EROS AND EDUCATION – iii. The Desire to Know
I return, with some trepidation, to the all-important nexus of Eros, morality, and learning. Plato’s Symposium is, for me, the most indispensable book on the nature and meaning of education. In my dream teacher’s college of the future, this would be the only book taught, and it would be studied for ten years before anyone would be permitted to seek employment as a professional teacher of any kind. This dialogue, above all, teaches reverence for the individual soul and its potential. For Eros—in the proper sense of our longing for completion, which means for the good—is the missing link in all serious modern theories of human nature. Without this notion of a natural and ultimate desire, implying a natural and ultimate goal, education cannot be understood at all other than as one form or another of indoctrination, which is how it has generally been understood throughout the modern era, with the differences among pedagogical approaches being merely dependent on whether a given theorist likes the human race or, as in the case of progressives, does not.
For if humans naturally seek happiness, and complete happiness means embracing the good beyond all limits of time, then our life’s task is set for us: We must search for understanding of the true human good, and strive to attain it. This makes the quest for knowledge both an urgently personal imperative and a profoundly moral one. In other words, Eros connects education to the ultimate goals of our nature and to our tenuous intimations of the divine, which makes learning an aching need, rather than what it has become today, namely a lifeless chore imposed artificially from without, in the service of someone else’s goals, and sustained with “carrots and sticks” in place of the inner spiritual aim that ought to draw the learner forward almost in spite of himself, the desire for completion.
We are dealing in final mysteries. By no means do I imagine the present discussion to be exhaustive of the full breadth of the subject matter, or myself to be capable of such an exhaustive discussion. I only know that my own experience as both a student and a teacher corroborates the ancient wisdom at every turn. The natural educational path is an erotic one—a longing for wholeness, for Being. A longing answers only to the needs of the soul whose longing it is. A longing that is not “self-seeking” is therefore inconceivable. It is the quest for happiness, and hence necessitates the search for the nature of the true human good, which ultimately means the search for wisdom. This compelling reason to seek understanding is not, as Fichte and Dewey would have it, an unenlightened one which must be purged or circumvented in favor of a “pure” or “selfless” one; it is the highest human motive. A soul not moved by it at all will not learn, even by rote (insofar as memorizing patterns may be called learning). Abstract fantasies of creativity and a love that loves itself as the lover of its love are no substitute for the concrete real love that moved Aristotle’s celestial spheres in their eternal emulation of the unmoved movers; that moved Dante to write the Divine Comedy, revivifying all his heroes, enemies, and teachers, and placing his own Beatrice among the saints; that moved Socrates to his marketplace full of students and friends, and Nietzsche to his mountaintop and his cold winds; and that moves every child, to the extent that he is imbued with this impulse connecting our material nature to our inkling of eternity, to try to understand what is around him, how he is a part of it, and what he ought to do. From the most elemental level to the most advanced, the most immature to the most sage, the purest thinking is driven by the desire to “know thyself,” which means to seek your nature—to become more adult, as my student intuited of herself after her first Socratic encounter. This is an individual and “self-interested” pursuit at its core, the definitive case of soul-searching, and Ockham’s razor forces us to identify the quest it sets in motion as education itself.
What Aristotle calls learning “for his own sake or for the sake of his friends or with a view to excellence,” and Plato depicts as the soul’s urge to beget in the beautiful, is the defining activity of the individual human being seeking the good, i.e., the happy life. This, in the end, is what modern public education, both in theory and in practice, seeks to destroy, by setting up alternative goals external to the soul’s own natural impulses, and by imposing a new progressive moral perspective according to which the mere individual good and personal immortality are immoral ends. And that, to return to where this chapter began, is what I mean by saying that compulsory schooling is designed to separate children from themselves and from nature.
To destroy this connection between our most comprehensive urge and education is to cut the cord of human maturation and thwart the development of adult virtue. The fuel intended for learning is drained out of the child by progressive collectivist indoctrination, which teaches that desiring knowledge for its own sake is selfish. Education for social service is learning detached from the primary human good, which is to say from virtue understood as the excellence of the individual soul. This means learning toward state utility rather than toward completion. It is the menial and servile education against which Aristotle warned. It is learning without the highest motive, and therefore, of necessity, without the highest results. And this, of course, is precisely what is intended: One purpose of state schooling has always been to prevent over-education, which would threaten to produce citizens unsatisfied with their assigned social roles, with their place in the “proper social order,” and with their existence as interchangeable worker units for the elite overseers.
