Friday, May 29, 2015

Philosophy for the Young

A brief thought in the importance of philosophical training, especially for the lower levels of education:

Philosophy, especially post-Kant ("Kant" being a German name that can be roughly translated as "Satan"), has earned, for all philosophy, the reputation of dry, mostly incoherent thinking about impractical things.  Whether this is fair or not is beyond my immediate (practical?) concern.  The problem with this state of affairs is that philosophy, especially that stemming from Plato and Aristotle through the Church Fathers and Ascetics, is eminently practical.  One of its main concerns is to develop virtue, habits of heart, mind, and body that lead one (both the soul and the society) away from akrasia (acting against the will's natural desire for the Good) and towards hesychia (peace, stillness, ease in any situation).  In other words, philosophy seeks to enable the student to wisely engage in all aspects of existence without being overwhelmed by the allure of material, sensate things or the power of the emotions.

Having been a teacher for 8 years and a human for roughly 4 times that, I've seen the necessity in students to have developed these virtues by the time they reach college (or wherever post-secondary they end up: homemakers, tradespersons, artisans all need virtue, not just some educated "elite").  Many students I've known have been anxious to get "practical" training, yet suffer from debilitating emotional problems or attachments to transitory goods (such as the vast accumulation of wealth).  This is not, of course, to say that true, diagnosed mental illness can be treated or cured through Plato: these things must be competently handled by trained (and virtuous!) counsellors and mental health practitioners.  However, for many who do not have a diagnosable illness, a sturdy askesis of philosophy would help to reorient and redirect the errant passions, desires, and loves back to the Good.

A person, suitably and properly trained in virtue, can then take up any higher learning, or trade, or profession towards the end for which they are made.  That this needs to be accomplished before the state of adulthood (culturally defined here as 21, although most cultures historically have placed it much earlier) seems obvious to me, yet the lower levels of learning rarely address these matters (if, even, they can in our state of cultural and societal disarray).  Richard Rorty, if I remember correctly, once said that if a child isn't virtuous by the time he/she reached college, there was no hope for them -- they had calcified in a state of arrested development (and, Lord, I pray this isn't true).

This means, ultimately, that philosophical training must start in the home, as young as possible.  But, if you are like me and live in an almost constant state of akrasia and acedia (spiritual listlessness), this seems not only daunting, but despairing. Where shall we go to learn that which we desire to pass down to our youth?  It is here that, I think, the broader classical Christian tradition has something great to offer: 2000 years of handing down ("tradition") this life, refined away from the inherent problems of the Socratic tradition in all its variants.  I'm not speaking solely of the intellectual content of the Faith, either, but the life of the Church, her discipline or askesis: fasting, feasting, feria, alms giving, prayer, self-denial, love of God and neighbor.  These we must learn, or relearn, to build up our children to live virtuous lives.

Well, so much for brief...

1 comment:

Virgil T. Morant said...

On a parenthetical note (literally, no less, since you observed this within parentheses), it is fascinating that in our age neurology is now telling us that by the sheer physiology of development human beings are not psychologically mature until halfway through their twenties, and yet adulthood commenced in many ancient societies earlier than either our 18- or 21-year-old markers (and human beings often achieved a great deal more at younger ages back in the day too).

Nice post.