What my Freshman Comp Students Teach me about Political Philosophy

Every fall, I teach the Honors Freshman Composition class at Emmanuel College, an opportunity that I do not take lightly.  In the course of those fifteen weeks we learn together from Plato, specifically from Republic, how to use the powerful tools of philosophical dialectic revise ideas, to negate what cannot be true in the hopes that, after the negation, what follows might stand a chance of being true.  The topos for Plato’s investigation is the life of the community and specifically what might count as dikaiosyne, morality or justice or righteousness (people translate that Greek word into all three of those English words), in the life of a human community.  And part of my students’ work in the course involves trying to match Plato at his own game, to propose their own paradigm-communities that can stand as the working definition of dikaiosyne.  Part of me always feels vaguely guilty for making college freshmen take on a project that, to be honest, largely eluded Plato, one of the great philosophical minds by anyone’s measure.  But as their teacher, I always learn something from the projects.

The rules of the game are simple: each group, consisting of three or four students, gives a five- to six-minute presentation, with some sort of visual aid required, on a community of roughly four thousand families, situated on an island, and the climate-zone is the group’s choice.  The aim of the presentation was to make the case that the group’s proposed community stands as a valid paradigm-community the way that Callipolis in Plato’s Republic is a paradigm community.  In other words, the history leading up to the formation of the community is irrelevant, and the community could be an entity unimaginable in terms of history as we know it.  But the internal logic of the community should be such that a thinking person can measure the goodness or the inadequacy of other communities in terms of comparison with the paradigm.  Thus good communities are those closer to the paradigm, whereas bad communities are bad precisely because they depart from the paradigm.

Thinking about any complex question involves taking on the contradictions at the heart of the complexity.  For human communities, the complexity usually comes down to the tensions between the valid desires of the individual and the contributions to public life that the polis rightly expects of its citizens.  To emphasize one almost always costs the other, and even the best political thought tends to diminish one side in its pursuit of the goods it deems more important.  This year’s comp groups, as many such groups do, tried to take on the contradictions by eliminating one pole of the contradiction entirely.  One group posited a city that did not attempt at all to shape the souls of its citizens.  People could eat, drink, and otherwise enjoy as they saw fit, and one group member simply asserted that there would be “no competition” that would cause the people on the island to fight over the resources.  In question-and-answer time (my favorite part of the project, and the moment that students most dread), I asked them what mechanisms the community had to contain citizens whose ambition and desire for glory led them to organize factions on the island and rule over their happy-go-lucky neighbors.  After realizing that they’d not accounted for that, one group member said, “The others would feed the ambitious one to the sharks.”

I took that as a concession that more revision would be in the future of their political philosophy.

On the other extreme, one group posited a society based entirely on the Bible as an authoritative guide to civic law, and their island featured instant exile for anyone who refused to live according to the Bible-based civic law.  After my standard question to groups who claim the Bible as the root of legal codes (“What does your town do if you catch someone coveting?”), we quickly got into the difficulties that arise, situations like exiled parents that leave orphaned children; whether or not to exile women who become pregnant in the course of forbidden sexual pairings; and the tensions between valuing the integrity of the family and exiling people who step out of line.  As with the island of happy libertines, this group ended their time with more questions than answers.

And that’s the point of the exercise: even the groups in between, who tended to model their polities roughly after a high-school version of American federalism, ran afoul, as did Plato, of the complexity of politics, the difficulty of making rational cases for this political order over that and the ease with which the details of politics overwhelm the grand ends (or “god terms,” if you’re a Burkean) towards which politics strives.  Thus the benefit of taking on such a massive project before one is ready: when my students go on to Mark Trump’s theological ethics class, where he has them reading Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens, they’ll have at least Plato as background, a sense that Christian engagements with historical political powers stand to be different precisely because our politics has the Reign of God as a horizon.  And when they learn to think about professional communities in their majors, whether those communities be the guilds of public educators or pulpit ministers or physicians or airplane pilots, they’ll go into those discussions already aware that the criteria by which we human beings evaluate our communities are always up for grabs, that we might be failing to find answers because we haven’t yet begun to ask the best questions.  And when their generation’s version of public discourse (Facebook might stick around, but there might be something quite different around the next corner) degenerates into platitudes, perhaps these students will be a bit more articulate when they try to point to the complex realities that render silly the simplistic.

Ultimately that’s the great benefit that such a project provides, the reason that I keep assigning it: in the brief span that students have to construct these presentations, a limited range of questions arises, and in every case so far, we’ve been able to pick up where students begin and point them towards further, more complex, less comfortable questions about life-together.  Better questions, in the end, are what my classes tend to be about, and the mini-Callipolis is one of the best ways I’ve discovered to offer a life of question-asking to my students.  And when I’m honest, it’s what my students help me learn a little more clearly about my own political engagement every time I teach them to do likewise.

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