Fortunately, the positive force of Eros often has a way of asserting itself in spite of all modern attempts to orient moral growth entirely along abstract collectivist lines. That is, the innate desire to develop from potentiality to actuality—the perfecting impulse—is still able to move most children to varying degrees, allowing them to climb at least some distance, intellectually and morally, against the soul-crushing avalanche bearing down on them from teachers, textbooks, and the social structure of the school. Indeed, this seemingly inextinguishable fire, harnessed by the child himself in his rare private, quiet moments—in short, self-teaching—may be his only hope of actualizing any measure of his natural potential, given all the obstacles being placed in his path. This makes the erotic tendency, in the Socratic sense of the soul’s desire to beget in the beautiful—to beget beautiful children, words, deeds, ideas, and virtues—the only force standing between our present shrunken spiritual world and complete desolation.[i] For it is this intimate need for completion and continuity, when properly guided, that ties men not only to their own precious lives and sense of purpose, but also to their own families, friends, and communities, and even, indirectly, to their own property and practical achievement as means to the higher goods. Eros is the link connecting our material existence to our highest possibilities. Most importantly, it fuels the quest for learning, from “Mom” to metaphysics. A soul in which this desire is not entirely corrupted will find subtle ways of asserting herself against even the most draconian re-education measures, thus partially counteracting the state’s regulatory control over the energies and minds of the masses.
To achieve public education’s full aims, then, radical and direct steps must be taken, not just in ethical theory but in practical reality, to cut the magic thread linking the child to the stars, even at the price of sacrificing progressivism’s earlier conceptions of the “proper social order,” at least in the short run.
Eros, the intermediary between the human and the divine, cannot be exorcised from the soul outright, but he can be diverted from his proper role in human development, thereby becoming an overwhelming obstacle to maturation, rather than the most powerful impetus toward it. Plato himself poignantly demonstrates this through the example of Socrates’ other great student, the anti-Plato, Alcibiades, who rejects Socrates’ call to self-understanding in favor of Eros’ lower manifestations, and hence becomes habituated to self-destruction and shamelessness. As he says of himself, he is now susceptible to shame only in the presence of Socrates, whose existence reminds him of what he has forsaken, namely the good, or, to say the same thing another way, himself. This shame, he says, may be assuaged only by avoiding his teacher altogether, which means that the awareness of what he has lost in his immoderation actually becomes a further incentive to avoid the very force that might draw him back to nobler pursuits. Alcibiades’ example, reduced to the everyday level, represents the lesson the Frankfurt School Marxists took from psychoanalysis, with its renewal of interest in at least a degraded notion of the erotic: A man cannot run in two directions at once.[ii] The greatest obstacle to progressive socialization is our innate desire for self-actualization. The surest way to minimize this threat to tyranny’s effectiveness is to divert and dilute the desire.
Developing the practical strategies to realize an all-out assault on a “capitalist” world already hobbled by generations of Dewey-style sophistry, mid-twentieth century progressives learned that releasing Plato’s many-headed beast, the uncontrolled appetites, would not make people more dangerous, from the point of view of the progressive state; on the contrary, it would soften them. Alcibiades—or rather a society composed of millions of intellectually and morally miniaturized Alcibiades action figures—is precisely the goal of progressivism’s multi-pronged sexual-cultural revolution, from Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and the ever-present, life-draining vicarious reality of “mass entertainment,” to sex education class and the pornographic perpetual puberty that dominates what is passed off as popular music today.
Appealing to the immoderate and uneducated appetites of the young—much easier to do when parents have been effectively removed from the children’s daily lives and primary social activities, as is the universal condition in the era of public schools—the various “liberations” of recent decades have abetted the already-tyrannical socialization process with a more active and visceral assault on so-called “traditional morality.” This assault, partly grounded in German-American critical theory—the Marxist-Hegelian effort to bury the past forever beneath fifty layers of socialist propaganda-cum-analysis—aims, most importantly, to call forth the untamed passions previously restrained by inner virtue or social norms. Detaching desire from its vital and irreplaceable role in moral and intellectual development turns the young against the quest for virtue and knowledge, and toward the ceaseless search for pleasure, ease, and safety. Kant himself, in an early work, somewhat grudgingly observed that the development of morality began when primitive man discovered the benefits of delayed gratification.[iii] Today’s advanced progressivism seeks to reverse the process.
