Annapolis Office of the President
"The Republic of St. John's College"
Convocation Remarks of Christopher B. Nelson
President of St. John's College, Annapolis
August 27, 2008
Welcome to St. John's College. A warm welcome to our entering freshmen and their families and friends! Welcome back to our returning students, faculty and staff!
I want to tell you a story which opened up a question for me that I simply could not resist exploring in preparing these remarks.
In the spring of 2004, a friend of mine, the president of another liberal arts college, called to ask for a favor. He was being given a six month sabbatical and wondered whether he might enroll at St. John's College or take some classes with us over the fall term. We talked some about the importance of beginning at the beginning, and he got excited about reading Homer, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus and Sophocles with our freshmen. He ended up auditing the fall freshman seminar, reading everything expected of him, and remaining a silent participant in the conversation. You can read all about his sabbatical experience in a newly published book entitled Racing Odysseus, chronicling his experience in the classroom, on the quad, in the coffee shop, and especially at the boathouse, where he resolved to join the novice crew and take up rowing on the Severn River in the wee hours of each morning with a good sized group of eager, if sleepy, students. It turns out that the star of the story is our very own Mr. Pickens, Director of Athletics at the College, but several students and tutors play lead support roles in the education of my friend, "Rusty" Martin.
After he'd been at the college a while, and become acquainted with many of our students, mostly freshman, he found himself observing out loud to one of his crew mates as follows:
"Like you, Tom, so many of the freshmen I have met applied only to St. John's. They seem to have a real sense of what it means to be a Johnnie even before they get here." (Does this sound familiar to any of you?)
"Maybe so," Tom responds ... "But they aren't Johnnies when they arrive."
"So when does that happen?" I ask, surprised by his response.
"When they have completed Plato's Republic! Then they become Johnnies."
End of story. But I was now hooked on thinking through what I'd just read. What would it mean to say that one becomes a member of this college community upon completing the six seminars we devote to Plato's Republic in the middle of the freshman fall term? (In fact, freshmen will be halfway through it at Parents' weekend, and you parents can return to campus to test the theory and ask your students this question.)
I have no idea whether this view of Mr. Tom's is widely shared at the college, but I thought it was worth taking seriously. So, I'd like to play with the idea for just a bit. I recognize that I can only begin to tease out a few possible answers with a book as inexhaustible as the Republic. But here's a start.
If there is a principal question at the root of the many that are explored in the Republic, it may be "What good is justice? Should we choose to live the just life or the unjust, and why?" Indeed, the dialogue opens with a spirited argument for the good of injustice but closes with a myth that reminds the readers of the thousand years of punishment that awaits the man who chooses a life of injustice over one devoted to justice. The dialogue is Plato's longest, and engages more participants than is usual. The two principal interlocutors, however, are the young Glaucon and Adeimantus, brothers to Plato himself, who does not appear as a character in the drama.
These two young people, particularly Glaucon, behave a lot like St. Johnnies. They pursue Socrates; they pursue conversation to get to the bottom of things they can hardly fathom; Glaucon at least just won't let up; he questions everything at each turn. Socrates quickly sees that he must take Glaucon seriously because Glaucon has both passion and ambition. He can see the good in Glaucon's soul, in his desire for understanding, but he can also see the dangers to both Glaucon and the state if a mind as fertile as Glaucon's is not turned to the good and is instead allowed to play with false icons. Glaucon needs to be persuaded that it is better to do right than wrong, and he needs to own the argument himself; it must be a case that he will not forget, filled with images, arguments and stories that will not fail to keep him straight. Socrates has his work cut out for him, and he puts together as beautiful a set of images and arguments as we can find in all literature.
Of course, to ask the question "What good is justice?" provokes the next: "What then is justice?" To help answer the question, Socrates and his two young helpers set about to found a city in speech which is designed to help us see what justice might look like on a large scale, in order that we might better understand what justice would look like in the human soul. It turns out that this city is not populated by people that Glaucon can either recognize or respect. He calls it a city of pigs, one that satisfies the appetite of the stomach, but not of the chest or the head. There is no place in this city to practice leisure, enjoy the finer arts, or move beyond a life of consumption to a life more noble. They reorganize the city at least twice more, but each of these cities seems to fail another of Glaucon's tests that they be realizable in our political world.
So, Socrates seeks to answer this demand with one of his more memorable statements, in the dead center of the book: "Unless the philosophers rule as kings, (he says) ... there will be no rest from ills for the cities, ... nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun." We can only suppose that if the earlier versions of the city were unrealistic, this latter suggestion — that the best king must also be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom — would be still further beyond the bounds of imagination for Socrates' interlocutors. To their credit, Glaucon and Adeimantus push him on to justify his claim. Socrates agrees, and goes on to give an account of the life of the philosopher and the education appropriate to him.
In the middle of this explanation, Socrates gives us three of the most memorable images our students will encounter in their four years at the college. First, he compares the Good, which is the object of the philosopher's search, to the Sun which is the source of life, of all that is, but also the illuminator of all the appearances in the world. Socrates cannot seem to say what the Good is, but he can give us a sense of what it is like.
Second, he proposes a geometric model, a "divided line" to give us a picture of what the ascent to the Good might require of us mortals still in this world below, a sense of the kind of intellectual activity we must engage in, the kind of journey we must take to get closer to that object beyond us. In the study of mathematics, we quickly come to understand that the pictures we draw of squares and triangles, lines and proportions, are just images or representations of the true objects of geometry, which are only accessible by thought. Through the image of the divided line, we come to appreciate the need to access a world of intelligible objects in order to better understand what lies behind, and gives order to, their appearances in the visible world.
