The Cave Story
Plato portrays human beings as sitting in a Cave where they are unfree and live by illusions. But there is an upper enlightened world of freedom and truth. As the sun gives light, which we depend on in order to be able to use our ability to see, so the good gives all things their truth, which we depend on in order to be able to use our ability to know. As light and vision are sun-like but not the sun itself, so truth and knowledge are good-like but not the good itself. As the sun gives and sustains life, so the good gives all known things their existence and their being, “though the good is not being but something far surpassing being in rank and power” (Plato 2000, 508a–509c). Progress towards the divine, the good, makes a real change in both what we see and who we are. The transition is painful and has to be made gradually; and when the reality of the beautiful, true and good is seen at last, it is tempting to stay in the upper world, “in the clear air above” (520d). But that would not be just (520e). Enlightened in the demands of justice and prepared to contribute to the wellbeing of “the city as a whole” (519e), the enlightened follow the vocation to go down again into the Cave and help the fellow-prisoners.
The story visualises a liberating and enlightening upbringing. The conditions for improvement are represented as a gradual and difficult and personal learning process. Learning starts in the Cave with the dim light that is already reflected in our souls. This learning needs to be redirected and refined by the perfect source of light. However, one is confused and handicapped both when going from darkness to light and on the return from light to darkness. It feels much easier and safer to stay with the illusions. Liberation and enlightenment will initially be experienced as unpleasant and will therefore evoke resistance. And those who challenge the common illusions may even be persecuted and killed (517a). The Cave story gives a strong metaphor of learning as a personal process—a process of “askesis … not as asceticism, but as the practice of spiritual exercises”. It is a process aiming at a complete turning of the person, “a transformation of our vision of the world and … a metamorphosis of our personality” (Hadot 1995, p. 83). This presupposes a good instructor, tutor or leader, (Plato 2000, 515c–d and 519c), a person who has already been liberated and enlightened, a person who is able and willing to help others.
The Aristotelian Story
Aristotle tells us in the Nicomachean ethics (NE) that we are all drawn towards (“up to”) what we perceive as pleasant and beautiful. The pleasant and the fine “motivate everything everyone does” (Aristotle 2002, NE 1110b12 Rowe). This compulsion is not something forced upon us from the outside without our contribution. We all seek happiness, but not in the same things. Ordinary people identify happiness “with one of the obvious things that anyone would recognize, like pleasure or wealth or honour” (1095a23), and “most people are … not even having a conception of the fine and the truly pleasant, since they have had no taste of it” (1179b11-15). We voluntarily seek the pleasant and beautiful, but are we also responsible for what we perceive as pleasant and beautiful or as aversive and ugly things to do? We ourselves are the origin of our actions, as we are of our children (1113b19). The children are not the origin of themselves. Therefore “we need to have had the appropriate upbringing—right from early youth, as Plato says—to make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things; for this is the correct education (he orthe paideia)” (Aristotle 1985, 1104b Irwin). His hope is that we can learn virtue from hoi phronimoi—the best persons in the tradition we belong to—become good models ourselves able to give wise counsels, establish good laws and reinforce them wisely.