Untethered desire is a fatal crisis for a society erected on principles of limited government, as it undermines the self-reliance and self-restraint that form the foundation of order and civility, and, by weakening the citizens’ capacity for self-governance, it invites and encourages paternalistic leadership. Such disorder, it has been discovered, is less of a problem for progressive authoritarians, who merely feed the rabid dogs with meat stolen from other citizens. That is, creating monsters of dependency and grasping amorality can be turned into a tool of democratic totalitarianism, as long as the progressives can consistently portray themselves as the ones who wish to satisfy men’s appetites, while portraying their enemies as those who would deny the mob’s demands for “justice” and “freedom.” Thus democratic political life is reduced to a level of demagoguery that even Plato, democracy’s harshest critic, may not have foreseen—a manageable situation for progressivism, the political philosophy that has elevated propaganda to consubstantiality with education, and has thus institutionalized demagoguery to hitherto unimagined degrees.
From the progressive point of view, the great political danger is precisely the virtuous man, the one whose erotic nature is properly (naturally) directed and who sees what the state is trying to deny him, namely his life-defining quest for happiness. From an educational perspective, the new dynamic means that public school retains its primary focus on moral indoctrination and the destruction of free will, as Fichte demanded, but its method is now reversed. Rather than seeking direct submission combined with diligent dedication to duty, the vanguard education system of today is arranged to promote a slothful disregard for all order and restraint beyond that imposed by school socialization itself, and an obliviousness to the ordinary propriety and mutual respect that hold a community together as something more than a manipulated mob. The result, of course, is an authority-dependent, easily manipulated mob. This is the true realization of Fichte’s dream for progressive man, though not quite as he imagined it: the overgrown child who knows nothing about the past, and has no respect for traditions or “old school” ways; whose only ambitions are petty ones—material comfort, physical stimulation, free time, free stuff; who perceives himself as wised-up and jaded, but in truth believes anything the government tells him, as long as it sounds like license to do whatever gratifies his whims today; and who feels free to live according to his pre-rational brute nature as long as he is entertained and provided for, having no conception of freedom other than as liberation from conscience, or of nature other than as the pull of irrational “drives.”
Conservatives often muse over the apparent paradox that a philosophical outlook so invested in demolishing self-interest and promoting collective self-immolation has resulted in a civilization dedicated to petty materialist self-absorption. The solution of this riddle, I would argue, lies in universal compulsory schooling.
Classical moral theories began from the presupposition that morality means the most natural path to the truly happy life, thus explicitly attaching our deepest desire to education. By cutting morality away from the pursuit of “mere private happiness”—which means away from individual souls as such, and hence away from the impulse toward completion—German philosophy detached Eros entirely from moral development. The natural impulse does not simply disappear, of course, but its natural path is effectively outlawed through the socialization process. According to official doctrine, it is not moral to seek personal happiness. Our highest completion, such as can be conceived, is to be collective and shared, like all else. Moral fulfillment is to be found only in mutual interdependence and belonging—or what Kundera encapsulates in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as the lyrical communist injunction to hold hands and dance in a circle.
Modern tyranny, however, has found ways to defer to pesky human nature without sacrificing the political benefits of the progressive morality of collective self-destruction. Thus today we still speak—we incessantly speak—of something we call happiness. This is the theme of our end times amusement park of “self-fulfillment,” “self-esteem,” and even “self-love”: We have accommodated the natural impulse to completion by confining it to a virtual reality of gratifications that occupies an amoral realm of consciousness separate from, and subordinate to, the moral sphere, which remains the province of submission and socialization. We are thus still allowed to speak of happiness, and even to speak earnestly of our various ten-step plans for achieving it, but we all know it is essentially a frivolous, airy-fairy thing, and that if ever our pursuit of it runs up against our socialized moral duty, morality must come first. Happiness—the meaning of life—has been successfully reduced to a toy, a soother, with which a childish race pacifies itself while plodding along in its collectivist moral chains.
What does this nihilism mean for Eros, the desire that ought to propel us to adult virtue and rationality? Insofar as this volatile energy is not neglected entirely, its only permissible outlets become trivial “self-expression” and “creativity” (Dewey loved those terms), or the self-obsessions that were once called vice or morbidity. The first outlet explains our ubiquitous pop icon fetishism, which now extends through all arenas of social existence, with its million ephemeral stars distracting collective man from the drab twilight of soft despotism in an unending kaleidoscope of decadent but meaningless colors. The second outlet, the one promoted by the Frankfurt School types, is the world of polymorphous and continuous earthly pleasures—sexual experimentation, casual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, all set to music and imagery that imitate and aggrandize pubescent sexual excitement, thereby converting everything precious, private, and mysterious into something coarse, public, and all too obvious. This all serves to dry up the reserves of primal energy which, had they been harnessed and guided toward more essential purposes, might have empowered the “masses” to cast off their chains—and more than just spiritually.