Third, in the cave analogy, Socrates gives us a drama to describe the great difficulty and pain we can expect in making the ascent from the world of images to the one source of all we can see and know. He asks us to imagine that we are all prisoners in a cave, chained so that all we can see are the shadows cast upon a wall in front of us. We cannot, on our own, turn around and see that these shadows are not real at all, but mere reflections of objects carried by people behind us who are passing in front of a fire which is the source of the light that casts the shadows. He describes first the pain, then the disbelief, and finally the wonder experienced by a prisoner who is released from his bonds and forced to turn around and look into the light of the fire and see what the image makers have known all along.
But that is not all. This cave has an entrance open to the light of the sun across the whole width of the cave. Socrates now asks us to imagine that the newly released prisoner is dragged up the steep, rocky, upward way out into the light of the sun. At first, he'd be blinded and see less well than before, but then he would get accustomed to the light and see all the other things the world has to show him — the waters and the land and the starry heavens above, until he could make out the sun itself and see what it is like. That man would be happy at his freedom from the shadows below, and would pity those still in the cave. His education would have literally been an education in the art of turning around, the art of seeing better, in a truer light, what is already really there, of seeing what ought to be seen.
Around here, we sometimes call this an education in the arts of freedom, or the liberal arts — the arts that liberate us to flee the bonds of prejudice, the false opinions, and the shadows about us, and see things as they truly are. Every image, every opinion expressed by the image makers and spin doctors around us, should be an occasion for us to pull ourselves, and others with us, out of our caves and into the light of the sun. We recognize that this sun is there for everyone in the cave to access. The entrance to the cave is open to all who are below.
After exploring these images, Socrates then constructs the education of the philosopher, and explores the kinds of governments that arise when the rulers are no longer philosophers. He closes with a grand overarching myth that attempts to incorporate the whole, reminding us that we have a lot at stake in the choices we make in living our lives. Just as we are meant to see the city-building exercise that occurs in the first nine books of the Republic as an image of the education of the individual soul, so we see the closing myth as an image of the choices available to that soul. We see that it is literally a matter of life or death (or at least a matter of great reward or unimaginable punishment) how we choose to live our lives, and how wise we would be to turn ourselves now to the question of justice so that we might learn to live a life that practices it. The well regulated soul, one that is turned to the Good, that is whole, well integrated and balanced, is also, we imagine, the soul best fit to rule our city.
I think it is time for me now to try to give my answer to the question I opened with: What would it mean to say that our students don't become Johnnies until they've finished the Republic?
The dialogue probably gives us the best account we have of what learning ought to be. It belongs to us at the college, and serves as a kind of model for our program of instruction. The book thus gives our students an opportunity to examine the education they are then engaged in, allows them to ask what it would be like to construct a curriculum fit for a philosopher king, and invites them to compare it to the one they are undertaking at St. John's.
The Republic is a beautiful book, filled with the richest of images that help us remember that the difficult search for truth is worth all the effort. It gives us poetic, musical and mathematical images, myths and analogies, to aid us in our search for an understanding of our world and our place in it, images we cannot possibly forget, images that will be available to us forever.
Like all of Plato's dialogues, the Republic engages the readers and asks them to become participants in the dialogue that Socrates is having with his friends. It asks us to question the answers given by Glaucon and others, to try them out and formulate better ones. It also helps to lead us up out of our own personal caves, encouraging us, and showing us how to find our way to a life that is better than we have experienced heretofore.
The Republic allows our freshmen to see how integrated the whole of learning is in relation to the singular soul. It helps explain the importance of mathematics in our curriculum, that it is not just a tool required for the specialist in the sciences, engineering, or the trades, but is an indispensable aid to philosophy itself, an aid to self understanding.
More than anything, however, I think it must be in our several seminars on the Republic that we become aware of the republic that is shaping itself around us, the republic of friends around the table who are searching together for answers to the deepest of questions: how we ought to be living our lives. We, like Glaucon and Adeimantus, find ourselves being initiated into the one republic that Socrates and his friends have succeeded in realizing. At St. John's, we call this republic our community of learning.
In the world, we often speak of the ties that "bind" us to a human community as healthy things, often beautiful and reaffirming ties. It is easy to forget the dark side of this image which is that we can be "tied" and "bound" to a community as to a cave that we fear to escape. We can become yoked to a larger political body by a common interest, a piece of territory, a tribal custom, a shared enemy, or a popular idea — foundations that we may cease to question. And questioning these foundations of community can become taboo, as the chains tighten about us.
We are fortunate, then, that the larger community most of us belong to, the United States of America, is founded on a paradox: the ties that bind us as Americans are rooted in human freedom, and the more we exercise the freedom to question our institutions the stronger are our ties to the founding principal. That freedom, protected by our laws, provides us with a very comfortable and open cave in which to live our lives and shape our institutions.
We at St John's have taken advantage of that freedom and that cave to found a college grounded in a very similar paradox: we find our truest sense of community in an image of human freedom that finds us somehow "together" seeking to escape the confines of the individual caves that imprison each of us. For lovers of wisdom, the young Glaucons among us, the desire to see things as they are, to strive toward the source of our being and come in to the light of the sun, is too beautiful an activity to resist — and too wonderful not to share with others. We make this search for truth, this struggle to climb out of our caves, our chief community endeavor.
Perhaps, in our search for such a liberating community, and in our occasionally achieving it, "then, we become Johnnies". Nonetheless, I will today welcome you to the Republic of St. John's College. I'm done trying to justify why you must wait 10 weeks to become one of us. We are happy to call you ours today, and to welcome you to our community of learning.
I declare the College in session this 27th day of August, 2008.