Excerpt from Marx & Ford, Chapter 7
“For crying out loud,” John complained. “Here I am with three problem sets in calculus and a night physics lab and I’ve got to read Plato. This school is nuts.”
“Are you kidding? This is what it’s all about: virtue, knowledge, the burden of the enlightened to help those less fortunate,” Tom replied. He looked at his brother, noticing the unusual strain. Why is John so bent on his EE program? Tom wondered. All the uplifting classes are aligned with the liberal studies programs. He pursed his lips. Maybe I can help him. “Look, John, this isn’t so hard.”
“I didn’t say it was hard. I just don’t have the time to read the stuff they want to test us on.”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll read it and you skim it. We’ll talk about it afterward.”
“Okay, Tom, thanks.” John smirked at his brother. “What do you get out of it?”
“I have wondered these last couple of weeks just what the hell is calculus anyway?”
“You want me to teach you calculus?”
“Don’t teach it to me; just tell me what it is. I see so many students struggling to jump that hurdle for anything with a BS in front of it. Even pre-med students have to take it.”
“Yes, that’s true, but not pre-law. Those yo-yos would never be able to cut it.”
Tom laughed. “There are some good people taking pre-law. Look at Sharon.”
“She’s so wild that pre-law is the only major that suits her.”
“It’s the wild part that attracts me.
“Like a moth to a flame, little brother. Like a moth to a flame. You know, your taste in women is beginning to worry me.”
“At least I have a taste in women. The only gals you hang out with are your fellow engineers,” Tom countered.
“I can talk to these girls.”
“And then get between the sheets?”
“How many times have I put a penny on the door?”
“At least twice. That reminds me, who were you in here with last Saturday? You never did tell me.”
John grinned ear to ear, remembering the weekend. That was a great college experience, he thought relishing the memory. He then glanced down at his calculus book and grimaced. “Look, I’ve got to get going on these problem sets. You figure out Plato’s Simile of the Cave and I’ll figure out derivatives.” John turned his back and opened his book.
Tom sighed. I’ve got to make sure this science doesn’t turn him into a robot. He left the room and meandered over to the library. Although it was the beginning of October, the weather was unusually warm. The sunny weather matched Tom’s mood as he crossed the street from the dorm to the library. He ascended the steps feeling sweet anticipation in the pit of his stomach. God, this is great, Tom thought. The wisdom of the ages is in this building. He walked up the wide stairs to where the study cubes were arranged. This well of knowledge contains the answers to the universe, all the answers. He found a cube and stacked his books on the shelf. Tom opened his notebook and turned to Plato feeling quite sure of himself. There is nothing better than this. I’m learning how to rule the world.
The following evening Tom and John sat down to go over the liberal studies material.
“Okay, Tom, you need to prime me up for this test tomorrow,” John said.
“No problem, John, no problem,” Tom answered.
“So let’s get on with it.”
“Okay,” Tom began, “the first dialogue is the ‘Apology.’”
“Right, and what I need you to tell me is what the main points are. I skimmed it, and I got the impression of an arrogant old man lecturing.”
“It was a hell of a lot more than that, John. Socrates died as a result of those lectures. He died for the truth that he was defending.”
“Which was what?”
“Well, the way I read this there were three main points. Here, look at my highlights and we’ll go over them.” Tom handed his Dialogues over to John who opened it next to his and began duplicating the markings.
He looks tired, Tom thought. This different major decision is a bunch of bullshit, but he won’t give up his EE. Tom sighed. He’s going to be making TVs and I’m going to be ruling a piece of the world.
“I’m ready,” John announced.
“All right,” Tom began. “There are three main points, these comprise the philosophy that Socrates was killed for. The first is right here.” Tom retrieved his book and flipped through it. “Here,” he tapped the page, “Socrates says that no one knows anything. He was smart in that he knew that no one knew anything but most people thought that they really did. He spent his time showing them the error of their ways.”
“It’s no wonder the Athenians wanted to kill him. So let me get this straight, the first point is to know that you know nothing.”
“Remember we’re to learn what Socrates thought, not critique it.”
“Well that’s good,” John replied. “I damn sure don’t agree with it. What’s the next point?”
“It starts here.” Tom pointed to John’s book.
“What? That it is better to die than to do wrong?” John asked.
“That’s where it starts, there’s more. He says that you shouldn’t first take care of your body or your property. The first thing to take care of is the soul. Seek virtue because it’s from virtue that money, health, and all other good things come, not the other way around.”
“Money doesn’t buy virtue but virtue buys money. Okay, I agree with that. Point number three?”
“Daily discourse on virtue is the greatest good, the unexamined life is not worth living.”
“Virtue is knowledge, and if you know what is right you will do it. Here he says no one does evil voluntarily.”
“So this guy first says we all know nothing, then he says virtue is great, then he says that what you know is virtue?”
“Yes, but it means more. It means that the quest for knowledge is the most virtuous thing we can do, and in our attempts to attain knowledge we gain virtue, money, and knowledge of what is right. Everything is open to questioning. If one questions right then one will gain knowledge and virtue and know what is good. If he knows what is good then he will naturally do it.”
