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Philosophy of Education

The Education of the Soul: The Platonist Tradition and the Ordering of Knowledge

Brian K. Etter
Kettering University

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ABSTRACT: I argue that the contemporary crisis in education — that nothing appears valid as a discipline unless it has a utilitarian value — may be challenged from the perspective of the Platonist tradition. The ascent through philosophy to the vision of Beauty in itself in Plato's Symposium affirms the perception of beauty or nobility as the ultimate end and value of all knowledge. Marsilio Ficino's adaption of Plato in the Renaissance articulates a more metaphysical ascent which broadens the objects of knowledge in order to include the cosmos and the arts as well as philosophy. Together, these two accounts provide a foundation for understanding the ordering of all knowledge toward the end of the perception of beauty or nobility. There is no dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities: there is only a hierarchy of disciplines according to a scale of metaphysical nobility. The sciences, the arts, history, and philosophy are the steps toward knowledge of Beauty in itself. They constitute a vision of liberal education that is not utilitarian, but whose value must be understood precisely through the moral concept of nobility that is the end of such an education. In embracing the concept of beauty or nobility, liberal education affirms the value of life itself.

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The task of education today is beset increasingly by utilitarian pressures. Mathematics and the sciences seem to be of little interest in themselves, valued only for the Cartesian goal of making humanity the "masters and possessors of nature." (1) The arts are despised, and history and literature simply dismissed—for these require not only reading with care, but the perception of significance within the daunting context known as "civilization." (2) Within this discouraging picture, philosophy emerges relatively unscathed: students do seek answers to life's important questions. Of course, they are disappointed to discover that philosophy has more questions than answers, and that there is no answer which has not been disputed. Nevertheless, they approach the subject in the same spirit as traditional philosophical inquiry. In this spirit, then, it is appropriate to seek an answer to the question, What is the value of education? Indeed, this question presupposes an answer to an even more basic one: What is education?

It is difficult to articulate responses to these questions. Can liberal education today be really non-utilitarian, as it was for Aristotle, motivated by pure curiosity and a concern for excellence? (3) Such a response has the merit of joining battle directly with the modern mentality, but it presupposes the system of moral and intellectual virtues as defining human excellence. On the other hand, it is impossible to follow the classical tradition and find a moral value in literature and the fine arts without drawing critical distinctions regarding the moral value of particular works. This, however, has long been foreclosed by the Kantian doctrine of the autonomy of aesthetic judgment. (4) In any case, it is unclear what might be the source of moral judgment in the modern world; the classical concept of virtue presupposed both a concept of the soul and a concept of citizenship in a particular locality. (5) All three concepts have largely disappeared in the modern world. But traditionally education was a "leading-out" of the soul from ignorance and confusion to knowledge and understanding—in both moral and intellectual matters. Such a task of education must appear quaint, even inconceivable, in a world in which the human being is defined neither by intellectual nor by moral capacities. Hence the modern problem of defining the value of education.

It is precisely the preoccupation with the modern, however, together with the unquestioning acceptance of present conditions, which creates the problems besetting education in the first place. It is necessary to insist on the relevance of traditional understandings of the soul, citizenship, and knowledge, if we are to have any hope of making sense of education in the modern world. The Platonist tradition, in particular, is essential for ordering the liberal arts and sciences toward an end which accounts for their value and gives each branch of learning an appropriate and esteemed place. The end which education pursues is not a utilitarian one on the Platonist view, but it entails both moral and intellectual effects for citizens, for the soul is both moral and intellectual in nature. The soul is led out of moral confusion as well as intellectual ignorance by the quest for the good and noble and beautiful. One seeks knowledge of what one loves; the crucial question, then, is what one ought to love. If the Platonic idea of the good or noble or beautiful is unfamiliar to the modern mentality, that fact is an important clue to the crisis of education today. It is the idea of nobility which most urgently requires recapturing. With it, the value of education in both the humanities and the sciences falls into place.

Plato's Symposium is a crucial text for the vision of the love of knowledge being ordered by the love of the noble. What I call here "the noble" is usually translated as "beauty"; the Greek word is kallos, which could mean either a physical or moral beauty. Indeed, Plato uses the adjectival form (kalon) both ways. Hence, the English word "noble" comes closest to capturing the ambiguity of the original Greek. The perception of beauty begins, for Plato, in the perception of bodily beauty. But through Diotima's speech it is clear that one "must believe beauty in souls to be more precious than beauty in the body," so that perception of the former should lead to an overcoming of the love of physical beauty. (6) This beauty in the soul is, of course, a matter of virtue, so that the moral sense of "nobility" becomes the overriding sense of kallos, or beauty.

