Plato sat down to write The Apology, as an explanation of the life and work of his mentor and friend Socrates. Socrates was a rather insistent chap who managed to get up the collective noses of the Athenian elite by asking pretty straightforward questions that had suspiciously tricky answers. In asking generals what the nature of courage was, he found that they had a sense of the idea, but were completely incapable of explaining it, so did they in fact know what it was at all? The fact that Socrates had a habit of doing this kind of thing in public didn’t help his case, no one likes to be embarrassed and proud generals are especially sensitive about being shown up in public, so Socrates was not making friends and influencing the right people. In 399 they accused him of corrupting the minds of the young, he refused to change his ways or accept that he was responsible for any wrongdoing. He paid the ultimate price for his refusal to reform. Plato records him as saying that the unexamined life was not worth living. By this one surmises that he meant a life of reasoned analysis that allows us to live fulfilled because we are knowingly making decisions, living authentically and without fear of ignorance is the only life worth living. 

It is fair to say that Plato was as confined in his thinking as anyone might be, the enlightened idea of self-examination and application of reasoned analysis to living fails him in the light of what we would consider acceptable today. Plato happily endorses slavery, the rule of a benign dictator who banishes literature and poetry to the fringes holding that only certain people should have equal access to society. Plato was a prisoner of his time, his thinking was limited by his experience and context. Thomas Kuhn would write centuries later of scientific discovery moving in a series of paradigm shifts, where preceding science is fixed in a bubble-like state of self-congratulation or at least satisfaction with itself, thinking it has understood nature. This bubble is burst with new discoveries and the cycle begins again. We are all and Plato certainly was, a victim of his own paradigm. How secure then is Plato’s contention that the unexamined life is not worth living? Was he so secure in his paradigm that his lack of awareness of what we would call a fair and just society went unexamined or was it even examinable for him? Did he have the capacity, the language or the understanding of the nature of humanity that would have allowed him to make this judgement fairly? In our own circumstances, can we?

On Monday night last, over 70 guests from school and from our feeder schools heard from Simon Blackburn in the opening event of our Humanities Week. I mentioned Simon in last weeks’ scribbling, former Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and the author of a vast series of books on Philosophy in general and Meta-ethics in particular. We looked at the nature of God and divinity. One aspect that didn’t come up is the central question of how we might think about a reality which believers contend is so different in quality to ourselves. The second is how useful is language to develop such thinking? I wonder if there are certain ‘realities’ that we cannot express in words, after all who made language or for that matter ‘reason’ the arbiter of what might be? Are there concepts in quantum physics where the language we use to describe them is at best an approximation? Maybe this is where the poets and artists pop up as helpful. Does Art present or give us access to notions that are restricted by language? Remember if language is a tool, it may not be best suited to all purposes. It may be more akin to the way a multi-tool is helpful, but no one will be eating steak and carving a piece of wood with the same knife. A spoon will help you eat the beans but is less helpful in extricating them from the tin. So language may not be best suited to illuminating some aspects of the human condition.

Simon was asked at one point about the role of Philosophy in education, with the varying pressures on children and the nature of examinations in a post Govian world, some subjects are being pushed to the edges of curriculum development e.g. Art, Drama and Music (to be fair Philosophy has never had any specific airtime unless Heads gave it some). He suggested that in fact to live a fulfilled life Philosophy should be the centre of the curriculum and Mathematics and Physics and the like might be moved aside to allow it.

There is something in what Simon says and not just because he has a vested interest. A society with a high level of technical expertise may be a soulless one. The Wannsee architects of the Final Solution were all highly intelligent and technically able. Their work was repulsive and leaves an indelible scar on what might be called the myth of progress. How can we speak of human progress in the shadow of Auschwitz? But they were well educated or at least they had been to good universities and had excellent qualifications. Education failed them in the one aspect that makes any difference; their understanding of themselves and the responsibility they have for others.

We philosophise with the children in the Prep and through the Senior School. The subversive role Philosophy plays subverts egos, calls pomposity to account and if it doesn’t speak truth to power at least it questions the basis of that power. Through the application of reason, it attempts to continually define what is worthwhile, what is important and as we move through our various paradigms, to continually ask the beguiling questions that make life worth living.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS)


Back to News