Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Philosophical Topic that Most Disorients Young People

Sometimes people give as the aim for liberal arts education things like "to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves." I think these sorts of things are truly ridiculous things to aim for in the context of any kind of college education, as I've argued, but suppose I were to take this as my goal in a philosophy course? What would I have to teach? What is the topic that has come up in my courses so far that has most consistently and most clearly had these effects? Neoplatonism. Nothing, nothing at all that I have ever taught, generates as much controversy and distress as Neoplatonism.

If you just look very briefly and vaguely Neoplatonism, students just think it's weird. But start getting into details, when they start to realize that the weirdness is heavily argued, at great length, by arguments to which they often have no ready answer at all, and things change. I have had -- and I mean this quite literally -- students freak out, try to shout me down, or storm out. Fortunately those are not hugely common, but I have had all of them happen. There's no other topic that more consistently gets students arguing so intensely that it becomes difficult to keep them from all arguing at once. When people say that liberal arts, or philosophy, should challenge students' beliefs, they usually mean religious beliefs. I tell you true, if you really want to challenge the actual beliefs your students have, go over Plotinus's arguments for the One, or Boethius's argument in Book III of the Consolation of Philosophy that all human beings naturally seek the Good, which is God, which the One, and that true happiness consists in being God -- not being godlike, being God -- or even just go into detail into the Divided Line and how Neoplatonists argue for various things that Plato represents by means of it.

And surprising as it might be, I think it's less of a surprise if you think about it: it really is radically different than anything most people are taught, but if you actually get into it, it is very tightly argued. It's alien to almost all the obvious features on which modern man congratulates himself for being reasonable about -- and it attacks these very features as not merely unreasonable but irrational, with arguments that modern people usually have never even thought of, and so have no defenses against. They can wave their empiricism, or whatever, at it, and it will look at them sardonically and proceed to eat their arguments. And why wouldn't it, really? Most of them have been building their philosophical views of the world by patchwork and piecemeal over a couple of decades; it doesn't really matter whether Neoplatonism is true or false, they're not going to have anything that can compete with any of the major examples of a philosophical approach that spanned centuries of intense and systematic philosophical discussion, ate most of its competitors, and spread itself through vast numbers of cultures from Spain to Persia. It's a mighty dragon, Neoplatonism, mighty enough to mock their assumptions as ridiculous. And never having come across the full thing, they don't have many weapons against it. Of course, that's all a melodramatic way of putting it; but really getting into Neoplatonism is generally like taking students through the looking-glass into a world they've never imagined.

Yes, I am currently teaching Neoplatonism (Boethius and Plotinus on happiness) in one of my classes. Fortunately, no shout-downs or storm-outs with this class, but not a small amount of controversy, either -- very good and sometimes intense discussion.

If you teach philosophy, what topic do you find most disorients students? Or, if you've had a philosophy class, what topics did you (or your class) find most disorienting?


  1. For me, the one-two punch of the Apology and the Gorgias is all it takes to completely mess with their minds. They want to dismiss Socrates as an arrogant no-it-all, but when the opposite is proven true, they simply do not what to do with the fact that they find themselves siding with Pollus and Callicles, and find themselves succumbing to Socrates's arguments the same way they do. Beyond not being equipped to argue against someone who says they know there is truth, but not whether they have it (which they have been taught to instinctively think that the only hope truth has in existing is if we have it first), the point (which of course Boethius picks up) that the best cure for wickedness is punishment, or the plover/sieve/cattamite argument against Callicles usually leaves them stumped...not that they don't understand it, but they know its different from anything they have heard (even kids who believe in "truth" only do so for fidiestic "faith" arguments) and they do not know how to respond!

  2. Sorry, "know-it-all" is what I meant! I shouldn't type things like this so late...

  3. branemrys10:49 AM

    I teach the Gorgias in almost every intro, and you're right that it can throw them for a loop.

  4. The unfolding pattern of the W12:04 AM

    If you ask me, the most mind expanding thing I came across was not from college, but from my myself. The question:

    1.. Why is there something, rather than nothing?


    2. Why are things the way they are?

    The second subsume the first. It is a question that Einstein think about it, when he asked "could things have been different?". We humans comes to this world, and all we see, or face is either the arbitrariness of existence, things that is, but could have failed to be, like Obama being the president of the US and things that could not have been otherwise, like mathematical truths, and conceptual truths.

  5. Enbrethiliel5:42 AM


    Sold! How do I sign up for this class???

  6. branemrys6:03 AM

    That would be a bit of a commute!

