Socrates didn’t care much for worldview analysis.
I am currently teaching Plato’s Republic for an online class (late enrollment is still open) and am freshly impressed by how utterly exacting Socrates is when describing the kind of stories that ought to be handed out in school. Early in the Republic, Socrates asserts that children should hear stories that present the gods as they truly are and heroes as they ought to be. Accordingly, the works of Homer and Hesiod must be edited.
The gods cannot be shown as fickle and temperamental, for such attributes are not truly divine. Achilles cannot be depicted as a whining baby when he doesn’t get his way—we don’t want our own children to be whining babies, do we? The edits Socrates proposes to Homer and Hesiod are extensive, and the reader can’t help but wondering how much of the Iliad will be left when all the false and unexemplary portions are taken out.
It is easy for classical Christian educators to nod along while reading these portions of the Republic because Socrates’ view of morality is right, as is his theology. Indeed, the divine nature does not change. Indeed, real men don’t whine. However, what Socrates is proposing is actually quite radical. His theology may be sound, but his pedagogy is quite different from ours. The classical Christian educator does not really believe Socrates. We don’t think the false portions should be taken out. We think the false portions ought to be left in and that students should learn to critique and analyze them.
I don’t think the false portions should be taken out either, but I am far more sympathetic to Socrates than I am to the worldview analyst. Socrates believed that the eyes are hungry and that they devour whatever is set before them. For this reason, children need a total education wherein every part is harmonious with every other part. The way they dress needs to make sense of the music they listen to. The books they read need to make sense of the décor in the homes where they live. The food they eat needs to be consistent with the theology their churches teach. Everything must hang together. If there is one renegade aspect of a child’s life, it will keep the rest of their education from really sinking in.
Socrates understood that a youth is a sponge—and when I say “a youth,” I don’t mean the “poll-parrot stage,” I mean anyone under the age of 27. A youth absorbs the world in an indiscriminate, omnivorous manner. They are not adept at critique. When they read a book or watch a film, they may be able to sift the truth from the lies, but having done so, they swallow both. They watch a film about the dangers of AI technology, then pursue a career in AI technology. They watch a film about the dangers of drug use, then become interested in drug use. If twentieth century literature has taught us anything, it is that cautionary tales don’t work. We turned Brave New World into an agenda. Everything the poets warned us about in the first half of the twentieth century became a list of goals for the second half. The eyes are hungry. They devour whatever is set before them.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of this principle is in your own living room. If you show a small child a wild, zany cartoon which concludes with the moral, “Don’t tell lies,” the child is ten times more likely to behave in a wild, zany manner than in an honest manner. We are all far more likely to absorb a vibe, a mood, or an aesthetic than we are to absorb a truth. The eyes are the king of the senses. We do what we see, not what we hear. Your children are far more apt to behave in a dignified, self-controlled manner if you show them Cary Grant movies than if you show them educational, inspirational kids shows that were edited in a blender then turned up to 11.
Like I said, though, I’m not in favor of editing Homer and Hesiod, but that has far more to do with the fact that times have changed. Reading Homer requires patience and diligence, so I’m fine with the Iliad going on for as long as possible. There are many, many fine truths in the work of Homer, but the overall effect of reading the Iliad is arguably its greatest benefit. It’s an old book, and an unfashionable one. When you read Homer, you’re lifted out of this world—this zeitgeist—and so you can see it more clearly for what it is. Reading Homer reminds a Christian that the way things are now isn’t how they’ve always been, that the values of this age are not permanent, and that the dogmas of this era are fleeting—and so the prevailing winds of doctrine blow with a little less gusto.