If the adults close to a child set bad examples, the child has got a serious handicap. The basic rational action of a child is to choose authorities: choose good persons to admire, emulate, listen to and obey more than others. Within the given limitations, the children will probably prefer persons with some degree of moral virtue, wisdom (phronesis) and love. Children experience who are doing well towards themselves and others, and who are not. From the beginning they experience how they are being “fed, warmed, and washed” (Burnaby 1938, p. 302), how adults deal with their anger, and how adults distribute goods between themselves and others around them. In play the children may reproduce these experiences. Both good actions and bad actions we do voluntarily. Thereby we also become responsible for our own character. We may wish to do good things, but it may not help us if we have a long story of choosing wrongly and of doing bad things, and thereby have attained a weak or bad character. It is impossible for a man “to retrieve a stone after it has left his hand, but … it depended on him that it was thrown” (NE 1114a18 Rowe). Knowledge of general precepts (ethical theory) does not help us if our passions make us blind to the connection between the abstract precepts and the unique situation here and now, which demands action. Therefore Aristotle is sceptical as to the possibility of moral progress through mere verbal teaching. Our character does not become good merely by studying ethics. Only those who already are experienced and good may benefit from such studies (1095a3-8 and 1179b5-10). “One’s sight of the beautiful and pleasant is made clear by virtue, and clouded by its absence” (Sachs 2002, p. 116, note 172). The basic problem of freedom is how to avoid being blinded and enslaved by our passions. Curzer (2002) uses Aristotle’s descriptions of four groups of imperfect characters (NE 1179b7-16 and 1145b8-13), and proposes a possible progress for adults, moving through these character types in order to achieve full virtue. The many (hoi polloi) need external punishment to avoid the vicious. A modern example: speed cameras and fines seem to be necessary to reduce dangerous driving. The generous-minded or civilized (eleutherioi) have internalized the punishment and are feeling shame by actual or possible vicious actions. Thereby they are open to learn by themselves, for instance what safe driving implies. The incontinent (acratai) know what is virtuous to do, but need support to do it in the actual situation, where their passions sometimes take command. The continent or self-controlled (encratai) know what is virtuous and are always able to do it in practice, but they have to struggle with their emotions. Finally the virtuous (aretai), those who have all the virtues, do the good out of their character. Their thinking and emotions play together. They find some pleasure in doing virtuous actions, even when the action itself may be experienced as painful. A virtuous person therefore “spontaneously desires and seeks what is in accordance with the truly good life that he is trying to lead” (Porter 1990, p. 103). The upbringing in this story, as in the Cave story, presupposes good leaders who give righteous laws—leaders who are wise exemplars to emulate.
The Biblical Story
starts with the condition prior to human misery. On the first page of the Bible it is told that God creates everything from nothing; and all is good, time and change included! (Bouwsma 1976, p. 82) All human beings are created in the image of God. Therefore obedience to God is not something externally imposed on mankind. God’s image (Bild) can in this story be seen as the limit of what in the mystical tradition has been called human Bildung (Gadamer 1979, p. 11). Within this limit the human being is “a free agent and not a mechanical instrument”; s/he is called to be “a fellow worker with God” (Burnaby 1938, p. 265). The actual unfree situation is the result of a revolt against God. Humans have wanted to transcend the limit, have wanted to be gods themselves; attempting to be above change they have started to fear experience and change (Bouwsma 1976, p. 84). Humans have become self-centred and egoistic, bound to seek their own pride independent of God. All persons, even the best, are subject to this condition. The enemy in moral life is “the fat relentless ego” (Iris Murdoch, quoted in Meilaender 1984, p. 58). In the Aristotelian story the children ought to emulate virtuous adults. In the Biblical story the best adult persons are emulating the children, who “are given to us as a mirror, in which we may behold modesty, courteousness, benignity, harmony” (Comenius 2009, p. 12). Children have had the least time to study and imitate adult cunning, hypocrisy, hatred and war.
Progress, in this story, is dependent on God. God chooses a people descending from Abraham, leads the selected people out of slavery and guides them through the wilderness towards the Promised Land; as an example to follow for all people. The followers are always tempted to regress to greater security and wellbeing. The enlightening and correcting truth is God’s word, revealed by God’s messengers. God’s word is enlightening and therefore challenging. When Moses came down from Sinai, his face was shining with a light that was too strong for the people (Exodus 34:29–30). However, listening to God’s word and the story of God’s liberation of the people is necessary for the following generations. Thereby they “make the story of the Bible their story” (George Lindbeck, quoted in Wells 1998, p. 55), and understand their own life story as a participation in a great narrative, which starts with creation and ends with the final judgement and the hope of a new heaven and a new earth. The task is to identify and fulfil one’s own part in the common story. This demands time for listening and praying, worship and sacraments. In this time the moral imagination is formed (Wells 1998, p. 122). “The task of human creative differentiation is to be charitable, and to give in ‘art’ (all human action) endlessly new allegorical depictions of charity” (Milbank 1991, pp. 425–426). In this story rationality is not the main condition of progress, as it is in the previous ones. God’s people include “mentally handicapped, infants and the mentally ill” (Wells 1998, p. 128). God’s people live in secular time and space, but “the new time”, the time they hope for, is constantly breaking in, giving a perspective on their actions that is different from ordinary perspectives (pp. 150–162). In this new time there is peace, which helps in the resistance against the temptation to rest in common human illusions. All things are good insofar as they exist, but something may become evil “in terms of its failure to be related to God, to infinite peace, and to other finite realities with which it should be connected to form a pattern of true desire” (Milbank 1991, p. 432). This story, with the prophetic Word of God as the final authority concerning the conditions for improvement, obviously creates tensions with the two previous stories. It is therefore a demanding task to combine these stories!
