The Key to Self-Improvement: Finding (and Cultivating) Experiences that Make the Wings of Your Soul Grow
By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host
Life can be hard sometimes. The troubles of the day can weigh you down, making everything seem gray and cold. You’ve had days like this. I know that I have. When you’re walking around in a shlump, any ideas you may have had about your own self-improvement tend to go out the window.
This can be an especially obvious, if not annoying, part of raising children. There you are, working hard on some mundane but necessary part of your daily work routine, and the kid comes up and interrupts you: “Dad! Dad! Did you know that Legos are made in Denmark?” Yes, son, I know that. But I don’t care. Then you, annoyed, pull yourself back into your work, safely immune to the wonders of the world.
But, Legos are really neat! How is it that you don’t care anymore? Who is more correct in this situation? You or the eager child, awed by the glory of the world? Perhaps, somewhere deep inside, you know you ought to be as excited about the ordinary details of the world as your children, but you aren’t. What happened to you?
Socrates tells a story in the dialogue Phaedrus that gives an answer. It’s a poetic, mythical answer, and so isn’t probably to be taken as literally true; however, these myths aren’t supposed to be true in the modern historical sense of the word. They’re supposed to be stories that make you better if you believe them. You might say that they are more true than history. It doesn’t really matter if you believe Leif Eriksen made it to North America, but it matters very much if you believe that there’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
The soul (take it as the principle of life, not as something religious) is described like “the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a). Souls have wings! But they can shed their wings. When the soul partakes of the highest things, of beauty or wisdom or goodness, the wings of the soul grow. “But foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear” (246e).
To go through life without wings on your soul, I take it, means being stuck in the ordinary, seeing the world as dull, as merely dog-eat-dog or some eternal cycle of oppression. Inert and lifeless, you are waiting to be manufactured into something suitable to a dead, wingless soul’s boring desires. More reality TV shows! More fast food! More sad and empty sexuality. Is there any way to get your wings to grow back? Socrates tells of a man seeing a godlike form:
The stream of beauty that pours into him through his eyes warms him up and waters the growth of his wings. Meanwhile, the heat warms him and melts the places where the wings once grew, places that were long ago closed off with hard scabs to keep the sprouts from coming back; but as nourishment flows in, the feather shafts swell and rush to grow from their roots beneath every part of the soul (long ago, you see, the entire soul had wings). (251b)
When I reread this passage in preparation for leading a seminar at onlinegreatbooks.com, I was quite moved. I thought to myself, “I want my wings to grow back!” How does one do that? If the story is right, then partaking of the higher things is what does it. I’m sitting backstage at a ballet as I write this. I’m part of the cast, because my daughters both dance. It’s beautiful. I can feel my scabs coming off through the beauty of the dancing.
Now, you may object that this story of Socrates’ isn’t true. “My soul didn’t pre-exist! I don’t even believe there is a soul. As for the idea that there are higher things, that is just fascism. All hierarchy is privilege.” You might say that. You can try to tell me that modern non-representational art is equal to Michelangelo, that Bieber equals Bach. I’d be sorry if you did, but I think you’d also be wrong. I don’t care if you believe the story of winged souls. I don’t believe the story as fact, either.
But I do believe that there is such a thing as a love that inspires wonder, that I need to cultivate it, and that the finest things make it thrive. There are experiences that make the wings of my soul grow, and I need to experience them more. It is the key to self-improvement.