Mon, 09/19/2011

Growing up, we’re taught that Plato was one of the world’s most profound Western philosophers, Socrates’ most illustrious student and a man who believed in the exchange of ideas. But, on Wednesday, September 14, Professor David Lenson spoke to a packed auditorium of students, faculty, and staff about a side of Plato we weren’t taught. Lenson's talk entitled "The Great Lie of Ideals: From Plato to General Education" offered a critique of Plato's The Apology.


"[I’m] going to say some nasty things about Plato in this lecture," Lenson forewarned the audience.


Lenson set up his talk by identifying his problems with Plato’s The Apology: Socrates’ political beliefs were that of a totalitarian regime, not of a democratic society; the Socratic Method is not as effective of a teaching and learning technique as is vastly perceived; and the disdain Plato and Socrates held for the physical world.


Despite the fact that Athens was democratic for most of Plato’s life, Lenson explained that Plato was against democracy. Plato, like his teacher, instead believed in a world "ruled by an inner-sanctum of philosopher kings." The problem with philosopher kings is that they are exactly that—kings. Socrates and Plato believed that these kings could lie to the public whenever they felt necessary, that literature and art should be censored, and that the youth must be taught that evil never comes from the Gods. In Socrates' and Plato’s perfect world, totalitarianism would rule.


When addressing the problems with the Socratic Method as an effective teaching tool, Lenson feigned a somewhat stuffy accent to disclose that many of his colleagues tell him they do not lecture; instead, they try to have an open exchange of thoughts and ideas, so they teach their students who in return teach them. But, the Socratic Method is not an exchange of ideas, said Lenson.


In The Apology, Plato writes Socrates as the protagonist, with the other Athenian philosophers he debates as antagonists, "buffoons who can’t wait to agree with whatever he says." And even when they put up an argument, it is a weak one at that. Socrates tricks his opponents with Leading Questions—long before lawyers ever started using them. Ultimately, the problem with Socratic lecture is it knows the conclusion it wants to reach, the way a traditional lecturer does.


"The hardest thing for a college professor to say is… 'I don’t know,'" joked Lenson, who acted as if the phrase alone is ripping out his heart.


Lenson’s main qualm with Plato and Socrates is their "hatred of the world and of life." When Socrates drinks the hemlock, instead of being angry that he was dying, he welcomed death. Socrates believed by dying he was being cured of life. He had no time for anything but ideas, and wanted to be in a world where the material did not matter. But, as Lenson asserts, life is better lived "in the world of fire, not in the world of shadows."


David Lenson is a professor and program director of the Comparative Literature Department. His teaching and research focus on cultural studies, literature, poetry, philosophy, and American studies. He has published two books on the theory of tragedy: Achilles' Choice and The Birth of Tragedy: A Commentary. Lenson is best known for his cultural study of drug users, On Drugs. Former editor of the Massachusetts Review, he has also served as president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors.


Lenson kicked off this semester's Faculty Lecture Series established to recognize campus faculty who have made significant contributions to research or creative activity. Through lectures that highlight academic excellence and scholarship, these faculty share their ideas and insight with honors students in sessions open to the campus community. The talks in series relate to themes in "Ideas that Changed the World," the Honors Seminar in which honors students examine books and other works that have profoundly shaped the world we live in. The texts in this class and the related faculty lectures are meant to be exemplary for students who have the potential themselves to achieve outstanding things. 


The series continues on October 17 with Distinguished University Professor Lynn Margulis presenting "Puffer's Pond:  Open Your Eyes to Our Environment."