One is then "compelled to contemplate the beauty in our pursuits and customs, and to see that all beauty is of one and the same kin"—by which Plato emphasizes the dignity of the life of the citizen in the city. This world, however flawed, is good enough to be worth loving; practices, institutions, and laws and customs are noble because they constitute the essential framework for the moral development of the soul. Thus, their beauty is of the same kind as the beauty of the individual soul, and it is worth perceiving and knowing precisely because the moral beauty of individuals is worth perceiving and knowing. But to know and understand this world in all its complexity—even if it is the relatively small world of one city—is to take a step beyond purely personal acquaintance into the realm of objectivity.

Next, one "must be led from practice to knowledge, that he may see again the beauty in different kinds of knowledge"—by which Plato means all the branches of philosophy, mathematics, and (as we would say) the sciences. This is the realm of abstraction, of the search for first principles of knowledge, and of the drawing of conclusions from those principles. It is the realm which seems so mysterious today, because it is not utilitarian. Indeed, it reaches its completion in the vision of "beauty as a whole," not remaining in singular instances. "The whole" is the true object of knowledge; nothing makes sense if isolated and studied by itself. This is why modern education, fragmented into jealously guarded disciplines and approached by means of a smorgasbord of courses, is incapable of making sense to students. Only a systematically integrated body of knowledge will possess the requisite coherence and completeness.

Nevertheless, even knowledge of the whole is not the absolutely final end. The ultimate vision of beauty is of Beauty in itself, which is everlasting and unchanging. It shows itself not as residing in anything, "but being by itself with itself always in simplicity." This is Plato's version of a beatific vision, and it is essential to completing the apprehension of beauty. We might say rather that it is the apprehension of nobility in itself, which cannot be described except in terms usually reserved for describing God. The unity, simplicity, and immutability of Nobility or Beauty in itself guarantee the unity, harmony, and stability of the complexity of knowledge of the whole. The attainment of this vision—which is an intellectual vision—is the goal of all learning and of all the contemplation of specific instances and forms of beauty. Although all levels of beauty are loved, Beauty in itself is loved most purely and orders all other forms of beauty by their intellectual purity. To insist on a utilitarian end of knowledge is to deny the essence of the Noble.

The contemplation of beauty at any level, however, is not a narcissistic vision for Plato. There is always a result which comes out of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake: to "beget beautiful speeches." Once one perceives that beauty of souls is better than physical beauty, one should "beget and seek such talks as will make young people better," and once one turns to seeking knowledge of the whole in philosophy, one should "give birth to many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts in the abundance of philosophy." In other words, the sharing of a philosophical education is the consequence of the love of the noble. But this entails first moral, then intellectual dimensions, for both are required in leading up to the love of the noble. The education of the soul is in both virtue and knowledge with understanding.

Plato's vision of the unity of all knowledge seems inapplicable today, however, in large part because of the sense of a fundamental division between the humanities and the sciences. This has been a fact of life since the Renaissance; indeed, the concept of the studia humanitatis as well as the foundations of modern science were products of the Renaissance. (7) Yet Platonism was an essential element of the Renaissance: the revival of interest in Plato due to the work of Marsilio Ficino helped to make Platonism a significant part of the history of philosophy through the nineteenth century. Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium, in particular, calls into question the propriety of dividing knowledge into two separate and competing realms. Instead, by placing Plato's philosophy within the context of Christian theology, Ficino enables the Noble to be understood more concretely, and by ordering beauty according to a clear hierarchy of being, Ficino provides a foundation for a complete account of all kinds of non-utilitarian knowledge.

For Ficino, beauty is the shining forth of God's goodness. "Beauty is a certain act or ray from it penetrating through all things: first into the Angelic Mind, second into the Soul of the whole, and other souls, third into Nature, fourth into the Matter of bodies." (8) In the Angelic Mind are found the Platonic Ideas, the objects of philosophical knowledge; in the World-Soul and in the souls and minds of people are found what he calls "Reasons," which are the customs, arts, and disciplines, that is, the discursive steps out of which human knowledge is constructed. (9) What he later calls "the third face of God," however, is the beauty of the World, perceived "through the incorporeal light of the sun." This is the beauty of Matter, or "the whole order of the world." (10) In terms of Ficino's original hierarchy, this should have been the fourth level, for he identifies matter as that which receives the Forms, which are the fourth image of God's goodness. Here, however, he omits Nature and shifts the Forms to third place, for by "Nature" he simply means the power of reproduction, having no beauty particular to itself. But if we understand Matter to represent the cosmos itself as the context of human life, as justified by Ficino's's discussion of the astrological effects of the planetary gods, (11) then we may say that the beauty of the order of the cosmos is the beginning of the perception of beauty. This is the justification for the study of the physical sciences.