  7. d Kim8:58 PM

    I thought it was quite punny... I'll show myself out.

  8. Brandon,

    Somewhat related here, I'm reading Boethius for the first time and have a question about Book IV of the Consolation. The conclusion that all fortune is good fortune -- and every instance of "bad" fortune merely an instrument for discipline, correction, or punishment -- struck me as sounding like the friends of Job in its extreme optimism. Is there a tension with the orthodox Christian understanding here? Though we could never know God's plan in full, it sounds like Boethius is saying that every act of suffering is calculated to have some hidden meaning for our lives that we might in theory discern (and to that extent no suffering is really bad or unjust).

    Maybe it's the translation, or (more likely) I'm missing the sense in which his distinctions are being drawn, or (most likely) I'm just not thinking through the implications clearly.


  9. branemrys11:25 PM

    Hi, mj,

    In one common modern interpretation of the Consolation, that given by Relihan, for instance, slight (but not major) tensions with orthodox Christian understanding would be allowed -- the book is a Menippean satire, so it involves taking something that deserves respect, like Philosophy, and exploring its limitations. In this interpretation, Philosophy gets you close, but it fails to get you all the way.

    If, however, we take the traditional interpretation that, insofar as any satire is going on, it is the character Boethius rather than Philosophy whose limitations are being explored in the book, then we'd need an interpretation that would make sense of the issue. The discipline 'training' branch is very likely being taken more broadly than you are reading it -- Philosophy actually denies that all bad fortune is a punishment; it can be an opportunity, namely, to practice and display virtue. The reason for this is not that it has a hidden meaning, but the opposite -- what bad fortune does for you depends on how you react to it. If it does follow from something wrong you did, and you react well, it corrects you. If it follows from something wrong you did, and you react badly, it punishes you. If it doesn't follow from any wrong you did, and you react well, it trains you. And if it doesn't follow from any wrong you did, and you react badly, it punishes you, this time for reacting badly. But the argument is indeed that no suffering is really bad or unjust except incidentally.

    I suppose any tension might also be resolved on the other side. Almost all the medievals read the message of Job to be different from the way it is fashionable to read it now: they take Job's friends to err not in claiming that suffering is corrective, which they take Job, Elihu, and God in the story to accept, but in claiming that the primary scene for correction is this life, so that in this life there is a rigorous proportion.They then repeatedly misunderstand Job's denial of this. Job's repentance at the end was read not as a confession of having been wrong in the debate, but as a confession that he had not shown proper respect for God and that it was an error to treat the matter as something that could be fully understood on purely philosophical grounds. This gives a rather different understanding of Job than the one we usually find today.

  10. branemrys11:25 PM

    BTW, what translation are you using?

  11. Brandon,

    Thanks for the commentary. I got the feeling Boethius was speaking of "training" in a broader sense than first struck me and your explanation helps clarify. I do recall Philosophy's couching the issue in the context of reaction to fortune, so that's a good point to keep in mind. Maybe it was the strength of the language that first threw me, but I doubt that had anything to do with the translation. I just finished reading the Watts.

  12. In my freshman year of college a professor went into a tangent about materialism and the mind, and it made me want to hide under my bed. Have been gun-shy about taking a formal philosophy course since--I want way more time to process and ponder these often terrifying ideas than a college term allows.

  13. Jimbo J4:13 PM

    What are some good introductory texts if one wishes to read more into Neoplatonism?

  14. branemrys7:02 PM

    For general background, Pierre Hadot's What Is Ancient Philosophy? is good. Hadot's Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision is pretty good for Plotinus; Kevin Corrigan's Reading Plotinus is a handy selection of Plotinus texts with fairly detailed commentary. For Boethius, Relihan's The Prisoner's Philosophy is pretty good, especially if read in tandem with Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (which itself is practically an introduction to Neoplatonism). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a handy introductory article, and the SEP has a few useful introductory articles on some major figures, like Plotinus or Porphyry.

    The main difficulty with Neoplatonism is that it is not a specific set of doctrines but a broad approach; different Neoplatonists take it in different directions, and although there are always significant overlaps, they can change depending on which thinkers you have in view. And there are a lot of Neoplatonists who are under-studied, so that most of what's been written on them is fairly technical rather than introductory.

  15. branemrys7:05 PM

    I think the Watts translation is one that I haven't looked at closely; I usually use Relihan's translation (in the Hackett edition) for classes.

    One thing I didn't note above was that Boethius is pretty clearly adapting the argument of Book IV from Plato's Gorgias; it's a more generalized version of the same argument that Socrates gives against Polus.


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