Plato on The What and the How (but Especially the How)

…[I]t is barely possible for knowledge to be engendered of an object naturally good, in a man naturally good; but if his nature is defective, as is that of most men, for the acquisition of knowledge and the so-called virtues, and if the qualities he has have been corrupted, then not even Lynceus could make such a man see.  In short, neither quickness of learning nor a good memory can make a man see when his nature is not akin to the object, for this knowledge never takes root in an alien nature; so that no man who is not naturally inclined and akin to justice and all other forms of excellence, even though he may be quick at learning and remembering this and that and other things, nor any man who though akin to justice, is slow at learning and forgetful, will ever attain the truth that is attainable about virtue.  Nor about vice, either, for these must be learned together, just as the truth and error about any part of being must be learned together, through long and earnest labor…Only when all of these [instruments]–names, definitions, and visual and other perception–have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy–only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can the illuminate the nature of any object.  (Seventh Letter, 334a-b)

2 responses

  1. There would seem to be a contradiction or tension here between the all-importance of “nature” (genetics? early childhood? “character”?) and the importance of “very extremity of human effort”. I am reminded, too, of Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” And of Ecclesiastes: “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” Best, Wm.

    • Yes, I agree. (My Kierkegaardian title was meant to draw attention to the difficulties of the use of ‘nature’.) One the one hand, ‘nature’ can be used inamissibly; other the other, not inamissibly. When not inamissible, nature could be understood as something acquired and as something that can be lost (“corrupted”)–as a matter of progressive moral perfection or defection. (Kierkegaard liked to play with both sorts of uses of ‘soul’.) I think that Plato is best read as using ‘nature’ non-inamissibly, at least as he is using the term of the teacher or pupil. (Good to hear from you, William!)

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