Ficino, however, is most concerned with the kinds of beauty which are the objects of personal knowledge. He distinguishes three kinds: "a true and excellent habit of soul," a beautiful body, and "a harmony of sounds." (12) Thus virtue, visible shape and color, and musical melody are the fundamental forms of beauty for the human experience; these might well be taken as substituting for the beauty of Nature, Ficino's original third level of the reflection of God's goodness. Ficino emphasizes that in each case beauty is incorporeal; virtue is clearly a spiritual quality, a state of character perceived through words and deeds. But the beauty of the body is "act, vitality, and a certain grace shining in itself through the influence of its own Idea," and this cannot exist without what he calls the "preparation" of the body in ordered arrangement, harmonious proportion, and suitable shape and color. Similarly, the beauty of a musical melody depends on there being scales with clear intervals and pure pitches. (13) Both the physical beauty of a person and the aural beauty of a piece of music, however, consist not in these "preparations," but in the intangible sense of liveliness, charm, or grace. This is the beauty of the human world, the beauty of human nature.

The beautiful is what is loved, and it is human nature to seek knowledge of what one loves already in an imperfectly known way, so that the love may grow and become complete. (14) Ficino's discussion of beauty, therefore, provides grounds for a more thorough understanding of the ordering of the objects of knowledge than Plato had given. Ficino's ranking suggests that knowledge of all the means by which humanity seeks beauty is essential for ascending to philosophical knowledge of the Ideas. This ascent is grounded in an understanding of the ordering of the world as a whole—that is, knowledge of the cosmos—and leads up to an understanding of the goodness of God. The goodness discerned in this world, though mixed with evil, helps us to understand the Author of all good. Philosophical knowledge of the Ideas—the pure essences of things—clarifies the confusion inherent in the world of contingency.

The beauty of human nature, then, becomes a vital category in the ascent from knowledge of the cosmos to knowledge of the Ideas. This beauty is specifically the subject of what has since come to be called "the arts." (15) As we have seen, Ficino himself recognizes music as exhibiting one manifestation of beauty. His contemporary, Leon Battista Alberti, also cast painting and architecture as arts by which humanity seeks beauty, defining beauty in painting as "elegant harmony and grace in bodies" and beauty in architecture as "a form of sympathy and consonance of the parts within a body...as dictated by concinnitas," or elegance and harmony of style. (16) Alberti's dual emphasis on harmony and grace in beauty resembles Ficino's concept of grace shining through the harmonious material "preparation"; Alberti's phrasing dominated the subsequent architectural tradition, but Ficino's influenced the art of painting in the works of Lomazzo and Poussin. (17) Finally, the beauty of the soul is precisely the subject of the literary tradition from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century: the rise of the novel as the genre of character study was made possible by the conviction that virtue matters, and the outpouring of lyric poetry in the same period was a product of the beauty perceived in inward feeling. (18) Thus, Ficino's concept of human beauty accounts for the importance of the arts as means by which the nobility of the human world is made known. To perceive genuine beauty in literature and the fine arts is to know the good in life.

Ficino's second-ranked category of knowledge, the Reasons, corresponds to Plato's discussion of the beauty of pursuits and customs: that is, the nobility of the life of the city. Here we may prefer Plato to Ficino's vagueness: the life of the city encompasses all that comprises civilization. Thus the state and its history become the central objects of knowledge at this level of inquiry. The world of human becoming has a dignity that must be respected in spite of its tentative and transient character, for it is the essential context for any individual life. As Aristotle puts it, man is a political animal, seeking the highest good in political community ordered by the bond of justice. (19) But any state has its history, its peculiar institutions and customs being formed by the activity of human reason operating in the context of the accidents of historical contingency. The power of historical memory is suspect to the modern world, yet the record of misery produced by the revolutions which have sought to disregard historical traditions ought to leave little doubt of the necessity of both knowledge and respect of the past. Change is inevitable; the political community is the one rock of stability humanity can maintain. Without a knowledge of history, the state itself will dissolve, and either chaos or brute force will rule. The value of historical knowledge, therefore, lies not in maintaining any particular regime, but in understanding the nobility of political order in itself and in its contingent manifestations. One need not follow Hegel completely in believing that all that happens in history is ultimately rational. (20) But the history of the state is the record of human rationality struggling to maintain order against the dominance of cruel passions and to seek justice in spite of the difficulties in defining what is just. It is with good reason, then, that Ficino identifies this kind of knowledge in Plato's hierarchy with an understanding of the Reasons in the World-Soul and in humanity.

