A fine example of working on one’s mental fitness… in-between sets.
By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host
I was at the gym the other day when Socrates came in. It’s kind of a nerd gym, so this is unsurprising. I asked him a question that had been on my mind for a while.
Karl: Socrates, why should I study the liberal arts?
Socrates: Oh Karl, you amazing man. How renowned the people of Illinois must be for wisdom!
Karl: I wish it were so, Socrates! But what do you mean? I thought it was a simple question.
Socrates: You are wise, or must be wise, because you don’t ask what the liberal arts are, but why you should learn them.
Karl: Oh, I’m sorry. I suppose I should have expected this sort of response from you. Traditionally, they are grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Why should I bother, though? Where’s the payoff?
Socrates: Haven’t you read enough of those ‘dialogues’ by my young friend Plato?
Karl: I have. They are very annoying books.
Socrates: I agree. Aren’t they wonderful?
Karl: I don’t know. Half of the people I talk to about them hate them. But Socrates, I still want to know. Why should I study the liberal arts?
Socrates: Tell me–why should you study dog-breeding?
Karl: Well, to breed dogs, I suppose.
Socrates: Don’t the dogs do that well enough by themselves? By the dog I think the dogs will figure it out if you just leave them alone!
Karl: We don’t want just any dogs, but dogs of a certain sort.
Socrates: That’s true, oh Karl of Illinois. You want hunters.
Karl: Or sheep-dogs or show dogs.
Socrates: Show dogs?
Karl: Yes. Dogs that look a certain way. Their owners style their hair and take them to shows where they are judged for how glossy their coats are or how well they match the ideal of the breed.
Socrates: Judged? On how they look? Not on how well they do their job?
Socrates: Not on what they can do?
Karl: That’s right.
Socrates: My most amazing friend, truly you live in a difficult time. My most treasured examples are no longer simple! I can’t even talk about dog breeding without having to explain it. You need the liberal arts very much, I think! Let me try to explain. Whatever the goal, whether appearance or function, the dog-breeder works to attain that end.
Socrates: If you know the end, you know why you would breed dogs?
Karl: Yes, I can see that. So, if I knew to end of the liberal arts, I would know why I should pursue them.
Socrates: Exactly. So what is the goal?
Karl: I’m not sure, Socrates. All the other subjects such as medicine or engineering seem to have such clear goals. The liberal arts? What good are they? How does logic help you make money? Colleges don’t care too much about them anymore. Philosophy requirements get cut down every year, it seems.
Socrates: This is most puzzling. Why would people quit pursuing arts unless thy ceased to desire the end to which those arts were ordered?
Karl: It’s possible that they don’t desire the end. Grand goals are out of fashion. People do whatever they feel like doing. YOLO, right?
Socrates: Amazing times. Let’s look at the name itself. What does ‘liberal’ mean?
Karl: Well, it’s a term used to describe one of our political parties.
Socrates: What’s a political party? Like a political Symposium? Never mind. Even I, Socrates, can see that following this line is like journeying down to Tartarus!
Karl: Socrates, we call them ‘rabbit holes’ now.
Socrates: Rabbit holes! Yes, let’s not go down that rabbit hole. That’s quite amusing. Rabbit hole… What do rabbits care about unproductive lines of inquiry? I thought they just made more rabbits–
Socrates: Oh yes. What were we saying? The meaning of ‘liberal’.
Karl: It means ‘free’, Socrates.
Socrates: At last we get somewhere. These are arts for free men!
Karl: And women.
Socrates: Yes, yes, and free women too. But what is the goal of a free human?
Karl: I don’t know, Socrates. It’s hard to say. People have lots of different goals.
Socrates: Do you think all goals to be equally worthy? If one of your young men had as his goal to sit in the foundation of his progenitor’s house eating processed corn starch while browsing your amazing inter-web–Would this be a worthy pursuit?
Karl: What? Wait-do you mean if he lived in his parent’s basement eating Cheetohs and browsing the internet?
Socrates: Isn’t that what I said?
Karl: I suppose. And, no, it would not be a worthy pursuit.
Socrates: Why not?
Karl: Socrates, because such a person has no real goals. He’s a slave to entertainments, to whatever catches his fancy on the screen in front of him.
Socrates: You could almost say he’s like a prisoner in a cave watching shadows on the wall…
Karl: What? Ha! I guess you could.
Socrates: If I hadn’t claimed not to be wise, I’d say I told you so!
Karl: You did, Socrates, you told us so.
Socrates: So, are people who watch the shadows free?
Karl: No, certainly not! They just say what everyone else says. They get outraged by whatever outrages everyone else. Oh, Socrates, it’s a good thing you are dead, safe from the twitter-mobs.
Socrates: Twitter mobs? I feel like there’s another ‘rabbit hole’ beckoning.
Karl: Sorry. You’re better off, though.
Socrates: Didn’t I tell you that in the Phaedo?
Karl: Fair enough.
Socrates: So, if to be stuck in the shadows is to not be free, then to be free is to escape the shadows’ tyranny?
Karl: Yes! If only we could get people to think more deeply and better, we might have some defense.
Socrates: Liberal Arts–Defense Against the Dark Arts! It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Karl: Oh Socrates, I think you’re joking with me.
Socrates: What? I am as innocent as a dove. But it seems to me clear that any arts that get you out of the cave are truly liberal, truly free arts. Come, tell me the list again.
Karl: Logic, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.
Socrates: Why, that’s quite like the list I made in my conversation with Plato’s brothers and that rascal Thrasymachus about justice in the soul! Clearly, then, Karl of the future, these are the anti-shadow arts!
Karl: But how? What does geometry do? Grammar?
Socrates: Well, that truly is a rabbit hole. Do you have the time?
Karl: Some other time, Socrates. I mean that! But right now, I must deadlift.
This reflection is presented for edumacational and infotainment purposes only. Taking this to be an authoritative interpretation will likely lead you to make many bad choices, corrupt your virtues, multiply your vices, and lead into the life of a tyrant. The writer was probably using a triple Platonic-Socratic-Kierkegaardian irony, and may not mean a word that he or she wrote. If, that is, the writer actually exists. This essay is probably just an emanation of the weltgeist or a bit of a spark of the eternal Heraclitean flux. Don’t take it too seriously. Join the discussion at Online Great Books.