The Aquinas Story
Thomas Aquinas has given a Christian interpretation of the Biblical story, integrating the Aristotelian story into it. According to Thomas, “every creature is oriented toward an end proportionate to its own determinate potentialities” (Porter 1990, p. 64). Human beings are determined to have full freedom as rational beings, and we express ourselves in our acts. Single actions are like “individual tones within the larger melody of one’s life” (Schockenhoff 2002, p. 245), and thus “the final end is present in everything one does” (p. 244). Therefore it “is necessary that all things which a person desires, he desires on account of a final end”Footnote 3 (Porter 1990, p. 72). The “free human being is one who has made the roles that she occupies into a part of herself by her conscious choice to accept them, and who takes responsibility for the direction of her own life by fitting those roles together into an orderly life-plan that is the goal of her life” (p. 82). The cardinal virtues (temperance, courage and justice—coordinated by moral wisdom) provide a “foundation for” this unification of the personality (p. 167). Through moral wisdom (phronesis) I grasp “what the good life requires” of me, both as a general sketch and in each particular case (p. 163). However, this unification “will inevitably be partial and vulnerable to tensions and regrets” (p. 169). The final end, perfect happiness, is above human capacity. In other words: the ultimate aim depends on God’s grace alone. “The naturally just individual who lacks grace is objectively as far from salvation … as the worst sinners” (p. 66). The listening to and the living in the message of the prophets and apostles open the possibility for the Holy Spirit to infuse faith, hope and charity (agape) into human hearts, which creates a determination to stay in relation with Jesus Christ, the new Adam. Baptism represents the drowning (annihilation) of the false human pride. The “death” of the self-centred existence is necessary, before the creation out of nothing (ex nihil) of the new human being. Agape (unconditional love) completes the unification of the person, and adds something to moral life that the cardinal virtues in themselves do not attain: “a new motivation for moral behavior”, “inner harmony” and “patience” (pp. 66–67).
The infusion of faith, hope and charity is caused in the human being “without any action on our part, but not without our consent” (Aquinas 1947, I–II 55,4 ad 6 Benziger). Justifying grace is infused into the human being by the Holy Spirit. This happens over time and the Spirit becomes part of one’s character. Therefore, Nicholas Healy says, every action is really my action, also when “God acts immanently in my act” (Healy 2003, p. 86). In Christ therefore, the people become responsible for their actions and their character or habitus, the way they hold themselves.
The Kant Story
Kant’s essay about liberation through enlightenment (1784) maintains like the previous stories that the unfree condition of the human beings is “self-incurred”. But it tells us that this is caused by “laziness and cowardice” (Kant 1996, 8:35). Therefore it seems possible for us to make our minds up, become free from the immature following of authorities and traditions, and make ourselves better. “People gradually work their way out of barbarism [Rohigkeit] of their own accord if only one [the government] does not intentionally contrive to keep them in it” (8:41). Progress happens when the individual mobilises the courage to use his or her own reason. “Sapere aude!” (8:35), dare to think! How, one may ask, can Kant’s disciples be thinking independently when they follow this imperative?
All the three critiques that Kant wrote during the 1780s orbit around the “I”: What can I know? What ought to determine my will? How can I judge without concepts? The first critique can be seen as a program for seeking truth independent of moral and political concerns, the second as a program for seeking the right thing to do independent of tradition, and the third as a program for appreciating beautiful form independent of both moral concerns and tradition. The third critique is the “keystone”, which makes the bridge between epistemology and moral philosophy. Confidence in the “I” is grounded in our experience of the beautiful forms of nature. “I do assert that to take an immediate interest in the beauty of nature … is always a mark of a good soul” (Kant 2000, § 42, 5:298–99). One does not find ends in themselves in nature, but one finds beauty. One considers the beautiful shape of a bird or a butterfly and is pleased by its sheer existence, without having any advantage of it. Such interest in the beautiful nature gives the “I” a hint that it is “a good soul”; and a good “I” can give itself (auto) the laws (nomoi) to follow. This story seems to tell that human beings confidently can use their own reason and autonomously determine criteria for what is true to think and what is right to do. It seems that the conditions for becoming better are in our own hands.
