A reflection on Plato’s Menexenus
So far, my musings have targeted the walls, moats and barriers that are thrown up as a defence against criticism, inevitably resulting in the wilting of intellectual progress. I have focused heavily on the need to smash idols, those sacred objects we cling to within our heart of hearts, and the tool with which we attempt to climb the mountain of doubt: inquiry and debate. But, the number of possible texts and discourses that can be engaged in is insurmountable by mere humans (see on Failed Inquiry). So, what is the best way to attempt the summit, regardless of the futility of the task? I posit that, at least initially, the best method is to follow the tracks of the ones who went before, following those who scaled highest in their brief span. We must find for ourselves a model.
To begin, what is a model? Every person who has engaged in intellectual discourse is a potential instructor, whether they are someone with whom you talk to on a daily basis or a person who can only communicate through a book that has outlasted their own death by thousands of years. Every person who engages in the act of contemplation clears the rubble and brush, cutting footholds and handgrips that makes it easier for the next generation to advance higher. The positions, hypotheses and theories that we take for granted are the product of millennia of human effort. These paths assist us in ascending the mountain, but at the same time, they can be false hope, a trail which leads us to an impassable overhang. This leaves us dangling in an intellectual cul-de-sac, where we can either cling to our false prepositions or climb back down and commence the journey anew. Faced with the bewildering array of potential tutors, it is a fair question to ask: how can we possibly select one from amongst the many?
I would counter succinctly: never choose a single model. I personally have commenced with the fountainhead of western philosophy, Plato, but any individual can be a suitable candidate. Even a person who represents everything abhorrent to growth – someone insular and parochial, full of chest-beating ignorance – serves as an instructor: someone that we refuse to become. With this in mind, one can quickly learn and emulate the best practices from numerous models, alive and dead, at any one time. Thus, the question should instead be this: when should we learn to let a model go?
To avoid the danger of internalising our model’s flaws we need to prevent our models becoming our idols. As soon as we accept the positions of our instructor uncritically, as absolute truth, we have engaged ourselves in the process of indoctrination rather than learning. Although we can admire the conviction of a model, for self-improvement or to better society, to allow them to become our own convictions without examination is fraught with danger. We must be ready at all times to lay aside an instructor when they turn from helping hand to dead weight.
A method of avoiding the trap above is to remember that everyone, no matter how significant their achievements, is a flawed being. Human flaws are not tragic marks that somehow define our humanity and deserve our adulation, but instead are targets for self-critique; we improve despite our shortcomings, not thanks to them. When our models eventually fail us, as they all do, we must neither become crestfallen or sink into denial, but gently put them to one side as we find our next instructor. However, as with our own opinions and beliefs, I recommend returning to old teachers as we grow, reexamining their works and words to see if we can glean new insight from their perspectives. Time invested in studying and learning from those who went before us is seldom wasted, and we should always remember that we only reach so high by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Nicolas-André Monsiau, Alexander and Diogenes, 1818