“Hold on a second. So if one is bad, evil, it’s because he didn’t know better?”
“Well,” John stated, “there’s another point that I disagree with. Most people that I know who do evil damn sure know what they are doing.”
“Really, John? So that scar you have across your eyebrow was because you knew what you were doing when you dived into that waterhole?”
“Cheap shot.” John rubbed his eyebrow and felt the smooth scar. “I’ve got this dialogue, ‘the Apology,’ down. What about the Simile of the Cave?”
“Wait just a minute. You need to tell me about calculus first.”
“This will take all of ten seconds.” John walked over to his calculus book and opened it. “This is power. Your friend Socrates said that virtue is knowledge, right? Well, here is a book loaded with virtue. Anytime you talk about change or the rate of change, you need calculus. When determining the motion of anything from an electron or planet, you need calculus. There are two parts: differential and integral. If something is moving and you want to know how fast, you need differential; if you know how fast and want to know how far, you need integral.”
Tom watched in fascination as his brother’s enthusiasm grew. He is really getting something out of this.
“Sir Isaac Newton wanted to come up with a way to explain how the planets moved,” John continued. “He invented calculus to do it. A great mathematician of this century, John von Neuman, called it the greatest technical advance in exact thinking. One of your philosopher buddies, René Descartes, came up with analytic geometry, which is combined with calculus. So if you want to do anything—build a bridge, a rocket ship, or a power station—it is calculus that tells you how.”
“You are really getting into this engineering stuff.”
“You bet. I just wish I didn’t have to divert my efforts on this liberal studies bull. People have been talking about the good life for thousands of years, but nobody has been able to figure it out.”
“That’s not exactly true. Remember Socrates: know that you know nothing, but the care of the soul is the highest good and can be obtained by the continual quest for knowledge, for virtue. The Simile of the Cave is a good example of that. Here, highlight your book where I did, and we’ll go over it,” Tom said, handing his book to John.
John opened Tom’s book and again duplicated the markings. It’s funny, Tom thought, we seem to be drifting further and further apart.
“I’m ready,” John announced.
“First let’s set the stage,” Tom began. “Most people are at the bottom of this cave facing the back wall. They’re chained such that they can’t turn their heads or move. Behind them is a wall and behind the wall is a fire. Puppeteers are behind the wall, and they hold up images of things: men, trees, virtue, whatever. All the cave-dwellers see are the shadows created by the fire and the puppets on the wall. That is their only vision of reality, the shadows. Now someone manages to break his chains and starts to climb out of the cave. He sees the chained people, the wall, puppeteers, and fire. He climbs and climbs until he emerges from the cave, and is instantly blinded by the light of the true sun. After some pain his eyes finally adjust and he sees reality, not just shadows anymore, the real men, real trees, real virtue.”
Tom looked at John to see if he was listening, and saw his brother staring at him intently.
He continued. “After some thought, the one who broke free decides to go back down to tell the cave-dwellers about the truth, about reality. He goes down to where the cave-dwellers are but immediately discovers that he can’t see because he’s unaccustomed to the darkness. The cave-dwellers make fun of him because he can’t see the shadows, the illusions of reality, that they can. He tries to teach the people what he saw.”
“So what does the Simile of the Cave really stand for?” John asked.
“According to the LS 101 book, the simile can be viewed in several ways. The primary way is to see everybody as looking at illusions and thinking that they are reality. There are only a precious few who really know better. It’s also political. There are puppeteers guiding the people who are chained such that they have no choice but to see only the shadows that the puppeteers want. That’s pretty apropos today with an actor running for president.”
“Leave Reagan out of this. So what’s the point though? That we ought to realize that we are seeing illusions?”
“No, it’s much more. Plato believed in pure forms, that there were pure concepts of virtue, justice, man, woman, tree, rock, and so on. The pure forms are what the philosopher-king sees when he climbs out of the cave, and what he must teach to those who are trapped in the cave when he goes back down.”
“That’s ultimately what Plato is shooting for. A philosopher-king that can set everyone straight. Kind of like JFK, remember? That’s what I’m doing in sociology. I want to see the pure forms of justice and social equality, and come into the cave, where I can teach the cave-dwellers what is right.”
Tom noticed John squirm uncomfortably.
“Tom,” John began, “what if you philosopher types are wrong?”
“That’s why Plato is so important. We can only be wrong in our interpretation of the pure forms; in other words, we’re still looking at the shadows and thinking that we’re seeing the real thing. There are pure forms, we just need to find them.”
Tom began to pace the room. He became lively as he rammed his points home.
“We must first study what is right, and then make sure everyone is doing it. Don’t you see? We’re going to college to get out of the cave. We’re blinded now by all this truth, but by study we’ll get to see everything. Eventually, we’ll go back into the cave. Then it’ll be our duty to tell the cave-dwellers that the shadows they see aren’t real, and to set them straight on what is real. Don’t you see?”
Tom noticed that John was frowning.
“Come on, John! You’re in the same boat. You’re learning what is right, whether you want to or not. You too are going to go into the cave. If you were the philosopher-king, wouldn’t you tell the chained people what was right?”
“No,” John answered. “I’d cut their chains.”