The place of philosophy in education becomes clear in the light of the ascent from knowledge of order in the cosmos to the knowledge of beauty in literature and the arts to the knowledge of nobility in the history of political order. Philosophy seeks to understand precisely these concepts in themselves: order, virtue, beauty, justice, and nobility. These are the standards by which to judge the world of becoming. They must be discerned in the first place through an understanding of the world—the cosmos, civilization, and culture—yet any critical examination of the history of human inquiry reveals the necessity of sorting out the less perfect concepts from the more perfect. Thus one arrives at a dialectical knowledge of the Ideas of order, virtue, beauty, and justice. The Ideas are not so transcendent as to be divorced from human reality and knowledge; on the contrary, they inform the world in which humanity lives and furnish the standards of judgment for the world. These Ideas, in turn, point to the Idea of the Good or the Noble in itself—or in religious language, God. Without the intuitive grasp of the concept of nobility, none of the specific forms of nobility such as virtue, beauty, and justice makes any sense. Thus the Noble is both the completion of knowledge and the source of unity of beauty in the world as a whole.

The Platonist tradition, therefore, provides a coherent explanation of the value of all the liberal arts and sciences as essential to the understanding of the world in which we live. At the same time, it orders the specific disciplines of inquiry according to the standard of nobility or beauty, which is at all levels of inquiry the real object of knowledge. The knowledge that matters is in the deepest sense non-utilitarian, but it is not irrelevant. The sciences, the arts, history, and philosophy are essential to the educated person; these all attest to the nobility or goodness of existence. Such knowledge is what makes life worth living intellectually, for to love its beauty is to love life itself.

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(1) Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), Discourse 6, p. 62 of the standard Adam and Tannery edition, Oeuvres de Descartes (Paris: 1897-1910).

(2) See especially Jacques Barzun, "Exeunt the Humanities," in The Culture We Deserve, ed. A. Krystal (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 109-19.

(3) Aristotle, The Politics, Book VIII, 2, 1337b 15-20.

(4) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Part I, Book 1,52, makes "disinterestedness" fundamental to the judgment of the beautiful.

(5) See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), especially pp. 219-20.

(6) The passage analyzed in this and the following paragraphs is Plato's Symposium 210-211d. The English translation is by W.H.D. Rouse, in Great Dialogues of Plato (New York: New American Library, 1956), pp. 104-106. The speaker is Diotima, as reported by Socrates.

(7) On the studia humanitatis, which included grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy, and history, see Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts, rev. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 1-19.

(8) Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love, trans. and ed. Sears Jayne (Woodstock, Conn.: Spring Publications, 1985), II .5, p. 51.

(9) Ibid. VI. 12, p. 132; VII. 13, p. 169.

(10) Ibid. V. 4, pp. 89-91. Cf. Plotinus, The Enneads IV, 8 for this hierarchy.

(11) Ficino, Commentary VI. 4, p. 112.

(12) Ibid. V. 2, p. 86. Pulchritudo is Ficino's word for "beauty."

(13) Ibid. V. 6, pp. 93-94.

(14) Ibid. VII. 15, p. 172.

(15) On this development, see Kristeller, "The Modern System of the Arts," in Renaissance Thought and the Arts, pp. 163-227.

(16) Alberti, On Painting, trans. Cecil Grayson, ed. Martin Kemp (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 71; On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Rykwert, Leach, and Tavernor (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), p. 303.

(17) See the selections in Elizabeth G. Holt, ed., A Documentary History of Art, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 2: 74-86, 141-46.

(18) On the importance of narrative, see MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 215-16.

(19) Aristotle, The Politics, I, 1-2, 1252 a1 - 1253 a35.

(20) See G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, especially the Introduction.

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