Evil and and the Problem of Education I

The problem of evil has roots stretching back over two millenia. Here we will consider the issue of how to prepare the youth for both their lives in general and the problem of evil when they inevitably encounter it. Whether one considers evil a privatio boni as Augustine did, or one thinks man is by nature evil, or even if one sees evil in the smallest of everyday things, evil is a subject which invariably comes up in one’s life and therefore must be considered if one plans to educate the youth justly.

We begin the the end of Plato’s Republic.

“But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our accusation–the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed), is surely an awful thing.

Yes, certainly, if the effect is what you say.

Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast–the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most…”(Plato’s Republic Bk X 605c-d)

Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, here indicts poetry for the fact that a student who is exposed to an event, emotion, or circumstance which “stirs [his] feelings” may not be emotionally equipped to handle it. The claim is that one will empathize or sympathize with the suffering of a hero, or perhaps even a villain, and that in sympathizing or feeling the emotion of such a character, one’s natural reason will be overcome, and one’s emotional part of the soul will overrule the rational part ( See Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul here.).

It is unclear, at first, just precisely what the trouble is with exposing the youth to poetry and the arts, at least given Plato’s trepidation above. Yes, clearly, they will perceive events which are at the first unsavory, vexing, and generally causative of strong emotion. But is not the point of a youth watching or reading Oedipus Tyrannus to see the consequences of one’s actions, overbearing pride and its price, and the after-effects (generally negative) of strong emotions? Do not presentations of the faults and decisions of others better equip the young for their own lives–and the decisions they will have to make, under duress and otherwise?

Plato’s point thus seems a bit too dramatic at first, but as he continues, one sees what he is really driving at.

“If you consider, I said, that when in misfortune we feel a natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under control in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the poets;-the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s; and the spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in praising and pitying any one who comes telling him what a good man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious and lose this and the poem too?Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own…”(Ibid 606b)

What an enigmatic paragraph Plato has spun for us above. He suggests that the evil endured and done by characters in plays or poems, not-to-mention in real life, has an effect on those who witness or receive such evil. Let that really sink in for a moment, because it is a radical claim. Plato is therefore suggesting that if one perceives evil at all that one has therefore received evil into one’s being. This must be considered to some extent, because if evil may be received simply by being witnessed, then it would seem that Plato would be correct by suggesting the children and students should not be exposed to evil in books, poems, and plays. There is a part of the quote, above, which appears to be something of a linchpin and may help us better interpret Plato’s claim: “the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s.” What exactly does this caveat add to the situation?

In the quote above, Plato is not suggesting that if one is exposed to evil that one will by necessity become evil. He is saying that if one’s “better nature” “[has not been] sufficiently trained by reason or habit” that one will allow evil into one’s self and possibly be corrupted by it. What exactly does this mean? This means that one’s character must have been trained to pursue virtue and excellence and that one’s mind must be trained in the use and habit of reasoning before being exposed to evil according to Plato. In so being disposed towards excellence and excellent acts (and habits), and by having the discernment necessary to recognize the difference between good and evil, one will therefore be conferred not an evil, but a good from the perception of evil in a medium. But when is a student truly ready to confront this task, and who has the Rhadamanthian judgment necessary to make such a decision? Let us observe Plato’s solution before deciding.

“Therefore, Glaucon, I said, whenever you meet with any of the eulogists of Homer declaring that he has been the educator of Hellas, and that he is profitable for education and for the ordering of human things, and that you should take him up again and again and get to know him and regulate your whole life according to him, we may love and honour those who say these things –they are excellent people, as far as their lights extend; and we are ready to acknowledge that Homer is the greatest of poets and first of tragedy writers; but we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure, andd pain will be the rulers in our State.” (Ibid 606e-607a)

When I present the quote above to freshmen students, their eyes almost roll out of their heads. They exclaim, “Mr. Schmid, that is SO stupid,” and then they continue on to list the number of virtues present in Homer’s work: perseverance, practical-cunning, marital fidelity (in Penelope’s case), and endurance. That actually happens. They make fun of Elpenor (who fell off Circe’s roof drunk), despise traitors like Dolon and Melanthios, and frequently they even perceive Achilleus as something of a “cry-baby”. The students themselves are insulted by the notion that they might not be able to recognize the difference between bad and good–noble, and ignoble. Clearly, they, like Meno, struggle with the finer aspects of the definition–but few do not in my experience of asking–but the students raise a salient point: if they do not encounter evil sooner or later in their education, would they not at some point still encounter it in their lives?

This point weighs heavy. For during the course of the life of a student, regardless of the fact that today there are far worse portrayals of evil than Homer and Sophocles, a student will by necessity encounter vice, evil, and wrongness regardless of his or her ability to define these words and their accompanying feelings. The difference, however, between encountering evil alone in the world or through some other media, is that in a classroom there is an older, usually wiser, guide present to instruct and guide the young through such situations with the help of literature. And this guided experience offers some serious value before students encounter situations less fictional and moderated in their lives.

The perception of evil through some medium, Homer’s Odyssey, for example, may leave some residuum in the mind and being of a student, true. But in the great calculus of weighing potential good vs. potential bad, and this question is far more practical than it is theoretical, one must ask one’s self: would one prefer a student prepared for evil, having engaged with it in thought, or would one prefer to hope, especially in this world, that a student will never encounter evil? If one does hold this hope, when is it exactly that a student’s intellect and character will have been formed enough to confront the temptations of seductive and nefarious evil? This is a decision all parents and teachers must make.

Perhaps the decision will be easier if we let Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic philosopher, have the last word on the value of an education including a poet who illustrates good alongside evil, or life, as we call it:

“From the very earliest infancy young children are nursed in their learning by Homer, and swaddled in his verses we water our souls with them as though they were nourishing milk. He stands beside each of us as we start out and gradually grow into men, he blossoms as we do, and until old age we never grow tired of him, for as soon as we set him aside we thirst for him again; it may be said that the same limit is set to both Homer and life.” (Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 1.5-7)