Dr. Boli’s Insightful Facts, XI

Medicine. Doctors cannot dispense their own prescriptions because only licensed pharmacists are taught the secret incantations that render the drugs effective.

The primary purpose of most medical treatments is to give the patient something to do until the disease goes away by itself.

~Henricus Albertus Boli, Dr. Boli’s Encyclopedia of Misinformation, p. 91.


Self-Knowledge and the Pursuit of Truth


Inscribed into the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the command: gnothi seauton, know thyself! This aphorism, along with prophecies from the same Delphic oracle, is a dominant theme in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannos. Yet, is the Delphic imperative more than just a command? Might it not be a description of human nature? In Oedipus Tyrannos Sophocles demonstrates that this aphorism is more than just an interesting suggestion. It is a deeply rooted desire within human nature. However, this desire is held in contrast with an equally seeded desire of self-love. The results of this contradiction is a cataclysm between desire and reality. Sophocles, however, does not leave us with the clash, but provides the means by which it must be resolved.

Oedipus is presented as a wise and clever man. The first indication of this is his rescuing the city of Thebes from the persecution of the Sphinx. The Sphinx had terrorized the countryside of Thebes by interrogating any traveler she came upon by asking them a riddle. If the traveler failed to answer correctly, she would devour them. Hardly an ideal situation for a city. It was Oedipus who, while fleeing from his adopted home of Corinth, encountered the Sphinx and correctly answered her riddle. This great creature who had killed countless travelers was now defeated by the wisdom of Oedipus. In despair, the Sphinx killed herself and thus the city of Thebes was released. Having recently lost their own king, Laius, Thebes installs Oedipus as their ruler because of his great wisdom.

At the opening of Oedipus Tyrannos, Thebes again is suffering greatly. Now, a plague has descended on the city. The people come to the doors of the palace to seek their salvation once again in Oedipus. Oedipus, showing his great wisdom, comes himself to the altars the people have erected: “The whole city is filled with wailing, lamentations, and prayers to Apollo. Incense fills the air. I have not sent to inquire but have come myself to hear from you directly, I, Oedipus, whom all call famous” (60). The priest representing the people confirms that they have come to Oedipus because of his great knowledge. “We do not come to this altar as suppliants to a god but to you as the first man of the city, wise in the ways of the world and even conversant with higher powers…It was by your own wit and strength, god-given, that you then set our lives aright” (61).

While Oedipus is presented as a man full of knowledge and wisdom, he lacks a surprising amount of self-knowledge. In direct violation of the Delphic imperative to “know thyself,” the one subject that Oedipus seems least knowledgeable of is himself, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Intrinsically, Oedipus is blind to his own arrogance and hubris. When he learns that the city is under a plague because Laius’ (the city’s former king) killer has never been brought to justice, Oedipus makes sweeping pronouncements about vengeance without knowing any further details about the situation. “In the god’s service do I fight and also on behalf of the man who died. As for the killer, whoever he is, whether he acted alone or with others, I pray that he suffer a life of pain as miserable as he is” (71).

Extrinsically, Oedipus is utterly oblivious to the fact that he is the one he is looking for! For it was he who killed Laius. Not only that, but Oedipus is also unaware that Laius was his father and that his wife Jocasta (the former wife of Laius) is his mother! Oedipus, though wise, is blinded to his true state. When the priest Tiresias confronts Oedipus with this truth, Oedipus’ intrinsic blindness rages again and invents conspiracies to escape it: “I am infuriated enough to say what I begin to suspect—that you [Tiresias] yourself took some part in the killing, inciting, or planning” (76).

In spite of himself, Oedipus does still want to know the truth. He sends for more reports and interrogates others to discover if what Tiresias says is true. He might do this for purely selfish reasons, he wants to clear his own name, or he wants to save the city again and be the hero. It may, however, go deeper than that. “All men, by nature, desire to know,” says Aristotle. Within each of us is the deep-seeded desire to know the truth. If fact, it may be that what Oedipus most fears is that Tiresias is right: “I have a terrible feeling that the blind prophet may not have been so blind” (97). Yet the knowledge of the matter is worth the struggle for truth.

