How the light gets in

It was Leonard Cohen, not Plato, who said everything’s cracked and there’s light in every word. But the poet’s search for “a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation” speaks directly to and for our broad-shouldered philosopher’s preferred form of discourse, the inquisitive dialogue that shuns dogmatic bluster and blame in favor of mutually supportive curiosity and wonder.

Curiosity and wonder: that’s the feeling of a philosopher, not cocksure certainty, enmity, self-importance and self-congratulation topped with hostility and belligerence. And that’s the main takeaway from Goldstein’s next chapter, sending Plato into the lion’s den of cable news with an even more obnoxious talking head than O’Reilly. The “No Bull Bin” in his No-Spin Zone, but it never stops spinning. Why do rude, opinionated, uninformed, ideological, vainglorious, and intemperate media pundits get better ratings than polite, circumspect, courteous, humble, pragmatic, and thoughtful ones?
The Real McCoy is a real pip, calling everyone who challenges his set-in-stone opinions a pinhead. I’d have a hard time speaking with him for more than five minutes, give Plato credit for enduring the onslaught of venom. The bilious pundit doesn’t understand the first thing about philosophy, quickly telling Plato he must not be much of a thinker if he’s willing to entertain a new point of view. “You seem a little too ready to change your mind.” Sapere aude does not win the ratings war.


The pundit knows nothing of the tides, or of science and mathematics, or intellectual sophistication of any sort. No Bull means “speaking so that people can understand you,” whether you’re speaking sense or nonsense. He’d rather see natural phenomena as mysterious and inexplicable, when rational and naturalistic explanations like Plato’s “lunar gravity differential field” are available to anyone willing to put in the effort to grasp the basic principles of astrophysics.

The anxiety of influence, as Plato treats it, is really the anxiety of unearned authority. The only meritorious authority is reason.

The paradox of pleasure, that it only comes to those who effect an outer indifference to it – the familiar cliche that the “butterfly of happiness” eludes the nets of all who chase it – is usually overstated. I’m convinced that thinking about the conditions of happiness is in fact one of the conditions of happiness. And yet I think I wouldn’t disagree with Plato and Susan Sontag, who said being happy is not “what it’s all about. It’s about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be.”

The Socratic elenchus sounds technical, but of course it’s just the collaborative, conversational process of inquiry we’ve been practicing all semester. Every good question leads to another, and usually to the elimination of at least one bad answer. It’s not a shortcut to truth, but over the long haul it’s a path that takes you places. It’s the Philosopher’s Walk, rooted in confidence that reason – giving reasons, considering them, affirming or replacing them – works. 


That confidence was not Blaise Pascal’s, a surprising spiritual gambler (for a mathematician) who thought the heart has reasons rivaling the head’s. Plato of course was sure that the head has to rule, in the well-ordered soul no less than the polis.

Goldstein makes interesting use of the “knowing how/knowing that” distinction. I wrote about that once for American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia, as a reflection of the “knowledge by acquaintance/knowledge by description” distinction. Google’s preview chops my entry off right at the place where I was about to endorse practical “how to” wisdom, which seems to be the form of Socrates’ knowledge of the good life. We don’t have to invoke his daimon, to acknowledge it. 

Nor must we assert brute facts beneath all our reasons. “It’s not turtles all the way down, but rather reasons, logoi.” Behold, the faith of the rationalist philosopher. Share it or not, if you’re not a tv talking head or a partisan political hack you surely can accept Plato’s ultimate teaching: “we should never rest assured that our view, no matter how well argued and reasoned, amounts to the final word on any matter.” 

6 am/6:32, 26/53, 4:34

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