Friday, January 11, 2008

Plato on Articulation of One's Beliefs

“ATHENIAN: So it looks as if have to compel the guardians of our divine foundations to get an exact idea of the common element in all four virtues- that factor which, though single, is to be found in courage, restraint, justice and wisdom, and this in our view deserves the general title ‘virtue.’ This element, my friends, if only we have the will, is what we must now cling to like leeches, and we must not relax our grip until we can explain adequately the essence of what we have to contemplate… ATHENIAN: Well, then, do we have the same line about goodness and beauty? Should the guardians know no more than that these terms are a plurality, or should they understand the senses in which they are unities? CLEINIAS: It looks as if they are more or less obliged to comprehend that too- how they are unities. ATHENIAN: But what if they understood the point, but couldn’t find the words to demonstrate it? CLEINIAS: How absurd! That’s the condition of a slave. ATHENIAN: Well, then, isn’t our doctrine going to be the same about all serious questions? If our guardians are going to be genuine guardians of the laws they must have genuine knowledge of their real nature; they must be articulate enough to explain the real difference between good actions and bad, and capable of sticking to the distinction in practice. CLEINIAS: Naturally. ATHENIAN: And surely one of the finest fields of knowledge is theology, on which we’ve already lavished a great deal of attention. It’s supremely important to appreciate- so far as it’s given to man to know these things- the existence of the gods and the obvious extent of their power. The man in the street may be forgiven if he simply follows the letter of the law, but if any intended guardian fails to work hard to master every theological proof there is, we must certainly not grant him the same indulgence; in other words, we must never choose as a Guardian of the Laws anyone who is not preternaturally gifted or has not worked hard at theology, or allow him to be awarded distinctions for virtue.” –Plato, The Laws, Trans. By Trevor J. Saunders, Penguin Books, 1970, (Reprinted 1975), pgs. 525-526.

[Plato here is articulating a principle about articulation which I have heard before from C.S. Lewis and which I think is generally true: If one cannot articulate an understanding then chances are they do not fully understand the subject matter, so we should aim in our educational endeavors to be able to articulate as well as to understand. There are some things which cannot be spoken- the ineffable- which nevertheless can be articulately evoked at times. Nevertheless, many subject matters can be. I find for instance in talking with Alex and Megan and many others of you that I am confronted with a challenge to articulate my understanding on a subject, and it does not always come easily, and the temptation sometimes is to slough off the effort. I think there are many instances where I have said something in response to a question which was in effect a settling for a more or less insufficient articulation of a buried understanding or view point of mine. But when I have made a ‘straight up’ and proper reply, with some pepper, it is valuable, either for having given form to and having conveyed my understanding, or having given a full articulation of my viewpoint which then exposed it to criticism and so possible correction, whereas if I had not fully expressed my understanding or viewpoint, it have remained insulated from either benefitting others or my being benefitted by its correction. Often when I seek to express some understanding or insight the endeavor allows me to self-correct the otherwise dormant mistaken thinking.

Thinking of and putting into practice ways by which we can together challenge each other to articulate fully our understandings and develop our views, especially on what we think are the most important things, and to cultivate among us articulateness and receptiveness and understanding, is surely a fruitful goal.

Plato’s Gaurdians are the rulers of his imagined colony and they are to understand above all others the whys of the Laws of the colony as well as what the Laws are. They must be able to articulate for instance to a lawbreaker the virtues of the Laws and why they are good to embrace and why it is bad to not follow them. Similarly, elders and leaders in a church should be able to articulate the reasons why they believe, and there should be a general culture in the church in which this articulation is grown and fostered.]

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