Would Socrates Issue a Trigger Warning?

No, he wouldn’t. Trigger warnings and safe spaces, we argued in an earlier post, stifle the honest and open pursuit of truth. That, after all, was the purpose of Plato’s Academy, and was later adopted as the original purpose of the university, too (on which see John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University). But more than that, the university also used to be a place to learn to experience what John Stuart Mill called the higher pleasures; pleasures that come from living the life of the mind, such as being able to appreciate the fine arts, classic works of literature and philosophy, and more refined moral sentiments. But developing an appreciation for the higher pleasures is not easy. Much humility and discipline is required. Humility and discipline, however, cannot be acquired without undergoing some measure of mental and physical distress. You’ll have to wake up early and stay up late. You’ll have to sit still for long periods of time to study. You’ll have to avoid distractions and stay home from debauched parties. You’ll have to admit that you’re wrong and accept correction from your moral and intellectual superiors. And yes, you’ll have to respectfully engage positions you don’t agree with, and even find repulsive. The lower pleasures of immediate physical and emotional gratification must be put in their rightful place at the bottom and middle tiers of one’s soul before the higher pleasures can be experienced. It is difficult, but worth it: the worst of the highest pleasures are better than the best of the lowest. “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Mill quipped. Having a reasonably well-ordered soul is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for becoming a Socrates and not a pig.

But not everyone can or should be a Socrates. There was good reason for why going to university was once seen as elite endeavor. It was rightly recognized that not every soul, even well-ordered ones, will want, need, or be able to sail as far as captain reason can take them. But now that university has become high school without adult supervision, the onset of speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces is just another way of lowering the bar for immature students to casually step over without challenge to their souls. Such things, designed as they are to “protect” students from unpleasant feelings and discomfort, actually wind up doing the egregious harm of subordinating reason to instinct and passion by censoring the former out of deference to the latter. This robs students of the opportunity to learn the virtues of humility and discipline and retards, if not destroys, prospects of experiencing the higher pleasures. This is worse than flipping the original purpose of the university on its head; it cuts off the head entirely. Lest anyone be dissatisfied (potential Socrateses included), speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces are created, turning universities into little more than filthy barnyards of satisfied pigs.

Therefore, those who have no experience of reason or virtue, but are always occupied with feasts and the like, are brought down and then back up to the middle, as it seems, and wander in this way throughout their lives, never reaching beyond this to what is truly higher up, never looking up at it or being brought up to it, and so they aren’t filled with that which really is and never taste any stable or pure pleasure. Instead, they always look down at the ground like cattle, and, with their heads bent over the dinner table, they feed, fatten, and fornicate. To outdo others in these things, they kick and butt them with iron horns and hooves, killing each other, because their desires are insatiable. For the part that they’re trying to fill is like a vessel full of holes, and neither it nor the things they are trying to fill it with are among the things that are.

—Socrates, in Plato, The Republic, Book IX

Federal Philosopher

Federal Philosopher is a philosophy graduate student in New Jersey. She was awakened from her political slumbers after reading biographies of Margaret Thatcher—one of her heroes. She loves philosophy, but thinks the profession has been hijacked by a bunch of leftist bullies who are little more than partisan journalists that happen to know philosophical jargon. She carries a recurve bow and quiver full of arrows at all times, so as not to trigger leftists by saying she packs a .380 in her purse.

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3 Comments

  1. Lest anyone be dissatisfied (potential Socrateses included), speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces are created, turning universities into little more than filthy barnyards of satisfied pigs.

    This is harsh but appropriate insight. And it correctly describe situation outside USA as well.

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