The following remarks were made to fifth form students and their parents at the St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island on February 16, 2006.
I want to tell you a story about a young man whose experience I think may turn out to be important to you.
He was born into a caring, well-to-do, well-connected, family.
Even though he couldn’t go to St. George’s School, his parents did what they could to see he had the best education available.
He grew up loving beauty and wasn’t shy about admitting it, or hesitant in searching for it—in nature, in other human beings, in literature. He liked to write, especially poetry of a very intense and complex kind. He was well tutored in creative writing, but later he burnt almost all his poetry. I’ve seen enough to know what a loss that was.
He had some things I wish I had, including an aptitude for mathematics. Again, he had the best teachers to develop that ability.
Also, talent as a wrestler—maybe even Olympic potential. The family hired the best trainer in the country, under whose guidance he worked out every day, pushing himself to the limit, trying to see what he was really made out of.
His parents had the highest hopes for him and showed that in the name they gave him, a polysyllabic, high sounding name. They thought it was really classy—Aristocles. “Aristocles, aristocrat, Aristocles, aristocrat” his classmates used to chant to tease him. He looked nonchalant but wondered why he couldn’t have an ordinary name like the other kids. Why did his parents make him seem different from everyone else?
That was bad enough but even worse was knowing the answer to that question. They named him that because they had epic aspirations for him. Literally. He had read enough poetry to realize the name echoed Homer—it echoed the word for distinction, kleos, that runs all through the Iliad. And the first part of his name reminded him of the passage where Achilles’ father sends his son off to war telling him, “Always be the best and ahead of the others.”
Aien aristeuein kai huperochon emmenai allon.
But Aristocles was also his grandfather’s name, so when he complained about it, his parents said “Oh, we just wanted to please grandpa.” And so he kept silent. But he wasn’t displeased when the wrestling coach started calling him “Mr. Broadshoulders,” even though having broad shoulders isn’t necessarily an advantage for a wrestler. The nickname stuck. Everyone took to calling him “Mr. Broadshoulders.”
By the time he was 20, Mr. Broadshoulders had read and memorized a lot of poetry, mastered some of the toughest mathematical problems, and puzzled his way through immensely challenging philosophical texts. He had also served in the long, stupid war his country had blundered into. In an interval between tours of duty, he came home, resumed his wrestling training, which was coming along quite well.
But something was missing. He didn’t know what.
Late one afternoon as he was getting dressed after his workout, some of his friends came up to him and told him there was somebody he had to meet. “Somebody you’ll really like, your sort of guy.” They smirked. They had something up their sleeves. But he played it cool. “OK” he said, “Introduce me.”
So they left the gym, walked through the surrounding pine grove in the twilight until he could make out a fat old man staring into space. As he drew closer he thought this is the ugliest person I have ever seen. He was bald, had a neck like a turkey’s, big paunch, pointed ears like a satyrs, and his bulging eyes gleamed a weird gleam. What was he? Some dirty old man that his “friends” had set up to meet him? Ugly beyond belief, any trace of beauty he had once had he had now lost through neglect, failure to keep in shape, or groom himself, or dress properly.
Mr. Broadshoulders didn’t know whether to laugh or spit or run away.
“Hey, Soc, meet the aristocratic Aristocles, also known as Mr. Broadshoulders.” And they ran away twittering, like kingfishers disturbed at night.
What happened next I don’t know, except that Mr. Broadshoulders stayed. He didn’t run away, though he was tempted to. Socrates must have said something that made all the difference; but Mr. Broadshoulders, also known in Greek as Platon, in English as Plato, for all he later wrote about Socrates, never told that story. He described Euthyphro’s talk with Socrates about religion, Lysis’ on friendship, Phaedrus about rhetoric (or was it really about sex?). But he never told that crucial detail about his own life.
Whatever Socrates said, we can be sure it was an interrogative. Socrates didn’t do much with the declarative mode. And it was probably full of irony and mockery. It was a question, I am sure, that Mr. Broadshoulders, for all he had read in Homer and the great poets and philosophers, could not answer.
What was that Big Question?
He doesn’t tell us but it’s written between every line of the five volumes of writings that Mr. Broadshoulders left when he died. It’s there before each dialogue begins and when it ends; it’s in the margins and in the air you breather when you read Plato. It must have been something like this:
“I am sure you have examined your life closely, Aristocles, and know what you really want. Tell me what that is, please.” And Plato, for all his learning and training, for all his piety and wit, could not answer.
He stayed, came back, watched Socrates argue, provoke, make mince meat of his interlocutors. He got challenged, ripped apart, made to feel awkward and uncomfortable. He hated it but he stayed. He experienced what Socrates called “the dialectic” in action, the give and take, no long-winded answers allowed, just question and answer, the division of each statement into every possible meaning, then the exploration of each of them until they either crumbled or stood up under fire. After a while Mr. Broadshoulders got pretty good at this himself. He saw through some of Socrates’ arguments; he got angry when he realized they were sometimes specious. But eventually he realized that even the fallacious ones challenged him to explore fresh lines of thought. He could see why some people hated the old guy, but he put up with his incessant hammering, his bullying, his irony, mockery, sarcasm, his challenges to everything you felt was right and important, worth fighting or dying for. He knew it was strong medicine, corrosive eve, that it could ruin some people who actually preferred the negative side, because they could use it to demolish their opponent.
It’s sometimes easy to miss the affirmative side of Socrates. But Plato stuck with him, and he came to understand the one central thing Socrates had to teach. It’s phrased as a negative but it turns out to be the great affirmative:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates believed that; he lived that; he died for that; and he taught how to do that examining.
You see why I wanted to tell you this story. Before long you will leave the gymnasium, and walk across these fields and beaches, and go out from here, not in search of a college, a new bunch of friends, a new relationship with your parents, a freedom not always accorded to you by the powers that be at St. George’s. Sure, all that but the adventure is not out there—it’s in here, in discovering yourself, asking who you are, who you want to be, what you really want. It is, in short, living the examined life, and finding the means to do that examining and do it well.
We call this a liberal education. It’s liberal not because the professors are mostly political liberals or that the college has liberal social policies, or gives you freedom to choose whatever subject you feel like studying, or to do whatever you want with your time. It is liberal because it is liberating. If you commit yourself to it, take full advantage of it, it will free you from and free you to. It will free you from being pushed around by peer pressure, from prejudices, stupidities, and delusions of various sorts, from measuring your worth by how much you consume, and from shallow ambitions. It will free you to be swept off your feet by art, literature, and music, free you to look on your society from a historical perspective and to insist that it live up to its highest ideals. It will free you ax well to look at the most minute parts of nature and the grandest processes of change and creation with awe, and to live in nature with reverence. It will free you for the only ambition that matters—to be all you can be. It is a rigorous, demanding uncompromising education, this “liberal education,” and it is worth all the effort and frustration.
To do it right it helps to have Socrates at your side. They couldn’t stand him; thought he was impious, unpatriotic; they killed him. He’s dead and gone. They ain’t makin’ ‘em like that no more. But in every college or university that I know there is someone who has understood the meaning of Socrates’ incessant, obnoxious questioning, his talk about dialectic, his insistence that the unexamined life is not worth living. Knock on a hundred doors. If you don’t find that person, you will at least find people who will amaze you, delight you, challenge you. And if no one today can quite be Socrates, well, there’s always Mr. Broadshoulders, who wrote down what he heard and what he figured out. Read him, in Greek if you dare, in English if you must. One way or the other, he’s there, waiting for you.