Eras in Education – Why Do the Right Thing? Universal Good vs. Relative Good in Ancient Athens

Eras in Education – Why Do the Right Thing? Universal Good vs. Relative Good in Ancient Athens

A few days ago I lost my wallet and it was turned into the flower shop here in town. Then, a helpful RCMP constable delivered it to my door.

After thanking those involved I started thinking of what had seemed like a fortuitous outcome to my own carelessness. Did the person who returned my wallet do so because it seemed like the right thing to do? Or was it because the person wanted to feel like a good person in their own mind? Perhaps the person felt that they were doing a good deed for its own sake and also enjoyed feeling good about their righteous act. In any case, I was very grateful.

As it turns out, the debate between acting in accordance with a universal good and creating one’s own good along the way has been going on in educational contexts for thousands of years.

In ancient Greece a philosopher named Protagoras was part of a well-known group of private tutors known as Sophists. Perhaps his most famous phrase is ?Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.? In other words, truth is what we make it.

This perspective, which philosophers would later dub relativism, served Sophists well as they taught their pupils the art of rhetoric. Protagoras himself taught ?public speaking, criticism of poetry, citizenship, and grammar.? In Athens, wealthy men were constantly being appointed to foot the bill for public expenses and it was necessary for them to master ?rules of oratory? in order to avoid being saddled with what they considered to be excessive tax burdens. To defend one’s position, regardless of whether it was right or wrong in a universal sense, was critical to defending one’s property. The outcome of Protagoras? perspective was a belief that ?abstractions like truth, beauty, justice and virtue . . . are relative to the individual observer . . .? Certainly the English-literature term ?protagonist? fits this description; protagonists are right simply because they are the protagonist of a story!

Athenian contemporaries such as Plato were often very critical of Protagoras. They stated that to teach students that ?good and bad are merely what seem good and bad to the individual observer? is to make atrocities such as murder and adultery seem morally tolerable. It is interesting, then, to imagine how pupils might have felt were these two points of view debated: from a universalist perspective no audience could decide a winner for that would mean that truth was dependent on human choice! On the other hand, true wisdom was thought to lead inexorably to truth and so a wise audience would always be right. Students may have wondered how to decide whether wisdom was true or false; the litigious nature of Athens suggested that deception for personal gain was frightfully abundant.

In ancient Greece sexual relations between male tutors and their male students were the norm. In fact, for Plato ?the only type of real love is the love between two men.? Teachers received sexual pleasure and cash in exchange for imparting their wisdom to teenaged students. Even the esteemed Socrates was, in the words of his star pupil Plato, ?boy crazy,? and was said to only overcome this ?mania? or ?divine madness? by ?asking difficult questions to these beautiful boys and teaching them philosophy.? Without exaggeration the Socratic method of questioning can be seen as an attempt to overcome homoerotic lust. In any case, the philosophical belief in universal truths such as right and wrong was founded within an educational system involving a steep asymmetry between teacher and pupil. Twenty-four hundred years later the French philosopher Michel Foucault unearthed this fact and used it to argue for an equally relativistic version of truth and reality.

Foucault based his ?archaeology of knowledge? on the fact that in every historical situation who we are and what is real and true are ?constituted through and constrained by a discourse-practice regulated by shifting norms of technical efficiency.? For Foucault truth depends on the social environment and specifically on the way we interact with authoritarian uses of technology.

In ancient Athens, then, universal good was created in a context where masters had social and sexual authority over their subordinates. It was in the interest of the teachers to convey a sense of monumental authority that their students would not challenge. Education itself can be seen as a project designed to produce citizens who accept the basic power structures and means of social stratification that dominate their societies.

For this reason, Foucault spoke of the need to ?refuse what we are? because our very selfhood is the product of forms of manipulation and oppression that serve others who are benefiting from our acquiescence.

Another recent theorist, Sheldon Wolin, speaks of a ?misery index? which can be applied to societies. The misery index measures ?loss of self, or the absence of the ability and will to imagine things differently and work collectively toward changing intolerable conditions.? In the ancient Athens of Protagoras, then, students were taught to accept power structures which masqueraded as a necessary part of learning. Doubtless there are aspects of education today that are also wholly extraneous to the production of intelligent, critically minded students.

With Foucault’s critique of the way knowledge and truth are produced in mind, it is interesting to look at what Protagoras taught to his students. In Plato’s dialogue between himself and Protagoras, the two essential positions are outlined. The nature of true speech is discussed. To say something and have it be untrue is akin to suggesting that something can be spoken of and yet not be real. It is impossible to speak of ?nothing? because as soon as a person speaks they are speaking of ?something.?

For this reason, we all feel righteous to ourselves most of the time; to act is to presume one’s actions to be appropriate. Good and evil are essentially forms of self-identification; to prevent social anxiety people tend to define themselves as ?good.? Foucault suggests that certainty about good and evil are ?invented internalizing procedures of self-identification? which are little more than ?games of truth by which human beings come to see themselves as individuals.? Doing good, then, is a matter of perspective. The way ?evil? words and actions are interpreted decides whether they are righteous or not. What if a destitute person had found my wallet? Many people would say that if he had taken the cash it would not have been as bad an action as if a wealthy person had done so.

From Protagoras? point of view Plato’s absolute good appears unrealistic. However, although Plato states in the Dialogue that he believes there is such a thing as a universal good, he nevertheless muses that for something to ?be? it must be seen as being by an onlooker. For instance, a viewer might see a painting of Socrates and say ?Oh, That’s Socarates.? Without the viewer’s point of view the painting is just an amalgamation of chemicals on a canvas. Plato states, however, that between different things there are clearly ?differences in their dignity.? A poor painting of Socrates would be less true or dignified than a realistic likeness of the man.

In this way, Plato’s argument for universal truths falls back on relativism by saying that there are differences of degree between truth and falsehood. In the end, we do what we believe is good, but it is always possible to imagine a greater good and thus to have in some small way done wrong. Plato has given ground and so must Protagoras. He has to admit that there are differences of degree in terms of what is true or right and yet the spectrum itself tends toward the universal.

Of course, when it comes to my wallet, I was quite happy that the good person returned it regardless of whether she did so because it seemed ?right? in a plainly universal sense or because she decided it was ?right? for her, given her psycho-social self image as a discursive social production!

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