Only if this “I” were perfect, however, could it be trusted absolutely. A work of Kant from 1793 to 1794, Religion within the limits of mere reason, (written after the critiques) really challenges the common Enlightenment views of human beings. It starts with a comprehensive discussion of the problem of evil. Kant maintains that all human beings have a propensity to evil: “according to the cognition we have of the human being through experience, he cannot be judged otherwise, in other words, we may presuppose evil as subjectively necessary in every human being, even the best” (Kant 1998, 6:32). We ought to and can make ourselves better in a limited way, “even if what we can do is of itself insufficient and, by virtue of it, we only make ourselves receptive to a higher assistance inscrutable to us” (6:45). The radicality of the problem of evil requires more than a gradual reform. Reason is “conscious of its impotence to satisfy its moral needs”, and we need concepts of God and grace (6:52). We can become new human beings “only through a kind of rebirth, as it were a new creation (John, 3:5; compare with Genesis 1:2) and a change of heart” (6:47). Though Kant here refers to the Bible, and unexpectedly talks about “rebirth” and “change of heart”, this story of human improvement seems to trusts human reason and education. “Kant believes that there is a kind of education that can (somehow) cut through natural causes and temporal circumstances and “get to the bottom”—that is, to the agent’s manner of thinking and moral character” (Louden 2000, p. 47).
In the lectures on Pädagogik, Kant is concerned with the difficulties of improvement. To overcome them it is necessary that “each generation transmits [überliefert] its experience and knowledge [Erfahrungen und Kentnisse] to the next, each in turn adding something before handing it over to the next” (Kant 2007, 9:446). In other words: in order to learn to think for oneself, one has to start within the tradition one already belongs to. Children should have freedom, but the freedom has to be limited by what is dangerous to them and what may reduce the freedom of others. This actualises one of the greatest problems in the upbringing: How can “submission under lawful constraint [Zwang]” be united with freedom? “How do I cultivate freedom under [bei] constraint?” (Kant 2007, 9:453). A definite kind of coercion or constraint is a necessary condition for freedom: In order to become independent the young child has to learn that it is difficult to get what you need, that sometimes you do not have what you need, and that acquiring it depends on yourself. The child “must feel early the inevitable resistance of society”, and at the same time be encouraged “to make good use of his freedom” (9:453). Moral improvement takes time, regress is always possible and imperfect educators cannot produce perfect children: “individual human beings, no matter what degree of formation they are able to bring to their pupils, cannot make it happen that they reach their vocation [to be perfect]. Not individual human beings, but rather the human species, shall get there” (9:445). Only gradually there may be some improvements from generation to generation. Education should “create adults who can and do act from duty”: autonomous individuals who set ends for themselves and “pursue these ends insofar as they remain consistent with others’ ends”. Such persons will “work individually and collectively to bring about the ethical community”, which is “the highest good” (Moran 2009, p. 477, 482). And to warrant continuous progress, avoiding that one generation is bringing down what the former has brought up, “The mechanism in the art of education must be transformed into science [Wissenschaft]” (Kant 2007, 9:447), a concept which probably includes the humanities, because the transformation he hopes for is dependent not only on experimentation, but on “a correct concept of the manner of education [die Erziehungsart]” (9:446).Footnote 4
The Kierkegaard Story
Søren Kierkegaard did not search for abstract and scientific truth, but for truth that is “concerned” (Kierkegaard 1990, p. 233), truth that builds us up as human beings (Kierkegaard 1987, Part II, p. 354; 1992, Vol. I, pp. 252–253). Like Aristotle and Aquinas, he underlines the importance of the positive choices that make it possible for the person to feel and act in a good way. To live in truth is an existence of “proper pathos” (Roberts 1998, p. 179). What we choose to love with all our soul becomes “engraved” (charattein) in us, it determines the character that we are. This is Kierkegaard’s challenge: I ought to face myself with all the negative possibilities that already are there, and choose with passion who I ought to be. If I forget how this self really is, the result will be false pride, as when persons who look upon themselves as “educated” or “liberated” or “saved”, think that they are better than other people (Grøn 1994, pp. 23–24). In Works of love, Kierkegaard defines what is “upbuilding” by reference to 1. Cor. 8:1—”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. What can be upbuilding is not “The things of the world, however glorious they are and however acclaimed”. It is love that builds up: even “the most insignificant word, the slightest action with love or in love is upbuilding … Yet knowledge and the communication of knowledge can indeed also be upbuilding, but if they are, then it is because love is present” (Kierkegaard 1995, pp. 214–215). The love that builds up is never boastful and selfish; it is patient and kind and it is unconditional: love is a readiness to do well towards anyone close to you who needs your help; even those who do not deserve attention, even those who you normally do not see as “loveable”. In a citation from Søren Kierkegaard’s Papirer, Vol. VIII 2 B, p. 226, Kbh. 1918, all education that creates differences between people is called “miseducation”:
With the upbuilding, one can be educated [dannes] without any other form of education; all other education without the upbuilding is, eternally understood, miseducation [Misdannelse]. For the upbuilding—yes, as little as love which always requires two will create strife, and as little as the oceans of the world can be divided—as little will the upbuilding strengthen a difference between man and man. But like love, upbuilding, if possible, will unite those, who are most different from each other, in the essential truth. (Translated in Søltoft 2000, p. 22)
Kierkegaard understands the human self as an imperfect and temporal being standing before the perfect and eternal. The upbuilding of the soul proceeds in three stages: 1. the stage of being possessed 2. the stage of impatience and doubt, and 3. the stage of patience in the struggle with oneself.