(At Symposium 182b-c, the homosexual Polemarchus defends his dubious practice of educational pederasty in a most clever way, aligning it with the gymnasia and philosophical conversation as Greek practices that are outlawed in the tyrannical barbarian states because they promote private friendship. Tyrants, he observes, have a vested interest in preventing men from forming deep, private emotional bonds. Though his argument is offered in defense of a very questionable activity, Polemarchus’ point is most trenchant, and goes a long way to explaining today’s political liquidation of “traditional morality” in the name of mass socialization.)
These are not simply accidents of devolution, but deliberate strategies sprung upon the young to tempt them out of the money their mothers gave them to buy bread and milk. A few pennies here, a few pennies there, and by the time they arrive at the store, they are flat broke. The progressive movement has turned Eros, the soul’s indispensable ally in the search for knowledge and freedom, into a fat, lazy little boy hooked on trinkets and treats, forsaking wholeness for momentary pleasure, love for stimulation, virtue for amusement, hope for gratification, and Being for a bit of sugar.
My grandparents, like many of yours no doubt, were married and tackling the adult responsibilities of starting a family while still in their teens. They, like the young men and women of many previous generations, would likely have been less intimately familiar with sex at that age than their counterparts today. The opposite knowledge gap obtains, however, when we turn to the matter of Eros. Today, I teach university students in Korea, the products of one of the most “advanced” and “successful” compulsory school systems in the world—Rockefeller’s paternalistic dream of a lovingly molded underclass achieved in this small, homogeneous nation more perfectly than has proved manageable in his own large, diverse one. With regard to drinking and fornication, these students see themselves as grown-ups. But ask almost any of them if they would consider marrying their current boyfriend or girlfriend, and you will discover a truth as alarming and heartbreaking as it is predictable. At twenty-three, they still cannot, and do not wish to, perceive themselves as adults, and laugh with embarrassment and confusion at the very suggestion that someone of their tender age might be thinking of marriage. The sexual interest has never evolved in them as it naturally did for normal young men and women for thousands of years, namely into a longing for eternity and a means of transcending their limited existence, or even a desperate dream of union with Being Itself. Progressivism has eased the poetic pain of Eros at last, which is to say it has snuffed out man’s urgent quest for meaning. There are literally academic journals today populated by authors and their peer reviewers trying to explain how sexual gratification is essentially the same as scratching an itch.[iv] There is a complicated but intimate correlation between the modern scholar’s inability to distinguish Eros from a rash, and our inability to distinguish education from indoctrination. Public school socialization, like the whole progressive collectivist social hierarchy it serves, systematically tranquilizes Eros, so that the soul’s potential remains permanently unactualized. Hence, while we have learned to analyze and justify our drives with the greatest sophistication, it is neither metaphor nor hyperbole to say that we have lost our will to live.
It almost goes without saying that such moral dissipation, always possible at an individual or local level, would be very difficult to impose upon an entire civilization without universal compulsory schooling. With coerced government control over the formative years of whole populations, this destruction is only a matter of time, as modern man has amply demonstrated. We still have the driven types, our high achievers and role models. But they are usually two-dimensional characters, mere specialists in the collectivist division of labor who rationalize their genuine self-absorption and spiritual lassitude as a kind of social service—they create jobs, entertain the masses, save the planet, or what have you. The natural longing for completion, for happiness, means striving to realize our potential as virtuous, independent, thinking adults. Such adults seek to form families, friendships, and communities in love, like-mindedness, and good will, rather than in whim, dependence, greed, and fear. They, unlike their socialized counterparts today, could never willingly submit to slavery, let alone take pleasure in it.
The longing for Being and eternity, however, is as dead as the soul itself. Early modern philosophy left it neglected and weak. The great German thinkers and their global heirs and henchmen killed it. Public school was the primary murder weapon.
[i] A somewhat simplistic, but popular, recognition of this is offered in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, wherein Winston becomes convinced that it is the sexual feeling itself that will guarantee the ultimate defeat of totalitarianism, because its power within the individual can never be entirely rooted out by any amount of propaganda. The problem with Orwell’s idea, however, is that once genuine Eros—the longing for eternity—has been reduced to “the sexual drive,” totalitarianism has already won.
[ii] Cf. Roger Kimball, “The Marriage of Marx and Freud,” The New Criterion, Volume 16 December 1997, for a good summary of the Frankfurt School’s methods and influence, available online at http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/marxandfreud-kimball-3227.
[iii] Immanuel Kant, Speculative Beginning of Human History (1786), translated by Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1983), A.A. VIII, 112-113, p. 51-52.
[iv] A favorite example, which was burned into my memory during my own undergraduate seminar in so-called “philosophy of mind” eons ago, was an article entitled, “Could Love Be Like a Heatwave?”