The issue is further complicated, that while Oedipus desires to know the truth, there is another part of him that does not like the truth that may come to be known. This is precisely because the truth would overturn Oedipus’ deluded view of himself. Perhaps he is not so wise. Worse yet, perhaps he has committed patricide and incest and become an abomination to gods and men. Tiresias says it best when he tells Oedipus, “The trouble is in yourself” (79). It is your hubris, it is your arrogance, it is your attempt to thwart the gods that has brought you here. Who would want to hear such things?

The trouble Oedipus is in is nothing more than that which we all face. For we all desire knowledge, including self-knowledge, but we do not love the truth. So we are stuck in a state of utter contradiction. We both do and do not want “to know.” Blaise Pascal summarizes our predicament quite succinctly:

The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self.  But what is it to do? It cannot prevent the object of its love from being full of faults and wretchedness: it wants to be great and sees that it is small; it wants to be happy and sees that it is wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees that it is full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its faults deserve only their dislike and contempt. The predicament in which it thus finds itself arouses in it the most unjust and criminal passion that could possibly be imagined, for it conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and convinces it of its faults. It would like to do away with this truth, and not being able to destroy it as such, it destroys it, as best it can, in the consciousness of itself and others; that is, it takes every care to hide its faults both from itself and others, and cannot bear to have them pointed out or noticed. (Pensées, 978, emphasis added)

625659_10151982768975790_1322862231_nWhat we see in Oedipus Tyrannos are the inevitable consequences of this clash of desires. With self-knowledge comes humility and wisdom. Oedipus, forced to confront his own hubris, blinds himself so that his physical condition matches his spiritual condition. For truth is truth whether we like it or not. We either accept this self-knowledge or blind ourselves to reality.

The solution to all this comes from the priest Tiresias, the one who in the end was shown to be the one who truly sees: “What I dare is simply to love the truth” (78). We either “love the truth” or blind ourselves. It is we who do the blinding, no one does it to us. We are the masters of self-deception. Yet we cannot escape the desire for knowledge. We either become lovers of the truth, or blind ourselves to reality. Oedipus Tyrannos, therefore, is an example of what the Delphic Oracle commands: “know thyself!” Yet this self-knowledge, uncoupled with a love for truth, leads to misery and destruction, both from without and from within.

Note: the page references contained herein refer to the translation by David R. Slavitt, which while excellent does not contain line number references which is the typical way of citing Sophocles. 

The Triumph of Mediocre Literature

From Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

Democracy not only gives the industrial classes a taste for letters but also brings an industrial spirit into literature.

In aristocracies readers are few and fastidious; in democracies they are immensely more numerous and easier to please. In consequence, among aristocratic nations no one can hope to succeed unless he takes a great deal of trouble, and even then, though he may win great renown, he will never gain much money, whereas in democracies a writer may hope to gain moderate renown and great wealth cheaply. For this purpose he does not need to be admired; it is enough if people have a taste for his work.

The ever growing crowd of readers always wanting something new ensures the sale of books that nobody esteems highly.


The Polis or the Parent? Who Should Teach the Children?

aristotleIn a previous post I argued that Aristotle would reject modern Progressivist theories of education based on his writings from the Nicomachean Ethics. Now, I’d like to explore the issue of “who is responsible for teaching children” based on Aristotle’s arguments in the Politics.

Aristotle’s Politics argues that the formation of the city-state (or Polis) is a natural of state man which arises to fulfill the human need for community. Thusly, the state exists for the happiness of its citizens. Towards the end of Book VII of the Politics, Aristotle begins an examination of the nature and manner of educating the children of the Polis. After some general observations about education, Aristotle says that the next examination should be, “whether the care of them [the children] should be the concern of the state or of private individuals” (1337a5). It is likewise the purpose of this essay to evaluate whether the Polis or the parent should be responsible for educating children.

