, “Now I know.”

Who is superior? We would say, probably, the second person — he has knowledge of the fact of the matter whereas the first person has at best an opinion and at worst a correct guess.

But suppose another person comes along and says, “Mr. Digital Denizen: can you explain to me why you believe that the night rainbow has that many shades of color? Why should I believe you?” Suppose, too, he went to the consummate guesser and asked the same question. Who would have an answer? Suppose, too, that this person is a clever person, fully capable of making an argument against the number that the two give. Don’t you suppose that they would be frustrated and confused?1

That’s because, as far as Socrates would be concerned, both of them have nothing but true opinion — it just so happens that their knowledge is correct but they have no idea why it is correct. And when we don’t know why something is correct, we lack the ability to defend the truth — even if we have it.

Socrates, on the other hand, defined knowledge as true opinion tethered by reason. Beliefs are like balloons; they often float away and, when challenged, make our voices squeak and pop like a chipmunk.2 What is the reason for Socrates? That’s an entirely different beast for an entirely different time — but it seems to have something to do with connecting known objects of knowledge together in ways that produce clear, distinct, and consistent conclusions.

So why does it matter? It doesn’t unless you like to be the kind of person who is tricked into believing that there are more or less colors in a night rainbow than there actually are. But if you want to want to stay grounded and tethered to the truth, put down your cell phone: memorize facts and figures and know the arguments, not simply the conclusions.

Under Construction

He had not noticed the sign earlier that day — the one that read “road closed, under construction”. He wondered at that but didn’t wonder too much. A man drives up and down the same road for the majority of his life and he begins to not see it. Though, still, it seemed strange — it was his street. He should have seen the problem with the road. He should have noticed the new bumps and lumps, should have smelled the curling asphalt in the summer.

But it was another thing to deal with in a day full of strange things. He’d just been fired. His boss cited the economy, but he knew better. There’d been hints here and there throughout the last month. People in his department being released, subtle conversations that no one seemed to think he noticed. When he was called into his boss’s office, she said to him, “I’m sorry. We’re not seeing the kind of performance that we’re hoping for out of you.”

He didn’t have much to say about that. So he didn’t respond. He grabbed his coat, a few things from his desk, and left the building.

There didn’t seem to be much construction on the road, at least nothing that he noticed. He realized that this might be the case, that the construction might be down the road but not visible right now but the absence of visible construction infuriated him for some reason.

He kept driving and kept thinking. He felt the tension throughout his body — what would he tell his wife, his family, the ones that seemed to think that he had it all together? He knew that he wasn’t going into that career again — not that, not that dog-eat-dog self-hating monster that consumed him for the last fifteen year. And he wasn’t sure who would understand and who would look at him with disgust.

He arrived, parked, and walked through the double-front doors that his wife had workers install shortly after they bought the house.

“Why didn’t you have this done when we bought the house,” he asked her at the time. “The best time to do the work is before we’ve moved in.” But she just shrugged.

“A house is always a work in progress,” she responded.

He took a deep breath at the entrance and went on in. His wife was in the living room, reading a book. “How was your day?” she said. “You’re home early.”

He glanced out of the window and saw the way that the snow clung to the road and then blew away, revealing the cracked and wrinkled asphalt underneath. A few yellow and orange crews wandered up the street, setting up signs and barriers that prevented others from getting in. The road needed work, he thought. Seems time for it to be closed.

“It took longer to get home. The road’s closed,” he said. “It’s under construction.”

In Praise of Underachievers

An Aesthete’s Ode

I’ve talked with numerous students over the years. There are the students who set out to achieve and achieve; those that do not set out to achieve and succeed in not achieving; and those that set out to achieve but underachieve.

It’s the latter class that I have a particular affinity for, as I pity the achievers: what pleasure is life if each desire is satiated? – infinite donuts provides a diminishing return. I pity “ unachievers” as well, since a lack of desire is worse than a satisfaction that blunts the senses.

But the underachievers – ah, the underachievers, the ones who have lofty goals but fail to achieve them or have great potential but fail to live up to it – oh, those I love. What can be more lovely that never achieving the prize? It will forever be beyond reach, never changing, always tantantalizing, always desirable. It will never lose its luster as a result of possession – owning will never diminish its value. It will always be perfect, pristine, lovely.