Being possessed. When “God’s house is right next to his father’s residence, and it is entirely natural for him to be there” (Kierkegaard 1990, p. 242), the child will tend to experience itself as God’s child. It is legitimately possessed by God—immediately connected to the eternal. Growing older, the human soul desires the world and its pleasures—the temporal and imperfect. Striving to possess the world, the soul becomes possessed by it. And because the temporal contradicts the eternal, which is there from the beginning, the soul becomes “the contradiction of the temporal and the eternal” (Kierkegaard 1990, pp. 163–164).
Impatience and doubt. This self-contradicting soul finds itself in a situation of uncertainty, anxiety and doubt. The outcome may be an impatient and futile search for pleasure or control; it may also be an impatient movement of thinking to ever new positions—a movement which never brings truth. False doubt is the doubt that doubts everything except the doubt itself (p. 137).
Patience in the struggle with oneself. Perfection of the soul demands patience in the struggle with oneself. It is terrible to admit that one does not manage one’s own life, but it is necessary for improvement. This process demands more than the overcoming of laziness and cowardice. The basic condition for improvement is not in one’s own hands, but is a gift of God. “Just as knowing oneself in one’s own nothingness is the condition for knowing God, so knowing God is the condition for the sanctification of a human being by God’s assistance” (p. 325). The soul
belongs to the world as [an] illegitimate possession, it belongs to God as [a] legitimate possession, it belongs to himself [the human being] as [a] possession, that is as the possession, which is to be gained. Therefore he gains, if he really gains, his soul [back] from the world, [as a gift] of God, through himself (Kierkegaard 1962, p. 151, my transl.; 1990, p. 167).
Gaining one’s soul “through” oneself (ved sig selv) means that it is a necessary condition to struggle with oneself. But the soul does not belong to the human being as an actual possession, only as a potential possession. The actual possession is dependent on the outcome of the struggle. The first struggle is a struggle against being conquered by and possessed by the external, surrounding world—the temporal. The soul has to be gained back “from the world” (fra Verden). The second struggle is an internal struggle with oneself against inward temptations, especially the temptation of false pride, that occurs when the person “himself wants to be something” (Kierkegaard 1990, p. 226), instead of gaining everything as a gift “of God” (af Gud). Even the condition for receiving the gifts is a gift (Wivestad 2011).
The lifelong and patient struggle with oneself takes place in “the school” of the love commandment (Kierkegaard 1995, p. 376), a school for practice in unconditional love, agape. In ordinary human relationships “preferential love is the middle term” (p. 58). We tend to recognise the particularities of different persons and to love those who, in some way or other, we find lovable. Agape is possible, only because “in love for the neighbor, God is the middle term. Love God above all else; then you also love the neighbor” (p. 58), Kierkegaard says. If all human beings are bearers of God’s image, this glorious mark renders all people lovable—even the most miserable and troublesome, even those who hate and use violence. But their “inner glory” will be “hidden from ordinary sight”. Awareness of the inner glory of the other requires practice in switching off our natural tendency to focus on dissimilarities among persons (Quinn 1998, pp. 363–365). Therefore patience is necessary for personal and communal upbuilding in love.