Not surprisingly, Aristotle argues that the education of the young should be directed by the Polis. Aristotle gives several reasons for this conclusion. First, “the neglect of education does harm to the constitution” (1337a11). In other words, if the state is going to continue, it must have good citizens, or rather it’s whole purpose is to produce good (or happy) citizens. Second, if the education of the young is left to each individual, then the parent will give the child “separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all” (1337a25-26). That is, it will not lead to the unity of the state. (“The same for all” and “public” should be understood as only applying to free citizens and not to slaves or foreigners.) Finally, Aristotle says “neither must we suppose that anyone of the citizens belongs to himself for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole” (1337a27-29). For these reasons, Aristotle concludes that education should be done by the Polis. Not only that, but also that that education should be public and uniform: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private” (1337a21-23).

A general observation should be made before an evaluation of Aristotle is given. First, I have used the word Polis in place of State in summarizing Aristotle’s arguments. For what Aristotle has in mind by the State is not what we mean by it today. For Aristotle, the Polis is a small, homogenous group of individual “villages” bound together to meet the greater needs of individuals. The Polis should be large enough to be self-sufficient, but small enough that people know one another, for otherwise they cannot be judges of who ought to rule (see Book VII, Ch. 4). In fact, Aristotle categorically condemns the Nation-State of today: “experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed…for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly” (1326a25-32). Therefore, to say that Aristotle would approve of the public education offered today would be false. Aristotle would be opposed to the United States Department of Education due to the sheer size of what it attempts to govern. At best, Aristotle would only approve of local school boards free from any greater control by the Nation-State or even the individual States.

The question still remains whether the education of children is should fall to local school boards or to parents. Some difficulties with Aristotle’s proposal become immediately clear. Firstly, that a community has a vested interest in the education of children does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the community should be the one to educate the children, but only that children receive an education. One can see this system in practice in the homeschool education movement. The state does not educate the child, but merely ensures that the children do receive one, whether it’s provided by them or not.

As to Aristotle’s second argument, that if education is left up to the parent, there will not be a common education that unifies the city, it also does not follow that education is therefore to be done by the state. For again, the state can ensure that basic education (like reading and writing) is provided to the student, even if it is not the one providing it.

Aristotle’s third argument is the one that is most problematic. He asserts that individuals do not belong to themselves but rather to the state and therefore the state has the duty to educate the children. For if each individual belongs to the state in the way Aristotle suggests, it is difficult to see just where the rights of the citizens and the rights of the states begin or end. No doubt, Aristotle has in mind a Polis where each citizen is like-minded with regard to ends of humanity and so will therefore agree on the education of the children. So again we may be comparing apples to oranges by comparing what Aristotle has in mind with the programs of today’s public education. For what exactly is to happen if the Polis mis-educates or under-educates the children? Is the parent simply to bow to the power of the Polis? If, on the other hand, it is the responsibility of the parent either to educate or to ensure that their children receive an education, then the rights of the parents trump the rights of the Polis.

Much more could and needs to be explored on this issue. The conclusion of this analysis shows that, indeed, the Polis does have an interest in the education of children, but that this education does not necessarily come from the Polis itself. A further argument needs to be explored, which is beyond the scope of this post, whether it is primarily the duty of the parent to educate the child. For if this is the case, it will have a dramatic effect on the nature and manner of this education in the Polis.

Demonizing Dewey

deweyIf you work in education or the philosophy of education, no single philosopher is more debated than John Dewey. For years I’ve heard people rail against Dewey blaming him for all the evils of Progressive Education. Through all those tirades, I’ve nodded my head approvingly. Yet, aside from a smattering of short essays, I’ve never read much of him. Thus far I’ve been happy to hate him.  Then I came an essay in the introductory volume to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World which states that Dewey is the “most misunderstood of all philosophers of education.”

Adler (or whoever wrote this particular essay, there’s no way to tell) continues,

It is one of the ironies of fate that his followers who have misunderstood him have carried all before them in American education; whereas the plans he proposed have never been tried. The notion that is perhaps most popular in the United States, that the object of education is to adjust the young to their environment, and in particular to teach them to make a living, John Dewey roundly condemned; yet it is usually advanced in his name.

I guess I need to read Democracy and Education now before I jump on any more bandwagons.