How I love the underachievers. They, perhaps, are closer than anyone to the true form of beauty – because they never have it to discover its flaws. It will remain perfect forever.

How I love the underachievers. Always desiring, always moving, roaming the sallow plains in search of a prey that cannot be found:

 Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; 
And, happy melodist, unwearied, 
         For ever piping songs for ever new; 
More happy love! more happy, happy love! 
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, 
                For ever panting, and for ever young; 
All breathing human passion far above, 
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, 
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Religion: Me or Us?

Assessing William James’ Definition of Religion

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

-William James, The Variety of Religious Experiences

Is this a good definition of religion? In some respects: a mark of a good definition is to limit the class of things as much as possible. In classic logic, the definition uses a genus and specific difference. The genus is the broad class of things an item belongs to (a banana, for example, is a fruit) and the specific difference is what separates the item from the genus (i.e. being long, yellow, with a soft, sweet pulp). “Feelings, acts, and experiences” seems to be the genus; “of solitary men insofar as they relate to the divine” seems to be the specific difference. As a definition, pure and simple, it is well constructed. It describes a distinctive kind of feeling and act. But as a definition of religion? It seems insufficient and a distinctly individualistic view (I’m inclined to say “distinctly American”).

As Christians know, we are called to be part of a “body”. Insofar as we are not a part, we are not part of Christendom. Islam, too, exists in the context. With the exception of the rare mystics, it is practiced corporately: pray together, worship together, etc. And yet individuals tend to be called to repentance, not church bodies. Our language in service is of individualism and we live and breathe as if the church is unnecessary. In America, there are a shocking number of people who consider themselves Christian but are not regular attendees

I don’t know whether it is the influence of James that has led us to understand religion as radically individualist or whether radical individualism has led us to accept James’ definition. Certainly, the claim that “Christianity isn’t a religion — it’s a relationship” fits William James’ definition by excluding ritual, community, and doctrine and making it about a solitary person’s experience in relationship to the divine.

If we have accepted James’ definition as the definition of religion, however, it is because we are poor readers: James’ book was called the Varieties of Religious Experiences; he was interested in what can be loosely called “mystical” experiences. He was not interested in formal religion and used this “arbitrary” definition for his book. We’d do well to make sure our definitions are clear, precise – and understood.

What do you think? Is his definition a good one?

We’re so Ugly

If only we’d all believe it.

I was a teenager when the grunge movement hit its stride. And I miss it. Not so much the music, as such, but the attitude that stands against the modern self-righteousness and presents a clear view of human nature:

Humans are terrible and that includes me.

Take Nirvana, for instance, and their song “Lithium”. Here’s the verse:

I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ’cause so are you
We broke our mirrors
Sunday mornin’ is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared
Light my candles in a daze ’cause I’ve found God

Note the universal “we” in the chorus and the theme that the “ugliness” extends to both the singer and you. There’s a dual movement to the lyrics. We read him as addressing ourselves as the listener but he’s addressing the friends in his head. Their ugliness is a manifestation of his own ugliness. Unlike twice-baked potatoes which are twice tasty, he’s twice ugly. This ugliness in connection to “Sunday morning'” and “God” point toward a sort of secular doctrine of original sin: “All are fallen and have no hope of glory.”

The lyrics are wonderful because they are both universal and particular, remind us that we’re all in the same boat but “I” am paradoxically worse than you. While depressing, they’re at least inclusive. But when we examine the state of popular thinking on human nature, we reach a claim that looks something like this:

“You are fallen and can only hope to achieve glory by being like me.”

Consider the various hashtag movements and populist slogans. Don’t you get a sense that the ego in the modern world has found its perfection? I don’t want to call out particular movements; far more significant is the underlying thinking that penetrates all areas of society and promises to fragment us even more. As we’ve seen over the last few years, movements come and go — we’ve seen the Tea Party and  Black Lives Matter movements peak and decline. I’m more interested in their attitudes and actions over time. 

It seems to me that new social religions emerge with religious leaders and purification rituals that use hashtags as the blood and body and group protests as a church. These new groups define themselves in terms of opposition to others in terms of ritual and word though perhaps not in their written doctrine. Like most religions, there is a significant gap between intellectual belief and individual passions.

Our new tribalism is exclusive, fervent, and exclusive.  It proclaims that we are holy and you are sinful. But until we can say that we all are ugly, I don’t see much hope for a beautiful world.